Keeping the Local Economy Open4Business
As COVID-19 began taking its toll on the economy, many schools quickly mobilized to support their communities. At Old Dominion University’s Strome College of Business in Norfolk, Virginia, we created a program called Open4Business, which invited companies to let us know what kind of challenges they were facing so we could assemble student teams to help them.
The idea arose in part from the work I do on a regional task force that addresses economic issues. Once the pandemic hit, this group began meeting three times a week. In my conversations with fellow task force members, as well as with local business owners, I repeatedly heard how much companies needed help pivoting during the pandemic. At the same time, I knew our students were losing internship opportunities during the crisis. I thought that we could address the needs of local businesses while helping students build stronger portfolios of experiences.
Invitation and Response
While we’ve always had our students complete field projects, normally our professors would contact local business owners to ask them to participate. But with Open4Business, we created a mechanism for companies to reach out to us and specify what kind of help they needed.
To find companies that might want to work with us, we publicized Open4Business in our newsletter to alumni and through our relationships with professional organizations such as the Virginia Maritime Association. We also placed information about the program on a website called 757Recovery.com, which was created by the regional task force to be a one-stop shop for businesses looking for guidance on thriving during the pandemic.
Student consultants hold video conferences to address specific business challenges faced by local leaders.
We offered a total of 150 spots in the program. As the semester started, 91 companies and nonprofits had responded, looking for assistance with over 100 different projects. While these included a surprisingly broad array of challenges—such as website design, PR and social media campaigns, and risk audits in the supply chain—the majority of the demand was for marketing help.
Once business owners signed up, we matched them with professors who had agreed to participate. Faculty had let us know what kinds of projects they were interested in, which classes would handle the projects, and whether they wanted to structure the projects for groups, teams, or competitions. They also noted how many organizations they thought they could help.
Twenty-two faculty members signed up—primarily the younger and newer ones, who are generally pre-tenure. Many of them had been interested in doing these sorts of projects but hadn’t yet had a chance to build relationships with local companies. Open4Business presented them with a perfect opportunity.
Fewer veteran professors joined the program, because many were already working on company projects they had set up on their own. However, in areas where we had a high demand, additional professors stepped forward to take care of the need. Once faculty members were paired with business leaders, they met to discuss how student teams would be deployed to address the company’s challenges.
Advantages All Around
Not only do we hope Open4Business will help our community, we also expect it to benefit our students and teachers. For instance, students will gain business polish, learn more about specific fields where they might want to pursue careers, and build their portfolios with real-world experiences. They will develop relationships that will help them compete in the job market, especially with the companies that join Open4Business. Because their client interactions all take place over Zoom, they also will gain experience working with remote and distributed teams.
At the same time, faculty will have a chance to bring field relevance to their academic material. I suspect that participating faculty will use Open4Business projects to inform the design of their future courses and draw on their new relationships as they conduct research. Open4Business has so many benefits for everyone involved that we plan to keep it going even once the pandemic is over.
We hope Open4Business will help our community, our students, and our faculty.
We found that there were many businesses that had challenges we couldn’t fit into a term project, that didn’t have the capacity to support a project, or that couldn’t define a project but knew they needed help. That knowledge is shaping how we are moving forward with webinars and other capacity-building offerings while also informing how we replicate the program.
The coronavirus has forced our school to make other changes as we pivoted to online learning. For instance, we’ve begun to offer a speaker series over Zoom, relying heavily on the participation of alumni who have reached out to us to offer to do presentations. During the spring and summer months, we hosted six Zoom speaker events, and we had about 25 more this fall.
During this emergency, we believe it’s critical to create connections among all business school stakeholders—administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and local business leaders. That way, when the pandemic is over, we will have forged relationships that will make all of us stronger well into the future.