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ASU students help small businesses grow in downtown Mesa

July 03, 2013

Business is better for nine small companies in downtown Mesa, thanks to entrepreneurship students at the College of Technology & Innovation (CTI) at Arizona State University.

A Local Entrepreneurs Assistance Program (LEAP) grant, funded by the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, gave $100,000 to build a partnership between ASU’s College of Technology & Innovation and Mesa’s Neighborhood Economic Development Organization (NEDCO) to support and build the capacity of minority-owned businesses along the light rail construction area in Mesa.

Students provided marketing help for taco shops, taught sales tactics to a religious book store, unearthed the legacy of an upscale Thai restaurant and helped streamline the business model for an air-conditioning business. All saw a decline in activity due to construction along Mesa’s light rail corridor.

NEDCO studied about 200 companies and qualified nine minority-owned businesses that needed help. “NEDCO helped us find the businesses and filtered the ones that really needed assistance,” said Jason Bronowitz, an ASU lecturer in Technological Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management.

"We welcomed the fresh perspective that the students and faculty of CTI brought to our downtown community of businesses. These companies are looking forward to the expansion of the program in 2013-2014," said Terry Benelli, executive director of NEDCO.

Students met with business owners and spent 90 minutes every week for 15 weeks to understand their needs and provide solutions. Six students participated in helping the affected businesses.

“Our biggest challenge was communicating with the owners,” said Bryan Azeka, a Technological Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management major. “Many companies would not divulge information and it took time to gain trust,” he said. Most businesses were owned by Hispanics and some owners were more fluent in Spanish than in English.

“Once we got to know them better, we got quite a bit of access working with them personally,” Azeka said. Sometimes, business partners did not communicate well among themselves and this added to their challenges. Faculty from other disciplines pitched in to help them in difficult cases.

However, most businesses started making good strides once students identified their needs.

“Students helped them with guerrilla marketing, public relations and tactics to help enhance community awareness,” said Aram Chavez, a lecturer in Technological Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management.

This included a marketing strategy where students assisted in the development of websites, search engine optimization and earned media. When some students said they wanted to launch their own businesses after acting as consultants, Bronowitz felt that a teaching moment had arrived.

“Once students understood the businesses’ stories, they became live case studies. This even inspired them to start their own ventures,” Bronowitz said. “They helped businesses set price points, create healthy margins and schedule staff to optimize revenues.”

They received context to start their business and this became a consulting class where they learned to practice it in their ventures. Students acted as consultants and learned to separate themselves from that as they began launching their own ventures.

“We are very pleased to support the development of the Local Entrepreneurs Assistance Program,” said Cree Zischke, vice president of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. “We look forward to the continuation of our collaboration with CTI to support small businesses in Mesa.”

CTI will soon be participating in the National Conference on Business Development in underserved communities being held at the University of Washington from July 10-12. The conference enables university staff and faculty to share and learn from other educational institutions doing work with small businesses in high need areas.