Partnership with MU business students seeds innovation across Missouri

Image: Cornell Hall

by Katherine Foran

Over the last year, more than 600 University of Missouri business students have worked in dozens of communities across the state, helping small businesses find solutions and opportunities even during these most uncertain of times.

Mizzou students have explored the feasibility of converting an old Boonville bread factory into a microbrewery. They have developed a proposal for a lively food truck garden next to a small-town soccer complex. Others helped rural counties explore agritourism opportunities, such as turning a cattle ranch in Warsaw, Missouri, into an Airbnb rental.  They have guided Jefferson City businesses through post-tornado recovery strategies, marketed a women landowners’ conference in Lafayette County, and helped rebrand a North St. Louis County community center. When COVID-19 hit, students surveyed more than 100 businesses on the impact of disaster aid programs to help guide the development of Missouri Small Business Development recovery outreach strategies. 

Not counting the 60 projects underway this fall, students have completed more than 100 business development projects in 20 Missouri counties as part of the Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business Professional EDGE partnership with MU Extension and the MU Office of Service-Learning. This unique hands-on learning experience — now a required undergraduate class — offers MU students real-life professional work skills and business experiences, said Lauren Bacon Brengarth, assistant teaching professor in the Professional EDGE program.   

“I am a big believer in experiential learning — the Missouri Method; learn as you do,” Brengarth said. This conviction was underscored through many conversations with business professionals: the need for graduates with applied, not just academic, business acumen and skills. MU business undergraduates must conduct a consulting project for a Missouri business, nonprofit or educational/governmental organization related to finance, marketing, real estate, international business and economics.

The move to integrate professional development experiences into the business program found willing partners in MU Extension, as well as the MU Office of Service-Learning. 

“Through MU Extension, with faculty and staff already in place and deeply engaged with communities and local partners, we could connect students with projects that would provide real opportunities to learn while delivering real value to communities across Missouri in return,” said Sarah Traub, MU Extension director of education and impact.

The MU Office of Service-Learning expanded its long-standing collaboration with Trulaske, matching Professional EDGE students with dozens of nonprofits across Missouri and coordinating student and client outreach, tracking and assessment, said Anne-Marie Foley, MU’s service-learning director.

“Connecting students with communities is our core mission. Integrating our work into these students’ academic experiences brings the value and impact of service home,” Foley said.

Even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, students have swiftly pivoted online, adapting video conferencing and online team and project management tools that are likely to be essential whatever their future career pursuits.

The experience has also helped break down barriers and exposed students to new opportunities and perspectives. Tales of struggling rural and small-town economies take on new meaning when students have “walked hand-in-hand with communities, seeing the vacancies along Main Street, looking for solutions that are very specific to that community’s challenges and needs. You can’t just follow a template in a textbook,” said Jennifer Presberry, senior coordinator for MU Extension business and community program.

An added benefit: the project work challenges preconceived notions about other people, places and the student’s own professional interests.

“Being exposed to agribusiness, for instance, has opened the minds of students coming from urban backgrounds to a whole new set of future career possibilities. Similarly, students from rural backgrounds gain new perspectives from working on projects in a big city,” Brengarth said. “We’re not just building the next generation of effective business professionals, we’re helping to build stronger Missouri communities, as well.”  

A microbrewery and food truck park, without having to leave town

Amenities. Young families want them — their choice of home, neighborhood, community often hinging on access to vibrant options.

“Manufacturing jobs just aren’t coming back. We have to be more innovative drawing other kinds of businesses to regrow our local economy and community,” said Robin Gammon, the MU Extension county engagement specialist who has worked with students on projects in Cooper, Morgan and Moniteau counties.

The Trulaske Professional EDGE partnership offered just such an opportunity to explore innovative options. Gigi Quinlan McAreavy, the economic developer for Cooper County and Boonville, welcomed the students’ help with a market analysis of small businesses the riverfront town might develop or attract: “She wanted fresh ideas and perspective about what makes a community a good place to live, what’s a wider view of how we can make our community better to recruit younger people and families,” Gammon said.  

The students delivered, with an analysis of what it would take to convert Boonville’s old bread factory into a trendy microbrewery and to develop a food truck garden next to a soccer complex southwest of town where there are only two places to eat — both fast food restaurants — within a five-mile radius.

Though COVID-19 derailed plans to present their proposals to local Chamber of Commerce and city and county leaders, the work mattered deeply, said Zoe Rich, a MU senior who worked on the Boonville projects.

“A key lesson was learning to listen to city officials and community members, to really hear and bring about solutions they want,” Rich said. “What started out as just another class project suddenly came to life: wanting to figure out the kinds of spaces that would really create, as well as, benefit community. That became a big driving force. It was very motivating.”

Shifting focus: from business disruption to rebuilding

As COVID-19 steamrolled across Missouri, the Missouri Small Business Development Center launched the Business Disruption Center to serve new clients, helping more than 100 small businesses apply for federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) and provide guidance on dealing with disruptions through the pandemic.

As business owners worked to cope with the effects of the pandemic on their operations and workforce, the Disruption Center shifted its focus to helping businesses reopen, modify their business models and apply for PPP loan forgiveness. To enhance these support efforts, the Missouri SBDC shifted toward an outreach model — enlisting students from the Trulaske Professional EDGE program to be a part of that transition, said Bob Schwartz, director of special projects for the MU Extension business development program.

“It was imperative that we move quickly to assist Missouri businesses during the ever-changing circumstances of COVID,” said Greg Tucker, state director of Missouri SBDC. “The Trulaske Professional EDGE students provided the Missouri SBDC with the capacity we needed to serve as many businesses as possible.”

“We needed to circle back to those clients that had contacted the Business Disruption Center and determine whether they had stayed open or planned to reopen and what counseling services and resources they might need next,” Schwartz said. Project co-leader Jennifer Presberry developed a script that students used to contact all clients.

The persistent students had a 40% successful survey response rate reaching these businesses, a surprisingly high success rate, Schwartz said. Of businesses reached, 95% were open, with the other 5% planning to do so. . Student outreach led to follow-up sessions with SBDC counselors for several of these businesses, enabling them to seek guidance on issues they were still dealing with due to the pandemic. 

“The students’ work freed up our counselors up to work directly with clients, while providing us with important information. We learned this is an effective outreach model that works, something we can adapt and try again with other small business issues and challenges,” Schwartz said. “Meanwhile, these students were able to put classroom skills into real-time use, helping our state’s small businesses during an unprecedented time of need.” 

Original story published by MU Extension.