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Community Minded

by Jennifer Lesser
Many of Philadelphia’s institutions of higher education are teaming up with neighborhood businesses and nonprofit organizations, students and the community to make an impact on the local economy. From new curriculum to campus expansions to partnerships with corporate entities throughout the Philadelphia region, local colleges and universities recognize that they may play a bigger role than ever before when it comes to the growth and stability of the local marketplace.

“From dental schools to education programs, there’s often an easy approach to help college students take what they’re learning and transplant it into the community for the benefit of local businesses. And as a business school, we’re focused on how we can go beyond training students in the classroom to help them bring their ideas to real businesses in the community,” asserts Sheryl Kuhlman, managing director of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Wharton is teaming up with the Philadelphia community in numerous ways, including undergraduate and MBA student projects, faculty initiatives and the Wharton Small Business Development Center. Its Wharton Social Impact Initiative includes pro- grams such as Urban Innovation Corps, which deploys teams of students from across the university to build and test innovative urban impact strategies with organizations in the community. Meanwhile, the Alumni Urban Leaders Circle is a group of Wharton and Penn alumni who convene with the purpose of strengthening Philadelphia’s brand through economic development, culture and urban revitalization.

“Students are often very interested in traveling to [places] like Africa or South America and doing work there. But as a member of our local community, we feel we have a commitment to doing work right here in Philadelphia,” Kuhlman says. “Our goal is to help students understand some very important initiatives and organizations right here in Philadelphia, and help guide and connect them to those opportunities.”

Founded in 1980, the Wharton Small Business Development Center (WSBDC) is currently part of the Snider Research Center and Wharton Entrepreneurship.

The Wharton SBDC’s mission is to help small entrepreneurial businesses in the Greater Philadelphia region start, grow and prosper, all while enhancing the education of Wharton students. The WSBDC serves more than 600 businesses with individualized consulting.

The Community College of Philadelphia recently instated its Division of Workforce and Economic Innovation, which is also specifically oriented toward helping Philadelphia’s business community thrive and grow. According to Carol de Fries, vice president of workforce and economic innovation at CCP, its offerings customize training matched to employers’ needs in both technical and soft skill areas, provide non-credit professional development options, help existing employees earn college credit and create workforce pipeline programs.

The college also serves as a provider of the state-funded WedNET PA program, which provides resources to eligible companies for essential skill and advanced technology training; the program is targeted toward Pennsylvania-based manufacturing and technology firms and hospitals.

“The college has at least 50 relationships with businesses within Philadelphia on an annual basis that include the major health systems, health centers, utility companies, a variety of city departments, insurance companies, manufacturers, nonprofits and other professional service businesses,” de Fries notes. “We do this through helping craft curriculum specifically to create trainings to develop a pipeline for their future workforce, and to upgrade skills for existing employees.”

Among its initiatives targeting small business owners is the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small businesses regional program, which offers successful small business applicants positioned for growth access to a practical, free business education in a 100-hour peer-learning environment. “Small business owners across the region gain unprecedented knowledge, expanding their expertise and building new skills. ... It’s designed for business owners with limited resources who have a business poised for growth,” she explains. Since its inception in 2013, the Philadelphia program has graduated over 300 business owners, and exceeds the program’s national metrics with 72 percent of businesses in Philadelphia increasing revenues six months after program completion, and 52 percent of businesses in Philadelphia adding new jobs six months after program completion.

At universities like Villanova, a new business school curriculum is being rolled out in order to address the specific needs of the local business community. According to David Fiorenza, economics faculty member at Villanova, the university requires all fresh men to take a course in which they must venture out into the local area and conduct research on how local businesses are currently dealing with issues ranging from taxes to marketing plans. “We have a center here called the Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship Institute (ICE) that hosts conferences and other events to invite the community and local business executives to the university to listen to student pitches and get new ideas on how to grow their business,” he adds.

The university also organizes outings designed to help students witness firsthand the impact of small businesses on the local economy. “We have relationships with many small businesses in the area, and we learn directly from what we’re seeing in towns like Radnor or Upper Merion; we’ll take students to visit these towns and learn how small businesses are helping these local communities thrive without the existence of any Fortune 500 businesses,” he says.

Drexel University is also implementing curriculum that not only gives students hands-on practice at creating a business plan, but actually helps aspiring entrepreneurs with launching and running real businesses. For example, last semester a team of students helped a local entrepreneur expand their food truck company into their first brick-and-mortar location within the community—and students were paid by the university to work with participating companies to help implement their ideas. “These types of programs help businesses right here in the local neighbor- hood, and our students benefit because many of them are interested in opening their own business someday. ... So they have a valuable opportunity to team up with businesses that are actually providing someone’s livelihood,” explains Frank Linnehan, dean of Drexel’s LeBow College of Business.

The university is also teaming up with companies like Pfizer to open co-op offices right on campus. “When a student interns or works at a local business, they’re not as connected to their curriculum or professor—so we proposed that Pfizer open offices right here in our building,” Linnehan explains. “There are benefits on both sides: faculty is conducting research to provide new ways to approach certain problems, and at the same time, our faculty attains a better understanding about the real business applications that are being used today.”

In some cases, Philadelphia businesses have an opportunity to partner with institutions of higher education to develop specific strategies to help expand their business. “Penn Mutual came to us and said they’d like to get our students’ view on how to sell insurance to the millennial population,” he says. “We had students put marketing plans together, and Penn Mutual was so thrilled by the results that they invited students to their headquarters to speak at their national sales program.”

Saint Joseph’s University’s Haub School of Business is also leveraging the ideas of students to help local companies grow. One recent program allows hospitals like Lancaster General Hospital to team up with students to help with expansions like successfully opening a new urgent care center. “We believe in giving our students opportunities to have live experiences and get their hands dirty, and all while learning how businesses really operate,” says Joseph DiAngelo, dean of the Haub School of Business. “Many of these companies are nonprofits or small businesses that would otherwise never have an opportunity like this.”

Temple University is also helping students reap the benefits of close relationships with organizations within the community. One course connects students with three Philadelphia-based businesses; students go out into the community and help develop solutions to problems their assigned company is facing, and must develop a marketing plan for them by the end of semester—and it’s all free of charge for the business. Other departments, such as accounting and finance, have students providing free tax returns for local businesses, while students within the digital marketing program are helping businesses develop their digital marketing strategy.

“We provide students with hands-on experience with real companies, and all while helping these companies grow their business. ... We’ve found that many of these businesses will end up hiring the students who participated on their team, so it also becomes a valuable recruiting tool for local companies,” says Tyra Ford, director of operations and strategic marketing initiatives for the Fox School of Business at Temple University.

The university is also partnering with organizations like The Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation to provide entrepreneurship and small business training for the center’s clients, or to help develop their curriculum to help minority businesses grow and prosper within the Philadelphia marketplace. The university’s Business Resource and Innovation Center (BRIC) at The Free Library program serves as a workshop and training program for librarians to help better direct members of the community with finding sources of information to help start a business.

“We’re helping them attain a better understanding of what it is to be a small business owner in this region, and what information someone who is starting a new business would need, from financial and accounting to marketing and sales,” Ford explains.

Many Philadelphia colleges and universities are also investing in their campuses and facilities in order to strengthen their ties to local businesses.

La Salle University’s new 87,000-square-foot School of Business facility opened in January of last year, and each of its six floors contains classrooms, informal meeting spaces with comfortable seating and faculty offices so that students have easy access to teachers and each other. The new building also houses career services and its Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center, which offers students from all majors the opportunity to engage in hands-on, innovative projects that are often funded by area businesses.

“We have strong relationships with many regional, national and global employers who regularly recruit our students for internships, co-ops and full-time positions,” says La Salle University’s School of Business Interim Dean Mary Sheila McDonald. “We prepare our students from the moment they step on campus so that they will contribute to bettering our community and the local economy not only after they graduate, but also while they are interning or volunteering.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Philly Biz, Volume 2, Issue 3 (March, 2017).
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