• During the 2019-20 academic year, students completed more than 100 business development projects in 20 Missouri counties and the city of St. Louis as part of the MU Trulaske College of Business' Professional EDGE program.
    During the 2019-20 academic year, students completed more than 100 business development projects in 20 Missouri counties and the city of St. Louis as part of the MU Trulaske College of Business' Professional EDGE program.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – 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 uncertain times.

Mizzou students explored converting an old Boonville bread factory into a microbrewery. They 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 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. To help guide Missouri Small Business Development recovery outreach strategies after COVID-19 hit, they surveyed more than 100 businesses on the impact of disaster aid programs.

Not counting the 60 projects underway this fall, students have completed more than 100 business development projects in 20 Missouri counties and the city of St. Louis as part of the MU Trulaske College of Business Professional EDGE program’s partnership with MU Extension and the MU Office of Service-Learning. This hands-on learning experience, now a required undergraduate class, offers MU students real-life professional skills and 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 reinforced through many conversations with business professionals about the need for graduates with applied, not just academic, business 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 experience into the business program found willing partners in MU Extension and 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,” said Sarah Traub, MU Extension director of education and impact.

The Office of Service-Learning matches Professional EDGE students with dozens of nonprofits and coordinates student and client outreach, tracking and assessment, said Anne-Marie Foley, MU’s service-learning director.

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

During the COVID-19 pandemic, students swiftly adapted videoconferencing and online team and project management tools, gaining skills are likely to be essential whatever their career pursuits.

The experience also exposed students to new perspectives and opportunities. Tales of struggling rural economies took on new meaning when students “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,” said Jennifer Presberry, senior coordinator for MU Extension business and community program.

Brengarth said the project work challenges students’ preconceived notions about their 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,” she said. “Similarly, students from rural backgrounds gain new perspectives from working on projects in a big city. We’re not just building the next generation of effective business professionals, we’re helping to build stronger Missouri communities.”

A hometown microbrewery and food truck park

Amenities. Young families want them, and their choice of home, neighborhood and community often hinges 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, an 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 innovate. Gigi Quinlan McAreavy, economic developer for Cooper County and Boonville, welcomed the students’ 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 within a 5-mile radius, both of them fast-food restaurants.

Though COVID-19 derailed plans to present their proposals to the local Chamber of Commerce and city and county leaders, the work mattered deeply, said Zoe Rich, an 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 disruption to rebuilding

As COVID-19 swept across Missouri, the Missouri Small Business Development Centers launched the Business Disruption Center, helping more than 100 small businesses apply for assistance through the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program as well as providing 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 efforts, the Missouri SBDC pivoted 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 students used to contact clients.

The persistent students had a 40% survey response rate, a surprisingly high success rate, Schwartz said. Of businesses reached, 95% were open, and the other 5% were planning to reopen. For several of these businesses, student outreach led to follow-up sessions with SBDC counselors for guidance on issues they were still dealing with.

“The students’ work freed up our counselors up to work directly with clients, while providing us with important information,” Schwartz said. “We learned this is an effective outreach model, something we can adapt and try again with other small business issues and challenges. 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.”