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When life gives you lemons ...

New program addresses business challenges while creating work opportunities for students

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Like everywhere else across the country, small business owners in West Michigan, who were just getting off the ground during the pandemic, were knocked down by additional challenges brought by COVID-19.

A new program in the Seidman College of Business pairs students with these business owners and entrepreneurs to help them develop or strengthen their businesses.

The program is called LendGR and it is offered through Grand Valley’s DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI). 

Students provide 25 hours of work for each client, helping with business plan writing, branding, social media, marketing materials, market research and web content. The program is free for clients; students are paid by CEI.

Shorouq Almallah, director of CEI, said LendGR began as a pilot program in 2019, but once COVID-19 started affecting business operations, the program was redesigned to offer emergency assistance to clients.

“Many business leaders are having to repurpose their companies, utilize different business models and explore different markets,” she said. “Services offered by our students can help fill some of those gaps and help entrepreneurs put together new business plans or provide extensive market research and data to help them pivot into new opportunities and markets.”

Eric Dzierwa holding a computer (photo by Kendra Stanley-Mills) and Keelie Owcsarzak (photo by Valerie Hendrickson)

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Eric Dzierwa, a senior majoring in advertising and public relations, has worked with six different clients, holding virtual meetings to discuss their immediate needs and long-term goals. Most clients have needed help with digital marketing and branding.

“Each client is in a different place with their business; some are just starting out while others have an established website and social media presence,” Dzierwa explained. “For some, I built a social media calendar with two months worth of content, along with a guide on how to best utilize their social media platforms.”

Dzierwa said the goal is to develop and deliver tangible assistance and ideas, and to educate clients on how to utilize solutions for the long term.

Some of the small businesses in the program are referred through the Michigan Small Business Development Center (MI-SBDC), housed in the Seidman College of Business. 

Ed Garner, MI-SBDC regional director, said the work done on behalf of those clients is supported through supplemental funds his center received from the CARES Act.

“The real-life work that GVSU students are doing for the business community not only gives them experiential learning opportunities that will enhance their careers, but provides valuable services that small businesses may not be able to afford during this time,” said Garner.

The program is also giving students real-world experience at a time when these opportunities can be hard to come by.

Keelie Owczarzak, a junior majoring in international business and marketing, said she’s gained additional business knowledge from conducting research before she meets with a client. 

“I’ve helped many clients with social media content, teaching them how to create engaging content and manage their pages,” Owczarzak said. “But also, if there’s something I don’t understand, I figure it out myself. That’s my job. For example, I taught myself how to edit video in order to better help a client.”

Daniela Ceccato, a junior majoring in business, said LendGR has given her invaluable experience. The international student, from Italy, has helped several clients with social media development and website analysis.

“I’ve learned more working with my clients than any other experience,” said Ceccato. “This has given me the opportunity to help businesses in a tangible way. I keep up with them and follow them on social media to see if they are utilizing what I developed for them.”

Dzierwa said being involved with LendGR has been personally rewarding. “Connecting with clients makes you realize what you’re doing matters. It’s their business, their livelihood; it’s what they’ve worked hard for,” he said. “This experience brings out the best in yourself. You know clients are depending on you. It makes me feel like I can actually make a difference, so I am putting out my best work and I am putting my heart into it.” 

LendGR seeks to serve women-owned, minority-owned, and veteran-owned businesses, as these are the key target populations, Almallah said.

“The program can serve as a model of how university outreach centers can facilitate connections, access and learning opportunities that intersect the community and GVSU students,” she said.

Garner said because the program has been so successful in West Michigan, the service will now be offered to SBDC clients throughout the state.

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