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CoBA Program Helps Local Businesses Impacted by Pandemic

By Tim Meehan

Every year, Cal State San Marcos’ College of Business Administration executes a highly successful program for its students called Business Professional Development.

It’s taught by Executives in Residence, a group of experienced business professionals, most of whom have started and run companies.

BPD aims to identify students' professional strengths, clarify their career goals, build their confidence for job interviews and provide strategies to secure internships and jobs before graduation.

But those goals took a turn last spring when the world halted following the onset of COVID-19.

Instead of lamenting the inevitable changes in BPD, CoBA Dean Jim Hamerly and his team looked at the needs of the local business community and reimagined a new approach known as the CSUSM Business Response, Recovery and Resource Program.

With the new goal of finding ways to help local businesses impacted by the pandemic, this initiative assesses a company’s positioning and planning for the current economy and beyond. The recommendations provided by faculty members are then offered with the assistance of student teams going forward.

“It’s one thing to work in a course and have a project that’s due,” said Hamerly, who in addition to his academic experience has served senior executive positions at major corporations such as Xerox, Netscape and AOL Time Warner. “It’s quite something else when you have an external business owner who’s saying, ‘I’m depending on the results of what you’re doing.’ It puts a level of accountability on the student’s shoulders that makes them, first of all, far more engaged and far more committed. But then there’s a sense of pride when they’re done so it works for the community and equally works for the students.”

Since there were no students on campus toward the end of the spring semester, this program originally began without them. Hamerly and his team were concerned about what was happening as a result of COVID-19 in terms of impact on local businesses. But without students, what could the team do?

Executive in Residence Scott Corriveau came up with the idea originally. The team then met and brainstormed, asking one key question: How can we help these people?

The program launched in the summer.

“CSUSM school of business is very blessed to have the overall number and quality of senior executives who want to give back and help the students and the local business community,” said Corriveau, a global senior executive and CEO who is known for building profitable businesses and companies across a wide range of sectors. “While the main focus has been on preparing and assisting the business school students, it was equally a logical extension to reach out the local business community to further leverage this expertise, especially during the current pandemic and its impacts on small businesses.”

CoBA normally performs 100-150 projects for businesses every year. With what Hamerly estimates as roughly 2,000 connections in the community, the college has relationships with most of the chambers of commerce and all the Economic Development Councils, particularly the North County EDC.

So Hamerly and team began the largely volunteer project by reaching out to the Carlsbad and Encinitas chambers. They quickly responded and agreed to co-host it. The one-hour first segment was well-attended.

The team distributed a survey asking where the greatest need was in order to survive the sudden and drastic market change. Pillar managers were then assigned to each business that requested assistance. The pillar managers met with the business owner, then reported back to the team with three areas of focus: where the need exists, where the help is and the recommended course of action.

Each of the pillar managers wrote a one-page summary detailing the recommendations for each interested business. The team met once or twice a week in addition to meeting with the chamber members who requested to help. The process was quick and efficient. Adjustments were made on the fly.

“We learned as we went, obviously,” said Hamerly, who holds degrees from Carnegie Mellon, the University of California at Berkeley and MIT. “We didn’t have it all perfectly right the first time. I know the second time we did a chamber meeting we used a tool at the front end of the meeting that asked, ‘What are the problems you’re having?’ We gave them a whole series of categories and then we re-targeted what we said and focused on the fillers that resonated with the audience that had the areas of greatest need.”

Although the team expected to see businesses in the 5-20 range in terms of number of employees, most of the businesses they helped had fewer than five employees. Just like their large counterparts during the great unknown, the small local companies were struggling.

“Many local business climate surveys indicate that a great number of small businesses will not survive the current pandemic’s limitation on their business model,” Corriveau said. “These business failures will have a cascading impact on our local economies and we at CSUSM want to help as much as possible to ensure we slow this trend down.”

While the team planned on just helping during the opening stages of the pandemic, the focus turned to long-range goals.

The Senior Experience program within CoBA has long been one of the most popular business initiatives in the CSU system. A core part of the business major, students work as consultants on rigorous projects that require teamwork and application of classroom knowledge through 750 real-world hours. Each student team works under the supervision of a faculty member, and often local businesses hire students straight from the program.

So the team decided to do something similar to continue the outreach for this program, offering the chance to work with student-led teams in the fall to continue with the recommendations. So far, several local businesses have CSUSM student-led teams working with them through the constant struggles of running a company during a pandemic.

“Some of the companies liked the recommendations so much but didn’t know what to do next, so some of them have signed up for teams in the fall,” Hamerly said. “It was not our intent to find companies that needed help from students, but it turns out our recommendations when you look at them were best implemented when you assign a student team to that company to help them through the detail.”

CoBA puts more than 500 students into businesses every year. Normally the student team will negotiate with a business owner the consulting agreement, the specific deliverables and the timeframe. Everyone then signs the document, and the team is off and running, sometimes with the company’s help, sometimes independently.

The Business Response, Recovery, and Resource Program has been no different. As is the case across many departments on campus, CSUSM identifies problems and works tirelessly to execute solutions for the greater good.

“They might be seeking new markets for the business to try to attract, or new customers,” Hamerly said. “Whatever it might happen to be. It could be social media prospects, it could be improving their website. Everything you can possibly imagine we have done with student teams. And we consider that an essential part of our contribution to the community. But equally important, it’s a very valuable learning experience for our students.”

Media Contact

Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist

ebreier@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7314