Tim Nettles came to refer to them as his “MBA Girls” and intended not the slightest of slights in doing so.
“They got to know my business inside and out,” said Nettles, the owner of Tallahassee Segway Tours at 1500 S. Monroe St. “They took a sincere interest in my product and made very clear recommendations about pricing and what they thought we could offer the market. They were especially helpful with suggestions about how we could best reach a younger demographic.”
The MBA Girls are Britanny Boyer, Ana Parra, Andrea Soriano and Erica Thomas, four women who were closing in on their master’s degrees in business administration at Florida A&M University when they joined with Nettles in an MBA Candidates Consultancy Program project designed to mutually benefit both the students and the participating business.
The consultancy is the final class taken by students in the MBA sequence at FAMU. As a capstone course, it requires that students employ concepts and tools that they become familiar with throughout their post-graduate studies.
Dr. Jennifer Collins is the assistant dean at the Division of Management Services in the School of Business and Industry at FAMU. She was in on the ground floor when the consultancy program was established five years ago.
“It used to be that a professor occasionally would find a business for students to interview,” Collins said, “or students might be asked to focus on a publicly traded company that they could gather information on. The consultancy gives students an opportunity to interact closely with an actual business and see how everything in their curriculum comes together in making real-world business decisions.”
The Florida Small Business Development Center at FAMU, headed by Keith Bowers, identifies businesses interested in taking part in a consultancy. Students are then matched by the FSBDC with businesses based on their “entrepreneurial DNA,” Collins said, and a survey completed by both the consultants and their client.
Bowers said the FSBDC has a “vested interest” in the businesses it assists and endorses the consultancy program because it encourages his clients to harness new technologies and helps them repay their loans and create jobs.
“We provide businesses with the perspective of diverse and very creative minds,” said Dr. Shawnta Friday-Stroud, dean of the School of Business and Industry at FAMU. “We work with businesses that, if they had to pay for the findings and recommendations our students give them, they probably wouldn’t get them.
“Our program gives them the opportunity to vet ideas in a non-threatening environment.”
Friday-Stroud makes the point that consultancy work may be especially helpful to students who have aspirations about one day becoming entrepreneurs, themselves.
“They get to see a business through the eyes of an entrepreneur,” Friday-Stroud said. “It is one thing to read about starting a business in a book or to see something from afar, but in this program, students spend a fair amount of time closely interacting with the entrepreneur, and they get insights and nuggets that you cannot get in a textbook.”
The consultancies culminate in a written report given to the client as a deliverable, and students make a presentation of their findings to an audience that includes the client, representatives of the FSBDC and Dr. Collins.
“I look for evidence that the students have demonstrated mastery of concepts from class and that they exhibited a high degree of professionalism in their dealings with the client,” Collins said. “They need to demonstrate strong written communication skills and come up with recommended strategies based on data. It is all about making data-driven decisions.”
A couple of projects stand out for Collins.
“When the Lofts on Gaines Street apartment project was in the building phase, students put together a wine-and-cheese event to attract potential buyers of units,” Collins recalled. “They shared floor plans of the apartments to those who attended and delivered prospective purchasers to the developer. Our students gained hands-on experience in event marketing.”
As part of another memorable project, students developed a Kickstarter campaign for NaughTeas, a distributor of ready-to-drink iced teas, and conducted taste tests at Cascades Park.
“We were instrumental in helping that business launch,” Collins said. “Now, I see their product whenever I am at the airport.”
In the case of Tallahassee Segway Tours (TST), students began with an assessment of the big picture before eventually arriving at the tactical level.
They conducted a PESTEL analysis, which takes a look at “macro-environmental” factors in six areas that affect an organization: political, economic, social cultural, technological, environmental and legal.
As a product of that analysis, TST was encouraged to consider variables ranging from the weather to lifestyle trends to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The “MBA Girls” divided TST’s target market into three segments – tourists/visitors, local residents and college students — and recommended strategies and tactics specific to each segment and applicable to the market as a whole.
Overall strategies were:
Recommended tactics related to those strategies included:
Collins was pleased to have heard recently from a member of the “Segway Team” who had accepted a job with a small business in Memphis. She was hired before the employer learned about the former student’s experience and expertise in business development.
“The business needs some time and attention in those areas and the employer learned that they were getting in our graduate more than they thought they were getting,” Collins said.
Nettles said that he was well served.
“The students were very enthusiastic and very thoughtful,” Nettles said. “They weren’t just checking a box and getting a grade. They were invested in what we were doing. This was an opportunity for them to get involved in the real deal.”
Would he recommend the consultancy program to other budding businesses?
“Without a doubt,” Nettles said.
Friday-Stroud said the consultancy program is consistent with the “service culture” at FAMU.
“It is one of the ways in which we can give back to the community,” she said. “When we can help businesses succeed, the community benefits. The program is a win-win-win for the students, the clients and the community as a whole.”