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Kellogg Students Lend Acumen to Assist Local Businesses

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May 18, 2006

“Wow! I expected students, but these were professionals who came to help us,” says Helen Roberts-Evans, executive director of the Child Care Center of Evanston (CCC).

Her enthusiasm is about the team of Kellogg School of Management students who developed a marketing plan for the center — at no charge.

Roberts-Evans’ reaction to the level of expertise provided by the students, members of the pro-bono consulting club Neighborhood Business Initiative (NBI), is typical of the response by Chicago-area business clients assisted by club consultants.

“It’s a positive experience for both clients and consultants,” says Ralph E. Haberli, executive partner of NBI, who with other members of the club’s leadership committee matches NBI members’ experience and interests with clients’ specific business problems.

“We usually end up with 20 to 25 projects every fall quarter at the start of the academic year,” says Haberli.

The CCC team, led by Michael Dickman and including first-year students Bao Phan, Christine Anthony, Christopher Toeple, Sandra Anderson and William Liam Krehbiel, was steeped in experience and commitment. They spent several hours each week of the fall quarter developing a marketing plan for the center, which was struggling to make ends meet.

“Our basic problem is being able to balance our budget in the wake of federal cuts, increasing costs and the reality that the majority of our families are non-paying,” says Roberts-Evans.

Using surveys and flow charts, Dickman’s team analyzed the center’s competitive position in relation to other local child care providers, identified needs and demographics of Evanston parents, sought additional markets for the center and recommended marketing strategies focused on the center’s unique strengths: its acre of land, outdoor curriculum and garden projects. The team recommended highlighting these strengths in a revised brochure and a new Web site.

“Their work was above anything we imagined, and they had a level of maturity and expertise we hadn’t anticipated,” says Roberts-Evans. “They looked at CCC with fresh eyes, and we came away with tangible pieces. Our Web site was launched Feb. 23, and we already had a couple of calls by that evening.”

Dickman, whom Roberts-Evans calls a “fabulous team leader,” says the project was very successful, both from the perspective of benefiting the organization and developing teamwork.

Now in its sixth year, NBI was started in 2000 by MBA candidate Kirby Shimko who wanted to extend the socially conscious culture at Kellogg beyond campus. That first year 35 students came together to form the organization. Currently, according to Haberli, the ranks have swelled to about 130 first-year students and 125 second-year students. A number of Kellogg professors mentor NBI consultants in nonprofit management, fundraising and consulting.

What’s in it for the students? Haberli says the club offers the opportunity to give back in a meaningful way and at the same time bring unique skills to the community. It doesn’t hurt that this community service makes the students more marketable in recruitment, especially to business strategy consulting companies. 

Perhaps Dickman expressed it best: “In terms of what I took away from the project, I’d say it was two-fold. First, I had a fantastic opportunity to gain project leadership experience, essentially managing five of my MBA peers for 10 weeks. Second, I was able to help out the community in an area I’m very passionate about, since my own children are of preschool age. These two aspects more than justified the time and effort I put into the project. Thanks to this experience, I will be a better business manager, and I feel very good about helping to apply the skills of my entire Kellogg team to such a wonderful organization.”

Previous NBI clients in Evanston and Chicago have included a Latin American art gallery, a Middle Eastern restaurant and such nonprofits as the Science Olympiad, the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and Campus Kitchen at Northwestern, an organization that seeks solutions to hunger in Evanston and Chicago.

Karen Borchert, Campus Kitchen’s national director, says of the NBI team that worked with her on growth strategy, “Not to be overly dramatic, but really [they] may have just changed the way we do business around here.”

Jenny Kopach, marketing director of the Science Olympiad, was equally positive about the team that developed an organizational strategy for her staff and volunteers: “They helped with organizational strategy for staff and volunteers. They were sharp, interesting and committed. They identified our strengths and weaknesses and seemed truly invested in the problem-solving process.”

For the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, NBI developed a fundraising strategy, and executive director Holly Hudak raves, “This expert consulting has been a gift to CYSO. We could not afford to have hired an established consulting firm. Even if we had, I doubt we would have found the sense of commitment and caring we felt from you.”

Learn more about NBI at www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/student/club/nbi/index.html.

 Lee Prater Yost is an Evanston-based freelance writer.

Topics: Neighborhood