Center that Helps Entrepreneurs Gets Helping Hand of Its Own

Posted: June 13, 2011 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: February 15, 2012 at 12:46 pm

By Jason Jacks

Mona Olsen, assistant director of the Mason Small Business Development Center, and Jeffrey Kulick, marketing instructor in the School of Management, teamed up for the benefit of the center and students in Kulick's Marketing to the Nonprofit Sector class. Photo by Nicolas Tan

The nonprofit needed help marketing itself. The marketing class needed, well, a nonprofit to help market. It was a partnership born out of necessity.

This past semester, the Mason Small Business Development Center (SBDC), an organization dedicated to turning start-ups into long-lasting, viable companies, opened its doors to a group of Mason marketing students with a hope that the ambitious academics could find ways for the nonprofit to grow.

Based in a nondescript office building a half a mile from the Fairfax Campus, the Mason SBDC has a staff of two full-time employees and a slew of volunteers from all sectors of business.

Over the course of a year, the center’s volunteers advise more than 400 small businesses — many of them technology companies — on everything from how to devise a business plan, to securing financing, to advertising.

The center’s funding comes from the U.S. Small Business Administration, Virginia’s SBDC Network and the Mason Enterprise Center. Mason also supplies part of the center’s funding. But aside from the occasional Mason graduate, most of the entrepreneurs the center consults with have little connection to the university. And that’s what it wants to change.

Teaching How to Be a Business Consultant

“We have worked with members of the Mason community before but we would love to see more of that,” says Mona Olsen, assistant director of the Mason SBDC.

So, cue Mason marketing professor Jeffrey Kulick and his Marketing to the Nonprofit Sector (MKTG 481) class.

Each year as part of his class’s “capstone” project, Kulick has his students work with a local nonprofit to help improve its marketing strategy. In previous years, his class has assisted the United Way and the ARC of Greater Prince William County, as well an assortment of Fairfax County-based organizations.

The course teaches students to work as a business consultant, a job some will eventually find themselves in.

“It gives students real-life experience working with a nonprofit,” says Kulick, who has been teaching in the School of Management (SOM) since 2001. “It’s also a way to expose Mason to the outside world.”

For the Mason SBDC, Kulick had his class break up into teams, with each one tasked with finding ways for the center to increase its client base within the Mason community.

A Dozen New Ideas

After studying the center’s current marketing strategy, one group suggested the center partner more with professors to tap into their knowledge base.

Working with Mason’s Alumni Association was also suggested, as was engaging more with student business clubs and having a presence at SOM’s annual undergraduate orientation event called WelcomeFest. Other recommendations were that the center have a presence in Mason’s University Career Services office and on Blackboard, a web-based learning environment management system employed at Mason.

In addition, with websites like Twitter and Facebook more essential than ever to businesses and nonprofits alike, several students recommended the SBDC tap more into social media to get its message out. Which makes sense, since “they live in that world,” Kulick says of his students’ interest in social media.

According to Olsen, the center’s staff was thrilled with what the students came up with.

“We got about 10 or 12 ideas presented to us that we hadn’t thought about,” she says. In particular, she praises the idea of working closely with potential future entrepreneurs in University Career Services. “Maybe this is a way to increase our visibility with students.”

The center is currently examining how to implement some of the students’ ideas. Because, according to Olsen, with Mason in its name, it’s important that the Mason SBDC help bridge the gap between members of the Mason community and success in the world of business.

“It makes sense that we would be that connector point to Mason,” she says.

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