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BU student consultants seek to help small businesses thrive

Posted by Laura Gomez  April 4, 2013 10:13 AM

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By Sonia Su, Globe Correspondent

At a spacious Vietnamese restaurant, a door bell signals either hungry customers looking for a bánh mì sandwich or, these days, Boston University business school students looking for ways to help the businesses thrive.

On this chilly Sunday afternoon, three BU School of Management undergraduates walked to the small seating area in the back of the restaurant, ready to sit down and chat with Ba Le Restaurant manager Angela Chiang, of Hanover.

It was their third time meeting with the manager of the half-restaurant, half-convenience store in the Fields Corner section of Dorchester. As part of the BU Urban Business Accelerator that launched in summer 2012, students intern as consultants in teams of four, including one MBA candidate, with local small business owners who need help managing their financial accounts.

By the end of these 10 weeks, the BU group will have helped 13 small businesses, with 54 students participating.

“You get to know a small business owner,” said Nathan Bernard, founder of the Urban Business Accelerator and recent SMG graduate. “You get to apply the skills that you learn in school, but more so, you actually get to be creative and try to grow these businesses — and that’s exciting.”

Students follow a list of tasks to complete every week. This week, the team assigned to Ba Le worked on a bank statement of accounts for the Vietnamese manager.

Meanwhile, the colorfully decorated restaurant remains calm, with customers entering only occasionally and ranging from a small family of three to a 50-something-year-old man. The students met with Chiang to clarify some of the accounts before entering everything into online accounting software QuickBooks to get an accurate depiction of the last fiscal year.

“This internship is very heavily accounting based, and I’m planning to concentrate in accounting, so we really look at the bank statements [and] different revenue streams to see how we can help her out,” SMG sophomore Harshal Aggarwal said.

At the end of the 10 weeks, businesses would be independently able to manage better their accounting methods and save money. Although Bernard has had to follow up with a few of the past businesses, BUBA has been able to save them in the course of 10 weeks up to $9,000, with an average of about $5,000, Bernard said.

“All the businesses have ultimately loved the program,” Bernard said. “We get great testimonials from the businesses.”

For Ba Le, tracking cash flow is the most important part of determining the business’ success, MBA candidate Emily Fletcher said.

“We will also be able to to help [Chiang] cut down on waste — both physical food waste and others like time waste — and hopefully help her identifies ways for her to grow the business,” Fletcher said.

After six years of working at Ba Le, Chiang still faces the problem of not being able to understand where and why the business loses money, she said.

“I hope [at the end of] this semester, I hope I can know what to do, like I know how to set up for next year, know how to set my money,” Chiang said.

Despite occasional language barriers, conversation flows smoothly between consultant and the client, who speaks fluent Cantonese and Vietnamese. SMG sophomore Kelly Zhao can speak Cantonese, while SMG freshman James To can speak Vietnamese.

“It’s easy to talk to my client because she’s Vietnamese, so I can communicate with her easily. I really enjoy that,” To said.

The students also reap personal benefits by participating in the program.

“It has a lot of real-world experience because we’re actually dealing with a person’s revenues, expenses, bank statements, and that’s something that we don’t really get to do on an everyday basis,” Aggarwal said.

Chiang clarifies students’ questions on bank accounts. Students also become more familiar with QuickBooks and other accounting programs.

“I want to gain some hands-on experience other than being in class and reading through books. My family has a lot of small businesses, so I understand how hard it is and the hardships,” To said.

Both Aggarwal and To said that gaining Chiang’s trust is the most important part of working with her and any client.

“It’s a lot of personal information, and we want to give them every right to trust us with their information so that they’re honest with us and we can really help them — because we can’t help them if they’re hiding things from us,” Aggarwal said.

As a program helping local small businesses, BUBA teaches students not only communication skills, but also social perspective, Bernard said. Daily commute for Chiang ranges from a half hour to one-and-a-half hours. By the time she returns home, Chiang is exhausted, watches Chinese movies and wakes up the next morning at five, while her family start work at 4 a.m. to prepare food, she said.

By the end of the program, students create extensive reports on how business owners can better manage their businesses, yet the reports have to be simplistic enough for clients to understand.

However, there may be potential pitfalls when going through a business’ accounts.

“We always take the stance that it isn’t our business,” Bernard said. “We make it clear that BUBA is not the police, and we are there to help. Anything that we find along those lines we don’t get involved with. We are just there to help grow the business in the most ethical and appropriate way possible.”

Nevertheless, the program is running smoothly as it enters its third week.

“My team is fabulous,” Fletcher said. “They are very responsible, mature, and [they] work well together. I’ve been impressed with their ability to get things accomplished, which far outweighs any snafus or miscommunications we’ve had.”

Looking ahead, Bernard will try to grow the non-profit program nationally and consider a paid model to make the program more sustainable.

With the paid model, students would pay for the experience, a certificate in small business consulting or management consulting from BU SMG and extensive training from faculty, staff, Google, the consulting industry and more, Bernard said.

But the goal remains the same: Improve local small businesses. Other universities offer similar programs, including Bentley University’s free tax advice for small-business owners and Northeastern University’s Community Business Clinic, though BUBA seems to be the first in the Greater Boston Area to have students offer their help.

“Sometimes we lose money, and then we need to put the money to pocket out,” Chiang said. “That’s why I like the program like that. I think it’s better for the business.”

This story was produced under a partnership between the Globe and Boston University.

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