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University retools to help business survive and prosper

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Photo courtesy Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Six months ago, business was, in most arenas, as usual. But six months was a long time ago. Today, it’s clear that companies that learn how to redirect resources and adapt to the COVID-19 environment will be among those that survive and prosper.

The Robert H. Smith School of Business at The University of Maryland, College Park, created Maryland Business Rebooted (MBR), a synchronized sequence of webinars within its Micromasters program that aims to assist companies in negotiating today’s market.

Michel Wedel, Pepsico professor of consumer science at the Smith School, said the early success rate is hard to pinpoint.

He said, “We plan to conduct surveys early in 2021, but we can assess some of our impact via page views on social media – which has reached about 18,000 social media hits (and about 400 click-throughs) and how many people register for the webinars.”

Wedel initiated MBR because he saw other UMCP-related entities helping small businesses, such as its Engineering Department making masks, “and as part of the state university, we wanted to do something, too.”

The Smith School developed the free MBR program “with information that will hopefully help them get through the pandemic,” he said, working closely with Clinical Professor of Marketing Judy Frels; she runs the Micromaster’s program, which is basically a mini-MBA.

“When a student (or business owner) wants to certificate,” Wedel said, “they pay about $200 per course for the seven courses in the program to cover the cost of EDX (an online platform) and development fees.”

The problem with the Micromasters, he said, is that it’s general in subject matter and not specific for students who are working through the consequences of the pandemic.

“So, we developed MBR by working with local businesses to identify areas where they need help,” such as the disciplines of strategy, accounting, digital marketing and retailing, he said.

For each area, Smith School administration has consulted with faculty to distribute their expertise via the free webinars that are  linked to the regular Micromasters MBA for students “who want to take a deeper dive and get a certificate in the process,” Wedel said.

That deeper dive includes free webinars on special topics like a panel discussion with black business owners that was hosted by Smith School Associate Dean and Chief Diversity Officer Victor Mullins.

He said that MBR has another goal in mind, which is to encourage the Black and Latino communities to pursue the Micromasters.

Mullins said after the George Floyd murder, MBR “heard from black business owners who are successfully working through COVID-19 and giving their insights” as well as sharing those points with owners who are failing and considering closing.

“The dialogue has been powerful,” he said, noting that the information is being presented on MBR’s diversity website.

When Drena Valentine saw the webinars advertised, the CEO of Silver Spring-based Integrated Management Solutions and UMCP alum signed up immediately.

The webinar addressed “the same services I provide to my clients,” which are business process improvements and business and nonprofits management, Valentine said. “I was blown away by the quality. During COVID-19, everyone has their take on what to do. But I wanted information as opposed to a lot of words and that’s what MBR offered – a PowerPoint presentation that delved right to the heart of the matter.”

She learned of new strategic options to address the pandemic, such as understanding how to pivot a strategic plan “to meet the moment, as opposed to pivoting your overall operations,” she said. “I found myself, for the second time in the last five months, taking notes. I was so impressed that I want to take one of Victor’s courses and shared that thought in a follow-up survey – and I do what Victor was doing that day for a living.”

Participating in this webinar, she said, “is a way to get people excited about their businesses during a tough time.”

The seven webinars MBR has hosted, which have also covered the topics of strategy and accounting, have attracted about 50 registrants, Wedel said, “which we’re happy with but we’re still hoping to increase the audience.”

Andy Shallal, owner of the area’s Busboys & Poets restaurant chain that is building new locations in Downtown Columbia and Baltimore, was part of an interview/discussion in mid-September.

He said, “We’re entering a new phase of the pandemic, where each day brings a new set of challenges and norms. One thing is certain is that uncertainty is something we have to embrace and deal with.”

How that’s done will depend on the business owners and their respective industries “but those who are more malleable and flexible are those who will, in the end, survive,” said Shallal, “and there will be an end.”

Wedel said that the thought behind MBR was “to give people information to help them mitigate their struggles in the midst of COVID-19 and planning strategy, getting loans, moving business online, creating social media, etc.,” he said. “The Smith School doesn’t intend to make any money from this.”

But it has “the support from the dean’s office and we feel that it is our responsibility to assist state businesses,” he said. “And we’re hoping to create goodwill while we attract more participants to the Micromaster’s program at the Smith School.”

By Mark R. Smith | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | October 2020 Issue

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