Lokilani Hunt, MBA 22, watched her partner battle the coronavirus and friends lose jobs and businesses due to the pandemic. So for Hunt, becoming president of the Berkeley Community Business Partnership was deeply personal.
“I jumped right in and said, ‘I don’t care what it takes,'”said Hunt, who oversees a group of 60 MBA students who came together this fall to consult on volunteer projects that support small businesses.
The consulting work, which ranges from organizing a worker-owned cooperative for struggling restaurants to developing new financing pipelines for women-owned businesses, builds on a project launched last spring by the Sustainable and Impact Finance (SAIF) initiative at Berkeley Haas. That program aimed to assist hundreds of small business owners in Oakland who face language, technology, or income barriers, to help them access federal relief funds including Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, and unemployment insurance.
Over the summer, Katherine Baird, SAIF’s program director, worked to expand the program within Oakland—and beyond.
Baird put together a leadership team of first-year MBA students including Hunt, Crystal Ang, Drew Schneider, Stuart Fram, and Colin Ridlon, who reached out to 19 organizations that are supporting small businesses across the Bay Area and the Central Valley.
That included surveying the needs of city economic development teams from Daly City to San Leandro and business associations like the Black Cultural Zone in East Oakland, the Fresno Hispanic Foundation, and the Chambers of Commerce for both Berkeley and Chinatown, among others.
“We are at risk of losing 30% of our small businesses, and all of these projects are designed to help support small businesses during this critical time,” Baird said. “Our program is also asking students to go beyond themselves, engaging support for low-income and marginalized communities that have been even more hard-hit than most.”
“We are at risk of losing 30 percent of our small businesses and all of these projects are designed to help support small businesses during this critical time.”
Under the new program, teams of MBA students are matched with one of the organizations for two months to tackle a project that supports areas of need identified by small businesses.
Ang, MBA 22, is helping the nonprofit Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center develop a step-by-step guide for digital marketing for businesses in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. “Equity in economic opportunity is something that I’m so passionate about,” said Ang, who worked at an economic development agency in Singapore before coming to Haas. She’s working with two other MBA students, Alyssa Zhu, MBA 21, and Juliana Rivera, MBA 22, on a toolkit, which covers everything from helping businesses take more eye-catching photos of their products for social media posts to helping businesses navigate Facebook Marketplace and Instagram Shopping.
“Working with small businesses has been incredibly humbling,” Ang said. “A number of the businesses we’re working with were very successful before the pandemic, and built that success through hosting in-person events and trade shows. All of that is off the table now so we’re working with them to develop a social media and a digital marketing strategy.”
Schneider, who formerly worked at a startup that provided loans to small businesses, is working with the nonprofit Pacific Community Ventures in San Francisco. He and teammates Vishal Desai and Lifan Wang are creating a series of webinars and workshops focused on digital marketing and pivoting a business.
As president of the partnership program, Hunt oversees the progress of the student teams, keeping them on track with nonprofit clients. Hunt said the program has received a great response so far from MBA student volunteers, though at times it’s been frustrating to reach some of the struggling small business owners. “The virtual environment is limiting and has proposed unique challenges,” she said. “One team servicing Oakland expressed frustration with the barriers owners are experiencing that they’ve never experienced before.”
After conducting a midpoint survey of what teams have accomplished to date, Hunt said they’re planning a Nov. 20 virtual event to showcase all that they’ve accomplished.
“We’re still a long way from full economic recovery, but by dedicating over two months of their time, our MBA students are having an incredible, tangible impact right now on small businesses in our communities,” Baird said.