MBA Students Hit the Streets of Harlem

Students in a Columbia University course lend their expertise to district's inner-city businesses

A spirit of renewal rises out of 125th Street in Manhattan, the bustling crosstown artery of America's black capital. A movement is under way here to revive the Harlem of another era, when the district was known for its jazz greats and vibrant stores - and it's coming with the help of neighboring Columbia University.

"We want people to feel about the Apollo the way they felt about it in the1940s: as a vibrant, throbbing, active, exciting, economically viable place to go," says Wayne Neale, development director for the Apollo Theater Foundation, which is promoting the Apollo's legacy.

Working with Mr. Neale is Ileana Scheytt, an MBA candidate at Columbia, who is researching direct-mail companies to design a fund-raising strategy for the black theater.

The pair was brought together under an innovative inner-city consulting class at Columbia's business school, which sends students to work with big-name professionals in neighboring Harlem.

Since the course's inception two years ago, the students have conducted market surveys, designed cost structures, and made business plans for some of Harlem's best-established institutions, from the Dance Theater of Harlem to Madame Alexander Company whose famous collectible dolls retail at FAO Schwarz.

Following Columbia University's example, top business schools are increasingly sending students to do field work in neighboring inner cities. Most schools see it as a relationship they can no longer afford to ignore: Students get hands-on experience, and minority and mom-and-pop businesses get access to resources long denied them.

Lending a helping hand

"You're seeing an increased level of civic interest in inner-city communities by students in general, but this is not something altruistic," says Eric Von Hendrix, who heads the community small-business development unit at GE Capital in Stamford, Conn.

For Columbia business students, Harlem is a rich laboratory. Over the past two years, it has attracted big retailers such as Duane Reade Drugs and Blockbuster, and Walt Disney has agreed to anchor a $56 million entertainment center on 125th Street.

But above the colorful strand of hair salons, shoe stores, and mom-and-pop storefronts lining 125th Street, many faades remain boarded up, stark symbols of what is yet to be done to revive Harlem.

With that in mind, the Columbia students have focused on anchor businesses and institutions, helping them take advantage of this renewal. "The biggest problem for small businesses is to understand what it is they're doing," says Howard Dabney, chief lending officer at Carver Federal Savings Bank, the largest African-American bank in the country, and the only bank headquartered in Harlem.

"They don't keep the best of records that allows for an evaluation of what their needs are," adds Columbia's Ms. Scheytt, a former project manager at Hewlett-Packard in Germany. "Some places are losing money, but they don't know where the holes are."

Finding the holes

Take Georgie's Pastries, a fixture on 125th Street for more than 30 years. When Georgia and James Bryant thought about selling or franchising their doughnut store, they didn't know how much their store was worth.

Enter the Columbia consultants. Their job was to help the couple assess the business and get it in shape financially so it would command the best price on the market.

"They helped us figure out how to go about getting a value on the business," says Mrs. Bryant, a resident of East Harlem. "It was wonderful: I was too busy running the store. And since they're from the business world, they are more knowledgeable."

The inner-city consulting class has thrown students up against one of the most crucial problems facing Harlem and most small businesses: the lack of access to capital.

Last year, a team of Columbia students designed Carver Federal Savings Bank's first small-business loan program, and it wasn't merely an academic exercise.

New steam tables

Already the program is making a difference - just ask Martin Phillip. After opening Martin's West Indian Eatery in Spanish Harlem "with hard-earned cash," the Trinidad immigrant was so beset by problems he thought he'd go under.

But then on Nov. 1, 1996, he got a long-sought loan from Carver, the bank's first smallbusiness loan. "This just right on time, just on time," says Mr. Phillip. "There are a lot of hidden expenses you don't even know about," he explains. Now he intends to buy new steam tables and ovens for his kitchen, and expand his menu. "If it wasn't for this, we might have folded," he adds.

This year's students are going a step further, advising the bank on how to provide even more critically needed loans - loans of less than $15,000 - and still make a profit.

Encouraging students to work with business owners in depressed neighborhoods isn't something new for business schools. But over the past two years, setting up such courses has become a trend, says Whitney Tilson of the nonprofit Initiative for a Competitive Inner City in New York. The organization matches selected MBA students with businesses in poor areas of Boston, Baltimore, and Oakland, Calif.

The Yale School of Management in New Haven, Conn., and the University of Washington, Seattle, are among the most recent in a growing number of business schools to offer hands-on inner-city consulting courses.

At Columbia, it was the students' interest that sparked the creation of the inner-city consulting class. When students said they wanted to do field work in Harlem, Murray Low, who runs Columbia's entrepreneurship program, saw a class that could benefit every student.

"I felt very strongly that part of the experience of being an entrepreneur is not just making money for yourself, but also giving money to your community."

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