What Are B-Schools Doing To Support Businesses During The Pandemic?

It might seem like doom and gloom will consume the global economy, but business schools are doing their best to support local businesses.

By May, the number of small businesses in the US failing to turn a profit had surpassed levels witnessed during the 2008 financial crisis, with the figure reaching 42% of all companies in the Russell 2000 index of small-caps. Meanwhile, in the same month on the other side of the Atlantic, it was reported that almost half of all UK firms would run out of money within six months, with the Office of National Statistics (ONS) recording that only 27% of businesses had enough cash to survive beyond that point. 

However, it was at this point that we began to see business schools doing their part to offer support. 

When I first heard that The Wharton School had partnered with the Philadelphia Zoo, I was keen to know more about how MBA students were helping to support an institution that is home to nearly 1,300 animals, many of whom are already endangered in the wild.

One of United States’ leading business schools, Wharton had already been working with ‘America’s First Zoo’ via its WISE Fellowship Program, bringing in a student team of social impact consultants to help the Philly-based zoo achieve its vision. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Philadelphia Zoo to close its doors to the public, Wharton’s resident social impact specialists were quick to provide much-needed support to help the Zoo reorient its focus to virtual engagement. 

“Like so many businesses and institutions, the Zoo had to suddenly close its doors, which brought its onsite education programs to a halt,” explains Jessica Stokes, member of the Wharton MBA Class of 2021 and student taking part in the WISE program. “Knowing it was still a priority to engage with the world, we brainstormed digital strategies that when implemented, would help the Zoo to reach a variety of audiences virtually”.  Alongside social media content planning, Wharton supported the Zoo in boosting SEO, fundraising ideas, as well as brainstorming ways of scaling the Zoo’s flagship UNLESS Contest. 

For Kristen Waldron, director of strategic initiatives at Philadelphia Zoo, the concept to inspire others to take action for wildlife was brilliant. “We are thrilled with our partnership and the talented WISE Fellows. The students delivered a very compelling and thoughtful plan for expansion but their innovative thinking didn’t just stop there. With the Zoo temporarily closed, the Fellows turned their creativity toward brainstorming additional ideas to support our online engagement.”

And Wharton isn’t alone in its efforts to offer a helping hand during this crisis. Utilising their expertise and the resources available to them, schools across the globe have helped businesses within and beyond their local communities to navigate the pandemic and prepare of a post-COVID world.

Building on Wharton’s story, I spoke with a number of institutions to ask what they’ve been doing to help put businesses on the right path during this crisis:

“The unusual situation in which we have found ourselves has forced us to rethink our daily habits and way of working, and in some cases to totally reinvent them,” said Federico Frattini from MIP Politecnico di Milano. 

As the Dean of MIP, Federico has been at the heart of the business school’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under his leadership, the Milan-based institution was quick to offer support to businesses, rapidly unveiling the ‘Keep on Learning’initiative. Through this support project, the school provided students, alumni and businesses with an information portal, offering advice, thought-leadership and live webinars – featuring both faculty members and leading executives at large companies such as Microsoft Italy and Lamborghini – as well as offering specific content and in-depth analyses to help companies navigate the crisis. 

When asked why MIP were so quick to do its part for the local business community, Frattini said they could not stand by while the country and community were experiencing unprecedented challenges. “At MIP we believe that the best way we can help overcome these difficulties, and the most valuable contribution we can make, is to continue to carry out projects and to provide much needed guidance.”  

Stéphane Dubreuille, the Director of Executive Education at NEOMA Business School, agrees. “This anxiety-provoking and uncertain period is a time for professionals to take the time to question and develop themselves. In this unique context, Executive Education has a key role to play.” 

NEOMA – situated across three campuses in Reims, Rouen and Paris – faced the daunting challenge of providing support and guidance to its students and the wider business community as France followed Italy into an early lockdown. However, the school is used to providing support to the local business community via its Start-up Lab, and so was well placed to help out in a time of need. Building on their extensive work with SMEs and start-ups, NEOMA’s Executive Education department has played a critical role in providing regular support for companies. Honing in on specific skillsets needed for success as a small-sized business, the Exec Ed team developed a training course around subjects such as finance and strategy. This was accompanied by free webinars and tailored coaching for companies “to accelerate their economic recovery”, says Dubreuille.

“The unprecedented transition period that companies are currently going through requires them to prepare their employees for the changes they are facing and will continue to face in the months to come.Naturally, for this, our Executive Education programmes have been developed to respond as much as possible to these new business needs.”

For a number of institutions, the Executive Education department has been at the heart of the responses to COVID-19. Trinity Business School in Ireland provides another excellent example of this. The school has harnessed the experience and expertise of its Exec Ed team in designing the Reboot and Reignite Campaign. Andrew Burke, Chair of Business Studies and Dean at Trinity, recognizes how desperately this support is needed. “It’s been a very tough time for business, and our own research shows that when firms fold due to an unexpected shock like COVID-19 it has long lasting effects, with only 80% of exiting businesses replaced after five years.”

Trinity has helped by running a series of online seminars for businesses and, in September, they are launching free online workshops in a series entitled ‘Reboot and Reignite Business: workshops to help shape-up businesses in the new environment’.” Burke claims that, alongside discussing the key challenges that businesses will face, such as cashflow, thriving in an economic downturn and shaping digital strategies, the campaign will focus on creating a sustainable recovery, taking into account ethical considerations, such as tackling the climate emergency and creating an inclusive society.  

But why are Trinity so keen to help set businesses on a more sustainable path? Burke says they don’t want to resuscitate the “pre-COVID Frankenstein economy, an economy of our own making but ultimately working against our long-term interests and potentially destined to kill us through its reckless abuse of the planet!”

While schools like MIP, NEOMA and Trinity have utilised the experience of their Executive Education departments to support the business community, Ivey Business School in Canada has found their own way to offer support to businesses. 

Partnering with the non-profit organisation, Mitacs, Ivey recently announced the launch of its Business Strategy Internship programme. Through the programme, students will be paired with a small to medium sized business which has been impacted by the pandemic. With the supervision of an Ivey faculty member, students undertake a strategic analysis of their partner SME to help that business recover or modify their operations. An incredible opportunity for students to gain much-needed experience while helping real-world companies to survive. 

Eric Morse, Executive Director at the Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship at the Ivey Business School, says the internship enabled the school to address two of the key challenges that its students and local entrepreneurs faced. “How can we help students who are having a hard time finding meaningful summer employment and how can we help small entrepreneurial businesses get through these tough times?” 

Sharon Hodgson, Dean of Ivey Business School, said that the internship directly aligns with the school’s mission to “develop business leaders who think globally, act strategically and contribute to the societies within which they operate.” Students taking part in the internship programme will even be paid. They’ll receive $10,000 for the four-month project, with Mitacs contributing $5000 towards the student’s salary, the SME contributing $2,500, and Ivey providing the final $2,500. This will be the case for 40 of the 55 students taking part, with the final 15 covered by the business school, its alumni and corporate donations. Through this internship, Hodgson says that Ivey will be able to “give back to our local business community in an important way.”

It’s this sense of community spirit that’s also driving initiatives from Durham University Business School, which recently undertook extensive research into the potential impact of COVID-19 on supply chains for businesses local to the institution. 

Harnessing the information they received from analysingover 1,739,669 companies in 28 different regions,the researchers have been providing tailored advice to businesses around how to mitigate the impact of the crisis. 

Partnering with the regional Confederation of British Industry, Durham has provided tailored support to a number of grateful businesses, including an electric utility company and a specialised logistics consultancy. Kiran Fernandes, Professor of Operations Management and Associate Dean of Internationalization at the business school, said that they’ve partnered with a number of bodies – including Make UK and the North East-based Innovation SuperNetwork – to “develop a toolkit to help SMEs design effective and resilient business models in response to COVID-19.”

He believes that it’s critical for the school to do its part to support regional businesses. “Our expertise can be used to make them develop both short-term and long-term resilience strategies that can help them not only survive, but compete in the post COVID-19 environment.” 

Beyond political rhetoric it may be business schools and their students that will provide the fighting spirit for many companies to make it along the bumpy road towards a post-COVID world.

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