This is the first in a series of articles exploring the Boston University – Urban Business Accelerator, a unique social enterprise startup advancing inner city small businesses while providing experiential learning opportunities to students.
Millennials today largely want control of their own destiny. Studies show that more and more students and young professionals wish to turn their skills and latent talent towards socially responsible initiatives. As ‘doing well and doing good’ increasingly becomes a buzzword amongst organizations and Universities alike, it is worthwhile to look in to efforts successfully realizing tangible impact on society through innovative and sustainable means.
The Boston University – Urban Business Accelerator (BUBA) is one such initiative, uplifting small businesses in underserved areas in Boston, while simultaneously providing experiential learning solutions to Universities and allowing students to engage with the community in a meaningful way. BUBA was founded by Nathan Bernard, a recent Boston University graduate who had earlier initiated and worked at several developmental and social enterprise projects spread across Africa and Asia. It is thus notable that BUBA stresses on students giving back to the local economy, and in the process creates long-lasting impact in an effective manner.
Small Businesses: It’s not just about the money, honey
As a junior, Nathan pitched an idea to Ken Freeman, the Dean of BU-School of Management (SMG), about providing microfinance to Boston-area small businesses. For developing the idea further, he undertook extensive door-to-door research, interviewing more than 180 small companies to understand his market. He also discussed the concept with ACCION, a global microfinance organization with whom he had previously worked, and learnt that small businesses could be helped in a better way if they had organized financials and bookkeeping in order to apply for loans.
Thus dawned the realization that while micro-lending could potentially accelerate the growth of these small businesses, it was a lack of financial literacy and technical solutions that was preventing entrepreneurs from accessing these funding options. Nathan saw this as a unique opportunity for businesses to get much-needed expertise, which could come from an abundantly available underutilized resource that he could see all around him: University students! And all this while simultaneously providing students with an opportunity to see small businesses up close, help those entrepreneurs advance financially and educationally, and learn experientially from the journey.
It should also be noted that this is a testament to the importance of conducting extensive research and understanding the local context when designing an intervention and creating a sustainable solution for social change. Any innovative ideas should be backed up with adequate background knowledge and interactions with existing agencies working with the target community.
With this started the BU Urban Business Accelerator (BUBA) in the community of Dorchester, with an aim to create bankable micro-businesses, while providing real world learning opportunities for students. Through a 10-week program, BUBA provided over 180 hours of free one-on-one financial and computer literacy training through the collaborative implementation of a customized QuickBooks system. By scaling this initiative, BUBA can generate additional capital for micro-businesses, retain and create jobs, as well as provide high-level internships.
For an initiative working towards social change to be successful, its work must enable the local community to grow and sustain the impact by itself, so that the impact lives on without creating dependency on the external agency. This also creates a neat exit strategy for the external agency, enabling them to move on once the community is self-sufficient.
Thus, BUBA focuses on creating competency for small businesses. Since it uses latent talent and skills possessed by university students, creating lasting solutions also ensures that the intervention’s effects remain even after the concerned student team graduates from the program.
Being local has distinct advantages for non-profits. Local organizations can build lasting bonds with community members and better understand what works on the ground. With intimate knowledge of their volunteers, donors, local officials, business leaders, and other stakeholders, they can foster a sense of ownership and pride among local residents.
As a result, community-based organizations can also more easily build a trusted brand—it’s easier and less costly to reach a smaller market of supporters, and as in BUBA’s case, they can be a unique solution provider in town tackling a particular issue.
It is worth mentioning that being locally focused does not affect a social venture’s prospects in terms of scalability, since successful approaches can be replicated widely with the help of universities and partner organizations located in the vicinity of the target communities. Despite being scalable, it’s easier for a locally-led and run nonprofit like BUBA to adapt quickly and respond to changing circumstances — by giving responsibility to local university students and faculty, they don’t have to cascade change throughout a large and distributed organization.
BUBA has an interesting journey ahead of itself. Besides working locally and hand-in-hand with the community, their University partnerships also make BUBA’s model efficient, cost-effective and impactful. Next in this series, we shall see how BUBA successfully mobilizes and adds value to University resources by engaging with experiential education, latent talent, and social innovation.