In 2004, Esther Psarakis founded her imported specialty foods company, Taste of Crete, out of her love for Greece. She married a Greek, and very quickly embraced the language, the culture, the religion and the food she tasted on many visits to the family farm on the island of Crete. Before long, she was importing olive oil from the family's olive groves and selling wine cookies named for and based on her mother in law's recipe, both online and in a retail store in Hillsborough, New Jersey. While the business got off to a strong start within a couple of years, once the Euro soared and the US recession began to hit specialty food businesses hard, Esther decided to go back to school for help. But she didn't have to enroll to find the answers to her business problems.
Instead she applied to the Business Ventures Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a capstone course in the MBA program in which students group into small teams to provide strategic consulting for New Jersey companies who apply for help. The program operates in the fall at the Madison campus and at Teaneck for the spring semester. The goal is to offer innovative entrepreneurial thinking and strategic analysis for a wide range of problems. Each semester some 16 companies make their pitch for help and after much discussion of the challenges, the students, who have already fulfilled various finance and marketing requirements, select two or three companies to work with. Last spring Taste of Crete was tackled by a team of three. Team leader, Ruta Shah who already had an MBA from India in finance before enrolling in the Fairleigh Dickinson MBA program, observed, after hearing Esther's pitch, "She had problems in all areas so it seemed like we could do a lot."
And, according to Esther, a lot they did. After listening to her explanation of her needs, the students spent weeks researching her industry and competitors and conducting customer surveys to put together a strategic action plan to respond to company goals. To solve the rising costs of imports, the student pushed Esther away from importing to producing Greek products here under the Taste of Crete brand. She also switched to a cheaper baker so that her cookies could be sold in greater volume. While her mother in law's name, Evangelia, is still on the cookies, Esther now offers the products to larger outlets like supermarkets. She also agreed with the student's advice to develop more of a bakery/café alongside her gourmet food store and to revamp her website, once she raises more capital. The lesson for her student team leader, Ruta Shah, was that "you have to work with the resources you have but you can implement a marketing plan in many stages." Ruta adds, "this was the best course I have even taken."
Both course professors, Lindsey Greene Barrett and Gina Tedesco came to the course first as students and entrepreneurs themselves. Gina admitted her first question was "can you really teach entrepreneurship?" But now after four years of teaching, she says " I see now the tools we teach are valid for anything you do. The goal is the process by which you find solutions to business problems. It's the questions they learn to ask rather than the answers that enlighten." Her colleague Lindsey Barrett adds that something as simple as customer surveys are extremely important: "Some companies haven't asked such basic questions as what are our customers looking for; who are they?"
The students actually were the customers for one company who came calling last spring. Flat World Knowledge was founded in 2007 to solve the problem of expensive textbooks. The company offer online or cheap versions of textbooks or chapters to students, giving professors the option to create customized versions or study guides to meet curriculum needs. Marketing VP Amanda Chin says she sought out the Ventures program to get "the perspective of students as well as access to their networks." What the students told her, according to team leader Cecilia DeGennaro, now an assistant merchandising manager at Party City, was that Flatworld was "focusing on sales and marketing to professors rather than to students who in turn were thinking that because the product was free, it can't be good." Cecilia says the program "taught me how important it is to avoid tunnel vision by looking at a company objectively."
The program is also very cost effective. Marc Rothenberg, founder/ceo of Intercept Silver and Jewelry Care, a company that distributes and manufactures products to protect silver from tarnishing, says he couldn't have afforded to pay for the quality business plan his team provided. "I had been in business for 5 years and wanted to get to the next level. My student team was phenomenal, plus I got the benefit of guidance from their professors who had also run companies!" His team advised Mark to launch a consumer brand, which he has already implemented, called Tarnish Tamer, which consists of pouches or other products to protect giftware, hollowware or jewelry; he expects this line will "triple our business within a few years."
The entrepreneurs stay in touch with their student consultants and often return to the Business Ventures Program as mentors. Entrepreneur-professor Gina Tedesco says each term this is "the most dreaded course because it's so much work, but that's why it attracts the most dedicated students." And it also forces the entrepreneurs to come out of the trenches of running their business to focus on how to grow with the benefits of thorough market research and informed outside perspectives -- provided by enthusiastic, informed students.
For more on women entrepreneurs, visit www.wStartup.com