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Princess Jenkins (right, alongside Murray Low) is no novice to retail fashion. Today a Harlem retail entrepreneur, Jenkins began her career in the garment industry running errands as a gofer, then quickly moving up into sales and then production management before launching her first venture, a small retail clothing shop in Brooklyn.
In 1998, Jenkins staked a retail claim on 5th Avenue in Harlem. “When we opened, there was so little there. So we went big,” she says. “We had everything — contemporary clothing, fine jewelry, bridal wear, menswear, a day spa, and two salons — three stories of what we called the first African-American department store.”
Ironically, Harlem’s increasing success in attracting retailers big and small would eventually mean contraction for Jenkins. In 2007 she moved her Harlem store, The Brownstone, to 125th Street, scaling down the shop to focus on clothing, accessories, and cosmetics. As she settled her business into its new space and contended with the recession, Jenkins says, “I knew I needed additional resources to maintain and grow our sales.”
The Harlem Business Alliance, where Jenkins is an active member, connected her with the Columbia Community Business Program (CCBP), a two-year program designed to help small businesses in the local community with at least $250,000 in annual revenue grow and develop. Coordinated through the School’s Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center, the CCBP is a collaboration among Columbia Business School, Columbia Law School, and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, providing access to Columbia’s practical resources.
“There are so many sources of support out there for entrepreneurs at the $50,000-[revenue] level, and above the $1 million mark,” Jenkins says. “But CCBP actually focuses on mid-level entrepreneurs like me.” Jenkins, who is seeing 15 percent revenue growth at a time when many retailers face substantial drops, especially valued the program’s holistic approach. “Each month they asked us, ‘what are the relevant things you need in your business, what challenges are you facing?’ And they delivered — with resources and speakers to address financing, negotiation, marketing, and legal issues.”
CCBP participants also find value from their entrepreneurial peers, 12 in total for the first class, who completed the program in May 2010. The newest class started in September, has expanded to 20 participants, and represents a spectrum of industries, including restaurants, hospitality, new media, consulting, entertainment, technology services, and child care.
“Small business owners don’t always have the luxury of focused time and attention,” Jenkins says, “but the CCBP’s concise, focused monthly sessions were totally supportive of an entrepreneurial mindset.”
Summer Service Adds Value
The CCBP is the School’s newest effort in a well-established portfolio to extend on-the-ground business expertise to the larger New York City community.
The Social Enterprise Summer Fellowship Program — initially launched in 1992 as the CORPS Fellowship — supports MBA students who work with public and nonprofit organizations and social ventures that would not otherwise have access to MBA talent. In lieu of a traditional summer internship, students work at social enterprises, gaining practical experience helping solve real-world problems, consulting on projects ranging from marketing to financial analysis to performance evaluation, serving scores of organizations each year in New York City and around the world.
Stephanie Palmeri ’11 worked with NYC Seed, a public-private venture capital firm and technology incubator that aims to position New York City as a venture capital leader. One of Palmeri’s many projects involved helping early stage New York City–based technology start-ups identify viable revenue models. “Many of the start-ups are in funding conversations right now, raising money,” Palmeri says. “It was great to see the impact I could have in a short amount of time.”
“Bringing Stephanie on was a good fit,” says Owen Davis ’08, managing director at NYC Seed. “A lot of the principals at these tech start-ups are programmers who can use the help of someone with a business background to think through strategy and financing.”
An interest in microfinance led Emily Criste ’11 to the New York City Department of Small Business Services (SBS), which provides a suite of no-cost business services to businesses in all stages of growth through NYC Business Solutions. “I got a great introduction to work in the public sector and was able to put my hard skills from business school to work, like my accounting knowledge, as well as general project management and communication skills,” Criste says. Criste worked on a variety of projects aimed at refining service delivery to SBS’s client businesses.
“Emily dug in,” says Lindsy Carpenter Nguyen, executive director of program management at NYC Business Solutions. “For one project, she reviewed a series of past cases to understand how financial services were being delivered in the field, working with lenders and our client businesses to develop a clear model for what our financial services delivery should look like in each phase.”
“We continue to push our system to scale and increase our outcomes every year,” Carpenter Nguyen says. “It is so beneficial for an organization to have strong students like Emily come and work on these projects to help move us forward.”
Contributing Through Governance
As Columbia MBA students and alumni look for ways to help build communities and social value through careers in nonprofit and social ventures, initiatives burgeon. The Nonprofit Board Leadership Program (NBLP) offers students a chance to work with boards, applying business skills and acumen to help nonprofit organizations prosper, while offering students a sneak preview of what it’s like to serve on the board of a nonprofit organization.
Joyce Roché ’72 was serving on the Social Enterprise Program advisory board when the NBLP was proposed in 2006. “It allows for projects that boards and organizations are both interested in undertaking but probably do not have the time or resources to do.” At the time, Roché was CEO of Girls, Inc., a national nonprofit whose mission is to empower girls age 6 to 18. Through NBLP, Roché has teamed up with a number of students, most recently working with Manisha Kathuria ’10. “I was stepping down from Girls, Inc., and I wanted to leave my successor well-prepared to understand where we stood in relation to peer organizations, in particular those that had been much more aggressive in revenue generation,” Roché says. “I felt that we needed to understand what levers they’d pulled, where we were too conservative.”
Kathuria’s peer benchmarking project incorporated an overview of fundraising models, analysis of revenue sources, and the significance of revenue diversification for nonprofits. Kathuria, now an investment management associate, plans to remain involved in nonprofit service. “The board leadership program gave me a head start envisioning how I could contribute when I’m ready to join a board—an invaluable experience to get while still in business school.”
Roché has been impressed with the wholehearted embrace Columbia’s MBA community has given to nonprofit board service. “While the majority of MBA students pursue business sector careers, the NBLP helps them recognize the importance of the skills and expertise they bring to a board.”
“There are so many talented students with a multitude of skills to offer— contributing a portion of their time each week is not a sacrifice,” Kathuria says. “You are giving back to the community, adding value to an organization that might not otherwise have access to extra resources.”
While each of these programs, along with similar initiatives, is dedicated to meeting the needs of their respective niches, they hold in common the proof that giving is getting, providing students valuable hands-on experience while spurring and strengthening entrepreneurs, social enterprises, and nonprofits. Together, they offer the promise that as the School and the greater community grow, so too will the mutual benefits each offers the other.