The economic havoc caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially disruptive to small businesses, which often depend on foot traffic and operate on smaller profit margins than their larger counterparts. As Michigan prepares to reopen its economy, small business owners are struggling with the financial viability of their businesses, the concerns of their families and their employees’ families, the needs of their customers, and the risks COVID-19 poses to their communities.
The University of Michigan’s Center on Finance, Law, and Policy, housed in the Ford School of Public Policy, has been awarded an $80,000 grant from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation to enhance the Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project, or DNEP, in running an emergency support program for small businesses in Detroit affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ford School Dean Michael Barr said that the school’s, work with TechTown, New Economy Initiative, the Entrepreneurs of Color Fund and Detroit Development Fund and others has further revealed how urgent it is to help Detroit small businesses safely re-open and pivot to a new reality.
Thirty-three business and public policy students have been selected to work on understanding and addressing the needs and concerns of specific industries in Detroit, and developing tools tailored to those industries for all Michigan business owners to use.
Ross School of Business lecturer Chris Mueller, an entrepreneur who had a leading role in the project, will guide and supervise the students in their consulting work.
The idea for the project originated with Mueller. “I was supervising DNEP projects when the pandemic hit Michigan. Instantly, the priorities of all of the businesses we were working with shifted from a broad range of questions to the same sets of questions, centered around one: How am I going to survive this?”
When talented U-M students began losing their summer internships, an idea was born. He took the idea to DNEP. They ran with it.
With support from the Center on Finance, Law & Policy, Mueller expanded DNEP’s programming to create the +Impact Studio for Local Business. Modeled after a design studio, small teams of students will work with a portfolio of business owners within certain industry sectors to identify immediate needs and develop solutions. This approach should allow students to perform substantive work without overly burdening business owners who may be in crisis, Mueller noted. Students will then develop industry-specific tools in an iterative process with those business owners to ensure that the tools and models they develop are useful, before they are distributed.
“In the earliest stages of the pandemic, the Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project expanded our team of students to work directly with businesses, one-on-one, to understand and apply for grants and loans, and to prepare the financial statements they needed for this new reality,” said program manager Justin Erickson. “This support from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation really allows us to expand our reach in an unprecedented way.”