Nathan Bernard spent time traveling in Kenya, Tanzania, Ecuador and Ghana throughout high school and college, slowly gaining interest in microfinance. Yet, while he witnessed problems abroad, he soon realized those problems were right here in Dorchester, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. And after surveying 180 small business owners to understand what their pain points were, he knew he needed to bring a program to Boston University that would make a difference and incite change.
Bernard started the Boston University Urban Business Accelerator after graduating from the School of Management this spring. The 10-week program provides 180 hours of free, one-on-one financial literacy training to small businesses, answering questions running the gamut of “What’s a loan?” to “How can we use a loan in our business?”
Bernard and his team form groups of four, placing one MBA candidate with three undergraduate students. The groups work closely with a designated small business, which is pre-determined to participate in the program with the help of Mayor Menino’s Boston Main Streets program, as an internship.
The first question business owners are always asked is, “How do you keep your books?” Bernard admits he often finds shoeboxes filled with receipts and invoices, or notebooks filled with revenue numbers. “They couldn’t see what’s coming in and out of their business or where they’re making money,” Bernard says, claiming one of the first actions volunteers take is setting businesses up with Intuit and QuickBooks.
Two businesses participated in the Accelerator this summer as part of their pilot, and Bernard says they were able to save them $9,000 on average. “We set the baseline for these businesses,” he admits. “We get money in the bank for them.” They also make sure those companies stay on track after the program is over.
The Accelerator is currently in week seven of the fall semester’s program and has already grown to include six companies.
“We’re doing a good job of managing and scaling,” says the Accelerator’s Marketing Strategist Tiffany Israel, an MBA candidate who started with the program this summer. “The overall benefit is [the program] is hitting both communities—the local and Greater Boston community, and the student community.”
Both Israel and Bernard pointed out how the program has been able to help students break out of their Boston University bubble and get them more involved in nearby neighborhoods.
“We have MBA and graduate students working with undergraduate students—you don’t see internship opportunities like that,” Israel says. “And that’s exciting.”
Moving forward, the duo is trying to explore how the program can be incorporated more into the Boston University curriculum. Israel admits she’d like to see students receive credit for participating. “Once we get done with this fall semester, we’ll be able to present a solid, good set of success stories,” she says.
The fall program will end on December 7th, and they already have six new businesses on board for next semester. Bernard claims they’ll also be extending the Accelerator over to Boston College, where they’ll run a pilot program this spring.
Israel compares the expansion to a heat map, saying she’d soon like to see a heat map of Boston, tracking the communities they’re reaching and having a positive impact on. “The ultimate goal is national,” she says. “The heat map is my goal. I’d love to see what that looks like years from now.”
Photo Courtesy of the Boston University School of Management