UM students put their skills into practice through a summer internship program, helping Detroit communities

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Source: Michigan News Special

The Bags to Butterflies team. Courtesy of Michelle Smart, Founder.

Every summer, many college students line up for the chance to gain work experience through an internship, happy to bite even a single company or business. But for Samantha Lang, a junior at the Ford School of Public Policy, the summer has been full of opportunity. Through her involvement with the Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project, she has worked with small Detroit businesses like Fit4Life, Sister Pie, Pink Poodle Dress Lounge, and Bags to Butterflies, while supporting and strengthening the local community.

The Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project connects small businesses with University of Michigan students and staff to help them solve problems they face in law, business, finance, and more. Since its inception, the project has helped 423 businesses, 95% of which are minority owned.

One of their prominent efforts is the Impact Studio for Local Business, which tasks teams of students with solving problems such as point of sale, design, and customer retention.

Students can bring knowledge gained from previous studies in business, graphic design, law, and finance, and receive job-specific training from faculty members on real-world issues facing businesses. They learn about brand identity, packaging and sourcing, point-of-sale technology systems, and other topics that require them to synthesize their theoretical classroom learning to find solutions with real-world business consequences.

Program director Aaron Jackson says faculty expertise is another important benefit the program offers these small businesses.

“Students show such creativity, initiative and ambition, but you also add the expertise of the faculty acquired during their years of working in this field,” says Jackson. “They’re able to add a different component and see things that students can’t always see. When you combine those two things, you create a program that companies were seeing so much benefit from. »

Lang has worked as part of the Point of Sale team, helping businesses refine and perfect their transactions to maximize profits. “A lot of the work we performed was researching and recommending different POS systems, based on the client’s specific business needs, and then implementing those POS systems. All the questions that needed to be answered about the technology, they came to us. »

Not only was Lang able to learn more about the business world, but she was also able to find clarity in her career development. “I wish this internship was longer because I really loved it,” she says. “I thought it was a great way to learn about business and how to use business to promote social equity, because that’s the whole point of the internship, which is to help small businesses maximize their revenue, profits, things like that, but also help them connect more with the community.

When it comes to small businesses, the community is more than just customers. They are neighbors and friends, and many of these businesses prioritize their community in one way or another. And conversely, the community supports these companies in difficult times.

Fit4Life, another company Lang has worked with, is a gym that offers personalized workout classes. During the pandemic, Fit4Life has been able to overcome the challenges of lockdowns and mask mandates thanks to their dedicated customers. “They weren’t able to get any in-person training,” Lang says, “so they’ve done a lot of virtual classes, and a lot of her clients are very loyal. They’ve stuck with her through the pandemic, and she’s also been able to attract more customers.

By focusing on neighborhood entrepreneurship, the program is able to promote the resilience of these neighborhoods in the face of events like pandemics and economic downturns. “When you have strong small businesses that have been staples in your community, it helps build camaraderie,” Jackson says. “And it’s not just access to the things you need within the community, but also the ability to rely on each other and support each other through difficult times.”

For Lang, working with small businesses was a great opportunity to apply his skills to a real business case while helping the community. And in exchange for the opportunity to exercise these skills, companies receive help in areas they may not know much about.

A custom handbag and bow tie created at Bags to Butterflies.

Bags to Butterflies, a Detroit-based social enterprise whose mission is to empower formerly incarcerated women with transitional jobs and resources, is one of many community-oriented organizations the program partners with. All of the bags and other merchandise are made by women recently released from prison, many of whom were so young when they were incarcerated that they had never had a job before. They offer these women support and assistance in acquiring skills that will be transferred to future employment opportunities.

Michelle Smart, owner of Bags to Butterflies, says the program has been incredibly helpful for her and her business.

“I’m so glad I reached out to DNEP because the program is great for entrepreneurs like me who need extra hands and assistance in areas where we don’t have expertise,” says Smart. “The program has been so beneficial to us as an organization by bringing individuals into our space and helping us do things that we normally wouldn’t be able to do.”

As the program wraps up for the summer, Jackson says they are already looking at improvements to implement next year. Internally, the project seeks to expand the UM schools and faculty involved in the program, thereby opening it up to even more students and disciplines.

Externally, the project strives to continue to appropriately identify the ever-changing needs of small business partners in order to better serve them. “We’re looking to become more intentional about how this work impacts the revitalization of the city and more specifically, these neighborhoods in these commercial corridors,” Jackson said. The program hopes to continue to be responsive to the needs of the businesses it helps and to provide work that closely matches those needs.

Jackson points out that there are many ways to get involved with the Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project after the internship. Students can take courses that supplement their material with real-world application of skills with a Detroit small business. There are also accounting jobs that students can apply for where they will learn small business accounting skills and then apply those skills to provide businesses with free accounting services.

It all adds up to meaningful change for a business, which in turn benefits the community as a whole. Michelle Smart says, “Everyone has been so awesome and so knowledgable and knowledgeable. We have learned so much and we appreciate all the support we have received.

Photos for the room here

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