Taking care of business

August 23, 2021

To strengthen community partnerships and help students gain experience, College of Business initiatives continue to support local businesses throughout COVID changes and help entrepreneurs succeed.

Business owner Ida Gonzalez, center, started a coffee company. She's pictured with her two children.

Ida González says coffee speaks to her soul — it’s a gift and an experience. When her family moved to the Midwest from Puerto Rico, she couldn’t find the smooth, sweet coffee flavor that she grew up with. So the attorney and mother of two young boys decided to start a small business to bring the coffee she loves to Dearborn and beyond.

González had the passion, coffee connections and the expertise to start I Say It With Cafe. But she lacked a comprehensive business plan and digital marketing experience.

And that’s where UM-Dearborn stepped in. González worked with College of Business (COB) Lecturer Patrick Keyes and his BPS 441: Small Business Management course, a capstone class in the Small Business Management major. The students helped create a social media plan, identified I Say It With Cafe’s audience and potential market reach, gave ideas for expanding its online presence and more.


Photo of Lecturer Patrick Keyes

“The students presented their information to me right before COVID started and I was able to put it in play at the right moment. When there was a rise in online business, I was ready,” said Gonzalez, who has a partnership with a local coffee roaster and conducts direct trade from a coffee farm in Puerto Rico. Her business features specialty organic coffees from Caribbean and Latin America countries, as well as coffee gifts. “I learned how to strategically manage my social channels, got a better understanding of my audience and what they want, and gathered marketing data. It was a great experience and I’ve used about 70% of what the students shared with me.”

UM-Dearborn has a longstanding relationship with downtown Dearborn business organizations like the Downtown Dearborn Authority and the Dearborn Chamber of Commerce, which is how González first got connected with campus. 

I started at farmer’s markets, but wanted to continue to grow. However, I had limited resources when starting out like most small businesses. That’s why it is so important to look for support and talent in the networks that are out there,” said González, who also mentioned that her nine-year-old son created her logo. ”I know I love coffee because it brings people together. Have something to celebrate? Let’s go get coffee. Are you sad? Sit down and let’s talk over coffee. But I wasn’t exactly sure how to market that. The students helped me identify my target audience so I could focus on providing something unique for them.”

To strengthen partnerships and continue to find ways to support local businesses, Downtown Dearborn developed a Business Assistance Team. College of Business Lecturer Tim Davis, who is the Assistant Dean for Student Engagement and Success, has served as a university point person in meetings.

“The College of Business sees experiential learning as a foundation to understanding the nuances of business and how each company has to prepare and react based on their specific goals and customers. That is why we love to have students connect with professionals in every subject and around a variety of problems,” Davis said.

College of Business Small Business Management and Marketing dual major Alex Davalos said she took Keyes’ BPS 441 class and worked as an intern for I Say It With Cafe. She said during that time I Say It with Cafe’s revenue increased by 10% in a four-month period based on social media strategy changes and marketing efforts. But how to increase sales numbers wasn’t the most valuable lesson that Davalos learned. 

“I saw the amount of work and dedication Ida put into her business. She was constantly thinking about what is next, constantly networking, constantly anticipating what her customers will want. She has the fire needed to get a start up off the ground,” Davalos said. “I eventually want to own my own business, and I saw all of the behind-the-scenes work needed to get one up and running.”

In addition to finding ways students could get plugged in with downtown business leaders, Davis seeks ways to connect entrepreneurs with university assistance. One of the projects — in addition to the class-based connections — was a COB iLabs Center for Innovative Research survey that looked at how local businesses pivoted their offerings and services to weather the pandemic and what effect that had on their outlook.

“A community research project like this gives businesses an outlet to share their experiences, helps us keep our students aware of what’s happening in the local community, and provides data to the city — it’s a win-win-win,” said iLabs Project Manager Kari Kowalski when speaking about the survey project.

But much of the business assistance — like what González received — starts in the classroom. Keyes said College of Business faculty members always have their radar up for experiential learning opportunities. 

“Our focus was twofold with this particular initiative: to provide the students experiential learning applying the concepts learned in the entrepreneurship and project management classes, as well as work with Downtown Dearborn to provide local businesses with support as they adjust their business model to successfully function in the world of COVID,” he said.

Even in the virtual environment, Keyes’ classes continue to evaluate start-up businesses and provide pointers, including a presentation to a new local business, Hookah Love, last week. Keyes says giving support to businesses when they need it leads to relationships down the road that will benefit students. “We create internship and job pipelines when business owners see the value that our students bring and the strength of our programs. We aren’t only here to give lessons — we guide students in applying what they learn too.”

González agrees. Entering her third year of business, she’s expanded her offerings to a variety of corporate gifts  and virtual  experiences like a Coffee Masterclass. She’s hired five UM-Dearborn interns through campus’ talent pipelines like the Internship and Career Management Center and the Career Services offices and looks forward to what the future holds. Now as a more established business owner, she’s interested in speaking with classes and helping students where she can. For example, she’s written letters of recommendation for a few of the students.

“Thanks to the great experience I had with the college, I was able to implement new ideas to keep my business growing,” she said. “The students I’ve met are driven. They helped me meet my goals. I want to help them meet theirs.”

Article by Sarah Tuxbury. If you are a business interested in partnering with a College of Business opportunity, please reach out to umd-ilabs@umich.edu.