Seeds of Service

The Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business in California aims to have lasting impact on a nearby community by sending its students out into the field to help small businesses prosper.

COMMUNITY OUTREACH and experiential learning go hand-in-hand for the Leavey School’s Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative. For the last three years, NPI has set out to improve the operation and prosperity of small businesses in a disadvantaged Hispanic neighborhood in San Jose, just five miles from the Leavey School’s campus. NPI includes an undergraduate course that meets over two quarters, from January to May; and a community project with local business owners, which student teams complete in conjunction with the course.

NPI was created by Jackie Schmidt-Posner, professor of practice and community engagement, who came to Santa Clara after spending 20 years at Stanford University arranging community service projects for its students. Schmidt-Posner also teaches the NPI course, which enrolls 21 students in each offering. Because space is limited, Schmidt-Posner speaks to all students who express interest in enrolling before she makes the final selection. She makes certain that students understand that although the course meets formally for two hours each week, most course activity takes place off-campus outside of class hours as students work directly with Latino business owners.

She also makes it clear that students who enroll in the course’s first quarter must enroll in the second to see their projects through. Otherwise, they will receive failing grades for the first quarter course. “When they start working with businesses,” says Schmidt-Posner, “it’s not OK for them to flake out in the middle.”


The course content is straightforward. During each weekly meeting, students discuss assigned readings that tackle topics such as poverty and income inequality. They also form three to four teams; each team will work with a different business. At the end of the semester, after each team has finished its work, students give presentations in which they reflect on what they’ve learned about social justice issues within struggling communities.

Students spend ten to 12 hours a week—often during the evenings and on weekends—in the community and with their business owners. In the spring of 2015, student teams worked with owners of a grocery store, cell phone store, perfumeria, and tacqueria. In the first quarter, students traveled to the neighborhood several times to become familiar with the environment. They also visited their assigned businesses to study their operations, as well as competing businesses within a two-mile radius. They then completed competitive analyses, which identified changes they thought the business owners could make to build and improve their operations.

Generally speaking, NPI students focus their efforts on planning, marketing, and promotion; if business owners are tech savvy, students also will help them establish an online presence through social media, websites, and Yelp pages. Last spring, for example, the team working with the grocery store recommended that its owner incorporate a coffee bar to attract students from the high school across the street, while the team working with the perfumeria recommended that its owner build more attractive displays for her products.

But students don’t delve into the finances of their partner businesses, says Schmidt-Posner. Because most of the students are freshmen and sophomores, they do not yet have experience in managing the financial aspects of a business; furthermore, many participating business owners are wary of opening their accounting books to outsiders—if they keep formal books at all. “Projects that involve the finances will require a level of trust that’s going take longer for us to build,” she says.


—Jackie Schmidt-Posner, Santa Clara University

In addition, most of these projects involve some element of interior or exterior renovation, which the students don’t have the skills to complete and the business owners don’t have the funds to afford. For that reason, Schmidt-Posner works closely with Santa Clara’s Center for Employment Training, which trains hard-to-place populations—such as former inmates—in eco-friendly construction skills. NPI students collaborate with the center’s construction students, who provide free labor to complete repairs and renovations within the NPI businesses. Each team receives grants of $3,000 from Wells Fargo to spend on everything from small renovations such as paint, new flooring, and fixtures to new point-of-sale technology.

The collaboration with the center presents a challenge, says Schmidt-Posner, because the construction students are only on campus for their classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday—a time limit that can make it difficult for them to coordinate their work with her students’ more flexible schedules. “There is still untapped potential for the two groups to get to know each other better,” she says. “They really learn a lot when they interact face-to-face. This year, we plan to get the instructor for the construction program more involved as a general manager for our projects.”

At the end of the course, SchmidtPosner arranges a community celebration. Last year, the event was held outside the tacqueria, which provided food paid for by course funds. The students distributed fliers to promote the celebration and hired a local mariachi band to play. The celebration, attended by nearly 200 people, attracted local media attention on both English- and Spanish-speaking news programs.

The celebration is a “thank you” to the community for working with Santa Clara students, says Schmidt-Posner. It also helps build visibility, familiarity, and trust between local business owners and the university, which helps ease the way for the next group of students.

Each year, the school also hires six students as NPI Fellows, who can continue working on independent projects in the neighborhood with their compensation funded by the business school. So far, student fellows have held résumé-writing workshops and mock interviews for fifth graders to help them get into private middle schools and worked in the San Jose mayor’s office to support business development projects. However, many more students who have completed the NPI course have expressed interest in continuing their work with their businesses via independent study. Unfortunately, says Schmidt-Posner, the school does not yet have systems in place to support that scale of work. But she hopes to expand the program over time.

“NPI is an evolving program, and each business presents different dynamics and different kinds of relationships,” she says. “I want to be able to follow through on any commitments we make. As we continue working in the community, I hope we can get to the point where we can form more sustained relationships or work with larger businesses.”


NPI already has shown results. The improvements one team of students helped make to the interior of the tacqueria, for instance, inspired its owners to repaint the outside of the building and add an awning. Another team of students had recommended that the market add a mural to its exterior, but they were not able to find a muralist before the end of the course; however, after the project ended, the market’s owner was able to find a muralist to complete the job.

Most important, the experience can transform students’ views of the world and the realities of income inequality, says Schmidt-Posner. “One student told me that she used to think that people were only poor if they didn’t want to work. But by the end of the class she realized that the cycle of poverty is more complicated than that,” she says. “These students gain a lot of respect for these business owners and how hard they work.”

Schmidt-Posner realizes that most of her students will accept jobs with for-profit companies after they graduate. Even so, she believes that courses such as hers make a long-lasting impact, in a way that supports Santa Clara’s Jesuit mission. She wants the course to set her students on a path of community service for the rest of their lives.

“I want to plant seeds in the hearts and minds of talented young people, so when they go into the world they’ll look for opportunities to get involved in communities that might be different from their own. I want them to understand policy and social issues and be able to put a human face on them,” she says. “If they’ve worked in these communities, they can picture Maria and Martine working hard in their tacqueria, and that will affect whom they vote for, how they spend their time outside work, and how they will support others.”

For more information about NPI, visit