Van Munching Hall is the home of the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.
COVID-19 WAS already spreading rapidly in the U.S. in early March, but for the most part, business in Maryland was still proceeding as usual. Then, in the middle of the month, reality shifted abruptly and beyond imagination.
For the remainder of the year, the pandemic continued to stress the physical, psychological, and economic well-being of people living in the state, especially those managing or working in small and medium-sized businesses. Because local business owners are likely to remain under stress well into 2021, they will need to learn how to redirect resources and adapt to the new economic environment, just to survive.
When the pandemic hit, I saw that other entities at the University of Maryland were taking action—for example, the engineering school was making face masks. I began to look for ways the Robert H. Smith School of Business could marshal its considerable expertise to help Marylanders mitigate their struggles. I soon found that many of my colleagues shared my sense that, as a state university, we had an obligation to help Maryland business owners and individuals through this tough time.
Seeking to Help
My idea was for the school to help local businesses create strategic plans, seek loans, move operations online, and leverage social media. To this end, I contacted Judy Frels, a clinical professor of marketing who has extensive expertise in designing online educational programs.
Together we created Maryland Business: Rebooted, a synchronized sequence of 90-minute webinars that move from strategy and finance to marketing and retail management. To date, 11 webinars have been completed, and we plan to produce at least seven more in early 2021.
During the summer and fall months, these webinars were streamed live at the beginning, middle, and end of seven of our existing foundational MicroMasters business courses, which are for the most part offered for free online. Participants who viewed the webinars could pursue the corresponding MicroMasters courses if they were seeking deeper knowledge on a particular subject, which made the entire scope of the program equivalent to the core of an MBA program. The webinars also remain accessible on demand.
Judy Frels facilitates an online session of Maryland Business: Rebooted.
We wanted to make the webinars available for free, but we had no special institutional funding available because COVID had already caused budget shortfalls. Interim dean Ritu Agarwal enthusiastically agreed to allow us to use our individual faculty research budgets to cover costs, but fortunately these were low. Participating faculty and staff were happy to contribute to the program without receiving compensation. Christine Thompson, executive director of our executive education team, guided the implementation. Our few expenses included purchasing software licenses and hiring marketing doctoral student Nicole Kim to act as coordinator and moderator.
To shape the core topics of the webinars, we organized online focus groups with business owners. Based on our findings, we recruited professors who were well-equipped to tailor and deliver the content. These included Oliver Schlake, who discussed strategy; Eugene Cantor, who discussed accounting; Mary Harms, who covered marketing; and Jie Zhang, who will focus on retail management.
Additionally, the members of our focus group expressed a desire for content that addressed challenges unique to Black- and female-owned businesses. To explore some of those deeper issues, associate dean Victor Mullins organized and led a panel discussion with Black business owners. Mullins and Frels also interviewed Andy Shallal, founder and CEO of the local Busboys and Poets restaurant chain, which bills itself as “a cultural hub for artists, activists, writers, thinkers, and dreamers.” Shallal discussed his experiences pivoting his company during the pandemic and talked about his activism related to racial injustice.
Throughout the launch of the webinars, our professors produced high-quality and practical course content despite taking on additional workloads and having a relatively short timeline to prepare. They helped steer the program through all the challenges inherent to marketing a program on a shoestring budget.
Our professors also helped make the webinars interactive, taking part in live chat and Q&A sessions and making themselves available to participants after the livestream events. Participants could receive additional individual coaching upon request from Maryland’s Small Business Development Center, which is partnering on the program with the Maryland Smith School.
We plan to survey local business owners in early 2021 to assess the program’s qualitative effectiveness. Their responses will help us determine whether to continue the program in its present form, expand it, and/or launch additional series. But in terms of sheer numbers, we feel the program has already been successful: Between the mid-July launch and late October, we reached about 18,000 people via social media. We had almost 200 click-throughs and more than 110 registered participants per webinar.
PARTICULARLY DURING THE COVID ERA, A COMMUNITY GREATLY VALUES THE OUTREACH EFFORTS OF A UNIVERSITY.
Some early anecdotal feedback also has been promising. For example, the CEO of a strategic management consultancy told B2B news outlet The Business Monthly, “During COVID-19, everyone has their take on what to do. But I wanted information as opposed to a lot of words, and that’s what [Maryland Business: Rebooted] offered—a PowerPoint presentation that delved right to the heart of the matter.” She said she learned of new strategic options to address the pandemic and came away from the program understanding how to pivot a strategic plan “to meet the moment, as opposed to pivoting your overall operations.”
Particularly during the COVID era, a community greatly values the outreach efforts of a university. Not only does a program like Maryland Business: Rebooted generate positive rapport with the public at large, it also strengthens a school’s relationships with alumni, many of whom have started their own businesses.
Business schools that are facing severe budget shortfalls might find it challenging to develop free programs—especially through conventional, top-down approaches. But costs can be kept low through a bottom-up approach in which faculty and staff contribute their time and talents. Deans appreciate the initiative that faculty display, university participants find the work very gratifying—and local businesses can access the information they need to weather the most challenging of times.
Michel Wedel is the PepsiCo Chaired Professor of Consumer Science and a Distinguished University Professor in the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business in College Park.
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