COVID-19 one year later: W&M students assist local businesses

When COVID-19 started negatively impacting the economy a year ago, William & Mary M.B.A. students stepped up to help local small businesses.

That effort to provide free support services quickly grew into a partnership now coming up on its first anniversary between the Raymond A. Mason School of Business and the Hampton Roads Small Business Development Center.

Known as the CrimDell Small Business Network, the student-led organization gives participants an opportunity to work in pairs to help local small businesses strategize. Projects have included market research, marketing planning, IT consulting, strategy consulting, financial services and on-demand services.

“Small business owners have some of the toughest jobs in the world,” said Cara Simpson M.B.A. ’21, who along with Vicki Harrington M.B.A. ’21 were the student founders of CrimDell. “They wear all hats at once and live and breathe their businesses. We have just as much or more to learn from the business owners as they do from us.

“Passion, flexibility, adaptability and a strong focus on the customers’ needs are the recipe to success.”

CrimDell is looking to become a permanent resource, and this academic year it has been part of the incubator program at Mason’s Miller Entrepreneurship Center to help develop its own business model.

“Since our inception, we’ve had over 60 students either work or volunteer for CrimDell,” Harrington said. “They aren’t just full-time M.B.A. students, either — they’ve also been recent grads, undergraduates and part-time M.B.A. students. We’ve helped 54 small businesses and completed roughly 60 projects for them.”

CrimDell emphasized working with minority business owners, and at least 80% of its clients have been minority-owned businesses where minority is defined as a woman, veteran, disabled person or person of color. CrimDell is also playing a large role in helping to develop and facilitate a minority business survey for Williamsburg-area business owners, which is an initiative led by Benming “Benny” Zhang ’16 and the York-James City-Williamsburg NAACP branch.

Zhanna Imel M.B.A. ’21 started as a student business analyst with CrimDell last spring and now serves as its director of operations.

“Since then, I've learned a lot — one of the main things being the power of community,” Imel said. “At first, I wasn't really sure how much of an impact a few William & Mary M.B.A. students would have in helping small businesses in our area, especially with world governments and reputable companies struggling to manage COVID. But it became a reality due to Vicki and Cara's clear vision and strong leadership.”

The importance of communication was another lesson.

“We get told this quite a bit in the classroom, but experiencing the need for it drives the point home,” Imel said. “CrimDell has its hands in a lot of various pies, and we benefit from our highly skilled and knowledgeable business analysts, volunteers and partners.

“As such, coordinating the various ‘squads’ and departments has been a bit challenging. But seeing some of the innovative ideas generated by the CrimDell Board has made me consider how I could implement them in my future employment environments.”

Working out in the community brought real-world experience.

“I have learned a lot from listening to small business owners as they have talked about their wealth of knowledge within their business niche, and some fears that keep them up at night — mainly COVID related,” Imel said. “Having this in-depth perspective into the backbone of what drives our nation has been a great extension of my M.B.A. education at William & Mary.”

Students are describing the unique interactions CrimDell has provided them with their job-searching and interview experiences.

“Companies are wanting to see individuals who have been able to thrive during these challenging times, such as being able to think about others and act on that empathy in the time of need,” Imel said.

Traishik Akuli M.B.A. ’22 serves as both a business analyst and director of marketing for CrimDell.

“The last year has been nothing short of remarkable for us,” Akuli said. “We got the opportunity to help businesses that were finding it difficult to make important decisions. It has been a learning experience for all of us.

“As M.B.A. students, we were given a chance to apply our skills to real-world businesses. Seeing others succeed was extremely fulfilling. It's impressive how Cara and Vicki took the idea forward and brought it to life.”