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MBA Graduate Assistants Make a Difference for Small Business in Centre County

January 25, 2013

The Penn State Small Business Development Center (SBDC) office served 657 clients in Centre and Mifflin counties last fiscal year, providing 5,614 consulting hours and helping to increase client sales by $11 million—and Penn State Smeal College of Business MBA students were integral to making that happen.

Each year, after a competitive application process, the SBDC chooses two to three Smeal MBA students as graduate assistants (GA). Like any other GA, these students contribute about 10 hours of work per week and are compensated with full tuition and a stipend. What makes this assistantship stand out, according to the SBDC’s Linda Feltman, is that the students spend those 10 hours doing hands-on work that makes a tangible difference in the local economy.

The Penn State SBDC offers free consulting services to small firms and startups in Centre and Mifflin counties. Though many people outside the business community may not be familiar with the SBDC, the office is heavily trafficked by local business owners and entrepreneurs.

“We make a definable impact on Centre County in number of businesses opened and in number of jobs created,” says Feltman, senior business consultant at the SBDC. “And without the GAs, we would have to pare back our services.”

One of the main missions of Smeal MBA graduate assistants and other consultants at the SBDC is to take small business owners and entrepreneurs through the process of developing the business side of their idea. They often need guidance in areas like marketing, finance, or environmental concerns, and these are the areas targeted by the Smeal GAs.

“This is a win-win scenario for everyone,” says Smeal MBA Managing Director Carrie Marcinkevage. “Our students are helping the local business economy and benefiting by applying their education to real business challenges.”

Phil Ayoub, one of the 2012-13 GAs, was a great fit to consult with businesses on their financial issues, according to Feltman. Ayoub earned dual bachelor’s degrees in accounting and finance in 2005 and quickly climbed the ranks of the commercial banking industry in Washington, D.C. He says he sees some parallels in the work he’s doing at the SBDC with his previous career as a commercial lender.

“Clients come in and meet with me about real issues; for instance, maybe they’ve got a great idea, but they don’t know how to finance it,” says Ayoub. “One of my biggest passions is finding financing solutions for businesses to be more effective, to grow  smarter, to be more efficient with how they run their operations, and to make their capital work for them,” Ayoub says.

Ayoub graduates from the MBA program this May and hopes to return to commercial banking. This time, he says, he’ll take with him some valuable lessons from working with the small business and start-up clients at the SBDC.

“It’s important to take some of these principles and apply them to larger, more established businesses, says Ayoub. “For instance, take the whole idea of growth pattern. Often, businesses think in terms of ‘How much revenue can I earn?’ but don’t think in detail about the expense structure. The key is to grow smarter, not faster.”

Eric Layo and Neha Kala are the other two 2012-13 MBA graduate assistants at the SBDC. Layo focuses on helping clients with marketing-related issues. Kala, who comes to the MBA program from the petroleum engineering field, is a member of the SBDC’s Clean Technology Resource Center.

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