Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of exceptional Ramapo College students has been coming to the rescue of small businesses, assisting them with their learned academic know-how under the guidance of the New Jersey Small Business Development Center (NJSBDC) at Ramapo College.
The Economic Recovery Task Force Initiative (ERTFI), created in April of 2020, consists of some 44 student interns who have logged in 4,000 hours of business assistance valued at more than $142,000.
This free assistance has been delivered via specialized task force teams, including finance, accounting and quantitative management, start-ups, digital marketing, manufacturing and applied sciences, and technology and computer services. Each task force team is led by a professional NJSBDC business consultant who mentors and supervises students.
According to Vincent Vicari, the regional director of the NJSBDC at Ramapo College, and Ryan Greff, ERTFI chairperson, the task force was created because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When the pandemic hit, the SBDC recognized that small businesses were going to need an increased, comprehensive level of support to get them through challenging times,” Greff recalls. “At the same time, Mr. Vicari and I recognized that students were not going to have experiential learning opportunities through internships. So, we materialized the ERTFI by giving our professional business management consultants up to three interns each to form specialized teams that would deliver support to the regional economy.”
According to Vicari, “ERTFI interns are receiving learning opportunities not available anywhere else. The SBDC consultants, who are at the street level working with real business problems, are nurturing the student learning experience on a level that augments and expands what they learn in the classroom.”
Michael Rica, a Ramapo College third-year finance major who is interning on the finance task force team, says he is enjoying his experience thoroughly. “Working with the NJSBDC is very hands on,” he says. “Our job is to help clients acquire financing. This is usually done by drafting business plans for them, which they can then bring to lenders. … In drafting business plans, I have helped businesses project their strengths and identify and reach their target markets.”
Meanwhile, Andrew Clark, a computer science major who is also in his third year at Ramapo, says his participation on the digital marketing task force team has made him shift his career focus. While he has been concentrating on software development, including backroom technologies, such as servers, his experience on the digital marketing task force team has brought him in contact with user-facing software and applications.
“Through the digital marketing team, we are helping build business websites and writing copy. I’m enjoying this much more than the server-side, backroom work. So, the NJSBDC experience was the gateway to finding out what I enjoy in my major,” Clark says.
Greff comments that when students help lead businesses through a crisis, “They realize that answers don’t fall from the sky. When you are in a classroom, the answer is A, B, C or D. When you are in the business world, it’s not that concrete. So, learning to deal with certain ambiguities is a big asset.”
“You don’t learn this stuff in a classroom!” Clark underscores.
According to Vicari’s estimates, the ERTFI program assisted 312 businesses in 2020, and 452 in 2021.
Many of these businesses have sent letters to the NJSBDC at Ramapo, thanking it for the assistance of both the interns and business counselors.
Khuraira Musa of Khuraira Cosmetics, wrote, “I … want to … recognize the tremendously helpful efforts of [the] three student volunteer interns: Hannah Trouf, Chris Vedra, and Luka Marjanovic. The three worked very hard to draft a business plan for me. The team completed a competitive assessment, geographical analyses, financial projections, and much more!”
Additionally, Musa wrote:
“Meeting with SBDC consultants Thomas Roberts and Ryan Greff has helped me better understand what it would take to complete [my] mission. They worked with me to analyze my current operations, determine my position within the market, and identify different areas of refinement for my business.”
Agninshalah Collins of Legacy Shield LLC, wrote:
“Ryan Greff connected me to the ERTFI, where support for my business plan would be executed by student interns. … Each team member assisted in the revision and drafting of my business plan with financial analyses, and the business’s future projected financial forecast. With this kind of support available to small business owners and start-ups, NJSBDC proves to be a vital resource to various New Jersey communities and small business owners or start-ups like mine.”
This past September, the ERTFI was honored with a Jefferson Award, which is the nation’s highest honor for public service and is administered by the Governor’s Office of Volunteerism.
According to Greff, the award, created by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is the Nobel Prize for public service. “There is no higher honor we could achieve. Receiving the honor is due to the collective efforts of everyone involved,” he said.
“This award is a complete vindication and validation of the work that has been done by the students,” Vicari adds.
“The students participating in the program come from a ‘certain mold,’” Vicari says. “That mold is to make a difference and do something. The students’ personality types help them ride the wave of success. … Their success is determined by what they do for others.”
The median grade point average of the interns who volunteer in the ERTFI program is 3.8. According to Greff, upon graduating, these students have gone on to secure internships and jobs at Fortune 500 companies, or have gone on to graduate school.
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