By Ed Brennen
While classmates chatted, played pool and plucked mini beef Wellingtons and crabcakes off appetizer trays, Manning School of Business students Rayyan Kherati and Yeaharne Hout stood back and smiled.
For two of the leaders of Mill City Consulting, a student-run venture launched last fall to assist local small businesses, the networking event at Cobblestones restaurant in Lowell this spring was exactly what they had in mind: a chance to introduce UML students to an establishment they may not have known about, while in turn creating new customers for the business.
“It feels amazing to know that something we did made this happen,” said Kherati, a sophomore management information systems student from Pakistan. “This event is helping so many people in so many ways.”
Mill City Consulting is the product of Internship in Entrepreneurship, a three-credit course taught by adjunct faculty members Daniele Parravano and David Vatalaro. The course lets students get hands-on experience with evaluating a small business’s goals and challenges, and with developing and implementing a strategy to improve the business’s bottom line.
For a finance student like Hout, the course provided not only experience in analyzing profit and loss statements, but also insight into how consulting works — in a unique academic setting.
“The professors make it very discussion-based,” the Lowell native says. “Everyone is encouraged to voice their ideas.”
Two years ago, students in the course planned to open their own late-night restaurant at University Suites. When that idea was nixed by the pandemic, they instead ran a pop-up panini stand last spring.
Over the summer, former state Rep. Tom Golden ’94 (now Lowell’s city manager) came to Dean of Business Sandra Richtermeyer and Steven Tello, vice provost for graduate, online and professional studies, to discuss ways to help local businesses that were struggling because of the pandemic. Golden was able to secure an additional $75,000 in state funding for the River Hawk New Venture Fund, which seeds UML-affiliated startups, for the consulting project. Students who complete the course receive a $1,000 scholarship from the fund, and participating businesses also receive money to put toward improvements.
Two Lowell businesses — Cobblestones and Spartans Pizzeria — were selected as Mill City Consulting’s first clients. Students enrolled in the course last fall were divided into two teams and began meeting with the owners in person and on Zoom.
Cobblestones owner Scott Plath “jumped at the chance” to work with the students.
“The pandemic created a huge drop in sales, and we welcome any resource available to continue our road to recovery,” says Plath, who owns and operates three restaurants as part of the Stones Hospitality Group.
“I have long embraced having our restaurants analyzed by fresh eyes and perspective,” he says. “Having the younger, more savvy perspectives of these young, aspiring businesspeople is a terrific opportunity.”
At the end of the fall semester, the Cobblestones consulting group sat around a table in the restaurant’s main dining room with Plath and proposed ways to reach more students on social media. They also suggested ideas such as “college nights,” with half-priced appetizers and non-alcoholic drink specials for students.
“There’s a lot of things to do in Lowell, but a lot of them are 21-plus,” says Hout, whose group surveyed fellow UML students to learn what they would like to see at Cobblestones, which is located in the heart of downtown Lowell. The response: events like the networking night, where students could enjoy live music and try different foods.
Four of the students from the fall semester — Mike Nasr, Avani Bonth, Kherati and Hout — took the course again this spring, this time serving in more of an advisory role to other students. A Mill City Consulting website is in the works to provide continuity for future classes.
“The class is really a win-win,” Hout says. “You get hands-on learning, a scholarship and credit to use as a free elective. And you’re also helping Lowell, which is very important.”
Richtermeyer says the course is a great way for students to engage with the community.
“We have amazing alumni and donors who make this kind of student engagement possible,” she says.
Local eateries have benefited from the business acumen of Manning School students before. Two years ago, members of the Manning Consulting Group student organization advised downtown Lowell restaurants about strategies for drumming up business during the pandemic.
After working with students from Mill City Consulting for the past two semesters, Plath came away impressed.
“They are thoughtful, confident, focused and have presented numerous ideas that we look forward to executing,” he says. “The city is fortunate to have the university and this type of mutually beneficial engagement. The students’ energy and limitless potential is something our entire community should encourage and embrace.”