Farmhand - Stanford GSB 2008

An insiders view of the Stanford GSB class of 2008

Location: Stanford, United States

hitching a ride across the galaxy with my towel

Sunday, April 01, 2007

LA times article on our trip

In New Orleans, a lesson in business and hope
Stanford MBA students try to help small enterprises rebound from Katrina.
By Ann M. Simmons, Times Staff Writer
March 29, 2007

NEW ORLEANS — The Community Book Center, a longtime fixture on Bayou Road in the city's Esplanade Ridge neighborhood, was one of the numerous small-business casualties of Hurricane Katrina. The storm ravaged the venture that Vera Warren-Williams had nurtured for 25 years, where she sold African American novels, school reading texts, gifts and artwork.

The building's windows blew out, the roof was ripped and at least 2 feet of water sat inside for several days, resulting in about $250,000 worth of structural damage and loss of inventory.

The owner's insurance wasn't nearly enough to cover the damage, and she didn't have flood coverage.

"You know you have to come back," Warren-Williams said. "But when you looked at the devastation, you weren't quite sure how."

Help arrived this week in the form of a group of Stanford University MBA students, and their ideas have given her hope.

With the assistance of the Idea Village, a nonprofit that has provided scores of local businesses with technical support, contacts and capital, the students — 15 in all — have adopted several enterprises, among them the Community Book Center. Their mission is to show the businesses ways to grow and sustain in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The storm destroyed or financially hurt more than 80% of the 12,695 small businesses that were in Orleans Parish before Katrina, local business officials said. The few that have reopened are struggling to stay afloat with fewer customers, reduced profits and higher labor costs.

The Stanford students think they can use their college training to help the small-business owners maximize their potential in the face of post-storm challenges.

"Education is what you learn in the classroom," said Daryn Dodson, 27, who organized the student group. "It doesn't mean anything until you apply it practically."

Dodson began his master's of business administration program the week Katrina battered New Orleans. As he sat in his dorm room, watching the disaster unfold on television, he felt compelled to do something.

He started fundraising drives, including a "gumbo get-together," where he and fellow students raised about $7,000 and donated it to Habitat for Humanity.

"We sent the check, but it felt so empty," Dodson recalled.

In December 2005, during winter break, the Washington, D.C., native took his first trip to New Orleans, visiting relief organizations, surveying the ruins and determining what assistance was needed.

On spring break, he was back with two dozen Stanford students helping to gut flood-damaged homes.

This trip, Dodson's fourth, brought him and fellow MBA students Sarah Chandler Mallari, Shara Tortora and Eugene Baah to the Community Book Center.

For Warren-Williams, it wasn't a moment too soon.

Student volunteers had helped her clean and gut the store after the storm. Other volunteers tackled the mold while her husband's cousin, a contractor, fixed the roof. Community members, customers and local grass-roots groups donated plywood, paint and other materials. The Idea Village provided technical assistance and a $5,000 grant, which Warren-Williams said she used to replace some inventory.

Now Dodson and his group are helping her tap into the remaining customer base, for which all the surviving neighborhood businesses compete, and get the dollars flowing.

"Folks like Daryn and his team allow all of us to look beyond … to look forward," said Idea Village President Tim Williamson. "It allows people like Vera to say, 'OK, I survived, now what's the plan going forward?' "

Warren-Williams said her store had operated more like a community service center than a money-making venture.

"The bottom line has not necessarily been profits, but just providing a service," she said.

But with about 75% of her customer base gone, Warren-Williams knew things had to change.

"Now we have to be more business-minded, to think about profits, and think about other ways to diversify," she said.

This week, Dodson and his team met with the "Belle of Bayou Road," as Warren-Williams is known.

The group huddled in the rear courtyard of the Community Book Center, which reopened in December but closed again this week for further renovation.

The Stanford team presented Warren-Williams with several recommendations, including erecting a sign at the end of her street that would catch the eye of motorists and pedestrians on the adjoining thoroughfare.

They also proposed that Warren-Williams use a "drop bowl" for business cards and a store guestbook to get customers' mailing information for special programs.

The store is six blocks from the Fair Grounds, site of the upcoming Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the students suggested that Warren-Williams seek permission to advertise there, and recruit a "street team" of neighborhood children to place fliers on cars.

Other recommendations included displaying books and artwork on the sidewalk in front of the store, placing pamphlets in neighboring businesses, and setting up a coffee shop and a photocopy and fax center that someone could lease from Warren-Williams and run.

"Sounds good," Warren-Williams told the students. She said later that the recommendations "were positive, workable things that are immediately attainable."

Service learning trip to New Orleans

The Stanford motto is

“Change lives, Change organizations, Change the world”

And we did a little of all of the above on this trip to New Orleans where we worked with victims of Hurricane Katrina, helping small business owners get on their feet again. This trip was about them, about their courage and determination, we just helped a little, but none should steal the thunder from those folks!

I will be blogging extensively about that trip, both here as well as on our trip blog!



Merchants get top academic advice
Stanford students help N.O. businesses
Saturday, March 31, 2007
By Bruce Nolan
Staff writer
Late Thursday afternoon, well after the foot traffic had subsided and the bell over the door of their Oak Street antiques shop was less likely to announce the arrival of a customer, Ralph and Audrey Driscoll sat at a table with three Stanford University business school graduate students, talking about ways to boost the Driscolls' business.

The MBA candidates offered some simple ideas: thoughts on Internet advertising, techniques for boosting sales from previous customers, and tools to measure whether the ideas had worked.

The Driscolls listened and nodded appreciatively. Audrey took notes on a legal pad. "This sounds good," Ralph said.

The students had brainstormed the Driscolls' case among themselves the day before, after an intensive, two-hour conversation earlier in the week in which the couple described their business, their plans and the neighborhood.

In return, the students' suggestions were offered free.

In this season of sweaty volunteers gutting ruined houses, there are other currencies of aid -- in this case, brainpower: an offering of advice to small businesses from students at one of the top business schools in the country.

The students who sat with the Driscolls on Thursday -- Jeff Landau of New York and Daryn Dodson and Sarah Garrett of Washington, D.C. -- were three of 15 Stanford graduate students who spent the week in New Orleans, talking to about two dozen small business owners along the business corridors of Oak Street, Freret Street and Bayou Road.

Neighborhood dividends

Each is a cluster of walk-in shops, restaurants, salons and other small businesses that, if made robust, might well radiate dividends into the surrounding area.

The students were pointed in those directions by the Idea Village, a New Orleans nonprofit that nurtures small businesses with grants, mentoring and other kinds of assistance.

The idea was to let young people immersed in a top-flight business curriculum listen to the challenges facing small businesses to see if they could offer simple, easy-to-implement suggestions about marketing, product lines or customer service.

They backed their suggestions with small grants totaling $50,000 to a few of the businesses. Half of the money came from Idea Village; the other half from an anonymous Stanford donor, they said.

The students' suggestions fell far short of fully rounded business plans. Rather, said Dodson, they tended to be basic innovations -- easy, low-cost experiments, really -- that business owners might have thought of themselves if they had the indulgence of less everyday stress.

To the Driscolls, for instance, they suggested a way of using Google to bring more customers to an on-line side business that supplements the couple's furniture sales and restoration business.

Sidewalk plaques

They also talked about ways the Oak Street merchants could promote their seven-block neighborhood with banners and sidewalk plaques telling the generations-old stories of some of the shops.

Those and a few other ideas struck Ralph Driscoll as sound. Some, in fact, they'd already thought of. Others, he said, were the kinds of things they might have come up with if they weren't immersed in the welter of details attendant to running the shop.

"They were able to stand back and see the whole forest. We could tell right away these were good, creative ideas," he said.

All of this was born more than a year ago, after Dodson, 28, came to New Orleans to help with the house gutting that dominated volunteer work in the first year after Hurricane Katrina.

"When you gut somebody's house you go through their lives, piece by piece," he said. "You go back home, but you don't forget about that."

He returned to Stanford's campus in Palo Alto and like many Katrina volunteers, could not completely shake off what he had seen.

Dodson and more than 20 other business school students returned to gut more houses last spring -- but an idea was forming.

'A bigger impact'

"We wanted to come back, but we wanted to make a bigger impact," said Shara Tortora, 28, from South Florida. They saw themselves as management students facing the biggest management problem in the country.

"We wanted, basically, to figure out how to put our skills to work. We specialize in entrepreneurship. So how do we get in touch with entrepreneurs?"

In short order, the students found Idea Village, which helps small New Orleans businesses grow.

In January, Idea Village introduced Dodson, Tortora and a few others to Vera Warren-Williams, owner of the Community Book Center, who with a few hardy neighbors were reclaiming their small businesses in the 2500 block of Bayou Road.

The Stanford students consulted extensively with her a few months ago, researched her case more deeply, and upon their return to the city this week gave Warren-Williams a more detailed plan than they gave the Driscolls and others.

Enduring ties

The future of Stanford's involvement with New Orleans is still unclear. Dodson and Tortora graduate in a few weeks. Landau will remain, and he said it's likely students will keep up some kind of relationship with the business men and women they've met in New Orleans.

Tim Williamson, president of Idea Village, had another thought. From his vantage, he said he has seen newcomers arriving to make new careers in New Orleans -- many bitten by the possibilities offered to young entrepreneurs and many, like the Stanford students, coming back to experience more of the city after an initial taste months ago.

Said Williamson: "We'd like to recruit some of these folks to move here."