Clarkson students help north country business owners

‘FIRE DEPARTMENT’: Program lets undergrads help small businesses solve problems, fulfill needs
By GABRIELLE HOVENDON
TIMES STAFF WRITER
TUESDAY, AUGUST 16, 2011

POTSDAM — At Clarkson University’s Reh Center for Entrepreneurship, students are putting out fires for local businesses.

This spring, the Reh Center established its Fresh Ideas for Real Entrepreneurs, or “FIRE Department,” program, in which Clarkson undergraduates partner with entrepreneurs to solve regional small-business needs. Through the program, students receive practical work experience and are rewarded with stipends when they accomplish specific objectives within a deadline.

“We always see a need from local entrepreneurs for help in their businesses, and it’s important for us to give the students at Clarkson real, hands-on experience,” said Erin M. Draper, associate director of the Reh Center. “This was a way for us to partner real businesses with the needs our students have.”

During the first semester of the program this spring, five students completed 18 projects with local entrepreneurs who previously had enrolled in the Reh Center’s My Small Business 101 classes. The students worked with entrepreneurs as diverse as contractors and soap makers in locations ranging from Potsdam to High Falls Gorge in the Adirondack Park.

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Through the program, the students were responsible for helping redesign websites, developing new marketing strategies and evaluating businesses’ strengths and weaknesses.

According to Mary E. Hilton, owner of the recently opened Maple Run Emporium, the students also helped her determine the best inventory-tracking system for her new business.

“They did a very thorough job. I did research on my own, but I was not familiar enough with those types of systems to make a decision, and they’re quite expensive to invest in,” Ms. Hilton said. “To have three people do a lot of research on it for a couple weeks, meet with me, find out what I needed and then do a thorough report really made me feel confident.”

This fall, the Clarkson students will work on at least 12 projects with area businesses, including the Potsdam Food Co-op. According to Ms. Draper, Clarkson hopes to expand the program to 20 projects and eight students per semester in the near future.

Funded in part by a recent $1.5 million endowment from the Reh family, the program is supplemented by small success bonuses given to the students by the area entrepreneurs. While the students do not receive academic credit through the program, they must undergo a selective application process and are paid a wage for participating.

“We see great success. We’ve started to track the business owners’ satisfaction with the program and the projects, and we’ve had great feedback from them,” Ms. Draper said. “From the student perspective, the experience they’re getting has been invaluable for them.”