Seven graduate and undergraduate students competed against the nation’s brightest business students
Aimee LaBrie

Dr. Ron Cook helps to advise students on their consulting projects

At CBA’s Entrepreneurship Center, the latest issues of industry magazines such as Inc. and Entrepreneur are fanned across a filing cabinet for the taking, next to a bulletin board listing a slew of available business-related internships. Students are absorbed at the computers, and the conference style tables allow for small group collaborations. In a nearby office, Dr. Ron Cook, director of the Rider Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and Small Business Institute, confers with a student who has questions about how to manage liability and intellectual property for a small business. “First, get an attorney,” Cook jokes.

From this quick snapshot, you can see why seven Small Business Institute students from last year’s program are national finalists in the SBI Consulting Project of the Year (POY) competition.  Since 1998, with the support of the Rider SBI’s corporate sponsor, Grand Bank in Hamilton, N.J., the SBI has garnered 24 top 10 or better national finishes in this competition, including national titles. With winners to be announced at a national conference in Las Vegas this coming February, students Kristin Lopez, Kai Wright, and Caroline Romanelli (all entrepreneurship majors who graduated in May 2013) competed in the undergraduate comprehensive category. The MBA students who won are Matt Nowlin, Brian Janovsky, Jeremy Hopewell, and Kimberly Cook, who produced the report as part of Dr. Cook’s Consulting for New and Small Ventures course.  

At the conference, winners will be recognized for their final reports focused on a real world consulting project with a local business. In this case, the client for the undergraduate report was the Breast Cancer Resource Center (BCRC), which is part of the Princeton YWCA and the client for the graduate students was Spruce Industries, located in Rahway, N.J. With between 100-200 reports to compete against, placing among the final top three is no small feat.

The reports are developed under Cook’s direction. First, students are given a business/organization in need of consultation. Next, they confer with the client to determine needs, and then they begin researching ways to solve the problems. Finally, they develop a printed report, a very detailed analysis that outlines the results of their research, including limitations and solutions. That report is then judged by the following stringent criteria:  thoroughness and depth of analysis, value to the client, logic of the analysis, clarity of the writing, justifications for the recommendations, clear implementation procedure, effective executive summary, and professionalism of the report. A fairly tall order — but one that the students succeed in producing year after year, guided by Cook’s personal attention and direction.

Cook explains the value of the assignment, aside from the fact that it garners national recognition for the students. “The project allows us to very realistically duplicate the consulting process. The students are responsible for meeting with the client, identifying their needs, and then completing the process of trying to solve the issues in creative, realistic and feasible ways.”

He also acknowledges the difficulty of the work, especially since students are dealing with real problems, and they must try to offer viable solutions within the short time span of the academic semester.  “It’s kind of like trying to changing a flat tire while the car is still moving.”

To help with the process, Cook meets with the each group on a weekly basis about their clients’ issues and he also pairs each team with a volunteer business mentor, to allow them a second perspective.

“This is an exceptional learning experience,” he says.  “Instead of being told ‘Read chapter six and do questions one through five,’ they have to understand what issues are important to the client and then come up with recommendations. If you can put yourself in an unfamiliar situation and, with some solid research and hard work, emerge three months later with solid recommendations, you become a desirable potential employee — because if you can do that once, you can do it again and again. That kind of critical thinking is invaluable.”  

He sees another important aspect to the project. “Most things in life don’t have a perfect answer. This project teaches students that they have to live with ambiguity and the possibility of change. For a business, sometimes, it’s the economy that changes, or a new competitor comes in, or the firm loses an important product; we can’t predict every issue. Just like in life, consulting requires adaptability and choice—knowing that for every option you take, something else may be lost.”

How do the students feel about the assignment?  “It was a lot of work, but it was an amazing learning experience. It gave me a clear a sense of what would be expected of me in my field,” says Amber Kopp, an MBA student and current SBI student consultant.