Maya Burns, WG’20, and May Li, WG’21, share their experiences connecting students to organizations in need and helping local businesses since COVID-19 closed their doors.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the US last spring, businesses were forced to temporarily close their physical locations. Larger corporations were better positioned to weather the storm, whereas small businesses and nonprofits often lacked the resources, technology, and scale to sustain and remodel their operations. That’s why students from across 20 business schools, including Wharton, joined together to form the MBA Response. Originally named MBAs Fight COVID, the MBA Response mobilizes students to volunteer their services to small businesses, connecting MBAs directly to organizations in need.

“Since the launch of the MBA Response, we have seen over one hundred Wharton students join the project platform and the Small Business Strike Team,” said Madeleine Bannon, WG’21, one of the MBA Response student leads.

From partnering with the Health Federation of Philadelphia on contact tracing best practices to developing a digital marketing plan for a minority-owned retail company, Wharton students have volunteered on a variety of projects. Maya Burns, WG’20, helped build the foundation for the movement at Wharton during the beginning of the pandemic.

Joining the Fight

Maya had interned with a co-founder of the MBA Response, Sarika Mendu, and learned about the effort in its early days. She was one of the first members of the Wharton branch, and a key contributor during those critical stages.

“In March, the class of 2020 across the country realized that we were going to lose out on our final quarter of schooling,” Maya said. “Many of my classmates had a desire to go and do work in the community and felt disconnected from local organizations who were being impacted by COVID the most. I view myself as a connector and I felt this was an incredible opportunity to make that connection between students and organizations and nonprofits that really needed help.”

Securing Funding

Maya initially provided PPP loan advice to small businesses, however she pivoted into a leadership role to orchestrate a wider impact across the Wharton student experience. As a Student Life Fellow and Career Fellow, she had close relationships with Wharton Administration and learned that the school was trying to find ways to support students during this time.

“I saw that this was an opportunity for the school to support and empower students to put our education to work where it mattered most.”

Along with the rest of the MBA Response Wharton team, Maya connected with Deputy Vice Dean Maryellen Reilly and Vice Dean Howie Kaufold, explaining the movement and pitching ideas for ways the administration could support students’ unpaid efforts. Within a few weeks, the office was able to secure funding for student volunteers through External Affairs. “Through our conversations with Maryellen and the career office, we were able to create what was then called the Wharton MBA COVID-19 Student Response Fund,” Maya said. “Our work enabled students, many of whose internships and full-time offers had been delayed or rescinded, to focus their efforts on businesses most in need with the financial support of the school.”

“It surprised me how incredibly quickly all of this moved, from my friends at HBS who founded the MBA Response to each of the different schools really standing up their own organizations to the initiative and the desire of students to jump in two feet first,” Maya said. “During business school it’s such a self-reflective process and folks are often thinking about themselves and how to establish themselves for their careers, so it was really beautiful to see people completely shed that persona and be able to pivot and be more collective in mindset to get work done in service of others.”

Small Business Strike Team

May Li, WG’21, helped small businesses navigate the PPP loan application and forgiveness process on the Small Business Strike team.

Over four months, May balanced her internship and volunteer work on the Small Business Strike Team, providing one-on-one sessions and guidance to 19 business owners on the Paycheck Protection Program. Dixon’s Barber Shop, located in Detroit, was one of the many businesses May worked with throughout the summer.

“Dixon’s Barber Shop is run by a solo owner. He was really confused on what kind of funding he could apply to or what kind of help he could get. I remember I got on a call with him and he didn’t even remember that he had signed up for the service and he was really concerned that I would charge him. I explained that this is completely free and I’m literally here to help you,” May said.

“His business has been around the community for a very long time, and the existing clients kept going back to this business. But during COVID he had to close down the shop and he had no way of making money,” May said. “His clients were nice enough where they’d done a few things to help him, like purchase a gift card to his business to help him with rent payment.”

One-On-One Guidance

Through one-on-one phone calls and emails, May helped him find the right application, compile the documents, and calculate the maximum amount of money he could claim. In the end, Dixon’s Barber Shop was granted the loan.

“I think he was very happy because he didn’t really know what to do with the whole situation and getting free help and someone that he can talk to, I think, was really nice.”

Shopping Small to Make a Big Impact

An entire summer of working closely with small businesses, providing loan application help and general business guidance during a pandemic, has changed May’s perspective and altered her shopping habits.
“It definitely made me appreciate a lot more about the small businesses in our community. When I’m shopping for something I’m always looking for convenience, like, and now, after helping all of these businesses, I can understand their pain and understand the struggle that they have faced,” May said. “So I see myself going into the local stores a lot more and spending money at these smaller businesses, instead of going to these online giants. Instead of ordering through DoorDash, I will do a restaurant pick up, so I know that they’re definitely getting all my money and not getting a share taken out by these platforms.”

— Erin Lomboy, W’21

Posted: April 30, 2021

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