Industry News

A Vibrant Fabric: what universities and SMBs do for each other

Education institutions that have worked in close collaboration with their stakeholders have historically always fared better. In the end, it’s clear that both parties need each other to flourish.”

During the pandemic, supporting local business is the business of education

Education. What do you picture? Perhaps chalkboards, a bespectacled professor, or a library? These are the stereotypical images produced from an online search. However, education extends well beyond the walls of the classroom or the educational institution itself. It is about much more such as friendship, the development of character, and being part of a wider community. Education shapes our identity— a milestone in our journey to finding out who we are and an aid in getting us to where and whom we want to be in the future.

Our experiences are created by a wide array of individuals and groups. Students, faculty, contractors, suppliers, and visiting lecturers may well be some of the more obvious constituents in the educational ecosystem and culture. Small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are also crucial members of our communities and educational experiences. They contribute significantly to a student’s experience: entertainment venues, food establishments, guest houses, and retail stores have welcomed students through their doors year on year. Remember the local bookstore manager, whose family has run the store for generations? The barista at the café opposite campus who delivers orders at speed knowing how students tend to run late. The hotel that accommodates relatives and friends when it’s time for university openings and graduation?

The role of these individuals is now being much more widely appreciated as a part of overall student wellbeing. They look after our students, recognizing problems early on such as work or financial stress, the struggles of being away from home, or relationship issues. This holistic approach to student wellbeing ensures institutions can provide better attention and care to students. The result is happier students, a better experience, and less educational disruption.

Small-to-medium sized businesses also hold a mutually beneficial partnership with institutions as they provide employment and serve as a driver of the local regional economy. Of course, with this interdependence, businesses plan for income fluctuations based on the academic calendar but no one could have predicted the drain of footfall this past year. The quick and unprecedented exodus of students to remote learning has meant that these members of the cultural fabric–both on-campus and off–have inevitably struggled to survive.

Some businesses have turned to curbside selling and e-commerce, but for others, these options haven’t been viable. Congress provided aid to higher education institutions through CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security). However, the pot of approximately $14 billion was quickly expended by colleges and universities at a national level. Additionally, the congressional action lacked specific direction for college towns and the overall lack of funds has meant universities have had to completely rethink operations.

We have collated some examples of how institutions managed to support these important members of the cultural fabric and the wider community:


Communication with stakeholders has been a priority. Some conversations with local suppliers have been described as ‘painful’–for example having to inform vendors of event cancellations. However, where there has been scope to support businesses in different ways, institutions have stepped up. Forbes has identified that higher education administrators are meeting with community leaders far more regularly, supporting collaboration and driving problem-solving. These meetings have become much like support groups, as vendors and education professionals discuss what they can do to assist each other in the short term. Meetings have been run online to offer updates and share information on both sides. Discussions have focused on finding solutions to meet the immediate needs of students and citizens. With restrictions placed on face-to-face meetings, Western Washington University has taken the initiative to run a podcast on local radio to maintain a conversation with the wider community.


Institutions have explored how they can promote businesses for example supporting local restaurants through home delivery apps. Students have been encouraged and educated on the benefits of buying locally with businesses featured in newsletters, and webpages. The University of San Diego’s ‘Local Vendor Initiative’ serves to promote small vendors to advance economic development–a long-running scheme that has received an increased promotion.

The Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA) at Cornell University held an online conference with representatives from college towns and national thought leaders to discuss a way forward in supporting SMBs. They encouraged the promotion of living in college towns to appeal to remote workers. Kimberly Gramm (Associate Vice President of Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Texas Tech University) mentioned the benefits of quieter, cheaper living in green spaces outside of the bustle of cities with access to university resources and facilities. This promotion will hopefully attract new residents who bring their spending to SMBs.

Loans & Workshops

Larger universities have offered support to small businesses in the form of loans. Columbia University, for example, offered low-interest loans as part of their ‘Emergency Loan Fund For Small Businesses’ initiative. The Columbia – Harlem Small Business Development Centre has provided support in applying for these loans as well as for coronavirus federal relief funds. Additionally, they have offered free business workshops providing direction on how to recover from the financial blows experienced. Workshops have centered on redefining revenue models and cost structures, providing valuable advice to small business owners.

Universities around the country have been eager to share through knowledge. The Cape Fear Community College in North Carolina joined a statewide program called ‘Reboot, Recover, Rebuild,’ which provides loan application advice, counseling, and coaching. Similarly, The College of Dupage in Illinois has provided free webinars, consultations, loans, and grants so that their neighboring businesses could remain afloat.

Student efforts

Students recognizing the disadvantages of their on-campus absence to SMBs have also been keen to help. A group of MBAs across the US formed the “Small Business School Challenge”– an online program where they paired students with an SMB to help them with their current challenges. To solve the issue of a lack of spending with local businesses Stanford GSB students launched a platform called Giftcard Bank for people to buy gift cards from SMBs. While helping the community, students have also benefited from building business relationships and gaining valuable work experience for their CVs.

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