Not Just a Cog, But the Whole Gear
By Matt Morgan
As the pandemic hit, the Leavey School of Business’ Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative focused on small businesses hit especially hard by sheltering in place.
Jello Fantasy is not your typical neighborhood baking supply shop. Located on King Road in San Jose, the small store front is stocked with an array of inventive gelatin molds, cake decorations, dyes and dessert flavorings, but that’s really just the start.
Owner Angelina Velázquez teaches baking classes in her store, helping build an engaged and loyal customer base. She even has an online store hosted by Shopify that ships not only across the country but to other countries as well.
“Their entire inventory, the amount of products is amazing,” Justin North ’23 says. “With the amount of employees they have, they’re relatively small compared to other companies. It was cool to see how much they offer.”
But like all food-centric businesses, Velázquez faced special challenges when the pandemic hit. With less foot traffic and a halting of in-person class offerings, Jello Fantasy had to find new income streams and increase efficiency, which is where North came in.
North met Velázquez in early 2021 through the Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative (NPI), a class in the Leavey School of Business that pairs students with local business owners in underserved neighborhoods.
Led by Professor Drew Starbird, NPI students serve as consultants, collaborating with the business owners to identify key business goals and an action plan which they execute over the two-quarter class. In return, students learn the ins and outs of running a small business from talented and tireless small business owners like Velázquez.
While typical NPI groups develop plans for growth, this year’s NPI class focused on sustainability and recovery, helping businesses severely affected by the pandemic. Businesses included Jello Fantasy along with a food truck restaurant, cleaning services, an auto repair shop, and a home-based daycare.
For Jello Fantasy, North and his classmates identified areas of need that overlapped with the students’ own skill sets. Maclain Pfeiffer ’21 helped Jello Fantasy refine its Shopify page, making it easy for users to switch from English to Spanish versions and adding a function to let customers easily sign up for Jello Fantasy’s customer loyalty program. North set up Linktree and Yelp accounts and Alex Ho ’22 created social media post templates for the company’s accounts and helped implement gift cards.
The group also set up a plan for Velázquez to improve her business’s technology and software to help it run more efficiently.
“I expected the COVID-19 pandemic would have a large effect on small businesses, but actually seeing how the regulations and restrictions affected them was sad,” North says. “At the same time, it was good to hear that we get a chance to help them and make a meaningful impact.”
Getting involved in the day-to-day running of a small business is a tremendous learning experience for students, Starbird says, not just from a functional standpoint but an ethical one.
Starbird comes from a small business background himself. His grandfather owned a small business, and Starbird says dinnertime conversations weren’t about maximizing shareholder value or developing an exit strategy, but making payroll or helping their cousin get a job so he could feed his family.
“Being a cog in the great wheel at Facebook or Google is wonderful,” Starbird says. “But people who run small businesses are the entire gear, not just one cog. So our job at NPI is to help them figure out how to do everything.”
Since the businesses are real, plenty of unexpected challenges pop up. One group’s client—a taco truck—unexpectedly moved from San Jose to Los Angeles midway through the class due to family reasons. The group pivoted its goals to help the truck owners transition the required permits, attract new customers through marketing and promotion, and identify locations to do business in the Los Angeles area, which helped the mother-daughter team hit the ground running.
It’s all about adjusting and serving the client’s goals, North says. He quickly learned this wasn’t about showing off his great ideas, but assisting a small business owner in reaching their goals—whether that meant increasing profits or simply figuring out ways the busy owner could spend more time with their family.
“If you get an A in a class, that's only rewarding for me as an individual,” North says. “It’s so much more rewarding to do work that has a real impact on a business and on the daily lives of the owners and employees.”
Beginning with the academic year 2021-2022, NPI will become a joint venture of the Leavey School of Business and the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education. The collaboration between the Leavey School of Business and the Ignatian Center will enhance and create opportunities for both the students and the participating community members.