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ASU program is the cat's meow for community businesses

March 6, 2018

Students in the Arizona Microcredit Initiative provide coaching, microloans to help underserved entrepreneurs

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2018 here.

Asha Karthik lifts her pen away from the piece of paper she’s writing on, pausing for a moment to let a black and white cat named Charlie Chaplin strut across it. Karthik, a business data analytics freshman at Arizona State University, is sketching up a business-model canvas for La Gattara Cat Lounge and Boutique, a recently opened small business in Tempe where patrons can peruse cat-themed goods, hang out with free-roaming cats in a lounge-like environment and even take one home if they decide they want to adopt.

Charlie — the lounge’s official mascot, who unfortunately is not up for adoption — finds his way into the arms of La Gattara owner Melissa Pruitt where she sits across from Karthik and fellow business major Justin Ferrara. The ASU students are members of Arizona Microcredit Initiative (AMI), a nonprofit organization whose members are all undergraduates (and mostly W. P. Carey School of Business students, though it’s open to all majors). AMI strives to help local, underserved entrepreneurs start and run their businesses.

At that meeting, Karthik and Ferrara were consulting with Pruitt to go over her business plan. The business model Karthik sketched out was a simple block chart with headings like “marketing” and “revenue.”

“The idea behind the business-model canvas,” Ferrara said, “is that it’s always adaptable and you don’t have to put in the effort of writing a 30-page business plan.”

It’s also just a better way to visualize things, Karthik added. “We can more easily illustrate to clients what they need and how we can help.”

Established in 2012 with funding from ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative and the Pakis Foundation, AMI provides services to entrepreneurs through three avenues: business development workshops, one-on-one consulting and microloans.

“What we’re trying to do is assist entrepreneurs and business owners in the Phoenix area and give them the resources and tools that they need to start or grow their businesses,” said Alex Schreck, a finance and economics junior and AMI’s executive director.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

At a recent meeting of the executive board, Schreck stood behind a podium at the front of a lecture hall in the Business Administration building on the Tempe campus, making updates to a document projected on a screen for all to see, adding and changing notes based on what other board members reported.

Sean Eghlimi, a finance junior and AMI’s director of finance, told Schreck they received a successful payment from a loan client. Ferrara, a finance sophomore and AMI’s director of consulting, reported a tip about a local pool company, and Tanner Scott, AMI’s director of operations who is triple majoring in supply chain management, marketing and business data analytics, said there had been some updates to the website.

Some of these students are fresh out of high school, or else only a couple years removed, but it’s clear they take this venture very seriously. These are the kids who were reading Forbes and Fortune while everyone else was reading "Game of Thrones." Still, as undergraduates in their late teens and early 20s who don’t even have degrees yet but are asking adult business owners to trust their advice, they’ve faced their share of skepticism.

But as students of the most innovative university in the country — many of them also of a business school whose undergraduate programs rank among the top 25 in the nation — they have some pretty useful tools in their toolbelts, Schreck said.

“We’re able to come in with some really detailed questions and some thoughts that they haven’t considered before, and that small push that we’re able to give can be monumental," he said.

“At the same time, it’s a symbiotic relationship because we’re able to take what we’re learning in classes and apply it, test it and build upon our own knowledge. So we’re constantly growing.”

Aside from La Gattara, AMI counts Million Dollar Teacher Project and West Valley vegan grocery store Veggie Rebellion among its success stories.

Million Dollar Teacher Project is an organization aimed at increasing support and compensation for teachers. AMI helped executive director Lloyd Hopkins draft an initial business plan, then continued to work with him as he created partnerships with local schools, ran social media campaigns and fundraisers and successfully presented a full-length business plan to investors.

Veggie Rebellion was both a loan client and a consulting client, meaning AMI provided startup capital as well as advice on marketing strategies and business operations. Its brick-and-mortar store is now up and running in Glendale.

(From left) The AMI executive board members Tanner Scott, Justin Ferrara, Alex Schreck, Sean Eghlimi and Julie Kaplan pose for a portrait during a meeting on Tempe campus. AMI works with local entrepreneurs with business help and microcredits. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

They make it look easy, but the students of AMI will be the first to tell you it can be challenging balancing their academic obligations with their responsibilities to their clients.

“We’re students, but we also have this mission of empowering the community,” Schreck said. “And that leads to so many unique problems that we have to tackle.”

Luckily, they have a sound support structure within the group. Underclassmen often look to upperclassmen for advice and mentorship, but everyone’s thoughts and opinions are valued.

“What’s really cool about this organization is that if you have an idea or you want to change it for the better or mix things up, there’s no red tape to jump through, there’s no bureaucracy,” said Julie Kaplan, an accounting freshman and AMI’s director of workshops.

“You can have an idea and, more likely than not, you’ll get a team of enthusiastic students who want to work with you to make it happen. The harder we work, the better these entrepreneurs end up. And that’s an experience that I think is really hard to get as an undergraduate.”

On March 21, Pruitt will be taking La Gattara a step further when she pitches it to Venture Devils, a separate entrepreneurial program at ASU, for additional funding. She credits AMI with helping her get to that point.

“They’ve been amazing,” Pruitt said. “They’ve been a tremendous amount of help.”


Top photo: Graphic Information Technology graduate student and La Gattara Cat Lounge & Boutique design consultant Robert Souza (right), lounge owner Melissa Pruitt, and volunteer Austin Nobles (left) speak with members of Arizona Microcredit Initiative about the changes made to their business plan on Feb. 5. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657

Where retail meets the farm: ASU hosts Agricultural Retail Association management academy

March 6, 2018

When you think of retail operations, you probably think of going to the store or shopping online. If you think agricultural retail, you might think of going to Tractor Supply or Big Earl’s Hay and Seed Emporium. But did you know there is an entire business-to-business retail industry that serves farms and agricultural producers?

Agricultural retail industry

Agricultural retail was a $117 billion industry in 2017. Retailers supply farmers and ranchers with products such as seed, fertilizers, crop-protection products and technology, or services such as soil testing, crop scouting or conservation plans. ASU Hosts Agricultural Retail Association Conference ASU hosted the Agricultural Retail Association conference. Download Full Image

As with any industry, continuing education is an important part of professional growth, and it was with this in mind that Purdue University’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business, in conjunction with the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA), developed the ARA Management Academy. This 12-year-old program assists agribusiness leaders in developing decision-making and management skills.

Purdue and ASU

For 2018, Purdue teamed up with Arizona State University’s Morrison School of Agribusiness to jointly host the program at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business in Tempe, Arizona. The decision to work together on the ARA Management Academy came from ongoing discussions between the schools about ways their respective programs in food and agribusiness could work together in the executive-education space.

Running from Jan. 29–Feb. 1, the workshop consisted of lectures, group discussions and break-out sessions and brought together industry peers for learning, networking and idea sharing. Faculty members from both universities presented on topics such as supply chain operations, business strategy, leadership and communications, financial management and consumer perceptions. The program also featured two panel discussions: one covering sustainability and the other on understanding the large grower, which featured two Arizona-based farmers running large agribusiness operations.

Looking to the future

The ARA Management Academy was the first partnership between ASU and Purdue, and bringing together the universities' complementary agribusiness programs worked well. But where does it go from here?

This joint partnership offers both parties the ability to extend the program beyond the domestic market. With Purdue’s College of Agriculture and ASU’s many business disciplines, as well as international expertise via the Thunderbird School of Global Management, the program could theoretically be offered globally: What are the implications of GMO food in Europe? How can international agribusiness increase its capacity to address issues of sustainability? How can companies increase operational excellence? How might sharing of best practices impact growth of a business?

The two universities may find many possibilities for collaboration both in agribusiness and other specialized topics. 

By Tim Weaver, Thunderbird Executive Education