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Thursday, September 17, 2020

NKU Offers Family Businesses Technology Support Through Drees Foundation Grant

Two centers within the Northern Kentucky University Haile/US Bank College of Business are behind a program designed to provide technical expertise to family businesses hit by the pandemic.

By Robin Gee

Much has been written about the plight of small businesses during the pandemic. Federal programs such as the PPP program (Paycheck Protection Program) and the CARES Act, as well as local efforts by cities to bolster area businesses, have been a lifeline for many during this time.

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Money to keep afloat is vital, but some businesses find themselves in need of other support as they are forced to adapt to a new way of doing business. The technology for moving online may be available but, for those whose interactions have been primarily face-to-face, it’s a challenge to learn how to use that technology and how to reach customers, market online and deliver goods and services.

Thanks to a new program through Northern Kentucky University (NKU), family-owned small businesses have free access to the technical expertise they need to adapt to the "new normal." The NKU Family Business Relief Program is funded by the Drees Family Foundation and operated through a partnership with two university centers within the NKU Haile/US Bank College of Business.

Taking a holistic approach

The NKU Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship and the NKU Small Business Development Center have collaborated to create the program that provides training and guidance for family-owned businesses as they use technology-based tools and platforms to adapt, and even grow, their businesses.

Participating businesses must be family-owned, businesses in which two or more family members operate the company and the majority of control lies with the family.

Businesses also must be headquartered in one of six Northern Kentucky counties — Boone, Campbell, Gallatin, Grant, Kenton and Pendleton. The businesses must be clients of the NKU Small Business Development Center but can become a client when they apply for the program. The SBDC provides consulting services to support businesses with everything from planning to marketing to restructuring and more.

Staff and educators at both centers said they felt providing additional wrap-around services would be the best way to ensure the participants in the program had all they needed to succeed.

From triage to growth 


Catherine Glover, director of the NKU Small Business Development Center

Catherine Glover is the director of the NKU SBDC and a coach at the center. "Mid-March was when our business really started picking up...We went from an average of working with 10-12 businesses per about 45-50 a week. And many of these didn’t need coaching as much as they did access to resources...hundreds of those sessions we had since March were solely focused on COVID relief."

Small businesses came to the SBDC with questions about how to access federal aid programs such as the PPP and EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loans) and whether and how they could qualify.

Glover said, while the SBDC does not provide loans, she and her colleagues in the Kentucky Small Business Development Center network wanted to help. "Our goal, our hearts and our guts, we wanted to be of service to small business, and if we could be that liaison to resources that would help. All the coaches across the state, every time there was a change, we would dig in so we could understand and serve the March, April, May in particular we were in triage mode."

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While the pandemic continues to rage and take its toll on small businesses, she has seen a subtle change in how businesses are dealing with the situation. "Fast forward to June, we started seeing a transition back to people thinking innovatively, thinking about entrepreneurial opportunities...Most small business owners are continuously thinking about 'how do I do this better?' 'how do I reach this client,'" Glover said.

"So we started to see that thought process again. It went from emergency reaction, I have to survive, to we have to think again differently and we have to innovate, we have to pivot, we have to change and still stay afloat."

While many businesses are still facing severe challenges, operating at half-capacity and constantly aware of the need to meet health and safety guidelines, they are starting to reach out for more information on how to adapt and change for the time being – even to grow their business, she said.


Students provide expertise and gain experience

Zac Strobl, assistant director of the NKU Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

The Family Business Relief Program is operated through the NKU Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Assistant Director Zac Strobl explained how the program works.

Students work closely with the businesses to provide technical expertise and support. Paying for web hosting or purchasing applications are a minimal expense, but when it comes to converting to or adding to your business with online options, the big cost is the labor and support involved. This is where the students come in. For the students, it offers the opportunity to gain real-world, hands-on experience in their fields of interest.

"The example I gave recently is people owning a restaurant. When they are not able to operate as they usually do, they have to switch to a carry out system. And if they are a very small business, they don’t necessarily have the resources set up to do that. With the Family Business Relief Program we have students who can set up the whole system, integrate that technology so the restaurant could sell carry out items online.  That’s an easy example and a good idea of what we can do."

He said they have six or seven students working in the program as it is just starting. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and fields – including those studying web development, entrepreneurship, business management, marketing and accounting. Some are going into fields where they may operate their own business, such as one student who is a photography major minoring in entrepreneurship.

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The application for the program is on the NKU Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship website along with information on how to become a client of the NKU Small Business Development Center.

"On our end it’s just continuing to do what we do being a part of the picture that supports business success," said Glover.

"The hope is not only to help family-owned businesses adapt but it is indeed to grow...Things are different... I can’t imagine that mindset changing back to the way it was. That’s just not the way of progress, regardless of how you are pushed to accept or address progress yourself, you’re always looking forward, so not only to adapt but to grow is the intent here," she said.

In addition to the Family Relief program, the NKU SBDC is offering a number of business workshops online this fall. Coming up, they offer "Steps to Start a Business, Bringing Your Idea to Life" on September 23 and "Smart Start" on September 26.

For more information, check out the NKU Small Business Development website.

To apply to the Family Business Relief Program or to learn more, go to the NKU Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship website.

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