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COVID-19 Stories: Michigan Ross and Ford Students Aiding Detroit Businesses Through +Impact Studio for Local Business Program


When COVID-19 reached Michigan, Ross School of Business Lecturer Chris Mueller was supervising several student teams enrolled in Capstone MAP (Multidisciplinary Action Projects). He immediately saw the impact the pandemic had on local small businesses in Southeast Michigan — and on students. 

“Students were losing their summer internships, and local businesses needed help thinking through a new set of problems they could not possibly have considered,” Mueller said. “It looked like an opportunity to me.”

With support from Michigan Ross, the University of Michigan’s Center on Finance, Law & Policy’s Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project (DNEP), the Ford School of Public Policy —  and grant funding from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation — +Impact Studio for Local Business (+ISLB) was born. Its mission: to help businesses in Detroit and Southeast Michigan respond and adapt to challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and related shutdowns. 

This is the first year the +Impact Studio, part of the Business+Impact initiative at Ross, has partnered with DNEP, and added a Detroit-focused, small business component to its curricular and co-curricular offerings. 

Thirty-seven U-M students from Michigan Ross and the Ford School were selected to spend eight weeks understanding the needs and concerns of three specific industries in Detroit (retail, restaurants, and personal services) and developing tools to assist business owners in those industries.

Mueller, who is a former consultant and entrepreneur, guides and supervises the interdisciplinary student teams in their consulting work.

“The students involved in the +ISLB are stepping up to help small businesses in difficult and challenging times. Small businesses are asking themselves complex questions related to health and safety, changing supply chains, and new business models,” Mueller explained.

“Students are helping businesses respond to these questions and in the process filling key resource gaps in Detroit’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

Justin Erickson, DNEP program manager, works closely with organizations in Detroit’s small business community to source clients for DNEP projects and partners for +ISLB.

“In the earliest stages of the pandemic, we (DNEP) expanded our team of students to work directly with businesses, helping business owners understand and apply for grant and loan opportunities and prepare financial statements,” said Erickson. “+ISLB is an opportunity for Ross and Ford students to help Detroit businesses by creating useful tools, guides, and frameworks that will help businesses navigate an uncertain future.”

After this summer project, U-M students will continue to work with small businesses in Detroit through DNEP courses and other opportunities across Ross, Ford, Stamps School of Art & Design, School of Information, and College of Engineering. DNEP is a program of the Center on Finance, Law & Policy, a research center housed at the Ford School.

The program aligns with the mission and purpose of the +Impact Studio at Michigan Ross.

“The goal of the +Impact Studio is ‘to build a better world by design,’ and to translate the great ideas and research insights at Ross and U-M into solutions that have a positive impact on the world beyond our walls,” said Jerry Davis, former associate dean for Business+Impact and DNEP faculty member. “The studio builds on all three pillars of the Ross mission: powerful ideas, principled leaders, positive impact on the world. It trains students to act as architects of the future, translating the insights produced by Ross research into impactful organizations and policies that live in the world.” 

MBAs and graduate students across U-M will be continuing this work this fall in the +Impact Studio BA 670 course, which provides a toolkit for using human-centered design methods to apply faculty research insights to address great societal problems. 

Learn more about +Impact Studio

Learn more about Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project