Small-business Consulting Offers Big Opportunity for Students

March 7, 2017

In 2014, Lewisburg resident Mary Tiffin was out for an evening run when she realized that she felt unsafe in the low light. She envisioned light-up gloves that could be worn by runners, cyclists and other athletes for better visibility in dark conditions. A former executive who worked in both fashion and technology, Tiffin wondered if such a product be designed and brought to market.

Eric Chesek '17 thought so. As a student engineering consultant with Bucknell's Small Business Development Center (SBDC), he met with Tiffin and began designing a prototype for RunLites, gloves fitted with rechargeable LED lights.

"She came to the SBDC because she had the idea but didn't know how to create the product," said Chesek, an electrical engineering major. "I met with her and ended up designing a prototype that would hold the electronics in a silicon enclosure."

Chesek is one of many students who have benefited from a role as a student consultant for the SBDC since its founding nearly 40 years ago. Those chosen for a spot in the highly competitive program have the chance to do everything from creating working prototypes using state-of-the-art equipment to developing detailed marketing strategies. "Their services are fully integrated into the daily operations and services of the SBDC as a whole," said Steve Stumbris, director of the SBDC.

The hands-on consulting positions encompass both engineering and business, so that students from majors including marketing, finance, economics and related fields can learn alongside students in the College of Engineering. The program — which lasts an academic year — also is flexible for the student, depending on their course of study and other individual factors, Stumbris said.

The Business of Business
The program offers two primary roles to interns. Student business consultants work with companies both emerging and established in areas like finance, operations, business plans and marketing strategies.

One such intern is Ayla Rauhala '18, who consulted on a business plan for the Lewisburg clothing store Threading Love. The shop sought to take part in InnovateHER, a competition for businesses that are owned by women or take initiative to help them. Rauhala, who majors in accounting & financial management, helped ensure that the business plan for Threading Love's entry highlighted the charitable aspects of the store and its relationship to women. The experience helped Rauhala learn the finer points of creating a clear, effective business plan.

"The internship taught me how to quickly analyze a business' standing in order to give advice on how to strengthen its public appearance and reputation," she said. "Sometimes it is difficult for an owner to have perspective on how to best represent oneself. I learned how to give advice to a business from an outsider's perspective that could help strengthen the overall presentation of the business to the public."  

Hands-on Experience
The other role offered by the SBDC intern program is that of student engineering consultant, which includes developing products, creating prototypes and working with engineering software.

Tiffin returned to the SBDC several times for design revisions to the RunLites prototype, which she took to various manufacturers to help explain her vision for the product. Student interns also helped with marketing and design for RunLites, which officially launched in 2016 and the company still occupies a space in Startup Lewisburg, the SBDC's downtown business incubator.

Chesek called his time as an SBDC intern an "irreplaceable" experience and not only for the technical aspect. He also learned some of the business side of engineering, such as writing professional communications to manufacturers or business owners, which he believes will be enormously helpful in his career.

"You might come to college as this nerdy kid who doesn't know how to talk to people and then you're faced with communicating with others in a professional way," he said. "It really teaches you a lot about what to expect in the real world."

Creating a Career
Matt Terry '15, a graduate of Bucknell's five-year dual-degree program in mechanical engineering & management, believes that his time as an engineering intern was an advantage.

His experience in helping local snowboard manufacturer Gilson Boards scale up to a larger operation was helpful in finding a job after graduation — one that he didn't have to travel far to take. Terry works for another Startup Lewisburg company, Medtrics Lab, a locally owned cloud-based management platform that helps physicians collaborate and maintain accreditation. After connecting with Medtrics at a job fair, the knowledge he gained from working at the SBDC gave him "the confidence to know that this start-up was going to make it."

"I was very impressed with their company and entrepreneurial spirit," said Terry, who has seen Medtrics double its employees and triple its revenue in just over a year. "My time with the SBDC helped me realize the challenges of starting a company, but it also gave me opportunities to network with entrepreneurs and learn about what it takes to be successful."