Marshall webinars aid small businesses

As small businesses struggle to stay afloat amid the pandemic, the Marshall School of Business created a webinar series to provide expert help. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

After a conversation with Provost Charles Zukoski regarding the difficulties he and his wife were experiencing in running their small business amid the coronavirus pandemic, Marshall School of Business Interim Dean Gareth James proposed an idea: a webinar series aimed at entrepreneurs struggling to keep their business afloat or having to adapt to the new normal of business handling. 

From there, James brought the idea to Marshall Assistant Dean for Research Initiatives Tereza Alexandre, who had already been working on a similar webinar series called “Tommy Talks.” The joint webinar series, which first aired early April, has featured lessons on monetary resources available for small businesses and discussions on the effect the pandemic will have on the supply chain.  According to Tom Chang, an associate professor of finance and business economics who co-leads the webinars alongside Alexandre, the webinars will guide attendees on how to best navigate their business amid the pandemic through business insight from academic and industry experts.

Alexandre, who joined the project in late March, said she and her team of Marshall faculty have adapted to work in a fast-paced environment to plan the webinars. With the pandemic forcing them to organize an event that would take several months to plan in person,  Alexandre and her team only had a few days to execute the online event. 

“Everything’s happening very fast,” Alexandre said. “When we have an idea and when we have an opportunity for a webinar, part of the decision here is ‘Who can we find right away that can talk about these topics and help the community sooner rather than later?’”

Chang, who joined the webinar efforts after writing an opinion piece for STAT News discussing the potential economic implications of the pandemic, has noticed webinars have elicited more interest from the business community than expected.

“These are their livelihoods. This is their business they’ve poured their sweat and tears into for years,” Chang said. “They want to know what they can do and how to sort of best navigate this kind of situation, and so they turned to [us].” 

The webinars include a host — either an industry expert or Marshall faculty — who has personal experience with the chosen topic and attendees who are currently facing the same issue. The host spends the first 45 minutes discussing the topic, and the next half hour taking questions from the attendees. 

“This is sort of the academic nerd researcher version [of help],” Chang said. “It’s [using] what we can do — which is not sewing, but it’s to disseminate knowledge — and to use our research and our knowledge about [business operations and finances] to help people understand what’s going on in these crazy times.”  

Although the series was inspired by his conversation with Zukoski, James said he believes a project of this nature would have eventually developed regardless. In addition to “Tommy Talks,”  Marshall staff and faculty were already participating in webinars focused on connecting businesses with prompt solutions such as navigating issues with the global supply chain and handling remote teams’ communication. 

James added that many Marshall faculty were later willing to contribute to the webinar series by helping organize the online events and inviting experts to discuss relevant issues. 

“Universities have a reputation in academics of being sort of in an ivory tower and not really trying to connect with the rest of the world,” James said. “This situation has been a great opportunity to demonstrate that our faculty … have incredible expertise that can be translated into real-world solutions for real-world problems.” 

To spread word of the new series, an email was sent to Marshall students, alumni, the Marshall Board of Leaders, the Marshall Corporate Advisory Board — which comprises senior level executives of large corporations across the world — and donors. Alexandre said that even though they did not  initially have enough people dedicated to help create the webinars, many, including information technology and communications departments, quickly jumped in to help implement the initiative. 

Alexandre also said webinar topics often stem from the experiences of the webinars’ hosts, attendees or people that have contacted her directly about the webinar. Many attendees have detailed issues, such as tips on communicating effectively while working remotely, and seek ways to grow and improve their businesses. 

The first webinar, “Monetary Resources Available to Small Businesses in Today’s COVID-19 Environment,” was held April 4. It covered recent tax law changes for small businesses and guided listeners through available support from the Small Business Administration, a federal  agency that supports small businesses. Hosted by associate professor of clinical entrepreneurship Steve Mednick and accounting lecturer Greg Kling, the first webinar was announced via email 30 hours before it began, with a Zoom meeting capacity of 500 attendees. Drawing an attendance of more than 970 people worldwide, it prompted organizers to expand their future webinars’ capacity. 

Grace Russak, a senior client strategist at The Bank of New York Mellon, attended the first webinar. She currently works with middle-market business owners and families on their personal investments and financial circumstances. During the pandemic, Russak said her clients primarily need assistance in navigating aid packages, which  include stringent guidelines in both the application process and understanding terms of the loans.

Russak, who attended other unaffiliated webinars and read material that would help her better assist clients during the pandemic, found Marshall’s webinar to be one of her most helpful sources. 

“[The webinars] provided … important details to help understand the major components you needed to get started and how to do that,” Russak said. “You didn’t need the philosophy behind it so much. It was really a lot of nuts and bolts: how do you qualify, and how do you get it, and what’s the forgiveness portion.” 

Even though the webinar series was created to help business owners navigate through the economic challenges of the pandemic, James said the webinar series will continue “long after this pandemic is over.” 

“This pandemic is going to be with us for a while,” James said. “While that’s the case, we’ll probably be concentrating on that particular topic. But over time, my expectation is that the series will continue but evolve and broaden.”