By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington Small Business Development Center
SPOKANE, Wash. – In a landscape dotted with interns who answer phones and spend quality time with copy machines, Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) interns say they’ve had a different experience.
“I expected to do grunt work, but instead I was meeting clients,” said Mitchell Tang, who interned at the SBDC center in Pullman with certified business advisor Terry Cornelison. “The level of responsibility Terry gave me was not what I was expecting.”
Under Cornelison’s supervision he worked with clients on business plans, cash flow projections and business basics.
“I think it’s one of the few internship jobs that you can do where you are making a legitimate and significant difference,” Tang said. He was an SBDC intern while participating in Running Start at Washington State University. He is double majoring in computational biology and business at the University of Pennsylvania.
Students interested in an SBDC internship can get more information at the WSU College of Business Carson Center for Student Success career fair 6-8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 30, in the CUB senior ballroom at WSU Pullman.
The SBDC is supported by WSU, the U.S. Small Business Administration and other institutions of economic development and higher education. There are 26 SBDC centers in Washington, most staffed with one advisor who meets one-on-one with small business clients who want to start, expand or transition their businesses. Advising services are provided at no cost to small business clients.
Interns make important contribution
“Interns provide a valuable service to SBDC clients and, in turn, we work hard to provide them with a rigorous, high-value learning experience,” said Brett Rogers, state SBDC director.
“For business students or anyone who wants to understand how small businesses work, working one-to-one with an SBDC advisor or research supervisor is a fantastic opportunity,” he said. “These are not go-fer or make-work positions. These interns truly are extending the work that we do.”
At each center SBDC advisors take on interns as their schedule allows. In Walla Walla, advisor Joe Jacobs mentored Whitman College student Brian Choe during the summer.
“It’s been an evolving process to decide what’s best for the client, the student and the SBDC,” Jacobs said. Students sit in on client meetings and write up brief reports on what was accomplished and next steps, he said.
“There’s often an incredible disconnect between business theory and real-life challenges,” he said, so SBDC interns can learn a lot from listening to clients and helping track down research or resources relevant to client needs.
While the student gains an in-depth look at the inner workings of dozens of small businesses, Jacobs gets administrative help that keeps him and his clients moving forward.
International market research
The SBDC also runs a network-wide internship program to provide international market research for small business export clients.
“Doing this kind of research really tests your critical thinking skills and your problem solving skills,” said Craig Murchison, who graduated from WSU in May with a B.A. degree in entrepreneurship. “You’re not just shuffling papers around.”
Using public and proprietary databases and other online research tools, he and other interns compiled data to help clients decide if there were overseas markets for their products, which markets might offer them a competitive advantage and how best to enter those markets.
“I learned a lot about how to build an accurate picture of a market,” Murchison said. In fact, he learned so much that since leaving WSU he has found work doing freelance international market research.
Early on, reports could take 40-60 hours to complete, he said, but by the end of the internship he was able to complete a report in 15-20 hours. Timeliness is important, he said, but not at the expense of quality.
“Clients are making serious decisions based on the quality of our research,” he said, so it has to be accurate.
30 interns in three years
“Everything needs to be documented,” agreed research supervisor Tim Taylor. “Students need to be able to back up where they got their information.”
Taylor, who joined the SBDC in early 2012, has worked to improve both the speed and quality of the reports. In 2011, interns created 29 reports but in 2012 they completed 69 reports. As of Sept. 1, interns had created 53 reports this year.
Since 2011, more than 30 students from universities including WSU, Gonzaga, Whitworth and Western Washington University have participated in the program.
Matthew Grover, who earned a double major in mathematics and economics from Gonzaga University, said working in project teams with students from other universities and other academic programs has been a great experience.
Typically, he said, two or three interns will be assigned to a research project and it’s up to them to divide the work according to their strengths and interests. They pitch in and help each other when they run into obstacles.
Lina Maria Romero Libreros, who graduated from WSU in May with a degree in economics, said she discovered databases and websites she never knew existed and learned a lot about international trade, from terminology to tariffs to distribution contracts.
A native of Bogota, Colombia, she said she specialized in work related to Central and South America because of the obvious advantage of being able to search Spanish-language databases. But she also did work related to Asia, Europe and Canada.
“The world does not have to revolve around big businesses’ contracts,” she said. The internship showed her “that even a product that I did not know existed could be exported from Washington to the far reaches of the world.”
Clients save money on quality research
Sharon Sappington, an SBDC international trade specialist based in Seattle, has requested research reports on numerous occasions.
“They are really valuable,” she said. One client who was considering marketing a beauty product in Hong Kong and mainland China requested a report on possible distribution channels. He got that information and more, including specific chains that carried similar products and even information about relevant import regulations.
“I was blown away by the quality of the report, just blown away,” Sappington said, “and so was the client.”
Private research can run a client $5,000-$10,000, Sappington said, so if SBDC interns can help clients figure out fruitful markets to explore, that’s a huge benefit.
Requests for research reports generally come from one of the SBDC’s three international trade specialists who work one-on-one with export clients and also collaborate with SBDC business advisors to help clients prepare for export.
The internship is competitive, Taylor said, but students from any major and class standing are welcome to apply.
Romero said the internship was a great capstone to her academic work at WSU.
“Through conference calls discussing the project with teammates and my supervisors I gained the certainty that I was ready for the work force,” she said.
Contacts: Brett Rogers, Washington SBDC state director, firstname.lastname@example.org, 509-358-7767
Tim Taylor, Washington SBDC, email@example.com