In early May, several University of Southern Maine (USM) students demonstrated just how far their understanding of small business sustainability had come over the course of a semester. As they explained to a panel of leaders from the small business community how a specific business could benefit from an increased focus on sustainability and fielded the panelists’ questions, the students demonstrated a comprehension of complex concepts like profitability margins, employee benefits, workforce development, resilient energy portfolios, and more. This illuminating educational exchange occurred at the final Capstone Event for the pilot semester of U360–Manomet’s newest project that teaches college students about sustainability through engagement with small businesses nationwide.
Our three U360 interns (middle) with two of their guest panelists: Joe Walsh, president of Green Clean Maine (far right) and Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee By Design (far left)
When U360’s pilot semester began in January, the three interns from USM all had an interest in learning more about sustainability, but none had any prior academic or professional experience with business management or sustainable business principles. After a series of trainings that combine career development skills with sustainability concepts, the students reached out to businesses across the country to interview them about their current practices. By the end of the semester, the students had interviewed 31 small businesses, representing eight different states and a variety of industries—ranging from dry cleaners to veterinary clinics to fitness studios.
Says Lora Winslow, U360 Project Manager of the pilot semester, “All parties involved benefited from U360: the students vastly enhanced their understanding of sustainability through these real-world engagements, the business owners had a valuable opportunity to view their company through a sustainability lens, and Manomet’s Root360 tools were able to reach even more small businesses around the country. This was so much more than just an internship program!”
Each student selected one business from their interviews to create a case study and Sustainability Action Plan, which they presented to the panelists, advisors and Manomet staff in a ‘mock pitch’ during the Capstone Event. The profiled businesses included a small logging company in Maine, a quick-service burger restaurant in Colorado, and a community food nonprofit in Minnesota. The students’ recommendations included grouping off-site jobs to cut down on vehicle emissions; increasing cross-training of employees; creating written policies for purchasing; and separating accounting and management duties, to name a few.
Joe Walsh, president of Green Clean Maine, was one of the panelists, along with Mac McCabe, sustainable business consultant, and Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee By Design. Walsh thoroughly enjoyed hearing the student presentations and is a strong advocate for the U360 program. He feels that “giving students the opportunity to connect with small business owners and understand the process of how to make an enterprise successful makes them better prepared to meaningfully contribute to the economy in their own right.”
Through the U360 Capstone Event, seasoned sustainable business professionals are helping to inspire and teach the next generation of environmentalists and entrepreneurs. And what makes the event even more remarkable is that the learning goes both ways. “At first, I was really nervous to present to the panelists,” says U360 sophomore, Brook Tracey. “But then I saw that they were genuinely interested in what I had to say, and it was so cool to realize that they were learning something from me, too.”
As a result of its promising pilot semester, U360 will continue during the 2016-17 school year. For more information, please contact Lora Winslow at firstname.lastname@example.org.