Seattle Business Owners Turn To An Unlikely Source Of Consultants: UW Undergrads

Apr 21, 2014

Business owners in Seattle and around the state are lining up to tap the expertise of an unusual group of consultants: undergraduates at the University of Washington.

That may sound surprising, since the students mostly just have a few internships on their resumes. But their consulting class pushes them to dive deep into their clients’ business problems and deliver tangible, practical advice.

For one local chef, it’s a partnership that has yielded results.

Kristi Brown Wokoma has been a chef and caterer for decades. She owns a business called That Brown Girl Cooks, and she makes a special kind of hummus out of black-eyed peas instead of chickpeas.

First Meeting

Wokoma met her latest set of student consultants on a chilly January evening, in a big conference room at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. The room was abuzz with different teams of students getting to know their new clients and figuring out their tasks ahead.

The next two months would be a sprint for the students. And the stakes were high. This wasn’t about just getting a good grade; they had a real-life client depending on them for advice.

The ultimate task for Wokoma’s group was to deliver a final presentation with a roadmap for getting her hummus onto the shelves of big grocery chains. She makes three varieties: Ethiopian, curry and Cajun.

The students peppered her with questions.

Questions, Questions And More Questions

Lauren Bonzer, left, and Kristi Brown Wokoma, right.
Lauren Bonzer, left, and Kristi Brown Wokoma, right.
Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU

“When you want to go into these bigger markets like Whole Foods and PCC Market, do you plan to introduce all the flavors at once, is that your hope?” asked Lauren Bonzer, a 22-year-old senior majoring in marketing.

It may almost seem like more trouble than it’s worth to get three young twentysomethings up to speed on the hummus industry enough to get useful information. But Wokoma has found the student consultants so helpful that this is now her fourth time taking part in the program.

For her, it started a decade ago when she wanted to expand her catering company and happened to meet Michael Verchot, the director of the Consulting and Business Development Center at the Foster School of Business.

“He knew and understood what I was going through, and he was like,' OK, well, had you thought about this? Did you think about this?’ And I was like, mm, mm, I hadn’t thought about that. I need help!” Wokoma said.

Experiential Learning

The business school is trending toward more hands-on learning, and the Foster School consulting center has been one of the pioneers. Another one of the oldest such programs in the country is the Small Business Development Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“Experiential education and leadership have become extremely important,” said Therese Flaherty, director of the Wharton School’s center. “We’re finding that the lessons of business can be taught with great fidelity and excitement when students have the opportunity to work with entrepreneurs and small businesspeople.”

At the University of Washington, the Foster School’s consulting center got its start two decades ago in a class that assigned students to help business owners in lower-income neighborhoods.

Now about 300 businesses in low- and moderate-income communities turn to the undergrads for assistance each year. Verchot says the business owners learn how to interact with clients and use the accounting and marketing principles they’ve been studying.

“If you’re an undergraduate student, you’ve been in school for 18 years. And you’ve learned how to take tests, you’ve learned how to read textbooks, but how do you apply that and make real decisions?” Verchot said.

How The Hummus Gets Made

Wokoma's employee, Zach Lake, adds garnish to containers of curry-flavored hummus.
Wokoma's employee, Zach Lake, adds garnish to containers of curry-flavored hummus.
Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU

The first step to making real decisions is to see how the sausage, or hummus, gets made.

Wokoma led her consulting team through the commercial kitchen where her two employees mix about 150 pounds of the creamy, garlicky dip each week.

The kitchen is attached to a church in Seattle’s Central District, and it’s crowded with industrial-size refrigerators, giant mixers and huge pots. Caterers, bakers and Wokoma’s hummus business all jockey for space here. These are all constraints the students tried to understand. 

“I’m wondering about the people you sell to, your distributors. How often do they restock from you?” asked Calvin Ng, a 19-year-old junior.

Wokoma told him most of the nine stores where her hummus is sold restock once a week.

But there was more to this than just listening and observing. The students dug in. They held focus groups to test out new label designs. They met with an executive from Whole Foods to find out the store’s requirements.

And they held lots of meetings, including with advisers from the business world who volunteer their time to help. One works in financial services, and another works at Amazon. 

What Would Whole Foods Want?

On another spring evening, the students briefed their advisers on what the Whole Foods executive told them.

“Labeling is the main thing,” said Bonzer. “The main thing is you have to come with your product ready to be sold on the shelves.”

The advisers helped steer the students toward the best use of their time and guide them away from unnecessary projects, such as coming up with a new slogan for Wokoma’s hummus.

“Do you definitely think you need a slogan?” asked the Amazon executive.

'Thrown To The Wolves'

UW senior Patricia Mayer says the class is rewarding, even though it’s a lot of work. But she says it can be intimidating to advise a business owner who has so much more experience.

“We’re kind of being thrown to the wolves,” Mayer said. “It’s her business, so that’s even hard for a professional consultant to dive in and get the gist of that. So for us to go in, I think it keeps us really humble.”

Luckily, the students were working with an understanding client.

“You’re not expecting perfection, but what you get is probably something you’d pay thousands for,” Wokoma said.

'It's Like Having Minions'

In the past, UW consultants drafted a business plan for Wokoma, and one helped get her hummus into two more stores. 

“It’s like having minions,” she said with a laugh. “You need this research done, and then they’re all eager to do it, and then they add their own spin to it, and you’re like, 'Wow, I didn’t even think about that.’ So it’s a good collaboration.”

And for her, she says, being able to tap the wisdom of the adult advisers is especially important.

“The students get all excited and the advisors are like, 'No, bring it back here,’” Wokoma said. “I feel like it’s a really good, fine-tuned machine.”

After two months of work, the big day arrived. The students, in their best business attire, were all set to deliver their presentation. Their nerves were running high as they set up their computer and put out an array of hummus and chips for their professor, advisers and Wokoma.

New Label Design

From left to right, UW students Patricia Mayer, Calvin Ng and Lauren Bonzer.
From left to right, UW students Patricia Mayer, Calvin Ng and Lauren Bonzer.
Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU

They had 15 minutes to lay out their findings to Wokoma, including what they found out from the Whole Foods executive and their suggestion for how to redesign the label.

“We made this yellow and orange that we think will make it stand out on shelves. So when it’s being compared to competitors, (it will) be more eye-catching to potential customers,” Bonzer explained as she puts up a side-by-side graphic of the old label and the new design.

At the end, Wokoma was a satisfied client.

The students facilitated this meeting between Whole Foods executive Denise Breyley and Kristi Brown Wokoma.
The students facilitated this meeting between Whole Foods executive Denise Breyley and Kristi Brown Wokoma.
Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU

“Oh man, they did an amazing job,” she said. “They really listened to me.”  

She says she may still tweak the label, but what’s especially useful is the step-by-step plan the students created for her.

“If you look at Whole Foods’ application about what they want, it’s a little overwhelming,” she said. “It’s about five pages of just back-to-back information that I may not have understood, but this makes it more simple.”

She says what the students delivered is a road map for a busy entrepreneur like herself to figure out what to do next.