California State University, Northridge (CSUN) has hosted an active Small Business Institute (SBI) for over 30 years, through which hundreds of clients have received benefit from student-led consulting services.  Currently directed by marketing professor and Graduate Programs Director,  Deborah Cours, the CSUN SBI has grown from a course project in the marketing capstone course to be a hallmark of the hands-on, experiential learning valued in the mission of the CSUN College of Business and Economics. 


In 1998, the SBI program was expanded to the CSUN MBA program.  Today, graduate students can satisfy the culminating experience requirement for the MBA and MS Accountancy programs through small business consulting projects in lieu of a thesis or comprehensive exam.  MBA students can also take the MBA Small Business Consulting elective course.  



MBA Project Team of Chris Hanley, Victor Lazo, Tuan Nguyen, Sandra Sripapattanavong, and

LaFaye Wilson with Bruce Sandzimier, Herb Dow, and George Francisco from  client Sorrells

Pickard Gourmet Peanut Butter and Faculty Advisor Melanie Williams

In 2002, Wells Fargo endowed the college's Center for Small Business and Entrepreneurship, currently directed by Franck Vigneron, which houses the SBI.  The curriculum was expanded.  The undergraduate course, Small Business Consulting, became a college-wide elective (BUS 491).  Additionally, we created an experiential version of the traditional case-based strategy capstone course to offer more students more opportunities for hands-on learning and to benefit our local business community. Currently taught by CSUN alumna and successful entrepreneur, Joy Griffin, undergraduates "get the bug" and eagerly sign up for the capstone course after experiencing such valuable service learning opportunities in the Small Business Consulting elective. 

Despite this growth in student and small business opportunities, CSUN had grown disconnected from the SBI Directors' Association.  However, under Dr. Cours's leadership, we again began participating and submitting entries to the Project of the Year Competition in 2010. Since then, CSUN students have been recognized with four Top Three finishes, supervised by professors Joy Griffin, Lois Shelton, Kristen Walker, and Melanie Williams.


Through all of these classes and projects, students provide free consulting services to local small businesses, individual entrepreneurs, and non profit organizations.  Faculty supervise the projects, and for the graduate projects, each team is assigned a faulty specialist as an advisor.  We carefully balance academic standards with servicing client needs. Our record of client satisfaction is outstanding.  As instructors, we advise the students that while client satisfaction is necessary, it is not sufficient.  In fact, the students must each meet our rigorous standards to earn the "A."


Professor Griffin has recently retooled her course to better explain and clarify expectations about financial analysis in the business plan projects, an area of frequent complaint among advisors. The students' results already show a much higher level of sophistication about using financial analysis to identify areas of weakness and rest, and to justify recommendations.


Clients are recruited through community outreach, our relationships with SCORE and SBDC, and most often, word of mouth by referrals from delighted clients.  Recently, we caught up with a client from 2011 who is having great success.  CleanBeeBaby  is an eco-friendly cleaning service for strollers and car seats, founded by Jennifer Beall, an MBA alumna of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. As an MBA herself, Jen had won first place in the business plan competition at her school and had extensive experience working with her classmates on her business plan, which allowed her to have a great understanding of what MBAs are capable of. She designed a challenging and rewarding project for the CSUN students - creating the local marketing plan for the Los Angeles market for her business.


Supervised by Dr. Deborah Heisley, the students utilized existing demographic data sources and also conducting primary market research to create a solid, actionable marketing plan. They prioritized zip codes where the mobile service should focus based on income and age of children, and even included contact information for OB/GYN and Pediatricians offices in those areas. The students provided guidance on pricing which Jen was immediately able to implement. Since the project was complete, CleanBeeBaby has built a prominent brand in the LA area servicing over 5000 customers, launched in NYC and San Diego, and plans to expand via franchising in 2014. 




CleanBeeBaby founder and CSUN SBI client, Jennifer Beall

A student (now alum) who worked with Jennifer, Aron Sklar reported, 'Jen' displayed all the creative ideation of the classic entrepreneur, a completely positive attitude, confidence, and genuine curiosity that was infectious. Though I don't work as an entrepreneur today, I try to utilize those traits on a daily basis at an established retailer, and they've been a key contributor to any success that I've had. I'm proud to have worked with Jen early on, and wish her continued success with CleanBeeBaby!"  Justin Shenkarow (CSUN MBA '11) also reflected on the experience, "It was a real pleasure working for Jen while she was building CleanBeeBaby.  We all knew that she was a brilliant hard-working leader with an innovative vision. It is rare to come across someone with so much passion and dedication to their business, and it is no surprise to see the success and expansion that Jen has created with CleanBeeBaby." Justin, who has founded two Internet-based companies since graduation ( and, came back to CSUN as a client for one of his start-ups.  This exemplifies the intense meaning and  impact the SBI experience gives to students and clients.


For more information about the Small Business Institute and consulting opportunities at California State University, Northridge, please contact Dr. Cours at  

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