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We need a domestic Fulbright program for small businesses

March 24, 2022, 9:30 PM UTC
An employee attends a meeting online
There are eight times as many remote jobs as there were in first quarter of 2020, and 2.4 times as many as the first quarter of 2021.

America has a tremendous history of responding to crises in collective and inspiring ways, including the creation of the Fulbright Program in 1945.

Established by Sen. J. William Fulbright, the initiative was created to give young people the opportunity to be exposed to the world in a way that promoted peace, experience, and mutual understanding.

We can learn from the message and longevity of this model at a time when our country faces major economic challenges, and create a kind of Fulbright program for small businesses that harnesses and deploys the technical training of America’s business students in service to our Main Street entrepreneurs.   

Small businesses were decimated during the pandemic. Programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) undoubtedly made a significant impact on struggling small firms. However, even before the Fed signaled an economic slowdown, the data showed historic rates of small business closures.

In direct response to the pandemic and the significance of the social impact of the events surrounding this time, many large corporations have examined their ability to fund small business support programs through corporate philanthropy or their supply chains. 

A societal solution

Notwithstanding the impacts of corporate responsibility and the offerings of government programs, there is a third leg to the stool: business students.

Undergraduate and business school students are taught many of the basic building blocks of any business–accounting, marketing, risk analysis, and more, often in the context of Fortune 500 case studies. They learn the challenges and the solutions and often are given the opportunity to create their own classroom corporate structures and business plans.

When they graduate, most go off to corporate America in some form. While a few seek the entrepreneurial path, their incredibly valuable training may not land in a fertile location where it can be paired with a true business opportunity. 

A one-year fellowship for undergraduate and graduate business school students could provide real-world business consulting services to eligible small businesses across the country.

The businesses receiving the technical assistance would be able to take training classes and receive the no-cost benefit of their fellow’s expertise. This approach supports a growth-oriented economic ecosystem that could result in fewer small business loan defaults, new loan opportunities, and burgeoning communities.

Some institutions, such as Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, have implemented comparable pilot programs and the results for both students and small businesses have been remarkable. With other national models such as Americorps and the Economic Mobility Corps, and thought leaders such as Patrick McCloskey, the blueprint for success is undeniable.

America needs a Small Business Corps that would exist as a public-private partnership coordinating corporate responsibility and financial services stakeholders to collectively advance local communities and meet businesses where they are. 

This type of growth at a local and regional level increases the relevant tax base, permitting local leadership to examine its own fiscal priorities—such as general budgeting, education, police, fire, and other municipal services. Over two-thirds of every dollar spent in a community stays in that community.   

Additionally, the fellows get direct exposure to the daily challenges facing entrepreneurs who strive to advance their families and their communities at a local level.

It is not the first time our country has been called to action and it will certainly not be the last, but the Small Business Corps can prepare the next generation to take on these challenges and to support the small business engines of our economy.

Chris Pilkerton is the former acting administrator and general counsel of the U.S. Small Business Administration, chief legal officer at Accion Opportunity Fund, executive-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business, and a former Fulbright Teaching Scholar.

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