Omaha, Nebraska –
Several Omaha microbusinesses are benefitting from information technology (IT) consulting provided by students of the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) College of Information Science & Technology (IS&T) through service learning classes and the NU Connections program.
The service learning classes in Information Technology for Development (ITD) and Electronic Commerce are led by Sajda Qureshi, Ph.D., Kayser Chair, Professor of Information Systems, Department of Information Systems & Quantitative Analysis (ISQA) at the College of IS&T. The next class will be held in the fall of 2022.
In the classes, undergraduate and graduate students are placed in teams and linked with a local microbusiness through the Service Learning Academy and NU Connections. The NU Connections program unites the University of Nebraska system to promote the university programs, services and resources that Nebraska businesses can utilize to grow and diversify.
Administered by the Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC) at UNO, NU Connections provides Nebraska businesses access to startup assistance, laboratory and facility use, research and technology development, market research and other services. NU Connections is a U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) University Center program.
The student teams in the ITD service learning classes apply concepts for building and adding value through IT while working with small business entrepreneurs. Students evaluate microbusiness technology needs, prepare business technology plans, provide training and implement appropriate solutions to the extent possible within a semester class.
In the fall of 2020, Qureshi contacted Deanna Marcelino, the Industry Liaison Officer for NU Connections at UNO and the NBDC; and Tony Schultz, Omaha Center Director of America’s SBDC-Nebraska, based at the NBDC, about identifying micro-businesses in North Omaha willing to participate in the ITD class. “Tony and I discussed Dr. Qureshi’s original inquiry and we decided on a course of action together,” Marcelino recalls. “Tony then connected the students to a couple of Omaha Economic Development Corp. (OEDC) micro-business tenants.”
In the most recent class, Qureshi says, students were paired with three microenterprise owners in North Omaha. In the initial diagnosis stage, the students spoke with the business owners to determine their IT needs, their goals and any barriers to overcome.
“These classes help show the students the challenges these business owners face due to location, demographics, history, perception of the community and other factors such as security,” she says. “They learn why mom-and-pop businesses, also known as micro-enterprises, are so important to the communities they serve. They keep their communities going beyond the micro-entrepreneur through a multiplier effect from hiring, purchasing goods and services from their communities. The creation of such ecosystems offers a view into the economic development piece of these projects.
“We also get the students to look at human development by expanding the owners’ skill sets and helping them to use technology to grow their businesses,” she says. “Many small business owners are scared of technology simply because they don’t know how to use it.”
With the three North Omaha businesses, the phase involved the students working to improve market access and enhance skill levels by implementing IT-based solutions such as Facebook Marketplace, Mailchimp, Nextdoor social networking, search engine optimization through Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords), as well as creating a tutorial geared to each business.
In the outcomes and impact phase, students examined the positive effect their solutions had on each business. Qureshi says the businesses reported increased productivity and access to new customers, in one case resulting in a 133 percent increase in traffic on the business’s website.
“Being able to understand, utilize and take control of the technologies that can help build their business can make a huge difference,” she says. “Research indicates only 20 percent of microbusinesses survive, while those that use technology not only survive but report growth that increases by a factor of 3.8.”
“Service learning classes and programs such as NU Connections better prepare our students,” Qureshi says, “and, through technology and training, directly benefit the businesses and communities we serve.”