MBA Students Hit the Streets of Harlem Students in a Columbia University Course Lend Their Expertise to District's Inner-City Businesses

Article excerpt

A spirit of renewal rises out of 125th Street in Manhattan, the bustling crosstown artery of America's black capital. A movement is under way here to revive the Harlem of another era, when the district was known for its jazz greats and vibrant stores - and it's coming with the help of neighboring Columbia University.

"We want people to feel about the Apollo the way they felt about it in the1940s: as a vibrant, throbbing, active, exciting, economically viable place to go," says Wayne Neale, development director for the Apollo Theater Foundation, which is promoting the Apollo's legacy.

Working with Mr. Neale is Ileana Scheytt, an MBA candidate at Columbia, who is researching direct-mail companies to design a fund-raising strategy for the black theater. The pair was brought together under an innovative inner-city consulting class at Columbia's business school, which sends students to work with big-name professionals in neighboring Harlem. Since the course's inception two years ago, the students have conducted market surveys, designed cost structures, and made business plans for some of Harlem's best-established institutions, from the Dance Theater of Harlem to Madame Alexander Company whose famous collectible dolls retail at FAO Schwarz. Following Columbia University's example, top business schools are increasingly sending students to do field work in neighboring inner cities. Most schools see it as a relationship they can no longer afford to ignore: Students get hands-on experience, and minority and mom-and-pop businesses get access to resources long denied them. Lending a helping hand "You're seeing an increased level of civic interest in inner-city communities by students in general, but this is not something altruistic," says Eric Von Hendrix, who heads the community small-business development unit at GE Capital in Stamford, Conn. For Columbia business students, Harlem is a rich laboratory. Over the past two years, it has attracted big retailers such as Duane Reade Drugs and Blockbuster, and Walt Disney has agreed to anchor a $56 million entertainment center on 125th Street. But above the colorful strand of hair salons, shoe stores, and mom-and-pop storefronts lining 125th Street, many facades remain boarded up, stark symbols of what is yet to be done to revive Harlem. With that in mind, the Columbia students have focused on anchor businesses and institutions, helping them take advantage of this renewal. "The biggest problem for small businesses is to understand what it is they're doing," says Howard Dabney, chief lending officer at Carver Federal Savings Bank, the largest African-American bank in the country, and the only bank headquartered in Harlem. "They don't keep the best of records that allows for an evaluation of what their needs are," adds Columbia's Ms. Scheytt, a former project manager at Hewlett-Packard in Germany. …