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Students become consultants during Small Business Development Center internships

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: Staff members of the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at UW-Eau Claire and student consultants took part in a pop-up small business clinic. Back, from left, Luke Kempen, SBDC outreach program director; student consultants Allison Kind, Lauren Prellwitz and Brooke Wobschall; Robin Rundquist, SBDC financial consultant; and student consultant Emma Gilkerson. Front, from left, Harlie Juedes, SBDC outreach program director; Beth Kayhart, owner of On Track Bookkeeping; and student consultant Linnea Vesely.

Some University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students are receiving high-impact work experiences and workforce training while assisting hundreds of startups and growing businesses to be more successful.

The Blugolds work with businesses in the areas of accounting, marketing, communications and business operations through the Accounting and Financial Clinic program in the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at UW-Eau Claire.

Luke Kempen, director of the SBDC at UW-Eau Claire, calls the internship program a “tremendous win-win.”

“Student consultants win by participating in the internship experience with good pay, lifelong skill development and training,” Kempen says. “UW-Eau Claire wins by providing high-impact opportunities for students and outreach directly into communities in western Wisconsin. Small businesses win with the help and support they need to launch, grow, provide jobs and economic impact in their communities.”

SBDC center staff refer to students as consultants rather than interns, Kempen says, because the involvement and training of the Blugolds recruited for the program exceed that of a typical internship.

The center has had at least one student consultant a year for the past 10 years, funded through the SBDC operating budget. Kempen says the center’s client and workload increased dramatically in 2020 because of the effect COVID had on small business operations.

To handle the increased volume, the center wrote and received a Small Business Administration CARES Act grant to develop what Kempen calls a “more robust” student consultant program — the Accounting and Financial Clinic. The center now receives funding as part of the $9.4 million Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Workforce Innovation Grant that UW-Eau Claire received in December 2021. The WEDC grant extends funding for the program through June 2025.

The center, which works with more than 450 different clients each year, had five full-time student consultants working 40 hours a week this summer through paid internships, working alongside SBDC consultants. The goal is to maintain six to eight students in the program during the academic year, with each student working up to 20 hours a week.

“The student consultant opportunity is unique from others in that our students can experience so many different types of businesses and all the intricacies that are involved in a small business,” Kempen says. “In addition, by coming alongside our SBDC consultants when meeting with clients, the student consultants gain skills from the consultants and the client meetings.  Student consultants do much of the detail work involved in meeting the clients’ consulting needs.” 

Emma Gilkerson, a senior from Marshfield, has worked for the SBDC since April 2021. She started as a marketing student consultant and transitioned into an operations and logistics role. Gilkerson, who is majoring in business administration and political science, works with clients in operations processes and procedures, training and recruiting other student consultants.

Gilkerson has worked with more than 200 businesses, helping them with a plethora of issues.

“One of the businesses I work with is a bakery,” Gilkerson says. “They are passionate about baking bread; they are not passionate about setting up a website or filling out a seller’s permit. We offer them this assistance to help them realize their dream.  Everybody has their own story. The biggest thing I learned is that everybody is at such a different place when they come to me. Some people don’t have computers, some people speak English as a second language. It is not a standardized process. This is their American dream. We want to help them achieve that.”

Blugold Brooke Wobschall, a senior accounting major from New Richland, Minnesota, started working as a student consultant at the SBDC in January and plans on staying through the 2022-23 academic year. 

As part of her internship, Wobschall creates financial statements and projections for small businesses. She also sits in on client meetings with the lead consultants at the SBDC. Wobschall interprets balance sheets, tax returns and other financial documents and then enters this information into templates which are given to the client. The client takes these projections to a lender to get funding for their small business.

Through the internship, Wobschall has learned the importance of staying organized with client projects and being detail-oriented in the accounting field. She has worked on a variety of projects, which she expects will help her find a job more quickly given that experience.

“I’ve worked with small $30,000 businesses all the way up to $5 million businesses,” Wobschall says. “It shows that I am capable of working on hard, complex projects and tasks.”

Small-business owner Tomi Stoyanova of Eau Claire started her ToyVentive company that produces educational toys for toddlers in 2018. Stoyanova heard about the SBDC while participating in UW-Eau Claire’s entrepreneurship training program and has received assistance from the center for multiple years.

Most recently, student consultants assisted Stoyanova by preparing profit and loss projections as she prepared an application for an increased line of credit from a financial institution.

“I come back to them every year for this kind of work,” Stoyanova says. “I find them very helpful, and I am super grateful they are a resource.”

Stoyanova found the student consultants to be friendly and helpful during her contact with them.

“I think this is a great opportunity for them to see how a real business functions,” Stoyanova says. “I think the jobs at SBDC give them a chance to be involved with lots of different businesses.”

This summer, student consultants organized and facilitated a new pop-up small business clinic. The one-day clinics are offered in rural communities to provide specialized consulting for businesses. Clients register in advance and meet with staff during the clinic. The first clinic was held in August at UW-Eau Claire – Barron County and, due to its success, student consultants will be offering these small business clinics regularly across the SBDC’s eight-county region.