Kellogg program helps Evanston small businesses thrive during COVID-19


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

The Kellogg School of Management Global Hub, 2211 Campus Drive.

Wesley Blaine, Reporter

A new small business advisory initiative from the Kellogg School of Management is offering marketing, financial planning and human resources support to small businesses in Evanston. The program connects local business owners to Kellogg students and alumni through StartupTree, a software provider that facilitates university entrepreneurship.

Kellogg Profs. Linda Darragh and Timothy Feddersen launched the program in May. Now, 48 Evanston businesses signed up and 52 Kellogg students and alumni agreed to be mentors.

Nicolas Gerst, the co-founder of Evanston-based Laboratory Equipment Services, was one of the program’s first clients after learning about it in an email from the City of Evanston. He said the pandemic has shut down his business.

Laboratory Equipment Services calibrates pipettes for University laboratories and must send technicians on-site to service its customers’ equipment. It was booked with jobs up until Gov. J.B. Pritzker shut down nonessential businesses in the third week of March.

Gerst looked through a list of possible mentors on StartupTree and chose second-year Kellogg student Alex Ballasiotes, even though Gerst said Ballasiotes looked young in his online profile.

“We had our first phone meeting and I was surprised,” Gerst said. “He asked a lot of really good questions to make sure that he understood my business.”

Ballasiotes recommended that Gerst diversify his customer base beyond universities and diversify his services. Now, Gerst is offering to calibrate microscopes as well as pipettes, which has helped Gerst land new clients.

Gerst said he now wants a Kellogg student to intern at his business.

“You can’t be comfortable with where you are even if things are working,” Gerst said. “We are living in a changing world and sometimes a change is because of competition… or sometimes things like (COVID-19) happen.”

Ellie Papageorge, the manager at family-owned business Steven Papageorge Hair Salon, said she is also grateful for the pro bono consulting from Joshua Bennett (Kellogg ’05) through the initiative. Due to the pandemic, the hair salon went from servicing 80 to 90 clients on a busy Saturday to no clients at all. Papageorge said the landlord would not give them a break on their $8,000 monthly rent even though they had been renting out the space for 30 years.

Bennett suggested the business increase its base prices and add a COVID-19 fee once they reopened. He also recommended taking a careful look at their financials to get an accurate picture of the health of the business. Papageorge said she believes that the suggestions have helped the salon recoup some of the money lost after having to close for several months.

“Joshua was very accessible, helpful and took the time to cater to our needs,” Papageorge said. “He helped us know our numbers, especially how much we were spending.”

But there have been challenges with Kellogg’s new program. Ardath Berliant, owner of Healing Reiki/Craniosacral & Massage Therapies, said that she ran into some issues with the app that she used to sign up for an appointment. She also wanted hands-on help along with how-to advice.

Darragh said that her team is trying to work out the bugs with StartupTree. She also said she wants to help more small businesses in Evanston through the initiative. Evanston business owners interested in pro bono consulting can sign up online.

Email: [email protected]

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