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After Katrina, a lesson in business, hope

Stanford MBA students go to New Orleans to try to help a bookstore and several other small enterprises rebound.

March 29, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The Community Book Center, a longtime fixture on Bayou Road in the city's Esplanade Ridge neighborhood, was one of the numerous small-business casualties of Hurricane Katrina. The storm ravaged the venture that Vera Warren-Williams had nurtured for 25 years, where she sold African American novels, school reading texts, gifts and artwork.

The building's windows blew out, the roof was ripped and at least 2 feet of water sat inside for several days, resulting in about $250,000 worth of structural damage and loss of inventory.

The owner's insurance wasn't nearly enough to cover the damage, and she didn't have flood coverage.

"You know you have to come back," Warren-Williams said. "But when you looked at the devastation, you weren't quite sure how."

Help arrived this week in the form of a group of Stanford University MBA students, and their ideas have given her hope.

With the assistance of the Idea Village, a nonprofit that has provided scores of local businesses with technical support, contacts and capital, the students -- 15 in all -- have adopted several enterprises, among them the Community Book Center. Their mission is to show the businesses ways to grow and sustain in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The storm destroyed or financially hurt more than 80% of the 12,695 small businesses that were in Orleans Parish before Katrina, local business officials said. The few that have reopened are struggling to stay afloat with fewer customers, reduced profits and higher labor costs.

The Stanford students think they can use their college training to help the small-business owners maximize their potential in the face of post-storm challenges.

"Education is what you learn in the classroom," said Daryn Dodson, 27, who organized the student group. "It doesn't mean anything until you apply it practically."

Dodson began his master's of business administration program the week Katrina battered New Orleans. As he sat in his dorm room, watching the disaster unfold on television, he felt compelled to do something.

He started fundraising drives, including a "gumbo get-together," where he and fellow students raised about $7,000 and donated it to Habitat for Humanity.

"We sent the check, but it felt so empty," Dodson recalled.

In December 2005, during winter break, the Washington, D.C., native took his first trip to New Orleans, visiting relief organizations, surveying the ruins and determining what assistance was needed.

On spring break, he was back with two dozen Stanford students helping to gut flood-damaged homes.

This trip, Dodson's fourth, brought him and fellow MBA students Sarah Chandler Mallari, Shara Tortora and Eugene Baah to the Community Book Center.

For Warren-Williams, it wasn't a moment too soon.

Student volunteers had helped her clean and gut the store after the storm. Other volunteers tackled the mold while her husband's cousin, a contractor, fixed the roof. Community members, customers and local grass-roots groups donated plywood, paint and other materials. The Idea Village provided technical assistance and a $5,000 grant, which Warren-Williams said she used to replace some inventory.

Now Dodson and his group are helping her tap into the remaining customer base, for which all the surviving neighborhood businesses compete, and get the dollars flowing.

"Folks like Daryn and his team allow all of us to look beyond ... to look forward," said Idea Village President Tim Williamson. "It allows people like Vera to say, 'OK, I survived, now what's the plan going forward?' "

Warren-Williams said her store had operated more like a community service center than a money-making venture.

"The bottom line has not necessarily been profits, but just providing a service," she said.

But with about 75% of her customer base gone, Warren-Williams knew things had to change.

"Now we have to be more business-minded, to think about profits, and think about other ways to diversify," she said.

This week, Dodson and his team met with the "Belle of Bayou Road," as Warren-Williams is known.

The group huddled in the rear courtyard of the Community Book Center, which reopened in December but closed again this week for further renovation.

The Stanford team presented Warren-Williams with several recommendations, including erecting a sign at the end of her street that would catch the eye of motorists and pedestrians on the adjoining thoroughfare.

They also proposed that Warren-Williams use a "drop bowl" for business cards and a store guestbook to get customers' mailing information for special programs.

The store is six blocks from the Fair Grounds, site of the upcoming Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the students suggested that Warren-Williams seek permission to advertise there, and recruit a "street team" of neighborhood children to place fliers on cars.

Other recommendations included displaying books and artwork on the sidewalk in front of the store, placing pamphlets in neighboring businesses, and setting up a coffee shop and a photocopy and fax center that someone could lease from Warren-Williams and run.

"Sounds good," Warren-Williams told the students. She said later that the recommendations "were positive, workable things that are immediately attainable."

*

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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