Grad students offer diverse suppliers a better shot at growth

diverse suppliers presentation
Lindsay France/University Photography
Shreya Bajaj, MBA '18, presents her team's recommendations for roi Office Interiors while teammate Pravin Peddiraju, MBA '17, looks on.

When Frank Meleca, vice president of sales and marketing at Laboratory Products Sales, hired employees in the past, the process took five to six months.

Now Cornell student-consultants are helping him to reduce the hiring time for a new sales rep to three months – and to have a better shot at hiring someone who will increase sales.

“The group took our dream and literally put it into a plan for us,” Meleca said. “How do you take hiring a sales rep from being a crapshoot to being a little bit more odds-in-your-favor? They did that for us. … I’m very thankful.”

Meleca and three other diverse Cornell suppliers listened avidly May 5 as student-consultant teams presented their recommendations on how to expand their businesses. All the companies are owned by women, veterans or underrepresented minorities and supply Cornell with everything from travel services to office interiors.

This is the fourth year that diverse businesses have collaborated with Cornell Procurement Services and BR Consulting, a nonprofit, student-run consulting firm based at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. The consultant teams worked for two semesters to come up with solutions to a business problem of the supplier’s choice.

The collaboration meant a win for everyone involved. Cornell Procurement Services paid for the projects, so there was no cost to the suppliers. The students gained valuable experience in real-world consulting. And Cornell partners with better-run vendors.

“We are very, very invested in trying to support women and minority-owned businesses at Cornell,” said Joanne DeStefano, executive vice president and chief financial officer, as she thanked the suppliers for their participation. “Our ultimate goal is to make you more successful in your businesses, because then we all grow.”

For Meleca, consultants Edwin Chan, Brian Jung, Graham Pearson and Mani Selvan, all MBA students graduating in 2018, created a three-month plan for hiring a new sales person and a three-month training blueprint. The team also recommended the company target government bids more strategically and expand its sales territory.

MBA students Di An, Pete Eckhoff, Brian Tsui and Rob Vulaj, all graduating in 2018, suggested ways The Computing Center, a technology sales and service company, could improve its sales process and make better use of its sales tracking tool. For example, many Cornell clients are unaware of the company’s full range of services, so the team created a brochure to advertise it.

“They asked very good questions, they listened and they actually heard what we said,” noted CEO Mary Stazi.

The team also said customers would be more satisfied with the option of talking to a real person – not an automated attendant, Stazi said. “That’s critical, because they’re the generation that’s coming up, and we want that generation’s business.”

Stovroff & Taylor Travel could improve its online portal, for example, by making it easier to navigate, advised Jeff Hughes, MBA ’18; Prem Khosla, MBA ’18; Brenda Margolies ’15, M.S. ’17; and Sunny Xia, MBA ’18. They also recommended the travel company better understand its customers’ needs and increase marketing within the Cornell community. They could focus on administrative assistants, who are most likely to place Cornell travel orders, the team said.

Marketing was also a focus for the team advising roi Office Interiors: Pravin Peddiraju, MBA ’17, and Class of 2018 MBA students Shreya Bajaj, Purvi Gupta and Anna Koyfman. roi could conduct market research to identify segments of its customer base and their purchasing trends. It could also increase the breadth of its digital marketing channels. And it should consider asking its current customers to recommend the company on social media, the students said.

This was the second year roi Office Interiors has participated in the program. The impact has been “profound,” Robert Angelicola, roi vice president, wrote in an email to DeStefano after the presentation. “We have actually become a stronger company and a better vendor through our interactions with your students. This is a tremendous program!” he wrote.

The projects were just as helpful to the students, they said.

Xia said one of the biggest benefits was the chance to apply techniques she learned in class, such as a data analytics, to a real situation. And she appreciated the opportunity to observe how different team members understood common practices. “The team formation process was interesting to observe, how people coming from different backgrounds would approach a problem,” she said.

Hughes noted that, unlike in the classroom, their ideas had to be functional in real life. “We do a lot of cases like, ‘What should Walmart do next year?’ It’s just a lot of slides and colored circles,” he said. “And here, at the end we needed to be able to say, ‘You should do this Monday.’ The reality required attention to detail that we can often overlook when we’re just writing summaries for case studies.”

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Joe Schwartz