A for Effort

Kathy Biala, right, worked with students to help diners get information on which Marina restaurants were open during the pandemic. “They were very creative and adept at social media, and they came up with the slogan ‘Let your tastebuds travel,’” she says. At left is Pho Lucky Noodle House co-owner Son Nguyen.

In March, as life as everyone knows it was changing – as all restaurants were closing for dine-in service and some pivoting to take out as a way to keep the lights on and the staff paid, and as farmers were trying to figure out who would buy their produce as restaurants were ordering far less for their kitchens – a CSU Monterey Bay business professor was having a pivot of her own.

With only about a month left in the two entrepreneurship classes she teaches, Assistant Professor Jennifer Kuan, who for 10 years was a researcher at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and who previously worked as an engineer at Apple and Solectron, among other Silicon Valley companies, told her class the following:

“If they wanted to ditch the project they were working on and switch over to a project that would move the needle for restaurants or farmers I would give them an A on everything except for the final,” Kuan says. “This is what we do in entrepreneurship – we pivot quickly with creativity and energy when things change.”

Of the 50 students in the two classes, about a dozen took on the challenge. One team worked with the Marina Chamber of Commerce to help Marina’s mom-and-pop restaurants bolster sometimes non-existent online presences, understand the new rules under which they had to operate during the Covid-19 pandemic and make sure hungry customers were able to find out when their places were open for takeout, and what they were selling.

A second team from the other class worked with farmers who may have previously eschewed selling their produce through CSAs to find the right CSA for their goods; that group received assistance and guidance from Lynette Lathrop, a program coordinator at CSUMB’s Institute for Innovation and Economic Development whose in-laws run a small, family farm in Watsonville, growing apples and Meyer lemons.

“You started hearing about farmers dumping milk or letting crops rot in the field and local small farmers were in the same position,” Kuan says. “Two students worked with (Lathrop) to ferret out CSA information online and found one that was really good and trying to help farmers create multi-farm boxes to sell, and we helped connect local farmers with them to get their products online.”

Business student Hector Rubio, who’s entering his senior year at CSUMB, took the restaurant track and worked with the Marina Chamber of Commerce and Marina resident Kathy Biala, a city planning commissioner who spends a lot of her free time helping local small restaurants, many of them immigrant-owned.

What the restaurant team discovered: reaching people with the information they needed was a never-ending process.

“At first when she proposed it I was thinking, this is a good opportunity to learn what we’re using in college, and then she said, it’s an automatic A, I said, I’m going for this,” says Rubio, 23. He had already completed writing and research classes, and thus had a lighter load, but still he found it was a lot of work.

“It surprisingly takes a lot of time to communicate and to make sure policies and regulation are being followed. It takes a lot more time than I thought it would,” Rubio says. “But I liked applying what I learned and what I am learning, and taking action to improve the community.”

Biala says many mom-and-pop restaurants in Marina had a hard time keeping up with the new rules under the Covid-19 pandemic. When she connected with Kuan and her students, the project team helped develop a Facebook page and ad campaign to make it easier for potential diners to access information.

As for her students, Kuan says they were stunned by the proposition of an automatic A, and they ended up doing a lot of work on the projects anyway. “I set the bar a little high,” she says. “I may or may not carry it forward because it was a lot of work. But I’m hoping students, by doing this research and getting some experience, will feel more empowered.”

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