Molloy College MBA students help LI villages

Published: December 6, 2012
By David Winzelberg

Although Long Island municipalities usually hire consulting firms to help navigate a course through rough public policy issues, two villages have turned to MBA students for guidance.

The resulting projects may signal the start of a fruitful and cost-effective relationship between the Island's local governments and its institutions of higher education.

Two teams of Molloy College MBA students were engaged by the villages of Port Jefferson and Babylon three months ago to consult as part of the students' capstone course, designed to synthesize their business school education.

The MBA teams presented their recommendations to their clients at the Rockville Centre school Tuesday night, and village officials seemed pleased with the outcome.

Babylon Mayor Ralph Scordino said the students came up with a viable and time-saving solution to help the village identify historic properties for preservation. The web-based application that employs a customized algorithm will allow village property owners to instantly find out if their structures qualify as historic, an exercise that would normally take village employees days or weeks.

"We have a bare-bones village staff," Scordino said. "To do this with our existing staff would be difficult."

For Port Jefferson, a second team of five MBA students proposed an addition to the village's existing website that will provide vital information to businesses interested in locating there.

Jill Russell, media relations consultant for Port Jefferson, said the project answers the village's need to promote economic development in its downtown.

"If somebody was interested in starting a business, there was no one stop for that," Russell said. "You would have to call the chamber of commerce, village hall and a real estate office."

Molloy professor Maureen Mackenzie, who organized the civic consulting assignment, said the focus on local government needs was inspired by the Mayors Challenge, a Bloomberg Philanthropies-sponsored contest for municipalities of 30,000 or more people to find innovative solutions to local problems that affect the public good.

Mackenzie said the villages involved in the Molloy projects can't participate in the Mayors Challenge because neither has 30,000 residents, but they benefit because they can take the student consultants' recommendations to their trustees and implement them however they see fit.

"That was the motivation behind it," Mackenzie said. "To allow these individuals to take all their management, financial, research skills throughout their graduate degree and go out there and identify a social problem or a problem within the village, and the recommendation of how it can be fixed."

Molloy's dean of its business division, Stephen Bier, said the assignment clearly has a dual benefit.

"It gives the students an opportunity to use the skill and knowledge, and apply it to real-life experience," Bier said. "The students clearly learned a lot and the villages benefited from not having to pay a management consultant at taxpayer expense."

For the MBA students - who range in age from 24 to 43 - the opportunity to advance their knowledge of local government while effectuating real change for civic good was an ideal final project, though they were out of their element.

Rob Powers, 37, who headed the Port Jefferson team, said the students were virgins when it came to the inner workings of local government.

"I don't think anyone on our team had done this before," he said. But the biggest challenge was coordinating everyone's busy schedules, because most of the students have full-time jobs. Powers, for instance, works as a senior manager in the biopharmaceutical division of Novo Nordisk.

The other team leader, Lenny Hernandez, 36, who worked on the Babylon project, is an investment adviser for HSBC in Manhattan. Hernandez said the capstone experience taught him "how to work with others in public service, and how they approach and solve their problems."

Ajana Wilkinson, 32, a financial aid counselor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn who worked on the team with Hernandez, said other villages can emulate the same idea they came up with for Babylon. Wilkinson, a native of Surinam, said using college talent is a way for municipalities to cut costs while helping to find real solutions.

"More colleges should try to have it in their program," she said.

Actually, they do. After getting a $1 million-plus quote from a prominent multinational consulting firm to help craft a five-year economic development strategy for Washington, D.C., its mayor's office decided to get help from four local business schools, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

This summer the city set up a partnership with George Washington University's School of Business, Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, Howard University's School of Business and American University's Kogod School of Business. The schools agreed to help the city look at how they could spur growth in the sectors of education and health care, real estate and construction, federal government and contractors, retail, hospitality, technology and professional services.

Here on Long Island, Russell said Port Jefferson has recently reached out to officials at Stony Brook University to explore using its students for future projects, including assessing and making recommendations that would improve Port Jeff's signage.

"We're starting a relationship with Stony Brook in a way we should have a long time ago," Russell said.

Meanwhile, more Molloy business students - this time undergrads - are working on consulting for the Village of Mastic Beach in its drive to increase tourism and beautify the seaside community, Mackenzie said.

Next semester, Mackenzkie's students will likely be consulting for the Village of Freeport to help identify the best ways to restore the storm-damaged Nautical Mile.

Though he'd rather not share, Scordino would recommend Molloy's MBA consultants to other Long Island locales.

"It was a positive thing for us, and they were very professional," the mayor said. "They can research like a think tank. Imagine having a free think tank in every village."

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