Students consulting for local businesses hit by COVID-19

More than 120 students volunteer through new community collaboration

Marina Darling, a program manager for the Centre of Social Impact, called local businesses a “big part” of what Kingston is. 
Journal File Photo

As COVID-19 continues to pose challenges to businesses across the country, Queen's students have been stepping up to find solutions for local businesses in Kingston.

Smith School of Business partnered with the City of Kingston and Kingston Economic Development last month to provide free student and faculty resources to local businesses, not-for-profits, and social enterprises facing the economic impacts of COVID-19. 

The program, called the Kingston Region Business Support Network, was initiated by the Centre for Social Impact at Smith in recognition that local businesses will need support to stay operational throughout the pandemic, as well as in the new economic environment that will arrive after COVID-19 wraps up.

“It’s important to acknowledge that small and medium businesses across the country are hugely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. It’s crazy [how] not having foot traffic [can affect] your business,” Marina Darling, program manager for certificate programs at the Queen’s Centre for Social Impact, said in an interview with The Journal.  

Darling called the program a collaborative effort between students, faculty, and staff to solve COVID-19 related issues facing individual businesses using a consulting approach.

“Especially when it comes to the Kingston community, those local businesses are such a big part of the fabric of what Kingston is,” she added.

While the program is open to students from across the University, the majority of uptake has been from students at Smith or those completing a Certificate of Social Impact. Currently, the program has seen more than 60 students from Smith and 60 from the certificate program.

“It’s gaining a lot of traction and we’re excited to have students from different faculties and different programs participating,” Darling said.

Students can apply for the program through a specific City of Kingston section on Applied Work Experience (AWE), a platform designed to connect the student workforce with opportunities to help businesses in need of support during the pandemic. 

Beyond student volunteers, each project has a faculty advisor and a lead facilitator responsible for overseeing progress.

According to Darling, the opportunity will provide students with an experiential learning opportunity as they assist businesses in meeting critical needs through cash flow support, revenue generation, supply chain analysis, and innovation and business model pivots. There are currently more than 40 businesses registered on the platform. 

“Students apply to job opportunities posted on the portal. It’s a pretty neat opportunity because it’s kind of like a job board for COVID-19 response,” Darling said. “It’s a great way of matching students with a special skill set to problems that are critical.”

The system allows students to volunteer on short-term projects based on their own interests. 

Andrew Boughner, Comm ’20, who facilitates the process of registering businesses into the program and onboarding faculty members for the Centre of Social Impact, said the program is really about “giving back to [the] community.” 

“If we can all work together, we can all learn from each other and make an impact to fight COVID-19,” Boughner told The Journal.

He’s also volunteering on two of the projects, including one called SnapCab.

Before COVID-19 hit, SnapCab was making at-home office units, including soundproof phone booth pods. As social distancing measures took place, the team working on the units realized the phone booths could be used in hospitals for creating safer testing stations for COVID-19 patients. 

“[A] patient could be tested within the pod, and the nurse could interact with them from outside of the pod,” Boughner explained. “The nurse would be safe, there would be [a lesser] need for PPE equipment, and they could streamline the testing procedures.”

As a volunteer, he’s working to find accessible funding for SnapCab, a research partner to test the new design, and a potential way to distribute the pods. 

“I’m working with [SnapCab] because they’re making an impact [in the fight against] COVID-19,” Boughner said. “If the solutions do come to fruition, it can make a remarkable impact to our local community and our greater community around the world and help to mitigate any pandemic threats that could occur in the future.”

According to Boughner, there was a learning curve in figuring out how to engage with these projects remotely. Despite this, students and businesses have been able to leverage Zoom, an online video chat service, and other platforms to continue working. 

The program is also offering remote community classroom learning sessions with Queen’s professors to help local businesses navigate current challenges. 

“[The program] is just ramping up. If students want to volunteer on these projects, it’s a great opportunity to learn,” Boughner added. “If you could help on this process, it could be a pretty impactful thing to do.”

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