COVID-19 Business Fellowship Program helps change lives

By Nandika Chatterjee, Staff Writer

One consequence of the pandemic for college students has been lost internship opportunities from over the summer and into the fall. Another has been the loss of customers for small local businesses. University alumni Walker Post and Alex Littleton saw these two problems and thought of a way to help both situations.

They started the COVID-19 Business Fellowship Program (CBFP) in early April this year.

Post graduated in 2018 with a major in broadcast journalism and a minor in political science. He currently works as a social impact consultant at Prosper Strategies, a company that helps non-profit organizations scale their impact through approaches like marketing, fundraising and strategic planning. In addition to this job, Post now operates as the the co-founder and Chief-Operating Officer of CBFP.

The idea of the program was a product of the negative impact of COVID-19.

Post said, “Many of our younger peers were losing out on their internships for the summer. We know how important their internships were, we know how hard students work to receive those internships. To have that kind of opportunity taken from under their feet was challenging for us to see.”

He said they simultaneously noticed a lot of small businesses that they would drive by in Chicago closing their doors, some of them, for the last time. They had no way of reaching their customers because many of them were not prepared for the digital-first world.

With a majority of the population indoors, shopping and communicating via their computer or phones, small businesses were left crippled after the pandemic swept the globe. Not only were they unprepared to face the digital world, but also underprepared to keep up with its pace. With no websites or feasible marketing strategies, they were unable to reach their customers.

Post said, “We saw those two problems and married them into a solution.”

Bailey Burke, senior in Media, connected with Alex Littleton through the professional business fraternity Phi Gamma Nu (PGN).

Burke, now involved with the program, shared her own story. She said “Unfortunately, due to the COVID pandemic, I lost my internship. Initially, I felt helpless and upset, until Alex and Walker approached with their groundbreaking idea for the fellowship.”

When asked to explain how the program works, Burke said that the fellowship unites students who lost internships with experienced mentors throughout Illinois to help struggling small businesses in the face of COVID-19. Over the summer, they were able to unlock over $175k in cost savings for 47 small businesses across Illinois, making a tangible impact on those communities.

University students and alumni alike were able to help some of their favorite businesses stay afloat. Through the experience, they not only made a difference in people’s lives but also made connections with like-minded individuals.

Burke reflected, “As one of the first fellows, I had the unique opportunity to work both internally, as well as directly with a digital boutique media firm in Chicago. I was able to help create a marketing and social media plan and PR strategy for CBFP. Additionally, I worked to develop a comprehensive SEO strategy for my client.”

With this simple idea in mind, Post and Littleton had initially underestimated the scale their program would reach. Littleton used his connections at the GIES School of Business to pitch their idea. Post recalls how the business school was a tremendous help and served as a sounding board that supported them through their journey.

While the process and results were extremely rewarding, Post recalled all the hard work he and Littleton had to put into setting up CBFP.

“Every day was a completely different learning experience,” he said. “It brought about big challenges and stress, but also every day was incredibly rewarding. We were working 80-hour weeks, often Alex and I between our two jobs, to make this program successful.”

As a journalism major, Post initially thought he would become a journalist, writing about people no one knew about. Come his senior year, Post said he became more interested in social impact; instead of just writing about these issues, he wanted to directly be able to impact them. Through his two jobs, he is now on a journey to make his dreams come true.

Encouraged by the engagement they received in April, the CBFP team is currently recruiting for their second round of the program,  and their applications will close later this week. This will provide many more opportunities for students and touch many more lives.

Burke said, “CBFP presented me with a real-life connection affording me the ability to work, learn and grow, ultimately giving me a more marketable work experience upon graduation. This summer taught me that even in the face of adversity, resilience and a can-do attitude can make great things happen.”

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