Photo by Dana Rene Bowler, Catholic University  
Organizers of the ICIC partnership with CUA's Busch School of Business and Economics stand with Cardinal Donald Wuerl during the Feb. 28 kickoff meeting. From left to right: Robert Keith, John Garvey, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Hyacinth Vassell, Pedro Alfonso, Steve Grossman and William Bowman.
Photo by Dana Rene Bowler, Catholic University Organizers of the ICIC partnership with CUA's Busch School of Business and Economics stand with Cardinal Donald Wuerl during the Feb. 28 kickoff meeting. From left to right: Robert Keith, John Garvey, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Hyacinth Vassell, Pedro Alfonso, Steve Grossman and William Bowman.
Students and faculty at The Catholic University of America are following Pope Francis’ call to go out into the community and “smell like the sheep” through the school’s new four-year partnership with the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), said William Bowman, dean of CUA’s Busch School of Business and Economics.

The partnership is bringing ICIC’s Inner City Capital Connections program (ICCC) to Washington, which aims to empower small businesses in distressed areas to grow through training, coaching, and networking. As the businesses grow, they will create new jobs in the inner city and promote economic stability for the city’s residents.

In other cities across the country where the ICCC program runs, banks, corporations or foundations generally partner with them to make the program happen. The Busch School is the first university ever to partner with ICIC, and the program is free-of-charge to participants thanks to the funding that Catholic University is providing.

More than 200 CEOs, government officials, social service providers, and faculty gathered at The Busch School on Feb. 28 for the kickoff event for the new initiative, which Hyacinth Vassell, the director of the Inner City Capital Connections Program, said is double the crowd of the largest kickoff event they had previously had.

John Garvey, the president of Catholic University, began the kickoff event by reminding the crowd of the founding principle of the business school, which is now in its fourth year of operation. Garvey said the school was founded on the idea that “the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, must be at the heart of business.”

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who serves as the chancellor of the university, also spoke to the crowd, expressing his excitement and gratitude for the initiative. One of the reasons why the initiative is so significant, he said, is that “it takes the very best of Catholic social teaching and the very best of good business practice, and puts them together.”

The first cohort of small businesses will begin a 40-hour program on Sept. 20, beginning with a daylong opening seminar where they hear from professors and practitioners about keys to small business growth. Following the seminar, there are several webinars and coaching sessions to help the participants develop custom solutions for their businesses. Finally, there is a national conference in New York City where participants hear from speakers, pitch to capital providers, and showcase their businesses at the ICCC Marketplace.

In order to qualify for the program, the businesses must have been in operation for two years or more and either have its headquarters in an economically distressed area or have more than 40 percent of its employees residing in an economically distressed area. The program’s organizers are hoping to have 100 small businesses signed up to participate, and encouraged people at the kickoff event to nominate businesses that may benefit from the program.

Pedro Alfonso, a graduate of the ICCC program in New York City, said before he attended the program in 2006, he had a desire to grow his business, Dynamic Concepts, but did not have the tools to do that successfully.

“When businesses do not have the right information, it is difficult for them to compete and succeed,” Alfonso said.

Alfonso called the program “a game changer,” because since participating in the program, his business has grown to have almost $50 million in revenue.

Steve Grossman, the CEO of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, said Catholic University is the first urban business school to take on the role of helping drive economic revitalization in their community. By doing so, he thinks they will have the opportunity to lead a national conversation about the role of urban business schools.

Vassell said she appreciates that the people at Catholic University “will roll up their sleeves” to help the inner city businesses and residents. Through this program, Vassell said, “We’re just the hands doing [God’s] work.”

Bowman told the Catholic Standard the partnership is helping the school fulfill its mission of taking the principles of Catholic social teaching, such as the dignity of the person, subsidiarity, solidarity, and the common good, and applying them to business.

He also noted that Pope Francis has been critical of some business practices, which has challenged them to think in a new way about how they will advise businesses. In the process, Bowman said the Holy Spirit gave them inspiration, which led to the new partnership.

Through the program, the people in the city of Washington will get to know the Busch School, and the Busch School will better get to know the city that the school is located in, Bowman said.

Students at the Busch School will have the opportunity to participate in the initiative by signing up for a 9-credit program, featuring a course on small business growth in the fall and an apprenticeship in the spring, where they would be paired with one of the small businesses in the program and have the opportunity to go out into the community and work with them.

“Our Christian vocation is encounter,” Bowman said. “This is a ‘be-with-people’ project.”

While undergraduate business students are not yet experts, Bowman said what they do know well is digital marketing, which is an area of great need for many inner city small businesses. The school can quickly teach the students how to do digital marketing with things they use every day, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and the students can use their skills to help the businesses they are partnered with.

The students will also have the opportunity to experience all the components of the ICCC program, and through their apprenticeship, they will learn about the challenges of small business ownership firsthand. They will be there with the small business owners to “feel their heartache, pain, barriers” and sometimes even see them get the door slammed in their face by potential partners, Grossman said.

Sixty-two percent of the small businesses that have participated in the ICCC program so far are minority-owned, and 37 percent are women-owned. Their leaders often do not have access to the same networks of capital providers that companies in more economically prosperous areas do, which is one of the problems that the ICCC hopes to solve.

“We will never guarantee equal results for everyone, but we sure should be in the business of creating equal opportunity for everyone,” Grossman said.

Robert Keith, who is managing the ICIC partnership through The Busch School’s Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship, noted that 25 percent of the students at the Busch School come from families with small businesses, and participating in the program could be preparing them to go back into their family business. Often, when he is telling students about the new program, he cannot finish the conversation without them saying, “How do I apply?”

Andreas Widmer, the director of the Ciocca Center, said when he first moved to Washington he was shocked to see the level of poverty present in the capital of the free world. And while he had done projects similar to ICCC in developing countries abroad, he knew that the business school needed to focus its efforts in its own home.

While Catholic University already has a strong outreach to the poor through students doing things like delivering sandwiches and sleeping bags to people living on the streets, Widmer emphasized that this program would provide long-term solutions to avert the crisis. 

“Giving them a sandwich and a sleeping bag isn’t going to get them off the street,” Widmer said. “In the long term, people need jobs.”

People need stable jobs that come from businesses that need their human capital, not just jobs that are donated to them to be nice, he added. A job is an essential part of their human dignity, because “when we work, we imitate God,” in a way that animals or plants cannot, Widmer said.

“If you take work away, you are taking a part of that person’s humanity,” he added.

Both Keith and Widmer, who served as a Swiss Guard for Pope St. John Paul II, noted that pope’s definition of poverty as “the exclusion from networks of productivity and exchange.” Widmer said they are exercising solidarity by integrating the poor into their own network of connections through the ICCC program.

Bowman said he also hopes to engage many of the other schools at the university, such as the School of Social Service, which can help prepare people to be ready to work through counseling, or the School of Nursing, which can help resolve medical issues or drug dependency that is preventing someone from entering the workforce. In this way, the school seeks to instill a person-centered focus into business leaders through the ICCC program.

“This isn’t just someone I hire and fire,” Bowman said. “It is someone made in the image and likeness of God.”

By remembering that Christ would have died for that one person on the sidewalk, “you can’t have the same attitude towards them” afterward, Bowman said. And through getting them back to work, which Bowman said is essential to their dignity as a human being, they seek to “let them know their worth before God.”