Learning the business Learning the business Learning the business

Nicole Bryant, ’21, is getting a real-world business education and helping a women-owned startup, thanks to the Foster School's Consulting and Business Development Center.

By Malavika Jagannathan | Photo by Dennis Wise | June 2021 issue

The day Kate Isler launched TheWMarketplace—where you can buy an embroidered pashmina scarf and a consultation with an attorney in one purchase—the women-led e-commerce site featured about 700 products.

Just six months later, shoppers can browse 2,300 products and services from 340 providers. But growth came with challenges for this brainchild of CEO Isler and her business partner, Susan Gates.

“We’re a startup, so our resources are limited—and our people resources are really limited,” Isler explains. When it was time for long-term business planning, a welcome solution came in the form of a team of UW undergraduate students in the Foster School of Business, working on a quarter-long project with the school’s Consulting and Business Development Center (CBDC).

As Nicole Bryant, ’21, a finance major with a love for numbers and problem-solving, perused a list of possible clients, she felt drawn to the company’s mission. “I was really into the fact that TheWMarketplace was women-owned,” says Bryant, “and I thought it was a cool business model.”

There’s just something different about applying your knowledge to a real project. It feels so much more rewarding instead of a test at the end of the quarter.

Nicole Bryant

In an industry dominated by global giants like Amazon and eBay, the startup is intentional about the businesses they feature: those owned by women or certified as gender equitable by a third party. “Our real mission is to change culture,” says Isler, noting that women are disproportionately bearing the economic impacts of the pandemic. “Women are responsible for 85% of purchasing decisions, so if we can give them the option to buy from one another, we have an opportunity to level the playing field.”

Shepherded by a trio of UW alumni mentors, Bryant’s team worked closely with TheWMarketplace all winter quarter. From analyzing demographics to studying the competition, they learned how to translate research into business decisions. At the end of the quarter, the student consultants walk away with invaluable practical experience, while the business gets critical insights to help it stay competitive.

“There’s just something different about applying your knowledge to a real project,” says Bryant, whose goal was to help TheWMarketplace carve out a niche in e-commerce. “It feels so much more rewarding instead of a test at the end of the quarter.”

Supporting underserved communities

Each year, hundreds of undergraduates like Bryant are immersed in the behind-the-scenes work of running a business, thanks to the Consulting and Business Development Center.

Since the center’s inception at the Foster School in 1995, student consultants and faculty-led courses have helped generate more than $250 million in new revenue and retain more than 200,000 jobs, primarily at businesses owned by women and people of color. And the benefits go both ways. In a recent survey of graduates, 90% of student participants say their experience helped them land their first job after graduation.

The center’s mission—to enhance the Husky Experience and assist local businesses owned by people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, veterans and others in underserved communities—has been bolstered by a recent philanthropic gift from UW Regent Joanne Harrell and Bruce Harrell, a former Seattle City Council president.

Bryant thinks of the CBDC as her second home on the UW campus: “It’s an amazing center with an amazing mission.” An internship her first year with the center’s social-media marketing team led to a permanent job there as an administrative assistant. Last summer she worked on another CBDC project, analyzing overtime expenses for the Washington State Ferries.

Bryant is grateful for donors like the Harrells who are “putting their money toward something that benefits people who really need it, like communities of color and women- owned businesses.”

Gaining real-life skills

For the businesses who work with the CBDC, the benefits are priceless.

From conducting demographic research to studying company financials, Bryant’s team did work that might otherwise have cost TheWMarketplace thousands in consulting fees. But Isler says it’s not just the savings—it’s the invaluable information that will have the biggest impact on the business.

“Having the Foster team come in and say, ‘Here’s where you sit in the market, here’s where your big opportunities are, here’s how you can differentiate your offer’ is incredible in terms of value,” says Isler about a strategic analysis Bryant put together, evaluating the company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

For the student consultants, learning what is and isn’t feasible is part of the process. Before any new ideas go to the client, they’re first shared with a team of advisers—three Foster alumni with real-life expertise from working at T-Mobile, Amazon and Oracle.

Sometimes their advice comes in the form of a gentle no, like when Bryant’s team eagerly proposed a mobile app to help lure a younger demographic to TheWMarketplace. Knowing that apps are costly to develop, the advisors warned the team it might not be practical for a client with limited financial resources.

Despite the added challenges of working on a complex project over Zoom, Bryant was grateful to walk away from this experience with useful, marketable skills that can’t be taught in the classroom, like flexibility and creativity. Working with a startup, especially one run by women for women, opened her eyes to a different way of doing business.

“Kate and Susan are just so passionate about making it better for everyone and really do want to change the world,” says Bryant about TheWMarketplace founders. “It’s really cool to see how driven they are because they created this from the ground up.”

Investing in the community

Bruce and Joanne Harrell

UW Regent Joanne Harrell, ’76, ’79, and her husband, Bruce Harrell, ’80, ’84, a former Seattle City Council member, are known for their dedicated civic engagement and social justice advocacy.

“The UW’s commitment to equity and inclusion has to begin with a willingness to invest in programs that drive educational opportunities to develop future leaders and support a healthy economic ecosystem for everyone,” the Harrells say about their decision to support the Consulting and Business Development Center with a $100,000 investment.

They hope the Joanne and Bruce Harrell Family Endowment will help advance the center’s mission of serving historically disadvantaged communities, while giving students an in-depth understanding of the complexities of growing and sustaining businesses.