June 4, 2020 – Economic Progress

Students at Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship help community businesses navigate COVID-19 pandemic


The Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Catholic University of America brings together entrepreneurs, academics, and students to teach principled entrepreneurship and to develop projects to grow companies, lift communities, and help individuals flourish. Since the coronavirus hit the country in March, the Center’s offerings have become even more relevant as D.C.-based small businesses reel from the coronavirus pandemic.

To help businesses survive the pandemic, the Center quickly brought several of its offerings online, and expanded the tools it was using to communicate with local entrepreneurs. For example, the Center’s weekly newsletter conveys information about best practices in pivoting products and services in response to COVID-19 and explains how to ensure the safety of customers and employees, navigate philanthropy and government aid programs, and use innovative technology tools.

“In reality, how many chamber of commerce conference calls can you be on when you are trying to save your business?” Brian Becker, director of small business outreach at the Center said. “Our role has become to distill information for overwhelmed entrepreneurs. We are a platform, a one-stop shop for them. And they trust us because of our long-term engagement with them.” Becker cites the newsletter’s 40 percent open rate as evidence that businesses are listening. (The average open rate for e-newsletters is about 15 to 20 percent.)

The Center also provides one-on-one video consultations with business owners and hosts a weekly virtual happy hour where community businesses, students, and experts connect to compare notes and brainstorm. When they departed campus, students who had signed up for the Center’s spring courses were given a standing weekly assignment: read what they could about the challenges facing small businesses in their hometowns and regions, research potential solutions to those problems, and turn those into actionable insights.

The students’ work has been incorporated into the Center’s communications with local small businesses, including the happy hours.

The results of the regular exchanges have had quite an impact. For instance, one student nominated Call Your Mother, a local deli that opened in 2018, for Vans’ “Foot the Bill” program. Under the program, Vans will provide revenues to at least 80 local and community-driven small businesses by manufacturing custom shoes with designs that represent each business’ model. The deli was chosen, and now Call Your Mother will have additional funding for its employee fund, which supports 144 hourly team members.

Becker said that all the Center asks from businesses in return is that “our students are allowed to walk alongside the business owners on their journey.” He estimates that 40 percent of Ciocca Center students come from families that own or are involved in a small business. Working with entrepreneurs from around the Catholic University campus and the greater D.C. area gives these young people a broader view of the values and skills necessary to build and maintain a successful business.

“If we continue to provide value to small businesses and immerse our students in real-time living case studies, the businesses will benefit, and the students will learn valuable skills–a true win-win,” Becker concluded. “You can take an accounting, strategy or marketing class, but getting live action experience with real entrepreneurs provides a much better learning opportunity.”

Click here for more information about the Charles Koch Foundation’s support of the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship.