From the June 2006 issue of Startups

Believe it or not, business students might actually have a lot to teach you. MBA programs such as Pepperdine University's Education to Business (E2B) Applied Learning Program offers candidates the chance to act as consultants, resolving business problems for participating companies for free. E2B program director Doreen Shanahan explains, "It's a way of connecting the learning methodology and concepts being taught in the classroom with the real world of business," rather than of just applying them to historical case studies.

Formally launched in 2002, Pepperdine's E2B program has had no shortage of participating businesses with challenges to address. "Companies benefit from the infusion of talent and insight they might never get [otherwise]," says Shanahan. With class sizes at the Malibu, California, university of about 20 to 25 students, five competitive teams are formed to work on aspects of the businesses needing attention. The teams ultimately provide resolutions or recommendations to the businesses.

In 2005, George Vicente's Security Base, a security products company in Tustin, California, became an E2B project. Vicente, 56, had been selling his products via e-commerce but wanted to explore direct distribution through warehouse stores and other opportunities, so he needed help crafting a marketing plan. The five teams worked on his case for the duration of the trimester-long class, providing midterm and final reports complete with presentations. "I was quite pleased," says Vicente. "I got five reports, each covering different market segments for me to explore." Through extensive research, one team put together a sales package, and the research and statistics the consulting teams provided him have bolstered Vicente's presentations for buyer meetings. Now, his products are sold at Sam's Club, and he's in talks with Costco and Smart & Final. "I would not have known where to start. There are companies that charge thousands of dollars for this; this didn't cost us a dime!" says a grateful Vicente, who expects 2006 sales of $3 million to $4 million.

MBA student consulting programs can be found at many major institutions. If your startup could use some help, check your local colleges and universities to see if they offer similar programs. There's nothing to lose--and priceless advice and information to gain.