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In the mix: Local businesses absorb student interns [The Montana Standard, Butte :: ]
[March 23, 2014]

In the mix: Local businesses absorb student interns [The Montana Standard, Butte :: ]

(Montana Standard (Butte) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 23--Professor Traci O'Neill had a brainstorm over Christmas break to match local businesses with student interns as a way to strengthen the Butte business community.

The upshot? The connections give businesses a boost in marketing while students garner valuable on-the-job experience. The Tech-to-business project is an offshoot of the Montana Business Expansion and Retention, or BEAR, program.

The networking may help keep young professionals in Butte and help expand the economy.

"There's lots of interest in the internships," said O'Neill, Sugar Cupcakery co-owner in addition to her professor duties. "Students are lovin' it." Four of O'Neill's marketing and business students are already forging strong ties with potential long-term employers in the BEAR Enhancement pilot project.

"I'm really hoping that through this process we can find positions for our graduates so we can keep them here," she added. "I think they will be able to prove their worth. So if a business can afford it, they can hire them and we can keep them here." Megan Graff interns for owner Maria Ralph at Butte Business Center, a new "coworking" business model that offers collaborative work space and office resources for independents, freelancers and the self-employed.

Ralph wants Graff, a senior from Helena, to build her a marketable logo to help sell her innovative, think-outside-the-box services for anyone who wants to work outside the home.

"Megan will work on branding," said Ralph, whose business is at 523 E. Front St., Suite 501 in Executive Village.

"She'll help me figure out what my brand is and make my logo more visible so I can be more effective with advertising." Like Graff, all four interns are dual majors in marketing and business management.

Kirstie McPherson is the epitome of a dynamic business major who's out to conquer the world, starting with Butte, Montana.

An articulate, walking, talking whirlwind, McPherson is Tech's newly elected student body president. As an intern, she does variety of work for Sandana's Mexican Family Restaurant, 27 N. Main St.: web development, marketing, financial services and broad management help.

Sandana's owner Sandra Felix is thrilled to have McPherson on board.

Since we've opened, it's just been me," said Felix. "I know the cooking, cleaning and customer side, but the business side has been a struggle for me to keep organized, so I believe she will help me." Already McPherson creates spread sheets for receipts and streamlining inventory. She helped Felix and crew with a successful one-year grand opening on March 15, when the restaurant stayed open until 4 a.m. feeding hungry after-hours St. Paddy's Day partiers.

It didn't hurt that Felix already knew McPherson, who drops in several times a week to eat dinner and hang with college friends.

"I've known her since we opened," said Felix. "It makes it a lot easier when I know somebody who's been eating my food." ABOUT BEAR Funding the BEAR intern program are four Butte businesses: Headwaters RDC, Butte Local Development Corp., NorthWestern Energy and the Tech Business and Information Technology Department.

Students earn credit for the internship, but the partners pay them a stipend, too.

"It's intended to give those businesses a little extra help to help them be more sustainable," said Rick Edwards, member of the Southwest Montana BEAR chapter and NorthWestern Energy key accounts and economic development director.

The intern program is the first of its kind in the state.

"So hopefully, if it works the way we hope it works, we'll be able to get some additional funding across the state and make it available to others," Edwards added.

BEAR was formed under the Montana Economic Developers Association umbrella, said statewide coordinator Gloria O'Rourke of Anaconda. The 12 BEAR chapters are funded by the Montana Governor's Office of Economic Development, Montana Department of Commerce and Department of Labor.

A Billings chapter kick-started the business model bent on business retention before it spread statewide in 2005, said O'Rourke.

"It's really great when so many entities come together to strengthen local businesses," O'Rourke said. "The internships give businesses a little professional expertise and gives the intern hands-on experience, as well." ONGOING PROGRAM O'Neill sparked the BEAR Enhancement offshoot when she gave a Butte Chamber of Commerce-sponsored workshop on small business marketing last fall. It triggered interest from the business community and her Tech associates.

Her vision is to grow the program to include outreach to outlying southwestern Montana counties, where businesses may lack essential resources in small towns.

"Now, since the scuttle's gotten around a little bit, the students are taking on the scholarships," said O'Neill. "I'm getting calls on it." Word has spread and business/marketing students are taking notice, too.

"We've got awesome students who are looking for really good opportunities to learn," said O'Neill.

In order to meet success in the Butte community, McPherson acknowledges that students must be proactive.

"You really have to get into the community to get opportunities," said McPherson. "Everybody always says, 'It's who you know," but it's not really. It's 'who knows you.'" A lot of the opportunities I've had are because I know a lot of people." Both McPherson and Graff plan to enroll in the online University of Montana MBA program after graduation in order to expand their own marketability.

Graff, a Helena Capitol graduate, said she loves living in Butte. She doesn't let a hearing impairment slow her down.

"What's kept me here is the sense of community," said Graff, whose friends failed to understand why she didn't enroll in Montana State or UM to study business as an undergraduate.

"I've never felt out of place or an outsider," Graff added. "I easily could have left and gone somewhere else. But my professors all knew my name the first week; they knew I had a hearing impairment. You wouldn't find that in another school." Both appreciate the opportunity to garner real-world know-how in business.

"We're lucky to have professors at Tech who really care about our experiences," added McPherson.

___ (c)2014 The Montana Standard (Butte, Mont.) Visit The Montana Standard (Butte, Mont.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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