For Danni El Tayeb, a Consortium fellow in Emory University Goizueta Business School’s class of 2021, simply staying home to help minimize the spread of COVID-19 was not sufficient.
“It’s not enough to just sit at home and do nothing. You are doing your part by doing that, but that’s sort of the minimum,” he says. “I wanted to take that to the next level and create an impact in a unique way.”
So, with the help of five classmates, El Tayeb launched Ponce & Friends to help small businesses in the Atlanta area that were hit hard by the crisis. In addition to providing pro-bono management consulting services to these businesses, the organization facilitates opportunities for Emory students, who have had their jobs or internships shortened, revoked or deferred, to get valuable hands-on experience. Projects focus on product and marketing strategy, digital transformation and supply chain transformation.
“Everybody who is part of this program is being helped in some way,” says El Tayeb.
In between his work, El Tayeb took some time to chat with The Consortium about how this unique project came about and how Ponce & Friends is working to make a difference for the Atlanta community.
Tell me about your background and how you got to where you are now.
I’m Sudanese. I grew up in the Middle East until I was about 16 and came to the U.S. in 2010. I went to the University of Illinois and studied industrial engineering, and while I was there, I grew really fascinated with entrepreneurship and tech and formed a couple of organizations that consulted for various startups around campus. When I graduated in 2015, I moved to Atlanta, Ga., and started working for a company called Manhattan Associates. I started out with them in technology consulting but moved into a more strategic role.
It was in that role that I decided to pursue an MBA. I really wanted to stay in the Atlanta area. I fell in love with the community at Emory and decided to pursue my MBA last year. I joined in the fall of 2019 and will graduate in May of 2021, and this summer, I’m interning at Apple.
Have you always had an interest in starting your own business, particularly one like Ponce & Friends?
I always had some interest in starting a business, but for this initiative, I was more interested in it from a social impact perspective. I’ve been involved with our impact investing organization on campus; we manage a pretty small fund, but still a fund in itself, that invests in various organizations around Atlanta. That is sort of how I got plugged into the small business community.
With coronavirus, there were a lot of articles that came out talking about how small businesses were some of the organizations that were most impacted by the crisis. That, combined with people saying that the best thing that you can do to help was to just stay home — I felt like that wasn’t enough. So I decided to start Ponce & Friends.
Ponce & Friends is a fully virtual consulting organization that works with small businesses around Atlanta. It’s a pro bono organization, so all of the people staffed across projects are students, and from a social impact perspective, it serves two purposes: On one end, we’re serving some of those small businesses in our community that have been affected by the virus, but on the other end, we’re also staffing those projects with students who have either lost internships or had their job offers deferred to 2021. We’re looking to have a double-edged impact.
When and how did the idea come to you? Where did the name originate?
I think there was a lot of frustration for me around wanting to help but not physically being able to leave the house to [do so]. I thought about this idea and talked to a few people who I knew had similar interests as me and who were also diverse in nature — in their professional and social backgrounds. I reached out to four people, and they all said they were on board. They all loved the idea, so we decided to start Ponce & Friends together.
Ponce de León is a really famous avenue in Atlanta, and we wanted our name to sort of reflect the fact that we are working with Atlanta small businesses and that we wanted to be a part of the community, so that’s where Ponce comes from. Then, when we were thinking about what to call ourselves, we started with Ponce & Company, Ponce Consulting Group, that sort of thing, but we really wanted to focus on the fact that we are working with the community, with small businesses. We don’t want them to see us as consultants, but more as friends that are helping them out. So, that’s where Ponce & Friends comes from.
How did things progress from there?
For about our first four weeks, we were super quiet. We worked a lot on partnerships, thinking about which organizations we should partner with, and started reaching out. One that we landed on was actually through Emory’s Social Enterprise Center. There’s an accelerator called Start:ME. Start:ME has accelerator programs in underserved communities in the Atlanta area for people who want to take their side hustle and make it a full-time business. They incubate businesses for about 17 weeks, after which they launch. We worked with the director of that program to get introduced to people who launched [through the] program four or five years ago, and are now running their businesses full time, who might have been impacted [by the pandemic].
Our first two projects were through Start:ME, and both of the founders of those companies were refugees, so there was definitely a big social impact focus there. We’re also working with a couple of larger organizations; we’re working with a large robotics company that works in the supply chain industry and a carbon-negative cattle farm here in the Atlanta area.
Do you still work through Start:ME?
The first two projects that we landed were through them, but the two that we just kicked off were through word of mouth. We’re still going to partner with Start:ME to identify new opportunities, but we’re not solely working with them.
Will you continue to do Ponce & Friends throughout your summer internship?
That’s something we’re trying to work through right now. Actually, four out of five of the team members have internships for the summer, so we’re working on figuring out some sort of autonomy — maybe bringing in some of the students who have lost their internships or that are going to be available over the summer to do some more operational type work. That way, I can just help out with decision making and brainstorming, be more hands off for the summer, and allow people who need the opportunity to run with this.
Are the students who are staffing these projects other MBA students?
Right now, one person on our team — her name is Tanya — is sort of our liaison with the undergraduate community, and she is very plugged into the entrepreneurship, startup and small business network for undergrads. What we’re doing is we’re initially staffing the projects with MBAs so that they can scope out what solutions should look like, and once it’s time for the actual work to be done, the MBAs can request undergrad resources to do a lot of the analytical type work. We’re mostly working with business school students, but we’re also open to taking other undergraduate students as well.
It’s all about the experience, honestly. It’s not about making money or raising revenues or anything like that. It’s about getting students who need experience good experience and getting small businesses that need the help some good minds to work with.
Why was it important to you to incorporate students into this work?
As most of us business school students know, the recruiting process is very taxing — it’s very stressful — and seeing somebody go through that process for three to six months only to land something and then have the rug pulled out from under them was really frustrating for me. That was happening to a lot of my close friends, classmates and colleagues, and I felt like there had to be a way to fix that. I was also very frustrated that a lot of the companies revoked some of these offers when a lot of the students were voicing that they were willing to work for free. When there are students who are willing to work for free who are as qualified as MBAs or even undergrad BBAs out of Emory, I think those resources need to be leveraged somehow.
Do you only offer consulting or do you also create, say, marketing materials for businesses?
The way that our projects are structured is they go in phases. Our first phase is ideating, what we think their products or a certain process should look like and that sort of thing. The way that it works is that if everything’s good with the client by the end of the first phase or the first project, we plan to re-sign so that we can actually do the implementation — whether that’s creating new messaging around their product or implementing a new payment platform for them to use or setting up an e-commerce channel for them. So, the first phase is kind of ideation, and if they want to pursue a second phase, we would be open to doing the implementation as well.
Can you tell me about some of the projects you’re working on?
One of them is a supper club that was started by two Ethiopian refugees. Essentially, they found that refugees were kind of separated from the core Atlanta community, and they [thought] what better way to connect the two than with food. So, what they do is they host monthly dinners where they’ll bring in a refugee chef to cook meals, and they get compensated for some of the seats. They have a pretty big following; they sell out their monthly dinners in minutes.
So are you helping them figure out ways to adapt in this new COVID-19 world?
So, since their business, the food business, is an experience business, is there a way to bring this experience to people if they can’t be around each other or super close to each other physically? That’s one of the questions that we’re trying to answer for them.
Is your hope to continue Ponce & Friends even after the crisis subsides?
It’s very much dependent on the resources and if we have enough supply of people who are willing to work for free or very close to free. So I think that’s a decision we can make at a point when we’re gauging if students are looking for more experiences like that.
Do you have any interest in expanding or working with companies outside of Atlanta?
Definitely. One of the things that we ask about when we’re looking at different projects is location, so that plays a huge role in the projects we are selecting and choosing to work with. However, another metric that we look at is impact, how much impact would this project have on the business and its community, and I think that if that impact number starts growing, even for a business that’s not in Atlanta, it might be worth pursuing a project like that.