By Ador Pereda Yano
Northwest Asian Weekly
What is the responsibility of a public university in addressing the economic needs of people in underserved communities? Michael Verchot, the Director of the University of Washington’s Consulting and Business Development Center (CBDC), believes UW’s business school has a powerful role and an effective response to this question.
Mr. Verchot is being honored this year by the Nothwest Asian Weekly with a Visionary Award for co-founding and shepherding the UW Foster School of Business program for over 20 years. Under his guidance, the CBDC developed a comprehensive program that now involves a dozen faculty members teaching classes for about 150 business people a year, and over 300 students working with over 50 for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations. The UW business program also now includes a national network of 39 business schools with similarly-focused programs.
Verchot has been instrumental in connecting the academic resources of the university with businesses located in economically lagging communities. The program helps accelerate the growth of these businesses while at the same time enhancing student education.
Since 1995, Verchot and CBDC have helped owners of minority businesses tackle their development challenges in communities such as the Chinatown-International District, the Central Area, and Rainier Valley. The UW outreach has helped these business owners operate successfully and create jobs to build wealth within their underserved communities—modest wealth that according to Verchot, enables people in these communities “to buy a house, to send children to college, to retire and not be indigent.”
Growing up in the Northeast during the social upheavals and idealistic movements of the 1960’s, Verchot became aware of disturbing gaps in economic opportunities when he was around six or seven years old. His Irish-Catholic family had just celebrated the emergence of new opportunities for their previously unfavored community, which culminated with the election of John F. Kennedy, the first Irish Catholic American president.
But the young Michael, raised by middle-class parents in the suburbs of New Jersey, also grew up during the time of the 1967 riots in Newark and the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King. He became aware of inequalities in many other communities and questioned why some people, especially members of minority groups, struggled to find the means to provide for their families. He remembers, “What always interested me are these gaps: some people have certain opportunities, other people didn’t.” Even at an early age, he had wrestled with the question “what can be done to bridge that opportunity gap?”
His strong awareness of these social and economic problems in American society never left Verchot as he went to college in Massachusetts, then afterward to work in Washington DC. Looking to continue his education by attending graduate school, he was inspired to head to the Pacific Northwest and attend the University of Washington Foster School of Business because of Professor Thaddeus Spratlen, the first tenured African American professor at the UW business school. Now Emeritus Professor of Marketing, Spratlen researched the means to address economic inequities in the country and also wrestled with the same issues Verchot had considered for many years.
As a thirty-five year-old MBA student, Verchot joined with Professor Spratlen, Professor David Gautschi, Senior Lecturer Ali Tarhouni, and fellow MBA student Paul Pressley in developing a concept that aligns academic expertise with efforts to fix social and economic problems.
At the founding of the business development center in 1995, Verchot and his business school colleagues noticed that in the time and place where Microsoft was growing at a tremendous rate, local businesses were developing at a much slower pace. Communities such as the Chinatown-International District, the Central Area, and Rainier Valley were not sharing in the economic boom that characterized the Seattle area in the 1990’s. With his colleagues at the UW Foster School of Business, Verchot created a business plan that established the formation of the Business & Economic Development Center at UW, which later became the Consulting and Business Development Center.
Verchot hesitates at the idea of being called a visionary, stating that the initial concept was fairly simple, prompted by the observation during the mid-1990’s Seattle economic boom”that we have small businesses in underserved communities that weren’t growing at an optimal rate. And yet we had in Seattle, one of the best business schools in the country, if not in the world, and a public business school, to boot.”
Since then, the UW business program lead by Verchot has provided businesses owned by women and minorities with business planning assistance, financial analysis, enhanced marketing plans, operational analysis, and general business development guidance provided by teams of UW business students and faculty advisors working with the business owners. As a result, the CBDC has helped develop over $90 million of new business revenues and helped create over 10,000 new jobs.
As impressively as these financial numbers attest to the success of Verchot and the CBDC, the impact on people in the communities that Verchot and the business center have helped over the years is reflected in their glowing reviews.
Tomio Moriguchi, then-CEO of Uwajimaya, which was the first Asian American-owned business to work with the UW business program, says of Verchot’s being honored with the Visionary Award, “It is fitting that 20 years of his dedicated work to help minority business, in our community, is appreciated and recognized.”
Nishit Mehta, CEO of HyGen Pharmaceuticals, expresses his high regards for Verchot and the CBDC: “For over the decade that Michael and his team have supported HyGen, Michael has always included us in the various programs offered, encouraged us to participate and genuinely showed his care and attention toward our success, making us feel comfortable in expressing ourselves and our business issues patiently toward the end result of finding solutions to allow us to learn, grow and prosper. ”
Another business owner who has received valuable business guidance from the CBDC program is Lewis Rudd, CEO of Ezell’s Famous Chicken. Rudd met Verchot in 1999 and a year later started a project with UW business students that improved his business marketing and community support. A later student project in 2004 provided him with an efficiency study that helped his business operate more effectively, increasing sales by 50 percent a year after implementing the project recommendations; Rudd says his business is still benefiting from these recommendations. He credits Verchot and the UW business center with enabling Ezell’s quick and sustainable growth from two to 12 locations. Rudd says, “Michael has always been there. He called a lot to check on how things are going” and connected his business with the right students—”bright, brilliant, inspiring, and engaged students.” Rudd is especially impressed with Verchot’s “passion for the economic empowerment of people of color.”
Doris Quan of Mother Of Pearl LLC also attests to Verchot’s dedication to the people in the community: “Michael is one of the most committed individuals for diversity and local business development. He works selflessly and tirelessly. The way he evolved the CBDC is impressive. He is a very effective spokesman for the university and a great advocate for the community and for access by all, regardless of ethnicity or race.”
Verchot has found sources of inspiration from the community he has served, like Uwajimaya’s Tomio Moriguchi. Early in the program and at a critical juncture, Moriguchi supported the goals of CBDC, not just to help the Asian Pacific Islander community in Seattle, but also the African American community in the Central Area District where Moriguchi grew up. Verchot regards Moriguchi (who served on the CBDC Advisory Board for 10 years including two years as co-chair) as an example of the inherent sense of entrepreneurship that characterizes the API community. But more importantly, he admires Moriguchi’s expansive view of “communities all working together,” not just the long-established Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino American communities, but Vietnamese and South Asian communities of Seattle, as well as African American, Latino, and Native American communities. Verchot supports the insight he learned from Moriguchi on inclusiveness—that “we are all in this together.”
For the UW business students involved in the program, Verchot has offered a unique value proposition: “A lot of what we do here is put business students in environments where they are not often put, and challenge them to think about what it means to use business skills to grow businesses in communities where there’s high unemployment or with businesses that don’t have the same opportunity as others. There’s a sense of building this cauldron where students are challenged to do their own thinking and not be comfortable with their assumptions, and to wrestle with this expanded sense of what’s really happening in the world.”
Although he thinks there is still a lot of challenges and global social needs that are not met, “there are still not a lot of opportunities for people at the bottom.” Verchot has high hopes for the future because of the “thousands of students who have been involved with the center that are thinking about things in different ways.” He has seen these students develop and speaks proudly of the program’s alumni and their work, such as Georgette Bhathena (Executive Director of Global Philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase), Raychael Jensen (Deputy of Strategy & Special Projects at Harlem Children’s Zone), and Samantha Trinh (Product Marketing Director & Brand Strategist at Cablevision). Verchot is excited about the lives that they and other alumni from the UW program are going to change, the ripple effect of the simple vision that started it all.
Recently celebrating the 20th anniversary of CBDC, Verchot is still energized by his work as its long-time director. He finds time to read, cook, entertain friends, and travel with his wife for a couple weeks outside of the US, but his passion for his work is remarkably persistent. He is thrilled that “he gets to do incredible work: I get to change people’s lives.” He adds, “Real change is going to be the business owner who we’ve helped, who’s able to send their kids to college—and what they will be able to do.”
No more eminent person than Pope Francis, in his recent address to the joint US Congress, affirms this view that guided Michael Verchot’s work: “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” (end)
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Ador Pereda Yano can be reached at email@example.com.