Students met with business owners to develop resiliency plans following Hurricane Dorian

Students help fuel recovery and resilience for Bahamian businesses

Students help fuel recovery and resilience for Bahamian businesses

A cadre of students with the Miami Herbert Business School’s interdisciplinary action project class met with Bahamian students and local businesses in Freeport to share ideas and inspire hope.
by Michael R. Malone

FREEPORT, Bahamas—With a warning that Hurricane Dorian was thundering through the Caribbean Sea and bearing down on the Bahamas, Alex Thompson, owner of a retail clothing store in downtown Freeport, rushed frantically with her small staff to shift merchandise off the racks and walls and store it under tables and safeguard it on the floor. 

After all, three years earlier Hurricane Matthew had ripped off the store’s roof, and water and wind left a soggy mess of apparel and debris and thousands of dollars of damage.

This time the roof held tight as Dorian, a Category 5 storm packing winds that topped 180 mph, hovered for two days over Grand Bahama and dumped bucketloads of water. But a five-foot storm surge burst through doors and windows and drowned downtown Freeport and Thompson’s business. 

Five months after Dorian crippled the Bahamas, Thompson and other small to mid-sized business owners are struggling to keep their businesses afloat. They need ideas. They need support. And maybe most of all, they need the hope that comes with knowing someone cares.

That caring, along with help and hope, arrived this past weekend in the form of a group of 18 graduate students from the University of Miami.

The students, all enrolled in the semester-long action project interdisciplinary class offered by the Miami Herbert Business School, flew to Freeport for a three-day visit as part of the Bahamas Consulting Project, a collaboration with the University of the Bahamas launched more than a year ago. After Dorian hit last September, the project gained immediacy and shifted to helping local businesses recover through student consultancy, training, and other support.

“One of the things that we can do is to help the business owners feel like they’re heard, that we’re listening to them,” said Gaby Gallou, a second-year M.B.A. student and native of France. “They have issues, and they need to feel that they have support. We can bring it by doing our research, helping with technology, and reviewing their day-to-day operations to help them get back on their feet and be more resilient for the future.”

Thompson was grateful for the weekend meeting, which included students from the University of the Bahamas, and faculty from both universities.

“I’m thankful that the students have come here to work with me and the other business owners,” Thompson said. “It shows that what’s happened to the Bahamas has reached the world and also that they’re interested in helping and providing some form of assistance—that gives me hope as an individual and as a business owner.”

Touchdown in Freeport

Accompanied by Alex Niemeyer, associate professor of professional practice overseeing the action project class, the students landed midday Friday at the airport substation in Freeport—the international airport has yet to reopen—under a light rain, or “liquid sunshine” in Bahamian parlance. They were met there by Zhivargo Laing, executive director of the Government Public Policy Institute at the University of The Bahamas and former minister of finance for the Bahamas. 

Laing, the project’s Bahamian liaison, visited the Coral Gables campus last week to coordinate logistics and meet with the students in their class to prepare them for their trip and the devastated environment—both physical and human—they would encounter.

Soon after arriving at the hotel, Laing reviewed the project and its intent to develop case studies based on the consultations between students and the owner of four businesses representative of the island nation’s principle industries—retail, fisheries, communications, and canning—and to develop training and reports based on the recommendations to foster resiliency against future disasters.

Read: Consulting brings a new level of learning

View: Student work with Bahamian entrepreneurs


Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery

Patricia Abril, vice dean of Graduate Business Programs at the Miami Herbert Business School, outlined the University’s mission.  

“One of the roles of the University of Miami and of our business school is to solve complex problems in society and also to be a good citizen, leader, and teacher in the hemisphere,” she said. “We see this as a project that is stepping in the direction of doing that—and it’s a win-win-win for everyone involved.” 

Abril noted that the two universities had been looking for the “proper insertion point” and the chance to do something of consequence together. 

“After Hurricane Dorian,” she said, “it became evident that we didn’t want to be a one-off, that we wanted to be a friend and to develop a collaboration of fresh minds that is meaningful and lasting.”

Ian Strachan, vice president of the University of the Bahamas North Campus in Freeport, together with several of his faculty members and a handful of students, celebrated the launch of the consultancy project.

“In many ways we are the poster child of Hurricane Dorian,” Strachan told the group. The campus, situated on a remote parcel of marshland barely two feet above sea level, now stands as a pink cement shell amid miles of terrain washed clean of vegetation “when the entire ocean rose,” he said. The nearly 1,000 students enrolled there have all been displaced.

“We have to use our imaginations and dream and be bold,” he said, adding that he was inspired “to see how the world wants to help the Bahamas.” Strachan explained that many Bahamian students who had hoped to participate in the project had been recently temporarily relocated to a university in Virginia to continue their studies. They will rejoin the project as it moves forward. 

A classroom meets the real world

In the conference room at the hotel in Freeport, students met for the first time with their respective business leaders. They listened to Thompson’s story and that of three other Bahamian company owners and quickly absorbed the impact. These were not classroom concepts about the risk inherent to business; but instead, this was about companies on the verge of collapse with livelihoods hanging in the balance.

Gaby Gallou, Denzell Turner, Stephanie Wehby, Chris Williams, and Phil Winn—all second-year business graduate students—met with Thompson, proprietor of Genesis, Freeport’s premier lingerie and gift store. They also met with Erica Hanna, “the shoe lady,” proprietor of the Steppin Out shoe store. Both retailers are looking to reset their enterprises against the challenge of online sales and reduced finances of the local population, many displaced by the storm. Both seek help in marketing, accounting practices, and inventory control.

M.B.A. students Natalia Aldana, Yash Bhatti, Jason Rosen, Isabel Sutnick, and Alex Nyberg, a doctoral student in biology, met with Anjoun Armaly, proprietor of Arma Seafood import/export. Armaly lost all his equipment and inventory of lobster, conch, and stone crab, and he had invested $200,000 of his own money, plus a $90,000 loan, into the business. He estimated needing $100,000 to get back on his feet, and the group recommended cost-cutting savings and trimming his labor force.

Hasan Alzalzalah, Stephanie Farache, Emilio Hasbun, and Sara Riascos, all second-year M.B.A. students, met with Winston Pinnock, owner of JBI, a canned goods importer. Pinnock lost upwards of $500,000 of merchandise when the storm flooded his warehouse.

Zhihao Chen, from the M.B.A. program, joined Chloe Palibsky and Osaro Qualis, both third-year law students, and Alexzander Hudson, a doctoral student in environmental science and policy, and met with Matthew Carey of Bahamas WiMax, a small domestic communications company that competes against two large foreign-based internet providers. WiMax lost five towers and 50 percent of its customers, and Carey, born and raised on Grand Bahama, is looking for innovative ideas to reestablish his business by locating new niche markets.

Coaching for consultancy success 

Niemeyer, who joined the University last year after a 20-year career with McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting company, coached the students after their initial client meeting. “This is a unique situation in a unique economy and the chance to make a tangible impact and really help people,” he said.

While his students know from their classes that consultancy is mostly about problem-solving—structuring, prioritizing the issues, and analyzing them to then arrive at recommendations—he emphasized forging an essential intangible: trust. 

“You won’t succeed if you don’t build a personal relationship with your clients. How many of you can say you know your client’s story? What their business does? You have to build trust and care about them, and how do you do that? By listening and asking open questions about their companies and knowing what they’re going through.” 

Bahamas Consultancy Project

University of Miami students traveled to Grand Bahama in February to help small business owners still reeling from Hurricane Dorian develop resilient business plan that can help them weather future disasters.

Chris Williams, MBA student

Williams discusses the importance of small businesses to a country's economic health.

Patricia Abril, Vice Dean of Graduate Business Programs

Abril, from the Miami Herbert Business School, outlines the benefits for University of Miami students and Bahamian business owners that will come out of the graduate course which visited Freeport last weekend.

Gaby Gallou, MBA student

Gallou discusses how the project she is doing through a Miami Herbert Business School course will allow the graduate students to help small business owners in the Bahamas thrive again.

Alex Thompson, owner of Signature Choices and Genesis Street Gear

Thompson, a business owner for two decades in Freeport, Bahamas explains the importance of  a strong economic recovery in Grand Bahama island.

Erica Hanna, owner of Steppin Out shoe store

Hanna explains the importance to her survival, as well as to her Bahamian customers, that her shoe business is once again thriving after a major setback from Hurricane Dorian.

Challenges to rebuild 

Saturday morning started early with a bus ride, the first chance to see the challenges their clients face in restoring their businesses in a land wrecked by the most powerful storm on record in the Atlantic. Bus driver Harold “Brother H” Adderly, who spent the harrowing days of the hurricane helping neighbors escape the surging flood, guided the bus for mile after mile of a vista of crumbled houses, shuttered buildings, and jumbles of debris.

First stop, the University of Bahamas North Campus. 

At the site of the gutted campus, the group passed heaps of debris—filing cabinets, chairs, tables, doors, window frames, electric saws—twisted into nearly unrecognizable shapes by the unforgiving storm. The campus’ two proud structures—a two-story dormitory opened in 2018 and one that housed classrooms and administrative offices—had been ruined. The only personnel on site were security guards, there to prevent vandalism, especially of the copper communications wiring.

Security director Michelet Meronard, who spent three days during the storm in a second-story office before being rescued, told the story. “This one was different than all the other storms,” he said, pointing to the water marks reaching up the walls. “It was two days of water just sitting right on top of us.”

Estimates to rebuild the campus range up to $20 million.

“But the university is resilient, and it will be coming back,” he said, pointing out that several classes have resumed at a high school in the downtown Freeport. Students who are able, can take the six-hour ferry ride to Nassau to attend classes at the main campus there.

For the rest of the morning and early afternoon, students visited the Queen’s Highway Business District and the Downtown Business District—banking and commerce areas that suffered extensive flooding damage and will require a long period of rehabilitation. The groups later met at the business sites of their respective clients. They spent hours asking questions and learning details about the business operations. Meeting their clients in their business “homes” deepened their understanding.

The groups all established plans to reconnect with their clients in the coming weeks via conference call or in person, if possible. For example, one of the business owners, Erica Hanna, travels to Miami occasionally to purchase shoes. The groups' future sessions for the remainder of the semester will consist of one-hour meetings weekly with their professor to assess progress.

Consulting is about caring

At the end of the day Saturday, Niemeyer reflected on the change in group dynamics from the first day to the second.“The clients have been marvelous in their willingness to share their experience, and I’ve seen a gigantic uptick in the student learning levels,” he said. “Friday it was a meeting in a conference room, and Saturday a meeting with people at their businesses. The students have started caring, not just about the project in general, but about the people—and that’s what consulting is about.

“Many people think they can understand business from the classroom, but there’s no substitute for seeing things on the ground. And to help people—which is the essence of consulting—you have to get to know them,” Niemeyer said. “I’ve seen many 'ah-ha' moments this weekend where you see a light go off and you imagine the student is thinking: ‘Wow, I hadn’t thought of that. Wait a minute, how do you do that?’”

On Sunday’s plane ride home, Natalia Aldana Velasquez, a second-year M.B.A. student, said the weekend trip was all she’d hoped for—and more.

“We’re doing something with a community truly in need,” said Aldana Velasquez. “In class, we don’t get real interaction like this. Here the problem is unsolved, and you don’t know if you have the right answers. You have to explore and get as much information as you can from the client and that leads to a relationship—and then you have a responsibility to that person.” 

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