Assistantship experience at small business center gives UA Little Rock grads a boost up career ladder

Graduate assistants at the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center learn by doing, and many UA Little Rock alumni say their hands-on experience at the center is helping them in their professional pursuits.

“I actually consider my experience learned from the ASBTDC as the launch pad of my success and getting into marketing research,” said Jennifer (Neubauer) Griswold, research and analytics manager for the Wyoming Office of Tourism.

As a graduate assistant, she compiled and summarized market research for the center’s small business consultants and clients, identifying key pieces of the data. Now, market research and analysis is her career.

Jennifer Griswold (far right) with colleagues at the Wyoming Office of Tourism
Jennifer Griswold (far right) with colleagues at the Wyoming Office of Tourism

Griswold finished her Master of Business Administration degree and assistantship in 2012. She briefly worked full-time at the center before becoming a researcher for Arkansas Parks and Tourism followed by TravelNevada.

She left Nevada to start the research program in Wyoming. “As a part of my role, I help leadership make strategic decisions and guide the organization using data,” Griswold said.

“I enjoy working in tourism research because every day presents new opportunities to help citizens, small business owners, volunteers, government officials and destination marketing organizations create jobs and value in their towns. Tourism is an impactful economic force in the country and it’s exciting to be able to help states and counties realize their potential as tourism destinations.”

Career Development

Just two years after earning his master’s degree, India native Allwin Leo Lobo is a data warehouse architect for Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

Allwin Leo Lobo
Allwin Leo Lobo

“I plan, design and build data mart and report solutions to support clinical, research and administrative activities,” he said, happy to be pursuing his field of interest, enterprise data management.

“My graduate education in business information systems and experience I gained from ASBTDC have had a significant role in advancing my career and helping me reach my short-term professional goal of becoming a data architect,” Lobo said.

Hands-On Learning

ASBTDC has high expectations for its graduate assistants, and in exchange, provides engaging, interesting projects the students enjoy and learn from, particularly in the area of market research, said Heather Robinette, the program’s consulting and market research manager.

Like Griswold and Lobo, current graduate assistants play a pivotal role in preparing the cutting-edge financial, market and industry data ASBTDC provides to its small business clients. The in-depth information comes from the proprietary market research databases to which ASBTDC subscribes as well as Esri geographic information systems software licensed by the center.

“Our graduate assistants have always been involved in research, but the nature of the research has evolved. A few years ago, we invested in GIS mapping software and subscriptions to proprietary databases, and demand took off,” Robinette said. “Without the GAs, we couldn’t meet the increasing demand from clients and our other offices for high-quality market research and analysis.”

In Robinette’s two decades with the program, she estimates she has worked with more than 60 graduate students. In 1997, Robinette herself was a graduate assistant for the center while completing her MBA.

“Graduate assistants are vital to what we do. In turn, they get a robust experience and exposure to many industries and types of businesses,” she said.

Professional Problem-Solver

T.J. Thompson of Little Rock, a senior consultant for BKD Wealth Advisors’ Benefit Plan Consulting group, said his assistantship positioned him well for his current job.

UA Little Rock graduate T.J. Thompson works as a senior consultant for BKD Wealth Advisors’ Benefit Plan Consulting.
T.J. Thompson

“I was able to get a well-rounded knowledge of business,” Thompson said. “Understanding the problems business owners face on a small level really helped me grasp the picture overall and have those ‘light bulb’ moments.”

Thompson, a 2012 graduate, said assisting small business clients taught him problem-solving skills.

“We had to take what the business owner said, break it down to understand what they needed and go get the information that would be most helpful to them so they could make informed business decisions. I greatly valued my experience with the ASBTDC and use many of those skills today,” he said.

Working Abroad

When Rebecca Van den Houte completed her MBA in 2012, she returned to her native Belgium. Following a year at Vlerick Business School, she went to work for Unilever as a key account manager.

“I negotiate our contracts on ice cream, Lipton Ice Tea and Lipton Hot Tea with one of the biggest customers in Belgium, Carrefour,” Van den Houte said. “The combination of a little bit of work experience at the ASBTDC and my degree helped me to easily find a good job.”

Assistantships to Doctorates

While the GA experience at ASBTDC transfers well to the business world, a pair of former assistants consider it good preparation for a career in academia, also.

Kayla (New) and Pradeep Sapkota met while both were graduate assistants at the center. Married since 2012, they live in Baton Rouge, La., where Pradeep is pursuing a Ph.D. in accounting at Louisiana State University. His goal is a tenure-track faculty position.

Kayla and Pradeep Sapkota
Kayla and Pradeep Sapkota

“I love teaching and training, but I also enjoy data management and reporting. Since I’ve done both, I get to be the flexible one,” said Kayla, who expects to finish her Ed.D. in higher education in 2018 through UA Little Rock. Her focus is marketing curriculum development and technologies.

She received her MBA in 2011. At the center, she worked with small business clients on startup and business planning and did market research.

“I feel like the people skills, organization skills, business savvy and awareness and general professionalism that I learned at ASBTDC helped me greatly,” she said. “I learned so much and was situated nicely to enter the job market. No doubt, this assistantship was the best one I could have gotten.”

Sapkota, a 2010 graduate, said the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center is one of the best places he has ever worked.

“I think the two best aspects about ASBTDC are wonderful co-workers and professional work environment,” he said. “As a graduate assistant, I never felt I was treated any differently than one of the business consultants. I was given proper training and opportunity to perform my duties. The things I learned at ASBTDC have very much helped me in the real-world setting.”

Future Entrepreneur

Current graduate assistant Jaya Raj will complete his master’s degree in business information systems with a certificate in business analytics in December. He plans to start his own business in the next five years.

“My assistantship has motivated me to achieve my long-term plan and gives me the foundation of how to go about setting up a business,” he said. “Handling multiple research requests for entrepreneurs and working with so much data has helped me interpret business findings and helped build a picture of how to approach the market.”

Learning That Lasts

Graduate assistantships at the center are a great opportunity for students, according to Dr. Jane Wayland, the Stephen Harrow Smith Dean of Business.

“Experiential learning is an important facet of graduate students’ education, and the rich assistantship experience at the ASBTDC equips students to succeed wherever their career path may lead,” Wayland said.

While the maximum length of an assistantship is two years, the lessons and relationships last.

“Everyone I know from ASBTDC and the experience I gained from ASBTDC have been a positive influence in my life,” Lobo said.

The ASBTDC is funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration through a partnership with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock College of Business and other institutions of higher education. ASBTDC assists new, existing and innovation-based small businesses, providing free consulting and market research services plus affordable educational events.

In top right photo, graduate assistant Jaya Raj works with Heather Robinette, a consulting and market research manager for Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center

Contributing writer: Gwen Green, communications coordinator for the ​Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center


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