Excelling Again

Nicolette Tan (WC’16) is a Computer Workshop Leader and a Small Business Consultant. She will be teaching a workshop on using Facebook as a tool for marketing businesses. This is Nicolette’s second semester serving as a Workshop Leader.

 This is my second semester of Computer Literacy workshops and one thing that struck me was definitely the realization that no matter how many semesters I do this, no two sessions will be exactly alike – the concerns and needs of people will be different, the skill levels and questions asked will never be the same. This is something that may seem so “duh” to anyone else reading this, but to experience the difference I think will surprise me every time, in a good way. It really goes to show how much of an impact can be made, and it definitely helps keep these workshops fresh for me, even if the content is the same.

I’m actually pretty glad that in our first workshop we didn’t have a lot of participants – we’ve always known that 1-1 assistance for computer literacy is the most effective way to conduct a class. With this format we could target specific questions that they had, and teach them to use Excel in a way that was tailored directly to their needs. For example, one woman came in with a spreadsheet she was working on for her job, while Debbie, the lady I was working with, was focused mainly on how to use Excel to manage her personal monthly budget.  I wonder what the balance should be, in the tradeoff of impacting more people, or impacting a few people more substantially. It’s a tough line to draw, but I think that in this case, we can only do the best we can, and I tend more strongly to the latter.

As I mentioned previously, today I assisted Debbie, a retired woman who wanted to use Excel to manage her personal budget. We found some existing resources online that would help her, like templates. As we were working on the Excel sheet, I found it easy to incorporate some of the skills that the lecture planned to have covered. With practical technical skills like Excel and other tools, I realize how important it is to have a personally meaningful project to work on to ensure maximum understanding – it is really where theory and application combine. This is even more direct than any arbitrary activity we could have planned for the class, and I felt a huge sense of satisfaction helping her out. I didn’t manage to teach her a lot of additional Excel tricks, but I think it was definitely a tradeoff between reinforcing the basics specific to her needs, and teaching her as many tools as possible to help enhance her Excel skill ability.

To round up, I definitely believe that we had a very meaningful session today, and linking the participants up with online tutorials and external materials was a very nice touch to help them progress beyond our introductory workshop.

The X Factor

Idrees Syed (C’13) is a Workshop Leader for CFA’s Computer Literacy Project. He will be teaching a workshop on using Microsoft Excel as a tool for financial management.

I started attending Dr. Weigelt’s workshops on entrepreneurship about three weeks ago. The talks are catered to an audience that mainly comes from the West Philadelphia community. The program that makes these workshops possible is Dr. Weigelt’s Building Bridges to Wealth non-profit. So it was apparent that the audience of the workshop was from a low-income background. These individuals’ economic backgrounds, I noticed, did not wane any of the noticeable passion and energy in the classroom. Through my experience talking and interacting with the participants of the workshop, it seemed that human passion is independent of income and is a currency that has higher value in entrepreneurship than financial resources alone do.

I began talking with a participant of the workshop, Greg, a 21-year-old entrepreneur working to complete his bachelors at the Community College of Philadelphia. He is working to continue expanding on the success of his party-planning company that he started as an 18-year-old and is starting to plan his dream business, which is a trendy clothing line. My first impressions of Greg were that he possessed something I consider to be that special “X-Factor”—that extra edge that motivates and pushes you to stay up that extra hour, to travel that extra mile. It’s something that I’ve always considered to be innate before meeting Greg. I used to think that maybe Donald Trump, Mark Cuban, and the likes were just born with some special business knack that no one else had and that’s what motivated them towards business success.

I decided to ask the source directly, Greg, what was it that made him strive towards business and entrepreneurship success? What were the factors that drove him to travel 40 miles on a Saturday morning to access Dr. Weigelt’s wealth of entrepreneurship knowledge? The answer was straightforward and there was no trace of doubt in his tone. “The answer to that is easy—it’s failure. I’ve failed and I never want to feel that way ever again.” Greg began to open up to me and many of the factors that have inhibited his success were factors outside of his control—his father left his family when he was four, his mom relied on hard drugs to cope with this fact and having two children, and there was never any meaning to school work because the valedictorian of his high school class became a mechanic at a tire shop across from his neighborhood. Greg had provided me an insight I had never really understood before. Greg’s passion was sourced from his difficult experiences, but moreover he was willing to do whatever it took to turn his luck and become a success. It is not success that leads to further success; it is failure that drives individuals to success.

Motivation does not discriminate across income-brackets. I realized the value and purpose of Dr. Weigelt’s seminars—to prove that anyone can succeed as an entrepreneur, regardless of their economic background. Drawing these observations and insights from that Saturday has strengthened my desire to help and support the cause in any way that I can.

Mary May

Nikita Parulekar (W’16) is a founding member of Penn Consult for America. She has served numerous roles in CFA, including that of a consultant and an Executive Board Member. She is currently a Project Manager for one of the small business consulting teams.

As members of the Penn community, we are rarely exposed to the reality of West Philadelphia. We stay comfortably oblivious in our Penn bubble, limiting our interactions to other privileged Ivy League students. However, through CFA, I have been lucky enough to get the opportunity to interact with several amazing small business owners and entrepreneurs and increase my own understanding of the broader West Philly community.

It was Saturday morning. My Co-Project Manager and I were about to meet with our client for the semester for the first time. Our team of student consultants would be working with her for the upcoming semester. Our project’s success depended heavily on the client’s willingness to collaborate with us. Saying I felt nervous before the meeting, would be an understatement. I kept scrolling through the list of questions we had prepared and going through the preliminary client packet over and over again.

When she walked in, our client, Mary greeted us with the biggest smile and expressed her gratitude for taking her project on. Mary May is one of the most enthusiastic, warm and welcoming individuals I have met. Her passion for her business (she is a family therapist) is infectious. The thing that touched me the most was how grateful she was for anything we could help her with.  After the meeting was over, we stayed back for a little bit and chatted about family, and where we were from.

My favorite experiences at CFA have been the various client interactions, whether we’re meeting potential clients or presenting our findings to current clients. Their passion and gratitude truly makes everything worthwhile.

Labor of Love

Kelly Zhou (E’15) is a former student instructor of CFA’s Computer Literacy Project program. This is her reflection on her first experience as a Workshop Assistant at one of the computer workshops.

People say that things are always harder than it looks. Teaching this Saturday proven the statement to be completely accurate. It was really great seeing and greeting all the smiling faces as I waited by the elevator Saturday morning. Everyone was extremely enthusiastic and excited to be here and to learn. I think the workshop started out really well with the introduction of the program. The starbursts activity was a really nice touch and got the participants to be fully engaged in the class. There were definitely rough points during the class where students got frustrated or tired because the lesson was either going too slow or too fast. However overall, the workshop was extremely helpful. I believe every person walked away with something new, including myself.

This was my first time teaching a large group of students. I’ve had tutoring experiences in the past but it is definitely not comparable. In addition, my previous tutoring experiences have all been with younger students or children. Therefore, I had to change and cater my teaching styles to an older group. As a TA, I got to go around the room and help out a lot of students. There were many unique and passionate individuals with all different levels of knowledge about excel. The kinds of questions they asked reflected this. There were many remarkable participants but one lady really stood out. She carried with her a tablet size portable electronic device that enlarges the computer screen due she has very poor eyesight. The device enlarged everything on the screen at least 500x or more. I was just really amazed and in awe at the dedication she had to continue to learn new things especially on a computer with her disability. Personally I would be really frustrated but I really admired and respected her commitment and passion to learn. She kept apologizing for being slow and I continued to reassure her that it was no problem and she shouldn’t get frustrated at all for that learning new programs takes time. After class, she tapped me as she left and thank me for all my help and told me that she is excited for the other workshops. It really warmed my heart.

Trapping the Mouse

Samaira Sirajee is a Co-Founder of Consult for America and currently serves as President of the Penn CFA Chapter. 

Last night I had a board-game night with my two younger cousins. We opted to play the game Mouse Trap where together you build a Rube Goldberg-like mouse trap in order to trap your opponent’s mouse. Having had experience with this game in the past, I had very little faith the mouse trap structure that we would build together would actually work. I figured, however, I would let my cousins discover the wonder of cheap-plastic manufacturing on their own.

After a few rounds, my youngest cousin placed his brother’s mouse in a position to be trapped. It was the moment of truth. As I held my breath in anticipation, I felt a bit sad that his excitement would soon fade. Just as he cranked the wheel, I looked away. I heard a few noises and then there was silence…

As I turned back to comfort my cousin, he jumped up and announced, “I WON!” Much to my surprise, the mousetrap had actually worked. Every lever, seesaw, flip, and roll had worked perfectly to trap my older cousin’s plastic mouse in the netted cage.

Later, while my cousin was informing the entire house of his victory, I wondered why the trap decided to somehow magically work this time around. This game was my cousins’ first time playing so they didn’t know any shortcuts to assembling it correctly. Yes, they had an instruction manual, but the drawings were mediocre at best.

But then I remembered something that at the time seemed like just a bit of child-like excitement. After adding each piece to the structure, my cousins would test the semi-completed model in all the different ways it could be operated and would only move on when it reacted as they had expected. The final completed structure was a product of many intermediate steps, short phases of planning and a lot of experimentation.

The beginning of this new semester marks the one year anniversary of Consult for America at Penn. A little over a year ago, a few of us were brought together by an idea to start a consulting organization that would cater specifically to the smallest and least wealthy businesses and business entrepreneurs in the community. We wanted to attract the brightest and most passionate people to our team and we wanted our name to be known throughout the West Philadelphia community.

However, there was one problem: none of us knew what we were doing. Only one of us had had any experience with consulting in the past and none of us had experience with starting a new organization. We had many discussions about how our first semester would go—whether we should do an engagement ourselves before we invited others to the team or take things slow and create a detailed strategy on every aspect of the engagement. In the end we decided on what I believe has shaped our entire organizational strategy.

We just went for it.

After just one year, our team has worked successfully on three client engagements, trained twenty-four consultants and opened two new chapters at NYU and Yeshiva University. This upcoming semester we are working with three new clients, recruiting an additional seventeen consultants and planning to open a new chapter at CUNY York College.

Although we have no shortcuts at our disposal or an instruction manual to tell us what our next step should be, we are keeping our focus on the end goal and are taking small steps towards it. We will test and retest, fail and then pick ourselves up. Our mousetrap structure is nowhere near perfect but we’re going to keep working towards trapping our mouse—our ultimate goal.