Small business study offers global perspective

From Main Street to Siberia, researchers are seeking the key to running a successful small business.

Professor Jane Hegland, one of five co-investigators in a study funded by an almost half-million-dollar Higher Education Challenge Grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, visited Siberia and South Africa this summer for her research. Her co-investigators are from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Iowa State University, and Colorado State University. In January she’s scheduled to conduct research in India and Thailand. “We’re helping students understand the apparel and related products industries from the small business
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perspective,” Hegland says, noting that the majority of enterprises throughout the world are classified as small businesses. Ultimately the data collected in the study will be used to develop curriculum modules designed to teach students small business knowledge—what they need to know—and small business skills—what they’ll need to be able to do. “We’re developing curriculum that will be made available to anyone who’s interested, both domestically and internationally,” Hegland says. According to Hegland, the research has importance for many consumer sciences students who might become small business owners or have careers in which they’ll be dealing with small businesses.

First stop: Siberia

It’s hard to imagine countries more different than Siberia and South Africa, but they do share a common trait: internal political upheaval that served to spark entrepreneurship. For Siberia, that spark was the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. For South Africa, it was the end of apartheid in 1994. “Suddenly people had the opportunity to do things they weren’t allowed to do under both political structures,” Hegland says. She spent six days in Omsk, a city with a population of about 1.5 million in western Siberia. Hegland’s theory is that Omsk’s isolation has helped inspire entrepreneurship. Even with an increased interest in entrepreneurship, the owners of small businesses in Omsk face challenges that would be foreign to business owners in the United States. “The government structure is such that it’s challenging for entrepreneurs to do business,” says Hegland, who notes that the spirit of enterprise so important for small business owners still manages to thrive in a country where bribes for government officials and tributes paid to the Russian mafia

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are commonplace. Remnants of apartheid linger in South Africa Hegland found that small businesses in South Africa face challenges of a different sort as the end of apartheid has not served to fully integrate the races. “We didn’t have an opportunity to visit and interview black Africans,” says Hegland, who spent seven days in the primarily white and upper class area in and around Pretoria. “It’s such a complicated culture.” South Africa uses these measurements for small businesses: a medium enterprise has fifty to 200 employees; a small enterprise has less than fifty employees and a micro enterprise or, as

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Hegland calls it, “survival entrepreneurship,” has one or two employees. “We saw it everywhere we went,” Hegland says of the very smallest businesses. These ranged from street

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corner vendors to self-appointed parking assistants and vehicle watchers. “It’s not really a sustainable effort,” Hegland says. “Given the environment, it’s very challenging.” There were aspects of entrepreneurship in both countries that showed that small businesses could be successful. In Siberia, Hegland studied small businesses that made school uniforms and processed fur for apparel. From South Africa, Hegland noted the success of F. Wilson Design, a company that makes eveningwear for women. “That’s not unfamiliar to the American market,” Hegland says. Hegland believes that her trip to Thailand and India will show her a different set of challenges for entrepreneurs in those countries. When it’s completed, the research will offer students a global view of how to be successful in a small business. “We’re starting to look at the characteristics of small businesses and successful small businesses,” Hegland says. “Our study will look broadly at common practices that have value for others to learn about.”

Dana Hess

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