Economics professor creates partnership between students, businesses

Monday, March 27, 2017

UNC Charlotte's Matt Metzgar, an economics professor in the Belk College of Business, teaches Managerial Economics, a requirement for all business majors. With about 275 students, the course covers basic business concepts such as demand, cost, production and market analysis.

So Metzgar decided to make it more hands-on for his students.

“Last semester, I worked with the Small Business and Technology Development Center on campus to help a local auto dealer,” he said. “The business needed help in a few areas, and I was able to translate that into a task for my students.”

In the current semester, Metzgar invited business owners from the University’s Ventureprise group, which is based in the PORTAL Building. He focused on five businesses in need of assistance. Students work in groups and choose which businesses they want to work with in the class.

“The students are asking great questions and seem very excited about working with these businesses,” Metzgar said. “I view this as a win-win for all parties involved: the businesses are getting help, students are getting experience working with real businesses, and the community will eventually benefit with the economic success of these companies.”

Recently, entrepreneur James Walker was a guest lecturer in Metzgar’s class. He explained the business plan for his startup firm, Informative Technologies, which is headquartered in PORTAL.

Walker explained how his firm creates solutions to the “digital divide” using open-source software, sustainably sourced hardware and community-based partnerships. He told the students his company is seeking to build a community-based ecosystem that connects donor companies with recipient community groups. The company has developed software that revives obsolete computers so they are operable once again.

According to the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, one in five Charlotte public school students must use the computers at public libraries to complete homework assignments because there are none in their homes.

Meanwhile, Walker said, as many as 60 million computers are simply thrown in the trash every year.

“As far as technology goes, one man’s trash can certainly become another man’s treasure,” he said. “Our goal is to take a piece of technology that has been deemed to have zero value and give it more value.”

After his lecture, Walker opened up the floor for questions. One student asked about how he offsets the cost of operations. Another wanted to know if he can accurately predict his margins on various devices.

One student asked if there were ways to encourage some of the University’s 28,000 students, as well as faculty and staff, to start recycling outdated cell phones, tablets and laptops. Her idea was to create more visible drop off locations across the UNC Charlotte campus.

“I like the way you think,” Walker said, adding that his firm has been in touch with UNC Charlotte’s Sustainability Office to come up with practical and safe methods to increase recycling.

 Metzgar was pleased with the collaboration.

“I am trying to teach students how to actually add value to a business,” he said. “For example, it is one thing to take a multiple-choice exam on pricing. It is an entirely different thing to help a real company set pricing strategy.”

Since it is such a large class, Metzgar typically has to make due with more generic assessments. This is the first year where he was able to have students work with actual local companies.

He quoted an axiom that he tried to follow in his teaching: "It further challenges educators to consider that if education everywhere does not explicitly promote the well-being of places, then what is education for?"

“In other words, if North Carolina public education isn't meant to benefit the local businesses, community and students, then what is it for?” Metzgar asked.

One student, Ji Seok Oh, said the approach has been relevant to him and other students.

“The most valuable asset I can attain from interacting with business owners is the information on the difficulties of operating and managing a business,” he said. “These are insightful for the obstacles I may face in the future as well as their experience in overcoming them.”

“Success is not as black and white as we would all like it to be. It cannot be viewed with the same perspective as a trophy or title; it should be viewed more of achieving a mental state of mind that can help prepare one for any situation,” Oh said. “I would determine someone as successful based on whether or not they can adapt to changes and if have the ability to find a lesson from each challenge they face.”

After hearing the talk from the chief executive officer of TIAA, Roger Ferguson, at the CEO Speaker Series, Oh said he learned something he will never forget.

TIAA is a financial services organization that is the leading retirement provider for people who work in the academic, research, medical and cultural fields.

Oh even quoted the CEO: “Life is like a rock climbing course. It may not have a straight path, but there is a way to reach the end.”

Higher Education Works also printed a version of this story.