Students from the University of Michigan's Penny Stamps School of Art and Design spent a part of their summer in the city of Detroit, gaining valuable experience as interns in the Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project (DNEP) + Impact Studio for Local Business internship program.
From May 4 to June 24, they joined forces with the Ford School, Ross School of Business, and the School of Information. Stamps Career Development contributed part of the internship costs, ensuring that students were compensated for their work with undercapitalized small businesses.
They formed interdisciplinary teams to provide free services and resources to Detroit small businesses and entrepreneurs. Their goal was to assist with the business’ needs that related to their specific skill sets. These included brand ID, customer retention strategies, packaging design and procurement, and point of sale optimization.
For Stamps students, the opportunity meant more than expanding professional portfolios and building a network. Students learned how to collaborate with a variety of teammates, polish their communication with real-life clients, and become immersed in positive social impact.
The outcome led to tangible results and solutions for Detroit small businesses.
“We pride ourselves on having DNEP be mutually beneficial. Reciprocity is one of our core values,” DNEP program director Christie Baer said. “We wanted to make sure that we were providing benefits to the business owners and not just positive learning experiences for students.”
From considering problem-solving, to profitability, and even safety hazards, DNEP has something for every mind, Baer says.
Recent Stamps graduate and intern Caroline White always saw herself as “business-minded.” That part of her was unlocked when she collaborated with Ross School of Business students during the internship.
“I understand design, but I can also understand the business perspective,” White said. “It’s cool to collaborate with business students so I can utilize my business skills.”
The “cross-discipline” – where the skill sets met in the middle, was a major part of the process. According to Stamps junior Victor Garcia, the Point of Sale team prioritized getting the designer’s perspective on the website to ensure that the proper branding was possible.
“This was a different environment outside of Stamps,” Garcia said. “You can see the way people think and the way people speak. It’s really engaging, because you learn a lot just by the way people talk about different structures and systems.”
The faculty and staff involved in the project are from across the University of Michigan and supported by student research assistants. Stamps sophomore Mercy Kaskorkis worked simultaneously with technical faculty advisors from both Stamps and Ross School of Business.
“In terms of design, we are working under Professor Jill Greene, who teaches a lot of the design classes at Stamps. She’s provided a lot of feedback and guidance for all things design related with the brand ID and package design projects we’ve been working on,” Kaskorkis said. “We’ve also been working with Professor Chris Mueller, who teaches at Ross. Seeing their two different perspectives simultaneously has been an interesting experience because approaching the same project from a design perspective versus a business perspective can look very different.”
White had the opportunity to work with her client, Textures by Nefertiti in the DNEP course at Stamps during the Winter 2022 semester. By working with the client again, White was able to expand on the logos, visual identity, packaging, and other brand materials for the business.
“We completed some research work in class, but the purpose of this internship is to really help the clients implement that and put it into action,” White said.
Helping the clients put ideas into action was a learning curve for students. Giving clients materials meant making sure that even non-designers could use them. The group’s solution was to set up accessible Canva templates and pick user-friendly website interfaces which the owners could easily update.
“A big aspect of this internship is coming up with creative solutions that the owners themselves can implement and carry on,” Garcia said. “If we give them something way too complicated, then they’re not going to be able to utilize it. We need to make sure they’re self-sustained.”
Stamps students are also eager to bring their new knowledge to not only their career, but also to their own communities. Both Garcia and Kaskorkis now plan to help family members who own small businesses.
“We have helped students develop new expertise, and then created opportunities for them to share that expertise with a new group of people, both in Detroit and Ann Arbor, which will benefit the larger community,” Baer said.
Throughout the program, students learned how to create personal relationships with clients. The on-site visits allowed for students to appreciate many aspects of the Black-owned businesses. Students saw the business leaders as dedicated parents, siblings, and family members.
Recent graduate Adriana Alcala recounted an on-site workout class with their client, Fit4Life, which helped them better understand the business.
“The interns and I did a circuit workout at the Fit4Life gym led by Felicia Maxwell and Angela Hutchinson,” Alcala said. “It was real sweaty and real fun!”
Garcia got an inside look at Fit4Life by photographing multiple workout sessions.
“I got to meet the client and see how passionate they are and also meet their family and friends,” Garcia said. “This helps me really see their personality and the environment they grew up in.”
In order to become immersed in the project, students got an up-close understanding of Detroit, Michigan. Students were taken on a bus tour around the city, completed a scavenger hunt, and conducted multiple site visits to their clients’ business locations.
“We didn’t want to be these [University of] Michigan students that jump into the city, say we are going to help, and then jump out,” White said. “We wanted to understand the place we’re working at.”
Learning more about the city was one way the group prioritized the community development side of the program.
“If students don’t have a chance to see what the business really means to the customers, and the role that the business plays in that Detroit neighborhood, then they’ve missed part of the lesson,” Baer said. “The businesses that we work with are the heart of their neighborhoods.”
Garcia says that the passionate spirit of Detroit he noticed in the tours goes hand in hand with DNEP businesses.
“The people from Detroit are so proud of where they’re from, and I can completely see it. Everyone who lives in Detroit right now is a hard worker. They just want to see their city rebuilt and reformed. And the clients we’re working with are doing the same thing: creating opportunities for their community,” Garcia said.
One business, Bags to Butterflies, creates job opportunities for formerly incarcerated women. Garcia says by helping the business, he also feels like he is a part of the important social change.
“My client is giving incarcerated people opportunities, so being on the DNEP team is like an indirect social impact,” Garcia said. “If I can help her be successful, she can help other people be successful.”
DNEP is proof that art and design, in combination with other disciplines, can be used for a positive cause.
“I value community and want to be a part of something that has real value and a positive impact on people. It’s special to me when I can have that impact through art and design. I think DNEP captures those values of mine,” Alcala said. “Now I am more interested in the real-life impact that design has on the daily lives of individuals.”
Students will continue to work with these small businesses through DNEP courses offered throughout the university.
This article was written by Stamps student Katelyn Stuck