Can small colleges and small businesses learn from each other?

By Michael Alexander

Small colleges and small businesses have a lot in common. They both need a sound business plan to ensure long-term success. They both need strong leadership and the ability to turn on a dime if the economic environment experiences a precipitous change. They both seek investments of human capital, financial resources and an infrastructure to support diversification and growth. So, are there lessons that can be shared with one another to advance both successful small colleges and small businesses?

As a college president who also owned small businesses, I would argue that we have much to learn from each other and many resources we could share to our mutual benefit.  Lasell College, founded in 1851, has described itself as “entrepreneurial” for the entirety of its history.  In the beginning we were the first two-year women’s college in the country, the first college to have an indoor swimming pool, and the first college to offer a three-year nursing degree.  More recently, we built the country’s only living and learning retirement community that has an academic requirement for its residents—Lasell Village.  And we just launched the first undergraduate degree program in Resort and Casino Management.  What does that say about us?  We take risks.  They may be calculated risks—but they are risks just the same.  Many successful small businesses have navigated the same path.

Small businesses employ 47.5 million people in this country, and Lasell College educates and graduates students, many of whom would prefer to work in a small business rather than a Fortune 500 company.  We take pride in our “connected learning” philosophy where students are undertaking project-based work inside and outside of the classroom, and gaining experience in their fields of study, while taking courses in their major.  This past academic year, 110 Lasell students secured internships with Newton and Needham businesses and non-profits—including the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce.  Some of those internships have turned into full-time employment upon graduation.  Small businesses can benefit from student interns and local college graduates who learn best practices in the classroom, in their internships and in their service-learning projects that they can then bring into the workplace.

Each of our programs of study have program advisory boards, inviting employers and members of the business community to help us make sure that we are providing our students with the skills and training necessary to launch successful careers in their disciplines.  We have also partnered with the Chamber, co-sponsoring two events to launch the Lasell College Small Business Institute (SBI).  Students involved with the SBI will, under the supervision of a faculty member, help local small businesses navigate challenges and grow their business.

We continue to look for ways that we can partner with Newton- and Needham-based businesses and non-profits.  Through our Center for Community Based Learning, many Lasell students volunteer, serving as math and literacy tutors, and as mentors for youngsters in a local program for survivors of domestic violence—just to name a few examples.  And our event planning students help with logistics for all types of events including fundraisers, road races and other special programs.

For small organizations to survive, collaboration is the wave of the future.  As we start a new academic year,  I challenge you to think of ways that we can partner with one another, to teach each other, to learn from each other, and to share critical resources that will make each of us stronger members of the greater community. 

Michael Alexander is president of Lasell College. You can reach him at or 617-243-2221 or contact Ruth Shuman, vice president for communications, community and government relations at or 617-243-2140.