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Quinlan students create business plan for Syrian catering business

Quinlan students create business plan for Syrian catering business

“With the refugee crisis, perhaps it is easy to sit by and watch it on the news and feel helpless, but these students wanted to take action,” says Professor Linda Tuncay Zayer, PhD.

By Amanda Friedlander | Student reporter

Don’t be surprised if the next big Chicago foods trend have names like “baklawa,” “harisi,” and “atayef.”

For the past six months, a group of Quinlan students has been working closely with the Syrian Community Network, a nonprofit that helps Syrian refugees acclimate to their new home in Chicago.

With the help of Quinlan Professor Linda Tuncay Zayer, PhD, the students formed “Serving Hope,” an informal combination of leaders from Graduate Women in Business (GWIB) and Quinlan Graduate Marketing Association (QGMA), as well as students from Zayer’s consumer behavior classes.

All the students brought their own unique knowledge, fields of study, and special skills to the project, which would later become “The Sweet Syrian” catering business.

Called to action

Zayer first witnessed the effects of the Syrian refugee crisis in February 2016 while delivering humanitarian aid with marketing faculty member Eve Geroulis in Lesvos, Greece. After the trip, she attended an event at Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus, where she met Suzanne Sahloul, the executive director of the Syrian Community Network.

Sahloul shared that a group of female entrepreneurs in the network were interested in creating a catering business using their baking talents.

“I mentioned the possibility of the project to some of my students in class and to the GWIB, and the response was amazing,” said Zayer. “Students were very enthusiastic about working on a business plan for these women entrepreneurs—particularly because they were part of the Chicago community.”

Zayer made the connection with Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship Ugur Uygur, PhD, as well as student leaders:

  • Patty Shin (MSF ’17)
  • Neal Mahoney (MSIMC ’17)
  • Ashanti Tejuosho (MBA ’17)
  • Anushi Shrivastava (MSIMC ’17)
  • Hadeel Alhendi (MSIMC ’17)
  • Meghna Sharma (MBA ’18)
  • Janell Oudenhoven (MS ’17)
  • Quynh Chi Nguyen (MBA ’17)

Shin headed the operations team, which planned the logistics of creating a business in Chicago.

“There are specific restrictions and rules we needed to abide by,” Shin said. “The rules are a bit complicated.” Given their research, Shin concluded that the refugees’ best option was to work in a shared kitchen, which would provide some flexibility if they decided to grow the business or support delivery through apps like UberEats and Grubhub.

“Delivery was the hardest part to figure out because the refugees themselves were scattered throughout different areas, which made it difficult to deliver all over the Chicagoland area,” said Bana Ahdab, DDS, who serves on the Syrian Community Network board. Ahdab was the liaison between the Syrian refugees and the Quinlan students working on the marketing plan. “We also only had one or two delivery guys because most refugees don’t have cars.” 

A second team, led by Mahoney and Shrivastava, focused on the marketing aspect of the business plan. They worked to identify the current market for similar products and identify current advertising trends.

“We uncovered quickly that it’s more than just a food or dessert, it’s a story that we wanted to tell,” Mahoney said. “We recommended a kind of integrated marketing approach … going to mosques where people were already familiar with the products, but coming back to the story aspect...Making it personalized and shareable.”

The two groups worked together to create an integrated business plan which provided recommendations on operations, legal and marketing strategies. The entrepreneurs enjoyed showing off their culinary talents, which is a central part of their culture, so the students focused on making sure their business plan allowed the refugees to stay true to their roots.

Moving forward

A tense U.S. political climate in early 2017, combined with the increasingly desperate refugee crisis, added a layer of urgency to the project. “I remember when we first started in January, the travel ban was going on,” said Tejuosho, who worked with Shin in the operations group. “The day that we had our very first meeting to discuss this project, one of the [refugees] had just landed at the airport. She had gotten through the travel ban.”

Once the business plan was completed, the students presented their work to Sahloul and Ahdab, who then worked with the refugees to determine next steps. Shin says that the presentation, when they showed mock-ups for packaging and logos, is when the project became “really real.”

“When you go somewhere new, the thing that helps you most adjust is working and finding a purpose,” Shin said. "It’s got to be really scary, sitting [in their new home], wondering where their future is taking them. I’m excited that I could be a part of planning a future for them and helping them find a purpose here.”

This passion for helping others is what makes Quinlan students stand out, according to Zayer.

“With the refugee crisis, perhaps it is easy to sit by and watch it on the news and feel helpless, but these students wanted to take action,” she said. “We are grateful to SCN for working with our students in creating this learning experience and trusting us to provide our business recommendations.”

The gratitude is mutual, said Ahdab.

“We at SCN would also like to extend our thanks to the business students at Loyola. They were very helpful and definitely put the business on the right track moving forward. We are very grateful for all their work!”

“The Sweet Syrian” is en route to officially open for business by Spring 2018.

Get involved

For more information or to get involved, visit the SCN website