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Iona Students Deliver New Rochelle City Labs Report

The Business Council of Westchester’s Westchester Innovation Network’s third City Labs initiative concluded in New Rochelle on Monday with a report from Iona University students on how local officials can engage businesses and help them grow.

Students from Iona University’s Introduction to Ideation and Design Thinking class spent six weeks engaging with New Rochelle stakeholders and business owners to brainstorm business-engagement strategies.

The students recommended that New Rochelle create:

  • A small business portal powered by artificial intelligence that can provide detailed answers to questions and direct business owners to resources.
  • A hyper-local online employment portal for job seekers and employers.
  • A microlending webpage that allows aspiring entrepreneurs to apply for small loans.
  • A retail incubator in the form of pop-ups in vacant retail space that allows New Rochelle vendors to build businesses that may eventually rent vacant storefronts.
  • Monthly or regular small-business networking events where New Rochelle’s entrepreneurs can meet and exchange information.
  • Virtual reality simulations of the small-business incubator/pop-ups to enhance the concept’s acceptance by local entrepreneurs.

“We are excited about the work that the Iona University students have done,” said Business Council of Westchester Executive Vice President and COO John Ravitz, whose group launched the Westchester Innovation Network (WIN). “In Mount Vernon they helped create a web page on the city’s website to help small businesses access programs. Then they went to Yonkers to help the city’s housing authority deal with environmental and quality-of-life issues. Now we’re in New Rochelle, working with the city, to talk about the future.”

WIN matched the Iona students with New Rochelle as part of the Business Council of Westchester’s focus on making Westchester County more attractive to startups and new technology.

“The students have really outdone themselves,” said Rob Kissner, Iona’s GaelVentures program manager at the Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, who guided the students. “The City Labs initiative enabled the students to see beyond their own world; get out in the community and engage with stakeholders; and understand real problems.”

Students in Iona’s design thinking class study problem solving by prioritizing consumers’—or the public’s—needs. The practice relies on building empathy by interviewing people and observing their interaction with environments.

New Rochelle City Manager Kathleen Gill said that New Rochelle has studied the idea of creating swing spaces that can be used by multiple small businesses, but not pop-ups.

“The whole attraction to (the pop-ups) would be anchor stores,” said Iona sophomore Martin Dolphin.  “So that when you go as a pop-up, you know that there are people going for these bigger businesses and that there’s an attraction there.”

Jorge Ventura, New Rochelle’s director of economic development, asked if small business owners are open to becoming part of a business ecosystem.

Lauren Cleaver, an Iona junior, said the business owners do not want to operate exclusively within their four walls. “They like that sense of working together and they want to get to know more people, it’s just a question of how to get involved,” said Cleaver.

The WIN program and Iona University will continue to work with a different Westchester municipality every semester and the program is currently seeking a new municipality to partner with for the fall semester. Municipalities interested in partnering with WIN should contact the Business Council of Westchester.

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