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Learning at the Laundry: A Smart Marketing Plan

  • Faiza Elmasry

Every Thursday evening, some local college students gather in Silver Spring, Maryland, to help children from lower-income and immigrant families work on their math homework and practice their English.

But they’re not meeting at school or the local library. The students are being tutored while surrounded by the swish of washing machines and whirring sounds of dryers at the local coin laundry.

The program was devised by business students at Washington Adventist University, after the owner of Rainbow Coin Laundry had come to the WAU business department for help. Business was so bad, he’d considered closing down.

“We said, ‘OK, let’s give it a face-lift, let’s redesign his logo,’ and the ideas just started coming,” said Kimberly Pichot, WAU Business Department chairwoman. “As we were brainstorming, one student said, ‘You know, there are a lot of immigrant children hanging around. Why don’t we add tutoring?’ ”

So they did, and now business is picking up, especially on Thursdays. Parents do their laundry while about two dozen children sit at tables with their tutors near the laundry entrance.

“We try to make sure they understand their homework, because sometimes their parents aren’t able to help,” said Heather Alas, one of the volunteers. “The parents are always very grateful, very friendly towards us because they understand that bringing their kids here is going to help them excel.”

An asset to area

The program has become a community asset. It started with five kids. Now about 20 children, ranging from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade, regularly attend the weekly event.

Christine Sumampouw, one of the WAU business students working with laundry owner Nok Kim, said the tutoring program was conceived as a way to build customer loyalty.

“He’s really friendly with his customers,” she said. “So we figured, 'Why don’t we try something that he can give to the community?' ”

The approach is working, and the business owner said he could see the difference. “Slowly, slowly, but [now I have] more business,” he said.

This project is part of an international entrepreneurial program called Enactus. Founded in the United States 40 years ago, it has spread to more than 1,700 campuses in 36 countries.

“They want to give students experience before they graduate,” Pichot explained. “So we collaborate with the community and with businesses. We find things that our students can do to enhance the community.”

As part of that process, Pichot holds a small-business symposium at the start of each school year. “We invite any business to come in," she said. "It’s a free workshop. And so from that symposium, we self-select. We see who wants to work with whom. And throughout the year, we help other business with accounting, with taxes, with marketing, cost analysis — a variety of things."

Assistance for other businesses

In addition to Rainbow Laundry, this year her students have worked with a restaurant and a tax service, and sports trainers who wanted to expand a dance club.

While they help business owners, Pichot said, the students get valuable, hands-on experience.

“The depth of their learning is a world apart from just that dry classroom environment where they walk away with a few concepts," she said. "They volunteer long hours.”

Sumampouw, who is graduating this year, has volunteered 1,000 hours, more than any other student in the group. She said the program was an eye-opener for her.

“When I first started, I really didn’t think anything of it,” she admitted. “I just wanted to get involved in something. But I happen to really like it. Actually, now I can say I love working with small businesses.”

For the students, helping small businesses succeed is more than a college project. They say they feel empowered to help their community, now and in the future.