Helping local businesses go digital opens opportunities for U of A business students

Students gain job skills while providing free support to hundreds of business owners looking to gain a foothold in the online marketplace.


Business student Paige Lutz says helping Edmonton-area businesses move online is rewarding not only for the skills she's gaining, but also for the satisfaction she sees in clients: “Being able to provide something that they're proud of—for free—and seeing their reaction makes the job worth it.” (Photo: John Ulan)

While Paige Lutz didn’t know what she wanted to do when she joined the Alberta School of Business four years ago, she certainly didn’t foresee herself balancing the final classes of her degree with a University of Alberta-linked job she loves, helping traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses make the jump to virtual.

“The fact that I've landed a job where I get to connect with business owners is super rewarding, but one where every day I get to learn different technical skills and improve my digital literacy is fantastic,” said Lutz.

“I approached it like a job that I can do throughout the semester, but it's become something that I look forward to doing and really enjoyed.”

Lutz and 11 fellow business students round out a team behind the U of A-based Making Edmonton Digital, a program that employs students to help capital-region businesses go digital.

Concerned about the stability of the capital region’s small businesses, the City of Edmonton purchased a licence agreement with Digital Main Street—a training hub designed to help businesses create a successful digital future—and awarded the U of A business school a $75,000 Edmonton Economic Recovery Grant.

The program, which began in November, has helped more than 250 local businesses so far, with a goal of 630 businesses by September.

Heather Thomson, executive director of the U of A School of Retailing and lead on the program, said while this program was spurred on by the pandemic, the online world is the future of retail.

“Our motto is, ‘Digital is no longer an option,’” she said. “I think businesses are starting to understand that this is not a knee-jerk reaction or response to the pandemic, it is an inevitable investment that needed to be made.”

So far the reviews have been nothing short of stellar, with a satisfaction rating of 94 per cent.

For Lutz, the interactions that stick out are with the businesses that come to the program without any digital presence at all.

“A service like this can be out of their reach just due to costs,” said Lutz. “Being able to provide something that they're proud of—for free—and seeing their reaction makes the job worth it.”

Wendy Zelmer, founder of Restorative Body Med, noted that when she accessed the program, it felt like she was working with a seasoned pro, not a student.

“I have recommended this program . . . to all my friends. Also I will be hiring students from this program for future projects. This was a 10 out of 10 positive experience,” she wrote.

Thomson said the help—whether creating a website, expanding search engine optimization or even just creating a Google profile—has been genius at times.

She recalled one business owner looking for a website to promote the appearance of her products at farmers’ markets.

“Instead, the student recommended an Etsy store, which is a global, homemade entrepreneur market,” said Thomson. “It was brilliant.”

I don't think there would have been a way for me to get experience like this without a job like this.

Paige Lutz, business student

Paige Lutz
(Photo: John Ulan)

Lutz, who had learned about online marketing during a co-op placement a year earlier, said the training for the job alone has been incredible.

“I had a little bit of background, but this job has taught me that I did not know very much,” she said. “I don't think there would have been a way for me to get experience like this without a job like this.”

The business economics and law major added it definitely opened her eyes to different opportunities available.

“Even if it’s not my career path, it definitely gives me the skill set that will be necessary going forward in a career.”