When three Harvard Business School students walked into his burger joint on Dorchester Avenue volunteering to help him grow his then-1-year-old restaurant, Tambo Barrow briefly worried that he was the victim of a scam.
But the 29-year-old, who had quit his job as an insurance underwriter to open Bred Gourmet, was stretched thin, fixing early missteps, working all hours, and falling asleep in his car in the driveway after work.
Barrow figured he could do with a little outside help.
“You almost think, ‘They’re the smartest kids in the world, why not?’ ” Barrow said. “And they’re pretty sharp.”
For the past two semesters, a group of Harvard business students has been helping neighborhood startups get off the ground as part of a new class on small businesses.
The class, which has recruited about a dozen businesses from around the Boston area by word of mouth, asks students to apply their classroom skills to the streets of Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Somerville to help yoga studios, pho restaurants, and neighborhood bakeries thrive.
Most of the students in Harvard Business School have worked for global investment banks and retailing giants. They’ve hobnobbed with tech entrepreneurs and after graduation will likely land top spots in Fortune 500 companies.
The class is an opportunity for many of them to learn what it takes for small, local entrepreneurs to build a business and succeed, said Kristin W. Mugford, a senior lecturer at the school who helped launch the class with professor Len Schlesinger.
While politicians and policy makers often talk about the estimated 27 million small businesses in the United States, most of their efforts are geared toward companies with 50 or more employees, Mugford said.
The mom-and-pop operations where the owner toils alongside a handful of employees tend to be neglected, although they provide stability and pump money into local neighborhoods, Mugford said.
And efforts to help these business can often be scattered. There are 250 organizations in the Boston area that aim to help small businesses with a variety of challenges, from finances to licensing and zoning issues. But the average small business owner can name fewer than three of them, Mugford said.
Most of these business owners are too busy trying to keep their companies afloat to hunt down help or to develop growth strategies, she said.
That’s where some of the students can come in, Mugford said.
Think of it as turning former and likely future Bain & Company employees — who usually advise Wall Street giants — loose on Main Street businesses.
“It’s one thing to learn in a case study environment,” Mugford said. “It’s a very different situation when you’re sitting and meeting with a small business owner and an employee walks out of the door and the owner has to go in to the kitchen and work the grill.”
It was a humbling experience, said student Alex Sambvani, 26, who worked with Barrow, helping him to think through and test out delivery options for his restaurant to grow.
Sambvani, who worked for Credit Suisse Group as an investment banker before enrolling in business school, said his team initially approached the project as an investor would, with proposals for new technology systems and contracts with employment agencies to hire temporary workers.
“A lot of things we felt were the most important priorities weren’t aligned with his,” Sambvani said. Initially, “we didn’t have a good sense of what’s truly most important day to day and what’s implementable and doable.”
So a proposal to invest in scheduling software was scrapped when the students realized that a group text worked just as well for planning shifts, Sambvani said. Instead, they opted for researching and pricing out delivery partnerships.
Operating a small business can be isolating, several owners who participated in the class said, and having somebody with financial expertise to think through ideas and strategies can be helpful.
“It’s free consulting services from very professional people,” said Thomas Stohr, cofounder of Swissbakers in Allston.
Two of the Harvard students helped the bakery develop a new inventory management system that will more quickly determine whether the company has all the ingredients to fill upcoming orders, Stohr said.
The students sat in on interviews with software developers, in addition to coming in at 1 a.m to help bake, Stohr said.
Still, it was a business relationship with the need to protect secret recipes and proprietary financial information. The students signed nondisclosure forms, Stohr said.
“Trust is important, but it is important to know what the expectations are,” he said.
In some cases, the business needs were so challenging that next semester’s class may have to tackle the work.
Ultimately, the experience may not have students ditching their Wall Street and Silicon Valley aspirations for a neighborhood storefront. But Lia Prendergast, 28, said it was an eye-opening experience.
“The projects I’ve worked on for boards took months and months,” said Prendergast, who helped Swissbakers. “Here the impact was tangible.”