When Samuel Pearson signed up to compete in the RNMKRS Virtual Sales Competition, where he would interact with an artificially intelligent (AI) animated customer bot to sell a product, he expected it to be similar to a video game.
“The whole idea of selling to an AI seemed simple enough,” said Pearson, the top-performing Parker College of Business student in the competition. “At first, I thought the AI would react like a video game character and as soon as I learned how to beat it, I could win every time. That wasn’t the case.”
Pearson was one of 70 Georgia Southern University students and one of more than 1,300 students from 48 colleges and universities around the world to compete in the RNMKRS virtual competition where students used their mobile phones to interact with AI animated customer bots to compete for visibility with employers like Dell Technologies and HubSpot.
During the virtual sales competition, students used the voice technology on their phones to have conversations with the customer bot as they tried to win its trust and educate the AI on their product line of laptop computers. The customer bot then listened, adapted and responded as the students went through the sales call.
Despite his experience as a sales student in the Parker College of Business and his first-hand experience working in sales, the contest challenged Pearson in a new way.
“This competition works to show you exactly what is needed to land a sale,” he said. “RNMKRS allows you to learn all the aspects that go into making a sales call without the fear of diving straight into a face-to-face (sales) situation without any experience.”
Pearson prepared for this virtual sales competition much the same way he would prepare for an in-person sales competition. He took notes on the specification of the laptops he was selling to include the AI’s given identity and took into consideration the tips the RNMKRS representatives provided.
“The key difference working with the AI is that you can’t simply convince the AI that you’re correct,” he said. “You must be 100% correct with your wording or else the sale won’t progress, or it won’t understand you. You also didn’t need to impress the robot like you would a person.”
Linda G. Mullen, Ph.D., co-executive director of the Center for Sales Excellence at Georgia Southern, said the contest came at an opportune time for students after Georgia Southern moved to online instruction in March due to COVID-19.
“This competition’s first run was in Fall 2019, but I jumped at the chance for our students to participate when I saw we were moving to virtual instruction,” said Mullen. “This was our first time competing, and we will be doing this again in Fall 2020 for sure.”
The first virtual, mobile selling skills competition was developed by the RNMKRS Faculty Alliance of Leading Educators, Dell Technologies training executives and developers from three countries. RNMKRS is a free online tool students and faculty can use to learn, practice and demonstrate selling skills in a Global Virtual Sales Competition.
Innovating for a cause: Georgia Southern University manufacturing 3D printed PPE for healthcare workers
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded and healthcare organizations began experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), faculty, staff and students at Georgia Southern University stepped up to fulfill a need.
Making use of the 3D printers on the Statesboro and Armstrong campuses, as well as at the FabLab at the Business Innovation Group’s (BIG) downtown Statesboro location, the campus communities quickly began production of protective face shields and respirators.
“We can’t afford to sit back and wait for things to happen,” said Dominique Halaby, DPA, director of the BIG. “We have to make them happen. We have this responsibility to make a difference, to be a part of that front line, whether it’s immediately in our community, our state or our respective area.”
To date, the Department of Manufacturing Engineering has sent 200 3D-printed protective face shields with headbands to Augusta, Georgia, for healthcare workers at Augusta Medical Center, while the BIG has sent 100 face shields and 10 “Montana Masks,” a 3D-printable respirator filtration mask that can be fitted to a healthcare provider’s face and sanitized between uses, to Atlanta-area hospitals.
The Department of Mechanical Engineering on the Armstrong Campus has also printed Montana Masks that will be delivered to workers in the St. Joseph’s/Candler Hospital System (SJCHS) in Savannah, Georgia, while the Respiratory Therapy Program in the Waters College of Health Professions donated 10 ventilators to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
“I am unbelievably proud of our faculty, staff and students who have their own families to take care of, but are putting themselves on the line to help our medical professionals in this time of critical need,” said Mohammad Davoud, Ph.D., dean of the Allen E. Paulson College of Engineering and Computing.
Andrew Michaud, laboratory supervisor in the Department of Manufacturing, and Tara Drake, the department’s administrative assistant, worked together to produce 3D-printed face shields with headbands for distribution.
“We are really glad to be able to help in any way we can,” said Daniel Cox, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Manufacturing Engineering. “This is what engineers do – we see a problem, and we solve it.”
Wayne Johnson, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering, believes providing these materials to the Savannah community during a time of critical need is reinforcing a longtime commitment to the region.
“The Armstrong Campus of Georgia Southern has a long history of working within the Savannah community, and during this pandemic, it was especially important for mechanical engineering faculty and students at the Armstrong Campus to step up during a time of great need,” said Johnson. “ Our work with SJCHS to develop, test and donate 3D-printed respirators may also lead to other research and development collaborations in the post-COVID-19 future.”
In addition to benefiting area healthcare workers, Johnson believes this project is a great way for students to put their classroom skills into practice.
“It has provided our mechanical engineering student, Alicia Hawrylko, with a great opportunity to apply the skills she learned in our engineering courses to a real-world application in real-time,” Johnson said.
Hawrylko initially approached Johnson looking for a way to use her engineering skills to give back. Not only did she help with the Montana Masks, she even worked with her partner to design custom cloth straps for the masks to enhance comfort for healthcare workers.
“I would not have originally thought working on a respirator for medical personnel is how I would be utilizing engineering,” she said. “Having been a mechanic in the Air National Guard I had always assumed I would gravitate toward aerospace, but my time at the Armstrong Campus has taught me to rethink how I view engineering. I believe when students involve themselves in activities or projects within their selected degree programs, it benefits the entire school community. For me, it is a natural progression to also want to involve the community as a whole, in this instance working together with SJCHS to provide them the 3D-printed materials we are able to.”
At BIG, FabLab Coordinator Jim Walker said they have masks and shields ready for local healthcare organizations should a need arise. Until then, they are working with the North Georgia Health System to distribute supplies there due to high demand.
“Bulloch County has been blessed to not have been hit with an enormous caseload, so there is not the need for additional PPE locally,” Walker said. “We are working with out-of-county hospitals, specifically, the Northeast Georgia Hospital System, which covers the city of Atlanta, to help with equipment shortages.”
He believes helping during a time of crisis is a moral obligation.
“Those with the power to act have the responsibility to act, and we have the ability to make a small difference with our production means,” he said. “As an innovation center, we are always striving to solve problems. We feel connected to the community and that we should give back in this time of crisis by using our resources to help solve the supply chain problems of PPE production and distribution.”
Halaby believes that making swift moves to use the available resources at the BIG and other areas of the university to fulfill a need are truly showing Georgia Southern’s innovative capabilities.
“This shows that great individuals and great ideas can come from anywhere,” he said. “I believe the common psyche is that we expect things to happen in Atlanta and kind of work their way down, but we’re showing that we have the ability, the skillset and the desire to have an impact anywhere in the world, even in a place as innovative as Atlanta.”
Mattie Cantrall has been soaring over obstacles for the past four years at Georgia Southern, but after graduating this spring with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Logistics, the Eagle Battalion Commander will take to the air again. This time in U.S. Army Air Assault School in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Graduation for Cantrall also means she will assume the second lieutenant rank and start her commission as an officer in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps. She’ll undergo 16 weeks of training in Virginia before she heads to Fort Campbell, where she will become a cargo specialist and support combat arms as a member of the brigade support battalion.
Cantrall, a Parker Business Scholar whose major was logistics and intermodal transportation with a minor in military science, said her academic experience, as well as her time with ROTC, have prepared her for the next step in her career.
“The Parker College of Business academic program has pushed me further than I thought I could be pushed academically,” she said. “I have learned how to compartmentalize information and comprehend, not just memorize and brain dump following an exam. ROTC on the other hand has pushed me past my limits in every aspect possible: physically, mentally, emotionally and psychologically. I grew as a person.”
Cantrall’s experience at Georgia Southern went beyond the classroom and ROTC. As a cadet, she had the opportunity to travel the world, including a trip to Cabo Verde, Africa, where she hiked two volcanoes, rebuilt a local school, trained with the military and swam in beautiful waters. She said these experiences will not only help her professionally, but also personally to motivate her throughout her career.
“The climb was brutal at some points with rocks slipping beneath our feet and our legs cramping up,” Cantrall said. “The view at the top was breathtaking, looking 10,000 feet down at the ocean beneath you. The most incredible part was going down. As I move forward in my career, I can tell people about the pain and the struggle of going up the mountain, or I can tell them about the beautiful view at the top and the enjoyment and weightlessness of going down.”
Cantrall has also made some wonderful memories in Statesboro. As a part of color guard, she carried the nation’s colors in Paulson Stadium before football games and represented the University during Georgia Southern Day at the Capitol in Atlanta.
The highest honor Cantrall received during her time as an Eagle, however, came in Kentucky at advanced camp, where she earned a Recondo Badge. Around 6,000 cadets go to the camp each year, where they must pass a series of tests to complete training. The tests include tactical combat casualty care, various firearm tests, land navigation, a timed 6-mile weighted run and the Army Physical Fitness Test. Cantrall passed all her tests on the first try, while also hitting a higher standard on all of them. She is the first female cadet to earn Recondo since it was reinstated two years ago.
“This Recondo is for every female that did not think they could accomplish something,” Cantrall said. “I give all the credit to two groups of people: my platoon and all the females in my regiment. We studied together while sitting out in the middle of the woods, we paced each other on the 6-mile ruck march, and we extended a hand every time we started to feel beat down.”
With all of her accomplishments, Cantrall’s favorite memory at Georgia Southern may be surprising to some.
“My fondest memory was in the fall of 2019 when the ROTC intramural softball team won the championship game,” she said. “There was no greater pride than to see the entire sideline packed with fellow cadets cheering on their teammates and battling back and forth until the final bat. That energy and comradery gave the energy in Paulson a run for its money.”
How Georgia Southern’s Business Innovation Group is providing resources to small businesses during the COVID-19 crisis
The past two months haven’t exactly been business as usual for Georgia Southern University alumnus and small business owner Garrett Clark.
As the owner of Rolling Monkey Ice Cream in Statesboro, Georgia, Clark has had to make several shifts in his business due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused restaurants and eateries to discontinue dine-in services for an extended time.
Thanks to guidance and interactions with fellow business owners through the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Georgia Southern’s Business Innovation Group (BIG) in downtown Statesboro, he was able to pivot a little more quickly.
“We transitioned to a curbside approach, which currently is 50 percent of our revenue,” Clark said. “Conversations within the Business Innovation Group led us to the curbside idea, and due to implementing this pivot in a timely manner, we haven’t had to lay off any employees.”
Clark is just one of many small businesses that have been able to rely more than ever on BIG and the SBDC, which offer guidance, resources, physical office and meeting spaces, among other services, to businesses year-round.
Dominique Halaby, DPA, director of BIG, said the SBDC is making sure their clients and local businesses have access to resources available to them during the COVID-19 pandemic. During these uncertain times and in an effort to help area business owners and community leaders, BIG has compiled a list of resources regarding the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act, along with other helpful tips.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is touching all of us, just not in the same way,” said Halaby. “We want to make sure our area business owners and community leaders have all the information, resources and support they need to make informed decisions about how best to respond to and emerge from this economic crisis.”
While Clark has been a client of BIG and the SBDC for some time, he feels especially grateful to have them as resources during a time such as this. Through information provided by the SBDC, he was notified of the small business disaster loans the government recently released almost as soon as they were available.
“The PPP —the payment protection plan that’s being rolled out— is a very beneficial loan that helps us with our biggest expense, which is payroll,” Clark said. “If we weren’t in that space, I don’t think that we would have been made aware of it in time to effectively populate the application and secure our placement in line to receive funding.”
Halaby said BIG is dedicated to ensuring business owners fully understand the CARES Act.
“For example, our SBDC is making virtual appointments and conducting webinars to help small business owners understand and apply for available funds to help them through the crisis,” he said.
In addition, BIG wanted to gain a broader understanding of how social distancing measures and COVID-19 are impacting businesses in the region. The University’s Center for Business Analytics and Economic Research (CBAER), which is housed at BIG, conducted a survey of more than 500 respondents. The survey asked businesses about the recent changes in their operations and procedures after social distancing guidelines were implemented in March.
The survey garnered respondents from 16 counties throughout South and Coastal Georgia. On the positive side, of the businesses that have remained open, nearly 40% of them have encouraged employees to work from home while nearly two-thirds are implementing social distancing guidelines in the workplace.
On the downside, nearly 54% of businesses have reduced the ordering and purchasing of supplies, 23% of businesses have furloughed employees while an additional 28% have reduced staffing levels.
In the industries that are important to the Coastal Georgia economy, 46.9% of responses to laying off employees and 47.9% of responses about furloughing employees came from restaurants, hospitality and tourism.
Looking forward, survey respondents are optimistic about their business operations in the next three months. More than 46% of respondents believe business volume will increase, and 45% of respondents believe sales will increase as well. Nearly a third of respondents said their business financial health and profitability will improve in three months while almost a quarter of businesses said their hiring and employment outlook will improve.
“While we may not enjoy what we’re going through right now, I think this is going to make us more resilient in the future,” he said. “We’re stressed, but because of that, we’re going to build back stronger.”
The Business Innovation Group, a center of the Parker College of Business, houses the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Georgia Southern University, the Center for Business Analytics and Economic Research (CBAER), the EDA University Center, the FabLab and the Innovation Incubator. BIG’s focus is to provide students and the community with the skills, training and resources needed to successfully launch and maintain sound business practices.
Two accounting students in the Parker College of Business at Georgia Southern University received individual scholarships totaling $15,000 to help with their academic careers.
Gabrielle Beasley, a junior accounting student from Powder Springs, Georgia, was awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), and Roy Willamson, an accounting major from Statesboro, Georgia, received $5,000 from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) Foundation.
“Being the recipient of the PCAOB Scholarship has given me a true sense of accomplishment,” Beasley said. “To know that my hard work and dedication have garnered such an honor is breathtaking.”
Beasley was nominated by her professors for the PCAOB scholarship, which is awarded to a student with an overall GPA of 3.3 or higher or place in the top third of their overall class.
“Gabbie has an outstanding GPA, she’s a top student and has an impressive résumé,” said Assistant Professor Andrea M. Scheetz, Ph.D., who nominated Beasley. “She works part time as a leasing agent at a local apartment complex, will intern with Ernst and Young this summer and participate in Aprio’s Summer Leadership Program. She’s a wonderful student.”
Beasley is also a member of the University Honors Program, the National Association of Black Accountants and the Minority Advisement Program.
Williamson received the ACFE Foundation Scholarship through the Ritchie-Jennings Memorial Scholarship. Students who receive this scholarship have displayed academic achievement in accounting, finance, business administration or criminal justice and have a desire to pursue a career in fraud examination or similar anti-fraud profession. Additionally, the scholarship recipients receive a one-year ACFE Student Membership.
“It is a great honor to receive this scholarship,” said Williamson. “The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners is comprised of those on the front lines fighting against fraud, and, as reflected in the naming of the Ritchie-Jennings Memorial Scholarship, those who have given everything in the fight.
“It is a sobering thought, but one that pays respect to Tracy Ritchie and Larry Jennings, who, in 1997, lost their lives while working in Pakistan as a result of a terrorist attack,” he continued. “The Ritchie-Jennings Memorial Scholarship represents the next generation of fraud examiners, a generation that I am proud to be a part of through my studies and career. I could not have gotten this far without the support of my family, friends, coworkers and professors.”