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updated: 4/16/2020 6:50 AM

Constable: Learning the business of business during COVID-19

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  • While COVID-19 has canceled internships and summer jobs for many college students, Katie Kenny of Mount Prospect is learning how to run a business during trying times as part of the College Works Painting program.

    While COVID-19 has canceled internships and summer jobs for many college students, Katie Kenny of Mount Prospect is learning how to run a business during trying times as part of the College Works Painting program.
    Courtesy of Adam Columbus

  • In an economy where traditional business practices have been shut down, Katie Kenny does most of her work on a laptop in her Mount Prospect home. As an intern with College Works Painting, she interviews painters and gives estimates to customers online.

    In an economy where traditional business practices have been shut down, Katie Kenny does most of her work on a laptop in her Mount Prospect home. As an intern with College Works Painting, she interviews painters and gives estimates to customers online.
    Courtesy of Adam Columbus

  • Still making house calls as part of her internship with College Works Painting, Katie Kenny of Mount Prospect says she stays 12 feet away from homeowners, or works out the painting details by phone or online.

    Still making house calls as part of her internship with College Works Painting, Katie Kenny of Mount Prospect says she stays 12 feet away from homeowners, or works out the painting details by phone or online.
    Courtesy of Adam Columbus

 
 

COVID-19 restrictions already have messed with summer plans for many college students. Stay-at-home orders have canceled studies abroad, as well as jobs and internships at home.

But Katie Kenny, a University of Illinois sophomore from Mount Prospect, already is hard at work as an intern running her own business.

An advertising major, the 19-year-old was hired at the end of December by College Works Painting, a national company that hires and trains students to manage their own local house-painting businesses. Ahead of Illinois' stay-at-home order, Kenny trained on Feb. 29 and March 1 with 100 other interns in a group setting, learning skills that included going door-to-door to drum up sales.

"The following weekend, I was out from 9 a.m. to around 7:30 p.m.," knocking on doors and meeting with homeowners, Kenny says.

On March 12, she left the campus at Urbana-Champaign to come home for spring break.

"All spring break I was able to do marketing and estimates," she says. "I would have gone back to school and come home every weekend to work."

But U of I told students not to return after spring break, and, as with every other school, now is conducting its spring classes online. So Kenny is home for the duration, hoping to return to campus in August if the coronavirus restrictions allow schools to reopen by then.

"As bad as this is, it's an awesome opportunity for me to be working more," Kenny says. "We can still do all the painting and estimates; it's just up to us to figure out how to do that."

There is no meeting with customers around their kitchen table and sealing the deal with a handshake. Instead, she generally makes contact by phone and conducts a much different sales call in person.

"I'll drive out to Hawthorn Woods or Barrington," Kenny says. "When I get there, I still knock on the door."

Then she backs away.

"We wear gloves and stand 12 feet back from the door," Kenny says. "I would never tell them they have to come outside."

Some customers do go outside and point out the areas they want painted, and discuss what colors they want used for the fascia and window trim. Others prefer to stay in the safety of their homes.

"It's not hard to explain it over the phone because I did get extensive training," Kenny says. "And I have taught a couple of customers how to do a Zoom chat."

Unlike the job she's had in previous summers where her salary was guaranteed as a lifeguard at the Mount Prospect Park District's Big Surf Wave Pool, Kenny's income depends on how many houses the painters she hires can paint.

"It makes me feel really good being able to provide jobs to painters during this time," Kenny says.

With so many people out of work and watching their expenses, Kenny says people still want to paint those homes they are stuck in.

"For every two people who are scared to spend the money, there is one person who does," she says, saying she can offer 15% discounts during the coronavirus shutdown.

"I just feel very fortunate I have a job and an internship," she says, suggesting the skills she's learning during COVID-19 could come in handy in the future. "The constantly changing status of this pandemic is giving me the real-world business experience that I could never have predicted I would receive when I applied for this internship."

Who knows what the summer of 2020 will do for her career? Maybe, in a decade or so, Kenny will use the skills she learned during COVID-19 to figure out how her own company will survive as the world grapples with the new pandemic of COVID-31.