Omar Roubi, MS, CPA, shares how he connected students with his own client to offer a dynamic real-world experience—and how other educators can do the same.
Instructor of Accounting, University of Colorado, Denver
MS in Taxation, CPA, BS in Accounting
“It’s like the mafia,” says Omar Roubi of his family, which is plagued by an “accounting curse,” as he calls it. “You think you’re out, then they pull you back in!”
Though this native Canadian’s parents wanted him to become an engineer, Roubi found himself compelled to instead join his sister, brother-in-law, brother-in-law’s brother, other relatives, and father (who is also an accounting professor, at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario) in the number-crunching business.
What’s more, ever since Roubi started teaching in 2012, he has been working to pull in his students, too—most recently as an accounting instructor at the University of Colorado, Denver. The approach he uses was sparked by his professional work as a consultant for a number of clients, which gave Roubi a novel idea: Why not have students work with one of his businesses?
He ultimately decided to have them help the owner of a beauty salon—a business with great profit potential, though the owner needed help with everything from inventory to payroll. Below, he shares an overview of the project, along with five tips to help other educators create their own successful business-student collaboration.
Students need to learn how to apply their accounting knowledge
Roubi and his colleagues frequently get feedback from employers that the students they hire may know basic accounting skills, but they struggle with written and verbal communications.
Have students analyze messy data from a real business
By showing students the inner workings of a constantly evolving local business, Roubi provides opportunities for them to solve ongoing challenges. As a result, he knows they will be better able to hit the ground running in their first job.
“Having students work on a consulting project with a real client, real data, and real accounting challenges helps them develop skills that they’ll need to succeed in their future jobs.”— Omar Roubi, MS, CPA
Course description: Cost accounting links financial and managerial accounting and emphasizes communication between accountants and managers. Topics include managerial uses of cost data for decision-making, analysis of activities and cost behavior, the role of accounting in planning and control, and computer-assisted decision modeling. A grade of C or higher is required in this course to proceed to the next level ACCT course or receive credit for the CPA license.
See resources shared by Omar Roubi, MS, CPASee materials
An overview of Roubi’s “Beauty and the Accountant” project
During the first week of his cost accounting class, Roubi informs his students that they will work with a real-world client to analyze her business and perform a budget analysis, variance analysis, inventory analysis, and pricing/product recommendations. The business is a beauty salon, which sells hair products as well as services. The mix of retail and service adds depth and complexity to the students’ experience.
“There’s also a fair amount of client management,” he says. “The students have to interact with the client, get clarification on certain aspects of the project, fill in holes, and help the client articulate what they need—which might not be crystal clear to the client.”
He begins by inviting his client to class, introducing his students to her, and asking her to share with them actual data from her business. Students work in groups of four or five to apply the concepts they have learned in Roubi’s class. As they complete various tasks throughout the semester, they begin to form an analysis, which culminates in actual recommendations that may improve her bottom line.
What students are given
“This project includes messy data—the students get it just as I get it from the client,” Roubi says. “Part of the challenge is learning how to figure out what data they have, how to clean and standardize it, and how to decipher what’s relevant to whatever decision they are trying to help with.”
Problems students solve
Students pore over the data to examine various aspects of the business so that they can provide insights and recommendations. A few areas they explore:
- Inventory mix and pricing solutions. Should the business owner trim her product list? If so, how do the students recommend she make those decisions? What should she cut? And how should she price?
- Labor costs. This includes analyzing the client’s revenue stream and seasonality of business, plus offering strategies for salaries based on each stylist’s popularity and work stream.
- Marketing and personnel. Roubi does not ask students to go into these two areas too deeply, but he wants them to at least help the client understand how they intersect with accounting—e.g., how marketing (if done well) helps the business generate cash flow, as well as how personnel issues (such as which employees should be promoted) factor into the budget.
How students are evaluated
Along with providing written recommendations on each of the three business aspects mentioned above, each student group creates a video focused on one of their recommendations. The video, which explains the reasoning behind each suggestion, is sent to the client.
Roubi makes clear up front how important the end-of-semester client presentations are, and that he bases a big chunk of the project’s grade on these presentations. (Because the videos and projects are due at the end of the semester, client feedback does not currently factor into the grade.)
For example, students are assessed on how well the write-ups are organized and worded, as well as the soundness of their justifications. In the videos, Roubi looks at elements that include students’ attire (is it professional enough?) and use of language (is it appropriate for conversing with a client?).
Roubi’s 5 tips for a successful student-business collaboration
While Roubi’s partnership obviously focuses on accounting, he says educators in other fields may benefit from partnering with outside businesses to give students a taste of real-world experience. Here, he shares his top five tips for instructors considering such a move.
Look for longtime clients who may be receptive to a student project
Since you are asking students to delve into a real business, Roubi says, it is important that educators choose a business that they themselves understand well. This will make it much easier to guide students effectively. In Roubi’s case, because he has known this particular client and her business for years, he has no trouble answering students’ questions and providing direction along the way.
When choosing a business partner, think “small” and “local”
Local businesses are ideal candidates for partnering with an experiential learning project because they often have great needs and small budgets. This means that students can provide a valuable service to them, and since that service is free, it is easy for them to say yes. A small, local business will also be more accessible: Your students are likely to get plenty of in-person time with the owner, which would not happen if they were working with a large corporation.
Cull through client documents to select what students see
Roubi picks and chooses what he wants students to focus on in the project. Otherwise, they could get lost in data and/or engage in issues that are irrelevant. To help students focus, he gives them only the following documents from the salon:
- Comparative income statement
- Comparative classified balance sheet
- Inventory list
- Pricing list
- List of services
Other educators could likewise choose the key documents to provide to their students, based on the desired outcome of the lesson or project.
Introduce the idea of planning and practicing before communicating
Soft skills, such as writing and speaking, are often lost in the mix of consulting projects like this, Roubi says. “If students can’t express their findings, then what good are they?” he asks. To make sure student messages are clear, concise, and engaging, he encourages students to plan their message first. “Students need to put thought into their writing, including format, layout, and wording,” he says. “All of that is just as important as their analysis.”
He also asks that they practice their video presentations prior to filming. There is a five- to seven-minute time limit to the video, so practicing helps students prioritize their messaging and eliminates awkward pauses and movements (and extra editing).
Leave room for creativity
Be sure to leave room for students to put their own stamp on the project, Roubi advises. “Too many times, I’ve seen teachers provide a step-by-step rubric for students to follow, and their presentations end up feeling rote,” he says. “The students won’t put much of themselves into it, and you want them to put themselves into it.”
By giving students a voice in their work—and a real client to share it with—Roubi has seen them grow in both skills and confidence. That may be why many of his graduates have returned to thank him for what they say was their favorite college course ever.