Illinois State students do not have to wait until graduation to gain real-world experience. They don’t even have to get a summer internship to find out what it’s like to collaborate with a leading organization.

They only have to join Illinois State University’s Innovation Consulting Community (ICC). For the third-consecutive year, ICC matched small teams of students from diverse backgrounds across disciplines with off-campus clients from a wide range of industries and organizations. From November until April, the students acted as consultants, researching problems and developing solutions for these large organizations.

This year’s cohort presented their projects Friday, April 12, in the Caterpillar Auditorium at the State Farm Hall of Business. The clients were a Chicago professional sports team, an environmental nonprofit, major coffee and grocery chains, a regional health care organization, and an organization based in Indonesia supporting a local community. The names of the organizations are withheld due to confidentiality.

The students began the program by completing background material on leadership, project management, design thinking, and other areas. Then they spent months researching and fine-tuning recommendations for the organizations. ICC assigns mentors—Illinois State staff or faculty members or Bloomington-Normal leaders—to assist the students as they define and understand the problem, test potential solutions, and work with the client to finish the project.

One team helped the coffee chain understand high turnover among its millennial employees. Another worked with a nonprofit organization to minimize or eliminate single-bag use in order to reduce harm to the environment.

Lindsay Logan presents the results of her ICC project.

Lindsay Logan presents the results of her ICC project.

Senior Lindsay Logan’s team partnered with the health care organization to propose diversity initiatives it could use to broaden its workforce and attract more young people from underrepresented groups to the health care field.

Logan, a communication studies major, said the project was worth the many hours she spent outside of her normal class load to participate in ICC. “You learn a lot of skills that you can apply to your career,” she said. “Definitely problem-solving and conflict management were two of the biggest things.”

Her teammate Ares Boira, an international master’s student in industrial/organizational-social psychology, noted the challenges and benefits of working with a diverse team that also included students from the Mennonite College of Nursing. “We had moments of tension. But it resulted in growth.”

The clients appreciated the students’ efforts. The students who consulted for the professional sports organization were asked to find four or five companies that would potentially be interested in buying high-priced single-game suites. The team returned with a list of 40 prospects, and used the Salesforce Platform, a customer relationship management system, to showcase their sales leads.

Molly Velbeck, a senior integrated marketing communication major, worked on that project. “I learned how to more efficiently communicate,” she said. “This project was very beneficial to me.”

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Marketing Professor Peter Kaufman founded ICC in 2016 with the help of faculty and staff from units across campus. The student pool reflects that same diversity, and all majors at any grade level are welcome to participate.

Shobhit Bhaska, a junior finance major, presents on his ICC consulting project with a grocery chain.

Shobhit Bhaskar, a junior finance major, presents on his ICC project partnering with a grocery chain.

ICC offers students the rare opportunity in college to work on a project they ordinarily wouldn’t have easy access to, which can expedite their professional development, Kaufman said. The ICC projects intentionally have ambiguity to provide students with the most real-world of experiences that they may not experience until postgraduation. This is beneficial to students who will be expected to be self-starters once they enter their careers.

“They really have to chart the course,” Kaufman said. “The projects are not overly structured, requiring students to break down the projects and think critically.”

As a direct result of their participation in ICC, students have received internships and full-time jobs and often include their ICC experience in applications for awards and other types of recognitions.

Students also learn a valuable lesson: Companies value people with an ability to research and make recommendations to solve a problem, said Nathan Hartman, an ICC coordinating member and an associate professor of Management and Quantitative Methods. “What you know matters.”

Those interested in participating in the Innovation Consulting Community as a student, mentor, or client, should email Professor Peter Kaufman.

Kevin Bersett can be reached at (Disclosure: Kevin Bersett served as a mentor for the ICC team that worked with the health care organization.)