The challenge for every student is applying knowledge learned through lectures and gleaned from textbooks to the working world each will enter upon graduation. Illinois State offers many opportunities to put theory into practice, including through the Innovation Consulting Community (ICC).
Now in its fifth year, ICC is an interdisciplinary professional development program that connects undergraduate and graduate students in any major to an organization with a specific need. The interdisciplinary nature is by design to most closely resemble the working world.Appears In
“We had 15 projects this year, with 90 students drawn from 30 sub-disciplines. We were about 80 percent undergraduate and 20 percent graduate students, with about two-thirds in business majors and one-third from non-business majors. Our clients are all in top management positions,” said Dr. Peter Kaufman.
A College of Business marketing professor, Kaufman co-founded ICC with Jim Jones, director of Illinois State’s Katie School of Insurance and Risk Management. They partner with 14 faculty serving as project coordinators to oversee research done by students who sharpen their collaboration skills and critical thinking.
The teams formulate recommendations for clients in both the profit and non-profit sectors locally, nationally, and around the world. As a result of the pandemic and the successful use of Zoom this past year, more international partnerships are anticipated going forward. An overview of projects completed since ICC’s start can be found online at innovationconsulting.community.
Past clients have included Major League Baseball, the global mining industry, Habitat for Humanity, Jewel-Osco, health care organizations, public schools, and firms engaged in cybersecurity and sustainability.
Topics have been equally diverse, ranging from developing markets for Indonesian handcrafts and organic farming possibilities in that country to a giving donor program in Thailand, solutions for employee retention, and the affordability of health insurance.
Projects are most often secured through alumni networking, word-of-mouth, and ideas generated by faculty. The work is considered extracurricular with no academic credits earned and no financial stipend, yet students from the University’s six colleges consistently interview for a spot each fall.
Teams are created after students practice with online modules covering topics that include project management, leadership, design thinking, self-awareness, and conflict resolution. This foundation is key because ICC projects have no obvious solutions and no outline to follow.
Each team delivers a final project to the client in the spring, by which time students have evolved to become consultants. In the process, they’ve practiced their professional presentation and writing skills while developing relationships with colleagues and clients.
“Students have to use creativity and critical thinking because they have to come up with real solutions for real clients,” Kaufman said. While agencies have an interest in working with students, the practical need for results that will help their organization is the top priority in engaging ICC. There is consequently a pressure to produce a viable plan.
“This is like Harvard Business School,” Jones said of the unique opportunity. He mentored four ICC projects this year, including Managing Climate Risks for Smallholder Farmers in Developing Countries. The client, Microinsurance Network, has aid organizations around the world. Its mission is to promote the development and delivery of effective risk management tools for unserved people, including insurance.
Student team members included project leader Jinchuta (Paii) Chaaum, Kwadwo Frempong, Hannah Rademaker, and Samuel Welker. They examined the connection between climate change, food production, food security, and insurance distribution in Uganda. Small farmers there are struggling due to higher temperatures and drought. Uganda’s government is joining with the private sector to offer insurance products that can help lessen risks.
Results were shared over Zoom with client representatives in Italy and Luxembourg. The team used graphics to show the unreliability of rainfall patterns and difficult weather conditions during planting seasons that make food production challenging. The students concluded that the country’s northern region of Karamoja has the greatest vulnerability and would benefit the most from an insurance penetration program.
Team member Rademaker, a junior international business major, said coordinating Zoom meetings with clients around the globe was one significant challenge throughout the rewarding experience.
“The best part has been seeing what it’s like to work for an actual international company, unlike in class where it’s simulated on a computer,” Rademaker said. “I like this much better because it’s more real world. I’d like to do it again next year.”
Kaufman mentored a project called New Product Innovation and Origami: Beyond the Kayak. The challenge for this team was to research a potential new product for its client, Oru Kayak, a California-based outdoors company known for its line of folding, portable kayaks.
Research involved talking with existing Oru customers, interviewing Oru’s marketing/E-commerce manager, and studying industry trends. The team concluded the market needs a better, more lightweight, and affordable car topper. ISU Professor Emeritus Dr. Louis Reifschneider, a plastics engineer, offered his product design expertise. Findings and a design recommendation were presented via Zoom to Oru’s CEO, Ardy Sobhani, who joined the meeting from Mexico.
The team consisted of Anamika Ditta, Chris Foerstel, Cam Hinman, Jakob Holleman, and Luke Graf. The ICC work was one of the best ISU experiences for Graf, a senior marketing major with specializations in integrated marketing communications and analytics.
“The biggest reason I joined was it gave me actual hands-on, real-world experience,” said Graf, who treated his ICC work like an extra class. He appreciated his varying duties, from brainstorming product ideas to researching markets.
Networking is an additional benefit, as the students connected with individuals in various fields and learned from interacting with agency or corporate leaders. Sobhani, for example, offered valuable advice.
“You have to follow the tide and the clues,” he said. “True design thinking is listening to customers and to what they want. That’s the best way to design.” Sobhani advised students to attack life and remember that the creative, human side of work—similar to what they had just engaged in throughout the semester—can’t be replaced by artificial intelligence.
Such working wisdom is invaluable to all ICC students, who will reap dividends from the experience regardless of their chosen field. They comprehend the truth behind ICC’s credo taken from Confucius: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”