An unusual collaboration between colleges has grown into a successful, student-led consulting firm where students from four highly distinct institutions work to solve local problems.
The four participating institutions are located in and near Colorado Springs, Colo.: the private Colorado College, Pike’s Peak Community College, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the United States Air Force Academy. The leaders of these institutions form the governing board of the Quad Innovation Partnership.
Local organizations, both private and public, contract with Quad to solve problems. Once a dream of Lance Bolton, Pike's Peak's president, the student consulting firm has overcome institutional differences to create a growing business -- which will soon pay for itself, should the growth continue.
Bolton said he first thought of creating an inter-institutional group -- with a goal of supporting the local economy -- several years ago after visiting Iowa City, Iowa, where he witnessed collaboration between Kirkwood Community College and the University of Iowa, which have partnered on STEM education and encouraging smoother transitions from two-year colleges to four-year universities.
“I visited the local economic development offices that were located in a co-working space near the University of Iowa,” Bolton said. "The university was actually renting a number of the co-working space slots in that building to provide them to new graduates from the university who were working in an entrepreneurial environment. And I thought that was a really interesting idea that they're providing opportunities like this.”
The local government of Colorado Springs was plagued by political infighting at the time and not working very efficiently, said Bolton. And many community leaders were concerned about how to convince millennials and college graduates to stay in the area.
“I wrote a letter that started, ‘how do we demonstrate collegiality and cooperation instead of this fighting that we see in our community?’” Bolton said. “We didn’t know what the operating model of the organization we wanted to create would be, but we knew we wanted to find out if we could collaborate like this. We thought there would be some magic in all of our students being together from different backgrounds. And, remarkably, my colleagues all said yes.”
Bolton and his fellow executives spent much of the planning process trying to decide what the goals of the organization would be before deciding that consulting could be a successful model.
The new firm in 2016 hired Jake Eichengreen as its executive director. Eichengreen, who previously ran a financial services company he founded in Uganda, reports directly to Quad’s board, which includes leaders of the four institutions minus Jay Silveria, the Air Force Academy's superintendent, who, as a member of the active-duty military, cannot serve on boards.
“One of our goals is to be a go-to resource for the community,” Eichengreen said. “Higher ed in general has so much capacity and ability and it can sometimes be a bit of a maze for an interested community partner to find the home of whatever work it is they’re pursuing. Our job is to field those inquiries and build teams of students, faculty or whatever resources are available at our partner’s schools.”
Teams With Diverse Backgrounds
Eichengreen said the students’ work is mainly focused on researching “tactical solutions” to problems local organizations bring them.
Students from the four participating institutions go through an application and interview process in order to be considered for a position with Quad. Students involved in Quad said the ability to work with students from diverse backgrounds was fulfilling.
“I got such a wealth of knowledge from all the different students at the other institutions,” said Brieanna Bryant, a Colorado Springs graduate who worked with Quad. “You get a different perspective from, say, Colorado College students, because they’re a private university, then you definitely get a different perspective from the Air Force Academy because they’re cadets and they have a totally different outlook. UCCS and Pike’s Peak have similar backgrounds but you often have different demographics -- you could get someone who’s 50-plus years old or maybe only 18 years old.”
Bryant worked with Quad’s summer intensive program, where students work all day for four weeks to tackle a specific issue. Andrew Scherffius, a Colorado College graduate who was involved with the program, said it has helped him professionally and in growing stronger ties in his community.
“The team-building process is really fascinating,” Scherffius said. “When we’re building our team and looking at our projects, we’re very cognizant that we’re going to have people from very different backgrounds. Like me, for example -- I love social enterprises and nonprofits. But another one of my co-workers, a graduate of Pike’s Peak, was extremely mathematically gifted.”
The diversity of experience made Quad’s work attractive to Jason Williamson, vice president of marketing at Altia, a Colorado Springs-based computer software company. Williamson said Altia was so pleased with the work it contracted Quad for -- market and product research -- that the company has used Quad’s services twice since then.
“That broad range of expertise -- having the perspective of people from English majors all the way to computer science majors -- really helps us attack a problem from a lot of different angles,” Williamson said. “The second benefit is a nonbiased, fresh perspective that students bring to the table.”
Williamson said the main reason Altia hired Quad rather than a conventional consulting firm is the diversity of backgrounds the students bring, as well as the recruiting opportunity of meeting with young professionals who are about to enter the work force.
Eichengreen said Quad is growing in terms of long-term sustainability, and that 70 percent of the organization’s total budget is earned income. Eichengreen predicts Quad will have complete financial sustainability within the next two years.
“The leadership has been phenomenal at helping us understand and navigate the nuances of each individual school,” Eichengreen said. “I’ve heard these rumors that collaboration between institutions is sometimes a difficult thing to pull off, but if you ask me subjectively, this has been a phenomenal ride.”