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NIU business students hit the ground running with 40TUDE

May 31, 2021

“Sprint ready.” That’s how NIU students who are part of the 40TUDE Business team describe the work they’re doing to support local businesses affected by the pandemic. During each two-week sprint, the team follows a highly structured schedule to analyze the problem a local small business is facing and implement a solution – usually in the form of a revamped website or social media plan. By going through a series of two-week sprints over the past year – helping more than 20 local businesses to gather market research and improve their online presence – these talented NIU students are also preparing themselves for the long haul by developing the skills, understanding and confidence that employers are looking for.

40TUDE Business and its partner program 40TUDE Nonprofit grew out of DeKalb County UNITES, a university-community initiative to support small businesses that were struggling during the pandemic. 40TUDE is a collaboration between the NIU College of Business, the NIU Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development, the Center for Nonprofit and NGO Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and DeKalb marketing firm OC Creative, and it has been a boon to both local small businesses and NIU students.

“Small businesses are the heart of our community, and they were struggling when COVID hit,” says Jennifer Groce, director of community promotion in the NIU Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development. “NIU already had strong relationships with many local businesses and organizations and we were able to leverage these relationships to respond quickly to small business needs. The NIU College of Business and OC Creative came on board immediately to make 40TUDE a reality. In the past year, the student teams have made a great impact on the community. This type of university-community engagement is a great example of the mutual value we can create together.”

The 40TUDE program also provides the benefits of experiential learning to NIU students – something that was particularly important early in the pandemic when in-person job opportunities couldn’t take place.

“The 40TUDE program exemplifies innovation, engagement and impact,” says College of Business Dean Balaji Rajagopalan. “Our team of faculty and students brings new ideas, engages with local businesses and impacts them in a positive way. The College of Business has a long legacy of experiential learning through our Experiential Learning Center, and 40TUDE is the type of program, when scaled up, that can put us on the map.”

According to Colice McHenry – a member of the 40TUDE student team who just graduated with her B.S. in Marketing and will soon begin her M.S. in Digital Marketing – 40TUDE has helped to solve two related problems. “One is bringing together students who didn’t have opportunities for an internship and actually giving them work on campus or virtually that lets them exercise their skill set. The other was to focus on building a community bond by helping small businesses that had a problem meeting current digital trends that COVID accelerated,” she says. “So the solution 40TUDE offered was marrying the students with small businesses around NIU.”

The team has worked closely with Brian Oster, president and creative director of OC Creative, who has volunteered his time to bring new client leads, share insights with the team and serve as a gatekeeper to guarantee the high quality of the projects delivered.

“It’s a wonderful experience for our students to learn from a successful creative director like Brian,” says Federico Bassetti, an instructor in the NIU Department of Operations Management and Information Systems, who serves as a coach and mentor for the 40TUDE students. “When we have that weekly meeting with him, we are fully open to feedback from Brian, who really treats the team and the product as if it were one of his own. We take the feedback, rearrange and learn from it to make sure that we don’t repeat the same mistake the next time.”

The unique experience of being part of a small creative agency team – four students coached by Bassetti – is akin to being part of a start-up company, offering students a wider range of hands-on experiences than they might get as interns at a large corporation.

Emily Alvarado – who recently graduated with her B.S. in Operations and Information Management and will soon begin her M.S. in Management Information Systems – has served as the team’s Product Owner, taking primary responsibility for interacting with each small business client and shaping the products the team provided.

“I’m passionate about the work we do and grateful for this experience,” says Alvarado. “It has been really fulfilling to be able to add all these different skill sets and resources to my resume, and it’s a great feeling to be able to give back to the community.”

Alvarado says she has particularly enjoyed the challenge of learning the team’s Scrum method of project management, which focuses on building trust and commitment within a small, agile team that can deliver a product quickly and efficiently. “My role as product owner is communicating with the clients and being able to understand the pain points of the problem that we’re dealing with. Then I work with the rest of the students, who are the development team, to complete the technical work so that we can provide a benefit to this customer.”

As they worked with a wide range of businesses, including restaurants, gyms and even a local CBD pet product company, the students delved deeply into each industry. Garrick Cline, who along with his wife, Christina, owns and operates Mellow Mammals, has been thrilled with the work the 40TUDE team did for his family’s business.

“Emily and the team at 40TUDE started off by having a Zoom call with me to discuss what they could do for our brand, but more importantly, they wanted to know the details about our brand, the industry and how we wanted the world to see Mellow Mammals online,” Cline says. “They then took their time to investigate and learn about our industry, the CBD space for pets. There was very good communication throughout the entire process. At the end of the process, I was supplied with 30 premade templates that I can use on our Facebook and Instagram accounts, as well as in our email marketing campaigns and on our Google My Business page. Because I am pretty much a solo entrepreneur at the moment, these templates are a lifesaver for me. We have seen an increase in engagement because the design of the templates encourages engagement. Not only did they give me the templates for a month, but they gave me direction and design ideas I can easily implement from here on out.”

While McHenry and Alvarado will be staying on at NIU to earn graduate degrees and take on more leadership responsibilities within the 40TUDE Business team, fellow team member Artur Surman credits 40TUDE with helping him prepare for interviews and earn his new position as a developer with ISSA, the worldwide cleaning industry association.

Surman, who just graduated with his B.S. in Operations and Information Management, says, “I was able to take a lot of the work that I have done here in 40TUDE along with the processes that I have learned, like Scrum, and I was able to package that into my resume and make myself marketable. This opportunity has really helped me get from being a student to moving into the real world and getting that position as a developer.”

According to Amy Buhrow, senior director of strategy, student success and accreditation for the NIU College of Business, this real-world learning is the main benefit of work experience such as 40TUDE.

“Experiences and projects are embedded throughout NIU Business students’ coursework,” Buhrow says. “However, the embedded projects are often pre-defined so they align with the content of a particular course. The 40Tude students get experience with the discovery process. They have to question the business owners to understand the real need in order to frame the problem, plan the project and ultimately deliver a product that will make a difference in their clients’ businesses.”

As they prepare for the second year of the project, the 40TUDE Business team is looking forward to expanding and improving.

“There is a lot of self-direction and self-ownership among the 40TUDE students, which is very unique for this type of environment,” Bassetti says. “The more the team becomes open to sharing in an exchange, the better it becomes. And I think we’re at the point now where we are seeing how the initial investment is paying off.”

“40Tude was born out of tremendous small business need for professional services amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Buhrow. “I am looking forward to seeing how the program and the students pivot as the community opens. There will still be a demand for the professional services our students provide, but I am curious to see if the needs will be broader than digital transformation. Part of the NIU College of Business mission is to develop principled, adaptable global citizens. I am looking forward to seeing how we adapt.”

40TUDE will be part of the Huskies United day of giving on June 23-24, 2021. Learn more about 40TUDE and how you can support this learning experience for NIU students on the 40TUDE website and the 40TUDE Huskies United page.