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iConsult gives graduate students practical experience while servicing Syracuse entrepreneurs

Bluetree Studios, an online fair trade shop in Syracuse, wants to make shopping as easy as possible for its customers, and Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool) graduate student consultant Bhawana Bhatnagar is helping the company accomplish that goal.

Bhatnagar G’10, a second semester M.S. in Information Management student, has been offering recommendations for improving Bluetree Studio’s web interface and “making the online experience for customers enjoyable, easy and seamless,” she said. “It is important to have a simple, user-friendly, and appealing web interface.”

“[Bhawana] has proven to be professional, knowledgeable, and accessible throughout the process,” says Christiana Kaiser, owner of Bluetree Studio. “She also brings knowledge of my business type and an enthusiasm to assist me in developing business solutions that I find to be an added value, above and beyond my expectations.” Kaiser says that she hopes to implement Bhatnagar’s recommendations into a new web site by May.

Bhatnagar is one of six iSchool students selected to participate in the school’s new joint program with Syracuse’s South Side Innovation Center (SSIC). The program, called iConsult, matches up iSchool graduate students with entrepreneurs in the SSIC business incubator to provide one-on-one consulting services.

Born from a discussion in August 2008 between Monica Hughley, director of the South Side Entrepreneurial Connect Project at the SSIC, and iSchool Professor Dave Dischiave, director of the M.S. in Information Management program, iConsult is proving to be mutually beneficial for all involved. The program gives students marketable experience while helping small-business owners grow their businesses.

“Many iSchool graduate students are heavily recruited by major consulting companies,” Dischiave says. “It seemed to make sense to leverage the same talent pool to give the students consulting experience in a way that would also benefit the community.”

Recent iSchool graduate Monil Sundesha G’08, co-founder and program manager of iConsult, oversaw the hiring of Bhatnagar and the other five student consultants—Aditya Udas, Ambika Kutty, Aman Tiwari, Hemant Gupta, and Shreyansh Singh—with assistance from iSchool alumnus and Instructional Technology Manager Anthony Rotolo and Career Services Coordinator Kathy Benjamin. More than 60 students applied for the positions, and Sundesha said that his team had to make some difficult decisions. “When you have such a large pool of talented students to pick from, it’s never going to be easy,” he said. The student consultants were ultimately selected based on their analytic, communication, and leadership skills. 

Before beginning their work with the real clients, student consultants received some basic lessons during a lecture, Best Practices in Consulting, by iSchool Professor of Practice Arthur Thomas. The lecture covered such topics as the consulting relationship and consultant tools. The program also requires students to take a one-credit class, funded by the iSchool, called IST 971 Internship in Information Management. 

The students were then matched to a local entrepreneurial business with the aid of Hughley. She identified the seven local small businesses that are receiving the consulting services – Funk ’n Waffles, BD Trauma Scene Clean, Bluetree Studios, The Luxurious Hair Boutique, Mitchell's Construction Solutions, FYM Logic, and New York Wind & Sun. Most of these are resident businesses of the SSIC, which provides office space and other business support to local start-up companies. Hughley said she appreciates any opportunity to partner with SU, and she is excited about working with the iSchool on this project. 

This semester, students are paid through an Enitiative grant awarded by the Kauffman Foundation. Dischiave hopes to establish a long-term partnership with a corporate partner that can help support the students in future years. “We have reached out to a number of consulting companies requesting additional funds as well as time from their management personnel to act in a mentoring role,” he says. “Imagine having to report to a manager at a major corporation that your consulting engagement isn’t going as planned?”

Bhatnagar said that she hopes to become an IT consultant after graduation and appreciates the opportunity to work in the field while still in school. “The iConsult program is giving me the ideal experience and helping me build a strong base and skill set for becoming a good consultant,” she said. “Being a part of this program is giving me hands-on experience in IT consulting and a stepping stone towards my career goals.”

In addition to the real-world experience, iConsult also helps students intellectually bridge the experience to the content delivered in their academic courses. “Ultimately, the students’ experiences will spill over into the classroom through courses like IST 552 Systems Analysis; IST 614 Principles of Information Management; IST 645 Project Management; and IST 659 Database Management Systems,” Dischiave says. “Students will learn the realities of consulting by engaging in the classic consulting work environment. They will also learn a great deal about what it is like to be an entrepreneur.”

iConsult is still in its beginning stages, but Hughley is optimistic about the program’s future success. “It’s a great beginning, and I hope to see it continue and become a great success story for the students and entrepreneurs,” she says.

The program enables the iSchool to put scholarship in action and to place students and entrepreneurs in a mutually beneficial situation. “This experience will expose our students to working in an entrepreneurial environment, and hopefully, the students will leave the program with an appreciation of entrepreneurship,” Sundesha says. “I think this is just the kind of opportunity students look for in a great graduate program.”

For more information on the South Side Innovation Center, visit the web site at  

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