Business Beyond the Boardroom
Students and staff members joined virtually for the 2021 Super Analytics Challenge.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business to rethink its approach to one of the main pillars of its graduate programs: learning by doing.
“The pandemic reminded us how important it is to train our students how to manage during times of change and uncertainty,” says Sara B. Moeller, associate dean for graduate programs and executive education. “Our students are eager to make an impact outside of the classroom.”
Led by Moeller and Christopher Barlow, director of corporate engagement and career management, Pitt Business tapped into its own faculty and staff from graduate programs, alumni relations and development, and career management along with generous Pitt Business alumni donors to develop two new initiatives—the annual Bridge Program and the Super Analytics Challenge.
“When the pandemic started affecting job and internship offers, we knew that not only did our students need meaningful experiences, but that the Pittsburgh community needed help,” says Barlow.
The Bridge Program
To address this need, the Bridge Program was formed in 2020 to bridge the gap for students to apply their skills, knowledge, and energy to attain internship opportunities while providing support for community-based organizations. Over the course of eight weeks, more than 50 graduate students offered solutions for the complex challenges these organizations were facing due to the pandemic. The student teams simultaneously developed their business acumen while tangibly driving impact in the local community, outcomes that are core strategic goals for Pitt Business.
Developing the program required creating structure—quickly. Fortunately, Pitt Business has been a leader in experience-based learning for decades. Modeled on Professor Bud Smith’s Consulting Field Project course, the internships were set up as consulting projects.
“The structure of our successful Bridge Program proved to be both efficient and flexible, such that future students can continue to positively impact local organizations for years to come,” says Smith. “We are particularly grateful to our volunteer coaches for providing guidance to our student teams. I was honored to be part of such valuable support to
Student projects included everything from marketing and promoting a new global garden tool at the Phipps Conservatory to assessing the financial feasibility of building a mental health services center for Veterans Place, a local nonprofit organization that supports homeless veterans.
The Super Analytics Challenge
While the Bridge Program was taking place, Barlow’s team worked behind the scenes to create its first-ever Super Analytics Challenge. As a one-week hackathon-style competition, graduate students from across the University teamed up to frame a problem, create a data methodology, and generate an operable solution. For the 2020–2021 academic year, the challenge focused on homelessness in the Pittsburgh community in collaboration with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS).
The many contributing factors of homelessness, such as physical and mental health, economic conditions, and the wide availability of published data and research, presented an opportunity for graduate students to provide insights and proposals.
“The goal was for all student teams to generate innovative solutions that Allegheny County DHS may implement,” says Andrew Hannah, adjunct professor, executive-in-residence, and co-organizer of the challenge. “Solutions were judged not only on the depth of their analytical thinking but also on the pragmatism of the solution proposed.”
An advisory committee consisting of representatives from corporate partners at UPMC, Highmark, Accenture, SAP, the National Association of Counties, and the Pittsburgh Technology Council served as executive coaches, analytical methods experts, and subject matter specialists alongside the students.
The students brought their own depth of perspectives. Carloz Gil, who’s pursuing an MBA with a concentration in business analytics, was raised in Monterrey, Mexico, where he grew up with many experiencing homelessness in his own community.
“Working on this project has taught me not only how complex the issue of homelessness is but also how solutions require the use of technical skills in tandem with a personal approach,” says Gil, who purchased his first home this past year. “In this day and age, the use of data analytics is necessary to tackle issues like this, but that will only go so far unless there is a more human side to the equation.”
Gil and his teammates Rebecca Farabaugh, Xingyu Li, and Tianyang Xie, who are students in the Master of Science program, were selected as the winning team. They identified four problem areas: access to basic-need items such as laundry and refrigeration; access to transportation and proximity to support; communication barriers such as no phones or permanent addresses; and identification barriers.
The team’s solution focused on delivering services in high-need areas through pop-up centers. The students also proposed tracking access to basic needs so that Allegheny County can improve rates of transition to stable housing. Their award was a 2021 Bridge Program fellowship supported by Accenture in collaboration with Love Beyond Walls, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, that has manufactured and deployed portable handwashing stations for use by homeless people in urban centers. This teamwork will result in a local nonprofit receiving portable handwashing stations for high traffic homeless areas in Allegheny County.
In addition to the fellowships, the extended 2021 Bridge Program supported another 16 students who worked with organizations such as Heinz History Center, Pediatric Palliative Care Coalition, Pitt’s Nationality Rooms, and Innovate PGH.
As an annual event, Pitt Business will identify a new community partner, tailor the Super Analytics Challenge to that partner’s needs, and match Bridge Program projects for pull-through impact.
“People who care deeply about their work are more inclined to propose innovative, impactful solutions,” says Moeller. “If students can see that their efforts will create tangible benefits, they will be more likely to participate.
If you’re interested in getting involved in initiatives like the Bridge Program or the Super Analytics Challenge, please contact Christopher Barlow at firstname.lastname@example.org.