Gies Business’ Purpose-Driven Undergraduate Experience

Business On Purpose.

That is the mission statement of the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois. It’s also something that is drilled into the undergraduate business majors at Gies who look beyond profit and view business as a way to do some good in the world.

With an undergraduate placement rate of 99% within six months of graduation and 94% of students participating in experiential learning, Gies has recently updated its curriculum.

In this interview with Gies Dean Jeffrey Brown and Kevin Jackson, associate dean of undergraduate studies, the pair describe the school’s new deeper emphasis on data analytics, its introduction of a set of four cohort-style courses that begin in freshmen year, and how the school prepares students for their careers in business.


Here is an edited transcript of the conversation:

John A. Byrne: Jeff, the brand promise for the Gies College of Business is ‘Business on Purpose.’ What do you mean by that?

Jeffrey Brown: It means a couple of things. First of all, it means we’re intentional about everything we do, and it also means that we try to instill in our students a greater sense of purpose that being in business is a noble calling. It is about more than just the bottom line. It’s about helping our students really understand their role in a company, their role in society, discovering their why, why they want to do what they want to do and help them make a difference in the world.

Byrne: Why is ‘why’ so important?

Brown: The why is really important because at the end of the day it’s what really motivates people. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing if you see how the activities that you do day to day connect to some larger purpose, you’re going to stay motivated even during the inevitable difficult times in any career.

Byrne: True, and I think that especially resonates with millennials.

Brown: It absolutely does. And you know there’s also work out there showing it matters a lot for organizations as well. Organizations that can really tie their business to a larger purpose, whether it’s meeting a consumer need, solving a societal problem, it’s a really powerful force for getting organizations to work together toward a common goal.

Byrne: How do you teach that? How do you ingrain that in your students?

Brown: It starts by talking about it a lot. It starts by reminding students about it, and it really goes to the way we teach, to the work that we do with them outside of class, to the messages that we send when we’re talking to our students.

Kevin Jackson: The message that business on purpose provides is that if you have a passion or a cause, you don’t have to check that at the door. It is seeing business as a tool that allows you to pursue your passions or your causes in a sustainable way, throughout your life, professionally.

Byrne: I think it’s worth saying because people who aren’t in business or haven’t been exposed to it often have a stereotypical view of business that can be negative. it’s capitalism, it’s greed, it’s making a profit at any cost, and the students who are attracted to studying business are anything but that.

Brown: That’s right. We know that having a connection to a bigger purpose is really important to them, and I’ll tell you it’s not just youthful idealism. Just a couple weeks ago the Business Roundtable came out with a statement. The CEOs of some of the biggest companies in America are now saying that we need to have a broader conversation about the set of stakeholders that matter to business. We historically had a shareholder value model, but I think there’s a recognition that we do need to think about a broader set of stakeholders, given some of the challenges that we face as a country and as a world.

Byrne: That’s true. One thing you recently did was to redesign the undergraduate curriculum. Everyone knows business is changing, changing rapidly, driven by technology, globalization, economic cycles and governments. So what have you done to the curriculum to bring it up to date?

Jackson: Just in the last couple of years, there’s just been a real intentional attempt to give students the best experience, and the best opportunity to succeed in a more contemporary business world. Things that would entail include data analytics, and having students become at least conversational, but with the opportunity to become fluent in a lot of data analytics.

Byrne: We are overwhelmed by data, and most companies still aren’t harnessing it for decision making. They’re overwhelmed by it as well.

Brown: So going forward every single student in the Gies College of Business, starting with this year’s freshman class, will have a full year of business analytics during their sophomore year. It’s two semesters. Having that as a baseline, our faculty in other areas, whether it’s accounting or finance or marketing, can then offer electives to go deeper in marketing analytics, or financial analytics. It’s one of several things we did in our undergraduate curriculum.

Jackson: We’ve had a first-year experience course that all freshmen would take as they come into the college. And as a faculty we decided to add three additional cohort courses. Business 101 is the first course, and the others follow in each year, sophomore, junior, and senior, when they’ll take a similar type of cohort course. Each of them will have a different emphasis, one would be kind of a simulation where they are given a business problem they have to solve, then an experiential learning course where they actually take some of those experiences and apply them to a real-world setting. This is where students will engage with an actual company to solve a business problem.

Brown: We really I think we’re one of the early pioneers in the area of experiential learning that goes back 25 years or more. But to be able to do it on this scale where we’re going to have 800 plus students as juniors, all participating in a client-based project. We wouldn’t have been able to do that, had we not built up this incredible experience over the last couple of decades.

First of all we have a fantastic team, and we have been doing it through Illinois Business Consulting as a non-curricular activity for many years, which was actually ran out of Gies College of Business but was open to students from across campus. Even before we started this effort, we were running something like 50 projects a year, and we’ll have to increase that to maybe as many as a couple hundred projects a year, but we know how to do it, so it’s just about executing.

When I asked our alumni and business leaders,‘What are you looking for in your new employees?,’ the most common answer I get is, ‘We need students who have a certain amount of confidence, a developing sense of business acumen, the ability to communicate, the ability to work in teams.’ All those things that are sometimes called soft skills, although I don’t like that term, because they’re actually really important skills. Whether it’s working in teams on the simulations or working together with a real client-based project, they’re given an opportunity to develop leadership skills, to learn to work as a team, how to resolve conflict in a productive way, how to present yourself professionally to a client. Those are really important things that are going to be learned along the way in each of these courses.

Jeff Brown, dean of Gies College of Business

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