Lexington, Virginia • December 1, 2008
How to publicize a festival devoted to the ramp, aka the wild leek? Call in Washington and Lee Student Consulting (WLSC). That's what the West Virginia Ramp Feed did. The students researched the area and the demographics and developed a brochure to attract interest in the festival.
WLSC is a student-managed organization created to provide pro bono consulting services to for-profit and not-for-profit business and community organizations. "WLSC gives students an opportunity to take the skills they learn in the classroom and apply them to real-world settings," says senior Dan Mitaro, co-executive director. Katie Simpson, also a senior and co-executive director, said, "W&L Student Consulting has offered me invaluable opportunities to gain real-world experience and work closely with a diverse group of peers."
The organization started in the late 90s. Elizabeth Oliver, professor of accounting, was originally the sole faculty adviser to WLSC. Robert Straughan, associate dean of the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics and associate professor of business administration, joined Oliver as adviser when he arrived at W&L in 2000.
"As an organization, WLSC has grown and evolved over the years," said Oliver. "We have experimented with the kinds of activities the group pursued and the size of the group. One of the constants, however, has been the caliber of the executive directors and members. It has been very rewarding to work with the students over the years."
The size of the group had varied from 12-30 members to the current size of 15-20 members. WLSC tries to maintain that size, which helps to ensure that they have committed members who stay engaged. That size also allows them to work on three to five projects at a time, which is the upper range of the group's capabilities. The students assigned to the Ramp Feed project researched the area and the demographics, then developed a brochure that was used to attract interest in the festival.
"Awareness of WLSC has always been a concern because our meetings are closed due to the nature of the work we do for our clients," said Simpson. "We focus on the projects we're doing at that time and don't have public meetings. This is in contrast to a group like the Williams Investment Society, whose open meetings give students a clear indication of what the group does. We can't provide such first-hand observation of WLSC to prospective members."
Faculty advisers refer a lot of the clients. "We have a really high standard of work and aim towards a finished product that everyone can be proud of," said Simpson. "We want our clients to pass our name along to others." They tend to reject projects that are just data collection, or suggest something more comprehensive. WLSC wants the work they do to benefit everyone, including the students.
"The greatest satisfaction from the work of WLSC members comes when we see the tangible results of their efforts," said Straughan. "The delivery truck that Rockbridge Area Relief Association (RARA) was able to buy was partially a result of work done by WLSC."
Straughan continued, "The new pool built adjacent to Maury River Middle School received final approval in part because of operational analysis and forecasting done by WLSC. When I drive by RARA or the swimming pool and see these tangible outcomes, I am particularly proud of the organization's efforts."
WLSA has a number of clients "in the works already this year," says Mitaro, "plus we're doing a project for a client from last year." They decide how many and which members to put on a certain project after the initial meeting with the client. They weigh how much work it will require and the members' prior experience. Experienced members become project leaders, with teams comprised of three to five students. WLSC does about four projects each in fall and winter term, and some during spring term.
The executive directors look to match their clients with WLSC members and their specific interests. Student Consulting produces its best quality when people are interested and enthusiastic about the project they're working on.
Straughan would like see more career opportunities established for students interested in internships and consulting careers. "We know from our long and successful history of placing students in highly selective industries that our graduates are the best marketing we have," he said. "A few successful placements lead to a few more. These alumni are then in a position to serve as strong advocates for the next generation of students from within the firm. This willingness to support future generations of students is, I think, one of the great characteristics of W&L alumni.
"It is always great to hear from WLSC alumni after they have started their own careers," Straughan continued. "They often report that work that they did as a member of WLSC not only helped them to get a coveted job, but helped prepare them for their career. That is validating."
Rebecca Timmis, a 2008 graduate of W&L and past member and executive director of WLSC, recently started a job with Bain & Company, a global business consulting firm. "I didn't know a whole lot about the consulting industry when I applied to the organization," she said. "WLSC helped me develop the ability to look at a problem strategically and then break it down into components that we can then try and improve or fix or solve. It also helped me learn to work well in groups, to delegate when necessary and communicate effectively. WLSC is an organization not only guided by resourceful professors but also made up of students driven to excel. What an amazing experience."
Timmis is considering returning to W&L to lead a consulting careers workshop to "familiarize students with the consulting industry and facilitate the pipeline for internships and full-time positions." She would like to give back to WLSC by showing current students how she took what WLSC offered and found a career in strategy consulting.