From the flashy excess of Las Vegas to small rural communities in Uganda, think of an entrepreneurial endeavor somewhere in the world and Jake Eichengreen has likely been there, done that.
In the beginning of his professional life, Eichengreen worked in venture capital on a multifaceted redevelopment project of the old downtown of Las Vegas. A few years later, he founded and built his own microfinance company in Uganda. After a bad intestinal virus sent him back to the United States in 2016, he began pursuing another business venture. Enter The Quad Innovation Partnership.
“I was recruited into this opportunity to build The Quad Partnership on my way back home,” Eichengreen said. “I had done a little bit of work prior to going to Uganda on a pilot of what became The Quad. I built some relationships and as the four college and university partners decided that they were ready to turn their vision into a real institution, they had reached out to me to see if it was something that I was interested in spearheading. It was great … it offered me the opportunity to continue to be entrepreneurial and build something.”
Although Eichengreen’s studied in an interdisciplinary liberal arts program, he believes his broad educational background has helped him tremendously in the business world.
“I am living proof that liberal arts teaches you how to think critically and that you can apply that skillset in a lot of different ways,” he said.
Eichengreen spoke with the Business Journal about The Quad’s role in the Colorado Springs community, as well as the motivating forces in his professional life.
What is The Quad Innovation Partnership?
The Quad is a joint initiative of Colorado College, Pikes Peak Community College, [the United States Air Force Academy] and UCCS. Our goal is to facilitate interdisciplinary teams of students and faculty and other university resources, as needed, in completing project-based, problem-based work for area partner companies, organizations [and] initiatives. It is easiest to understand the program as a consulting operation. Our undergrads do research and other work as needed by our partners. Partners end up with some valuable capacity and connections to future workforce. Our students end up with some phenomenal experience that helps them be ready for meaningful, upwardly mobile careers in the Pikes Peak region.
What’s your current role in the organization?
I’m the executive director and I primarily focus on our relationships in the community and partnership development with some of our research partners. Over the years, I’ve done a little bit of everything. Since I was the first staff member hired, I built each part of the organization and then began building a team to sustain it. We have a great team, and now my focus is to be sure they have what they need to be successful.
Are you involved in any other organizations or do you plan to start one of your own?
I serve on the board of the Colorado Springs Conservatory and also UCCS Regional Connect. To be honest, the Quad takes a lot of my attention — and I’m happy about that. The Quad has been on a phenomenal trajectory over the years that I’ve been here. It really has scratched the itch to be part of a growing organization and also contribute to the community. The experience of connecting students with work opportunities that generate impact on the community is super rewarding on all fronts.
I particularly love when our students produce research that is used to make a meaningful decision at a community partner. For example, we had a team of students supporting the Colorado Springs Utilities [Electric Integrated Resource Plan] process last year, which ultimately resulted in Utilities adopting a goal of reducing carbon emissions and replacing much of their generation with renewables. It was awesome to watch the students learn how to contribute to such a massive effort within a large organization. Utilities responded so enthusiastically to the students’ contributions and really welcomed them into that decision-making process.
What role does The Quad play in the community?
I would say, to answer your question on a high level, our role is to offer university and undergraduate capacity to organizations to inform decision making. The specific work is pretty broad. For example, right now, we have ongoing research on suicide prevention, organizational resilience and public trust — each a separate study. We are also doing some policy research for the city of Colorado Springs related to economic development in the wake of the pandemic. Each semester, the specific projects change. We don’t come up with these projects on our own. Instead, we work either with a single community partner, or a coalition of community partners who approach us and say, ‘Hey, there [are] some questions we need to answer.’ We work with them to be sure that we build a scope of work that undergrads can do successfully. Then [we] give it to the students to run and lead and develop that understanding that helps our community overall be more data-driven.
How has COVID affected the work The Quad does?
We have certainly not escaped the disruptions of the pandemic. We’ve seen kind of two concentrations of impact. One is on the student side. On one hand, the students have more time because extracurriculars are impossible right now, but virtual learning is exhausting and takes a lot of effort and is very hard. We’ve had to adapt our program structure to better fit as an ‘and’ to their curricular education. And so that we can appropriately support them, the work we ask them to do … often requires growth on their part. We don’t have a rubric; we don’t define success. We focus on offering students opportunities to engage in problem-based work. We really look to them to lead us through the process of ‘What questions do we have about this topic?’ ‘How do we answer them ourselves?’… It is exactly that. It is critical thinking and sometimes it requires an action-first methodology. That’s not as emphasized in the classroom. Oftentimes, there is emphasis on developing really strong understanding first, and then jumping into action … as the pandemic has added stress and strain and challenge, we’ve had to adapt how we work with students to ensure they are still comfortable and enjoying the experience and getting a lot out of it. It has been a successful adaptation.
The other impact we’ve seen is as the economic uncertainty continues and grows and everyone is trying to figure out how to keep people employed, how to keep their doors open, how to continue to meet community needs, we’ve seen a small drop-off in the number of partners who are willing to take on a research project by themselves. We ask our partners to carry the full cost of the project we do for them and it is a pretty approachable cost in good economic time, but when there is uncertainty like there is now. Some folks have opted for partnership efforts or to delay engaging us. We’ve kind of moved into a little bit more of what we call community-scaled research. Before the pandemic, we focused on work that we could do for a single organization and now we’ve taken on some work that can benefit many organizations. … Overall, we’re managing.
How do you see the future of the organization?
There are a couple of things that we’ve been actively moving towards that we really think are the goal — the highest and best use of this initiative. That is really kind of the data-driven, decision-making work that I mentioned earlier. If we can help Colorado Springs transition into a data-driven community overall, we think these four higher ed institutions are the partners to make that happen — and we think that really sets us up for success among the community. What that looks like is continuing to do what we do. Likely there will be more specialization in research as time goes on, where we will take on projects that last longer [like] multi-year initiatives that really go deep into topics. … We’ve learned that getting some undergrads to do a little bit of research is actually a tremendously valuable asset.
What is your leadership philosophy?
I really think that empathy is at the center, not just of my leadership strategy, but of our approach as an organization to doing our work. What I mean by that is, oftentimes, our research projects are pretty open-ended. People ask us questions like ‘How do you improve access to social services?’ or ‘How do you maximize quality of life in affordable housing developments for senior citizens?’… It is really a broad research question and you could go in a bunch of different directions, but each of these partners has a definition of success that maybe they can’t articulate perfectly, but they know they need this research to help them do. The way that we meet that need is by developing close relationships and empathy with them. … We can use our empathy skills to better understand their needs. [Empathy] helps me in managing students and it helps us empower and support students in their work. … Anchoring our work supporting them in empathy helps me understand when to push, when to support, when to step back.
What motivates your work?
What I really like is the challenge of the multi-faceted mission that we have. My purpose has been to design this organization, figure out what its problems are, build a revenue stream that is sustainable and doesn’t leave a significant burden on the philanthropic community or the schools themselves, but really kind of allows us to multiply our impact while simultaneously delivering transformative learning and growth to students becoming a go-to resource for the community and contributing to many different sectors. That level of complexity is motivating to me. It is really fun to think about when we make decision to maximize our student’s growth or to support our students in one way, what impact does that have on our ability to meet the community’s needs. … [We] have to play whack-a-mole until we get answers [and] systems in place that meet all of the competing needs that we are trying to pursue.
Any closing thoughts?
All I can think of right now is how cool it is that this organization is bringing young people to the table in Colorado Springs. Our students are diverse … and they have been invited into decision making work and supporting community leadership circles and that’s awesome. It speaks to an investment in bringing different types of thinking together. … I have yet to find a comparable organization that connect students to as meaningful opportunities for community participation and involvement elsewhere in the country. That’s cool, to put it bluntly.