PSU capstone harnesses the power of community and collaboration
Author: Crista Tappan, The School of Business
Posted: May 6, 2019

Since 2011, The School of Business at Portland State University has fostered nearly 600 relationships between local businesses and students through an immersive capstone class (BA495, Business Strategy). PSU is one of the few schools in the nation to offer an undergraduate business consulting capstone program that works with real-world clients.

“We train the next generation of business leaders while providing valuable business consulting services to clients who often are unable to afford them, ” said the director of the capstone program, Bill Jones.

Capstone students Jessica Gallagher and Alexandra Strnad

Capstone clients are diverse, ranging from corporate and nonprofit, one employee to 100,000 and startup to well-established.

All undergraduate business students are required to participate in the final capstone class, giving them the opportunity to learn important business skills while serving local organizations. PSU holds Carnegie Community Engagement Classification, in part because of the business capstone program. The evidence-based classification recognizes the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.

“These organizations get a fresh perspective from the students, based on rigorous analysis, while the students develop real-world consulting experience,” said capstone professor Desiree Pacheco.

Though The School of Business often consults with clients that can afford private consulting services, much of the capstone program focuses on recruiting businesses that cannot.

This past term, a student team worked with Dirkse Consulting & Counseling , a small family-owned and operated local disability education and training business. With over 20 years of service to the Portland area and beyond, Dirkse equips employers and community partners to create a culture of inclusion and equity through employment for job seekers and employees with disability.

Over the 10-week long project, students met and collaborated with key staff members of Dirkse Consulting & Counseling to create a business plan to grow the business. The students identified and established the market need, appropriate pricing for training programs, competition assessment, financial plan and recommendations for marketing tactics.

“The capstone project was my favorite class at Portland State, because we had the opportunity to work with a real business,” said capstone student Alexandra Strnad.  “We created a plan that has a tangible impact for Dirkse and will help propel their business to greater success. I could see what my future goal of working in management consulting could consist of. The project allowed me to create and conduct city-wide research, and ‎make a positive difference for a socially responsible company that wants to improve our community.”

Capstone student Alexandra Strnad

Collaboration is at the heart of all capstone projects, as the student teams are created to represent an array of business disciplines based on the client’s specific business needs. Therefore, team members represent one of the seven disciplines that The School of Business offers, including marketing, human resources, business management, finance, accounting, supply logistics and advertising.

“Our team came together with so many viewpoints from different areas to find creative solutions and strategies for our client, and the project gave us valuable experience working with diverse teams,” said Strnad.

Dirkse Consulting & Counseling owner and CEO, Heidi Dirkse, felt inspired and motivated by the new energy and knowledge the students brought to the table.

“The students helped grow and improve Dirkse Consulting & Counseling by helping us identify how to best expand our disability diversity training services,” said Dirkse. “The capstone project created a forum for a meeting of the minds as we worked collaboratively with the students to generate new ideas that we would not have come up with on our own.”

When asked about the future for individuals with disabilities in the workforce, Dirkse said that she hopes for a workplace that solidly embraces diversity of personnel as an essential component for success in the local and global economy, and where disability is included in diversity and inclusion initiatives and practice.

The importance of diversity and inclusion for individuals with disabilities within the workplace is still lacking. According to the 2017 American Community Survey, the prevalence of disability in Oregon was 13.9% for persons of all ages. The employment rate for working-age people (age 21 to 64) with disabilities in Oregon was 37%, compared to 79% for those without disabilities.

Here’s what previous business capstone clients have to say about their experience:

“The group of students I worked with did an amazing job of helping with several foundational aspects of my business. I followed their suggestions and increased my rates by 20%. They spent hours creating these amazing and very intricate excel sheets that I can use as a forecasting tool for my business.” Shilo George, CEO and Owner of Lush Kumtux Tumtum

“When we participated in the capstone project, our business was still very much in the planning phase. We believe the students were instrumental in making Arcade 2084 a reality. The number one takeaway we received from the students was a workbook of financial spreadsheets, tailored specifically to our business.”  Shana Nelson, CEO and Owner of Arcade 2084

“For startups and nonprofit entities who cannot afford to pay for business consulting, participating in this project makes perfect sense. We received quality work from participating in this capstone project instead of paying thousands of dollars to a business to get similar work. The students came from different academic backgrounds and experiences, and each student's unique perspective to the project added great value.” Foday Kabba, CEO and Owner of Kalabash, Inc.



On May 23, at Washington Square Embassy Suites, Dirkse Consulting & Counseling is hosting their second annual Amplify Rock Stars event for employers, and then immediately following on the same day is a Job Opportunity Event for people with disability.