Capstone course provides real-world experience for IUPUI graduate students
China is spending tens of billions of dollars a year in foreign direct investment, and the figure is growing rapidly. If the Indianapolis area is to get its share, officials need to understand the factors that influence Chinese business decisions and strategically target industries that are most likely to invest.
That was the message the BDKS Consulting Group provided this month to officials of the Indy Partnership, the organization in charge of economic development for the greater Indianapolis area.
No ordinary consulting firm, BDKS is a team of Master of Public Affairs students in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The students -- Chris Burkhart, Marlene Dotson, Scott Kirsch and Lisa Sew -- spent their final semester studying Chinese investment potential for the Indy Partnership as their M.P.A. capstone project.
"It's where we put together everything that we've been learning," Kirsch said.
They were one of six teams of MPA students undertaking capstone projects under the direction of Alfred Ho, associate professor and director of Public Affairs Programs for SPEA at IUPUI, and Teresa Bennett, director of the IUPUI Solution Center. Three groups had as clients the office of Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, working on issues of property foreclosure, creative revenue generation, and offender re-entry into the community. Others worked for the Town of Danville and the Harrison Center for the Arts.
The projects benefit both the students and their government and nonprofit clients. The students, many of whom have full-time jobs, get real-world experience in the type of work they will do after graduation. Agencies get high-quality research and consulting -- at no cost.
"I'm really impressed with the professionalism, and with the focus and immersion that the students had in the subject matter and their desire to apply it to our organizational goals," said Matt Waldo, director of research for the Indy Partnership. "The reality is, we could never be this far along in addressing this opportunity without the efforts of this group."
BDKS reported its findings May 1 at a corporate conference room on Monument Circle. In the audience were representatives of the Indy Partnership, the City of Indianapolis, the Indiana Economic Development Corp., the International Center of Indianapolis, the Confucius Institute of Indianapolis and IUPUI. The students carried out a process that included a literature review; interviews with key informants; data analysis; a "SWOT" analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; and an assessment of potential strategies.
They identified six major themes that influence where China makes investments: cultural awareness, costs of doing business, transportation infrastructure, access to markets, proximity to leading universities and relationships built through trade missions and networking.
"We heard time and time again that building relationships in Chinese culture is very, very important, and it leads to business," said Burkhart, who frequently travels to China in his nonstudent life as an employee of Master Brand Cabinets of Jasper, Ind.
Chinese investment in the U.S. is in its infancy, the students said, and no region seems to have gained a huge advantage. Central Indiana is well positioned for its location, strong transportation infrastructure, quality of life and low costs. And the proximity of respected universities, including IUPUI, IU Bloomington and Purdue University, is an important plus. But the area has work to do in raising cultural awareness, building relationships and generally becoming better known in China.
Among the strategies that BDKS suggested: promoting exchanges between university students in Indiana and China as a way to raise cultural awareness and establish personal connections. With that approach, Ho observed, "Every single student in different campuses of major universities in the region can become an ambassador for Central Indiana."
Along with the PowerPoint presentation and discussion, the students produced a 150-page report for the Indy Partnership, detailing their recommendations and providing data and information about opportunities for attracting Chinese investment.
Ron Gifford, president and CEO of the Partnership, assured the students that their findings and recommendations would be put to use. "We're not just going to put this on a shelf," he said.