Northern Kentucky University, Haile/US Bank College of Business

Northern Kentucky University Haile/U.S. Bank College of Business Logo

The Underground Agency

Innovation Statement:

The Underground Agency is a student-owned, purpose-driven branding, marketing, and research agency that is fully integrated into three business courses and grounded in entrepreneurial "ecosystem" thinking. The agency inspires students to reinvent themselves as engines of economic empowerment.

Call to Action:

Just 3 percent of all college graduates in a recent Gallup-Purdue University study say they had all “Big Six” college experiences—experiences that have a stronger relationship to long-term life outcomes such as life preparedness, confidence on jobs, employee engagement, and well-being than the type of school these graduates attended (for example, public or private).

Since 2009, we have been haunted by stories that provided evidence we were not preparing our students for living fulfilling and meaningful lives—stories about our students who come to class, scared, alone, and uncertain of what they want to do with their degrees after graduation. Students who just thought they were not good enough because they came from low-income neighborhoods, made it to a university with high admission and low four-year graduation rates, and had to compete for jobs with graduates from universities with far better graduation rates and brand image.

We have been haunted by similar stories from local startups and businesses, uncertain of what they needed to do to connect with the loneliest yet most influential consumer cohorts—Generation Z and millennials—and grow their brands. And employers and entrepreneurs who have been struggling with high recruitment and retention costs and uncertain of how to gain access to work-ready talent demonstrating competencies, characters, and entrepreneurial mindsets needed for their growth.

The motivation behind the innovation was to resolve these problems and, in doing so, turn three college classrooms in a public university into an engine of socioeconomic growth.

Innovation Description:

The Underground Agency is a student-owned, purpose-driven branding, marketing, and research agency that is fully integrated into three business courses and grounded in entrepreneurial "ecosystem" thinking that inspires students to reinvent themselves as engines of economic empowerment. Why? We believe in human potential—potential to create a world where everyone has an equal chance to live fulfilling and meaningful lives, a world that is less exclusive, more inclusive. How? By creating experiences that help our students discover their path and the courage to pursue it, and, in doing so, turn them into future clients and/or employers.

Specifically, the agency achieves its goals through the following actions:

  1. Transforming a syllabus into a job description and students into employees
  2. Turning classrooms into a collaborative office space (without classroom overhaul)
  3. Engaging employees in client projects that build confidence and produce tangible, measurable evidence for work competencies, character strengths, and entrepreneurial growth mindset
  4. Making career coaching an integral part of the employee experience
  5. Creating a networking ecosystem that connects and nurtures collaboration among current employees and former employees (i.e., graduates coming back as clients, employers, mentors, and/or career coaches)
  6. Integrating LinkedIn and Instagram as platforms for sharing stories about successes to improve and simplify engagement across the entire ecosystem, including prospective students (i.e., high school graduates)
  7. Using our purpose as a guiding strategy.

Innovation Impact:

The Underground Agency was pilot-tested in a marketing capstone course and one volunteer program in the school’s spring 2019 semester, and saw the following results:

  • 97 percent of students placed in fulfilling jobs within 30 days of graduation
  • 24 percent of students reported salaries 34 percent above the national median salaries of business graduates
  • 16 percent of students returned as project consultants in the fall 2019 semester
  • 100 percent of self-reported pre- and post-measures for core workplace competencies, character strengths, and career development goals improved
  • Top two measures of entrepreneurial skills (excellent or good) before and after the project increased from 43 percent to 72 percent
  • Project reached 878 followers, with an average of 45,000 impressions per month
  • Project reached 366 followers on LinkedIn, with 21,000 impressions per month
  • Completed project helped a startup client penetrate highly competitive market space and get their products available nationwide in major retail chains (e.g., Kroger, Target) and grow its workforce

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