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CDA Entrepreneurs: Amy and Jessica of Elevate Consulting

Posted by on Tuesday, January 8, 2019 in Alumni, .

Recently, several alumni of our program have utilized the skills they gained in human and organizational development in new ways—by starting their own businesses. Some of those include Amy Merritt Campbell (M.Ed. ’14) and Jessica Benton (M.Ed. ’13) of Elevate Consulting. Here’s what they, along with cofounder Hannah Wohltjen (MA, MPH), have to say about their business and the paths they took to get there:

Elevate Group Edited

“The whole program was about how context matters and what we can do to navigate and respond to various contexts. I got a master’s degree from Vanderbilt that says ‘context matters.’”

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about Elevate and what you do?

(Jessica) Our core focus is helping organizations in Nashville to strengthen their culture around learning and to improve what they do. We do that primarily through program evaluation, but we have a lot of other tools like program design, strategic planning, and organizational development that we can use as well.

Q: What kinds of projects have you done?

(Amy) It’s been kind of across the board. We’ve worked with smaller agencies, like the Tennessee Kidney Foundation and Edgehill Neighborhood Partnership, as well as bigger, private non-profits like United Way. We have also worked with some local government entities like the library and agencies affiliated with MNPS, and are doing a lot of consulting and workshops through the Center for Nonprofit Management. We’ve done everything from a full start-to-finish evaluation or just pieces where we do a logic model, design an evaluation, implement it, or analyze and report data.

One thing we’re working on now is a project with the Nashville Career Advancement Center (NCAC), with the out-of-school, out-of-work population. Last year, we did design thinking workshops with the youth to see what employment and engagement services are available for the 18 to 25 year-old population and how those services can be improved. We are now looking to expand that approach and do a round of participatory action research across Nashville. They want to do it on a larger scale, then report that information back to Metro.

Q: What inspired you to get into that work?

(Jessica) What we saw in the non-profit community of Nashville is that people are aware that program evaluation—systematically collecting and using data to improve—could be really helpful. But folks struggle to articulate their impact beyond sharing the stories of people that they serve. Although that is completely valid and valuable, people were struggling with more systematic collection of data. So we thought, “Hey, we like this, so let’s try to bring that service to smaller organizations that aren’t typically being served in that way.”

Q: How did you initially gain those skills in evaluation?

 (Jessica) I got into evaluation entirely by accident. I started out as a professional baker, then decided to do the CDA program, which I chose because of its focus on social justice and community-based work. While I was there, I realized I needed a marketable skill, so I chose program evaluation and organizational development. After finishing the program, I got hired as an evaluator at Centerstone Research Institute and was able to use those skills pretty much immediately.

(Amy) I worked as a grant-writer right out of CDA and saw that a lot of folks who were applying for funding didn’t have the language to talk about data and outcomes. I said to myself, “If I want to be effective in this space, I need to learn how to do evaluation in a data-driven way.” To gain that skill, I went to work for Centerstone Research Institute, knowing that I also wanted to work in the community with programs that don’t fall within their service range.

(Hannah) I did not come through the CDA program, but fell into evaluation because it allows me to merge a lot of my diverse interests. I started out in anthropology and thought I would be a qualitative researcher. I decided to pursue a degree in Public Health to round out my quantitative skills set. Program evaluation has been the place where I can combine both.

Q: Amy and Jessica, how has the CDA program helped prepare you for this work?

 (Amy) I use the things that I learned in CDA pretty much all the time—everything from consulting practices to the things we learned about culture, diversity, and organizational learning. All of those concepts are really critical to the work that we do.

One thing the CDA program also provided for me was a network and encouragement to use that network. I went to work at CRI because I knew that Jessica was there and Sarah Suiter had been there. Having been able to build those relationships while in grad school has also been beneficial as we’re trying to build Elevate and work with a wide-range of non-profits.

(Jessica) I definitely agree with that. I really don’t remember how I thought about the world before I went through the CDA program, which I think is a good thing. All of the theory and skills content has really reshaped how I perceive my role in the world and the work that I do. I literally took classes on all the things that we do with Elevate—organizational development, consulting, program evaluation, group development. We also have incorporated the concept of reflective practice as a core value in the company.

People are sometimes confused by the title “Community Development & Action,” so I often say that the whole program was about how context matters and what we can do to navigate and respond to various contexts. I got a master’s degree from Vanderbilt that says “context matters.”

(Amy) Context matters and people matter, those would be my take-aways.

Q: Do you have any advice people who are interested in evaluation or in starting a business?

(Hannah) For people who are thinking about evaluation, something that we talk about frequently is that if you have diverse interests, explore them. A lot of the time, we act as connectors and bridge-builders, so having a diverse set of interests is actually very useful. If you’re thinking about starting a business or being an evaluator, you end up being a jack-of-all-trades. So exploring your interests and getting good at multiple things can help.

(Amy) For people who are starting a business, my advice is to talk to anyone that will talk to you. We basically got started by just compiling a list of people that we thought were smart, going to talk to them, and saying, “This is a thing that we’re thinking about doing. Do you think it’s a need? Can you connect us to other people? What advice do you have?” Now, almost all of our business comes through word-of-mouth. Investing on the front-end to build relationships and asking for advice has really been the way that we’ve been able to jump-start our work.



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