Aaron Kuecker: A small college, a large entrepreneurial incubator and a transformative network

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The provost of Trinity Christian College says the partnership with 1871 has helped the school answer two significant institutional leadership questions: In what ways has God given us all that we need for life and faithfulness in this present moment? And what does it mean to be here and not somewhere else?

On a Thursday night in late February, the Chicago-based entrepreneurial incubator 1871 was named the 2017/18 top university-related incubator in the world by UBI Global after a study of more than 1,300 incubators in more than 50 countries. For 1871, the largest incubator in the United States, it was testimony to the atmosphere of collaborative innovation that animates intersections between the 500 or so startups that share its space and their external partners.

On that same evening, Trinity Christian College hosted a party at 1871 to celebrate its partnership with the incubator. In a room filled with alumni, students and faculty from many disciplines, we listened to students tell how relationships formed through 1871 have shaped their learning and sense of vocation. We heard entrepreneurs speak movingly about how the gifts of Trinity’s students and faculty have supported their own vocational journeys. It was something of a parable of the way that intentional networks can unfold toward the good of all partners and the flourishing of wider communities.

As a Christian liberal arts college with around 1,200 students, Trinity, located in Palos Heights, Illinois, is an outlier among 1871’s other Chicago-area university partners, which include Northwestern, University of Chicago and University of Illinois. For Trinity, the partnership helps answer two significant institutional leadership questions: In what ways has God given us all that we need for life and faithfulness in this present moment? And what does it mean for Trinity to be here and not somewhere else?

That first question is something of a call to resistance against narratives of scarcity that cultivate pervasive anxiety in higher education. It assumes the theology of gift and abundance that stretches across the entire biblical narrative.

The second question reflects our conviction that place matters, and that an increased awareness of gift must be closely attuned to a sense of Trinity’s place on the planet.

Answering these questions has driven our institution to move purposefully to connect to networks for good in our city and broader region. We are learning that if we want to be serious about receiving well the gifts that can sustain our institutional faithfulness, we need to create structures that help our greatest gift -- Trinity’s people -- connect meaningfully with those doing good work in Chicago.

To do this, we have set the somewhat audacious goal of becoming the most meaningfully networked educational institution in the Chicago area. We know that this will accelerate our institutional learning, link us with people and organizations that are seeking the good of the city, open doors for our students, and allow our faculty and students to deploy their gifts in support of the vocations of our neighbors.

The university partnership with 1871 is emblematic of this strategy.

It began with a connection between people. Omar Sweiss, a new business professor at Trinity with a relationship with 1871, advocated powerfully that the ecosystem at 1871 could be a place where Trinity could both offer and receive gifts. This vision quickly spread through the chair of the business department, John Wightkin, to the wider department and faculty.

Simultaneously, Trinity students were interning with startups at 1871, winning entrepreneurship awards through the youth entrepreneurship accelerator Future Founders and raising awareness about Trinity within the space. The convergence of these relationships opened doors that resulted in a formal relationship and dedicated space for Trinity at 1871. It was obvious that these early relationships were providing mutual gifts.

Anyone who has spent time at 1871 will tell you that it is not airy co-working accoutrements that make the space effective. Instead, 1871 is powerful because of the relationships of mutual support that members offer one another. For Trinity, beyond learning from the spirit of innovation and collaborative problem solving at 1871, we have seen there the opportunity both to continue cultivating a vision for networked education that seeks the good of the city and to create real structures that allow for faculty and student engagement.

We have a head start on the former opportunity. Trinity’s faculty has long had a beautiful ethos of collaborative, cross-disciplinary partnership. It has not been a stretch to extend institutional imagination to deep and meaningful external collaboration. I am humbled by our faculty’s embrace of the potential that networks for good have for our institutional mission, the good of our students and our city.

Creating structures to support the partnership has required ingenuity and commitment. We have created 10 cross-disciplinary mini-grants that will fund faculty and student engagement at 1871. Pairs of faculty from different disciplines will combine for more than 100 points of engagement with the ecosystem at 1871 in the next year and will invite at least 100 additional members of our community into the space.

We have English professors, computer scientists, psychologists, special education professors, rhetoricians, academic deans and, of course, business faculty engaging this ecosystem. The mini-grants will pay for parking, train tickets and meals. At first blush, this might not sound like the most glamorous use of grant funding, but these transportation funds represent something far more significant: the cultivation of networks for good.

What could happen to a college that embeds itself inside the web of relationships and gifts in the nation’s leading entrepreneurial community? We know that we have much to receive, but we are also convinced that we have much to offer: intellectual capital, creativity, reflective wisdom and tenacity. We are convinced that these networks for good will result in an amplification of gifts that will unfold toward the good of our city and our college.