03 Apr 2019

Finding Common Ground

An analytical approach to ending chronic homelessness
by Deborah Blagg


photo by Chad Kirkland

Randy Shumway (MBA 2000) and his family were regular supporters of clothing and blanket drives for shelters in their Salt Lake City community. But, like many well-intentioned people who are moved by the outcomes of homelessness, he hadn’t thought too much about its causes. “I assumed it was some combination of choice, poor financial decisions, and bad luck,” says Shumway, the founder, chairman, and former CEO of Cicero Group, a Salt Lake City–based consulting firm that uses advanced analytics to help clients develop and implement data-driven strategy.

His perspective began to change in 2009, when a community activist challenged Shumway to get more deeply involved in addressing the issue. He responded by applying the same evidence-based problem-solving approach Cicero uses with its corporate clients across the world: he began gathering data.

In soup kitchens and shelters, Shumway talked to homeless residents about their circumstances. “These are good people,” he says. “They may have started to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol because they didn’t have access to the psychiatric or medical support they needed.” In addition to addiction (increasingly stemming from opioids), Shumway also cites domestic abuse and criminal records that prevent reintegration into society as primary factors that contribute to homelessness. “A disproportionate number of the homeless are also veterans with mental health challenges related to their military service that we’re not adequately addressing,” he notes.

Analytics-Focused Consulting

A dual political science/business major at Brigham Young University, Shumway says he has always been drawn to the intersection of business, economics, and public policy. After college, he worked at Bain & Company and Dow Chemical, and then joined Answerthink, a West Coast consulting firm, where he continued as EVP and managing director while he earned his MBA as a Baker Scholar at HBS.

Answerthink wanted Shumway to relocate to New York when he finished his MBA, but family obligations kept him in San Francisco, where he launched the Cicero Group in 2001, working out of his house with a few colleagues. “When I talk to young entrepreneurs today, they always ask about my business plan,” he notes. “I have to laugh. My business plan was a mortgage and a baby on the way.”

Business plan or no business plan, Shumway’s vision of an analytics-focused consulting firm made sense at a time when technology breakthroughs were fueling exponential growth in data generation and consumption. His three former employers—Answerthink, Bain, and Dow—quickly became the startup’s first clients.

From that seat-of-the-pants beginning, Cicero—a name inspired by the Roman philosopher’s civic-minded teachings—has grown into a successful company with offices in Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Washington, DC, offering big data and analytics services to hundreds of corporations, government agencies, nonprofits, and public and private educational institutions worldwide. Recently named one of the 50 fastest-growing consulting firms in the U.S. by Consulting magazine, Cicero also made Vault.com’s 2019 list of the 50 best consulting firms in North America.

Aligning Services with Needs

Shumway’s interest in homelessness has created a ripple effect over the last decade, both within the company he started and more broadly in city and state initiatives. In 2016, when Cicero needed to expand its office space, he chose a site in an underdeveloped neighborhood on Salt Lake City’s west side, just up the street from a shelter and soup kitchen where many Cicero employees now volunteer or work pro bono on company time mentoring, coaching, and training, as well as gathering and analyzing data to frame the best approaches to ending homelessness. One outcome of this work is a database Cicero created with 2,500 potential jobs for homeless people, from 300 area employers.

Other efforts are focused on creating a more accurate picture of the realities of homelessness in order to help agencies better align their services with clients’ needs. For example, although many existing initiatives serve the “chronically homeless” (those who average 500 nights in a shelter during a three-year period), Cicero data indicates that more than 70 percent of homeless people have spent fewer than 90 nights in a shelter over the last three years. That knowledge sheds light on the need to prioritize measures that help the short-term homeless quickly rebound.

Cicero’s “journey-mapping” studies show that agencies sometimes inadvertently provide contradictory services to the vulnerable populations they support. The firm’s findings have led to “improved coordination among service providers, better measurement of activities that result in desired outcomes, and increased focus on initiatives that instill confidence and dignity,” Shumway reports.

All Ideas on the Table

Implementing a long-planned succession strategy, Shumway stepped away from his CEO role at Cicero in 2017 and has since combined leadership of the firm’s social impact private equity and strategy transformation practices with increased involvement in the company’s philanthropic initiatives around homelessness and improving educational outcomes. He also serves on several statewide boards that promote public education and economic development and is founder and chair of Utah’s Partners in Education, a nonprofit that provides grants to support innovative, evidence-based practices in K–12 education.

Because problems such as homelessness and underperforming schools have multiple causes, Shumway stresses that solving them requires bringing a diverse set of people to the table. As chair of Dignity of Work, a statewide task force created by Utah’s governor to develop training and employment for the homeless, he regularly collaborates with a broad coalition of business, government, and nonprofit leaders.

“Working on the problem with people from different ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations, and political beliefs, helps us capture the very best thinking,” he explains. “When people from diverse areas of expertise all put their ideas on the table, there’s often greater agreement than you might imagine.”

Shumway offers an example related to criminal justice reform. “It’s very difficult for people who have been incarcerated to find jobs and rent apartments,” he notes. “Politically, I’m fairly conservative—a quintessential free-market capitalist. But our Dignity of Work task force is working closely with the ACLU on criminal justice legislation that would allow people to start over with a clean record if they meet certain benchmarks.

“Not everyone on the task force agrees with the ACLU’s stance on some issues,” he continues, “but we’re on the same side when it comes to creating a light at the end of the tunnel for people who don’t have much hope otherwise. A lot of progress can come when you look for common ground.”

For business leaders who want to have an impact on solving big social problems, Shumway observes, “There’s so much need. Look around and start with something small. Our work on homelessness began when my family and I started to volunteer at a soup kitchen.

“Just work on one issue that inspires you,” he adds. “Your impact will compound from there.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2000, Section A

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