Beyond Creativity: Innovation for Social Good

 Date Published: Sept. 16, 2016

ClassIn today's workplace, the call for innovation is constant and relentless. Companies push employees to strive for radical disruption – a key differentiator that will give businesses an irrefutable competitive edge.

Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) students in the Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business, however, are learning to define innovation very differently. Ericsson Inc. Sales Director Sergio Robledo, DBA '17, described innovation as going "beyond creativity; it is a structured way of developing organizations. Innovation doesn't have to come on a grand scale. It needs to be implemented at every level."

Through his course on customer-focused innovation, Associate Professor Dale Fodness, Ph.D, encouraged students to truly create an impact by looking beyond cost cutting and considering the effects their decisions have on all individuals and environments involved.

To test these ideas, the DBA students formed teams, and each selected one of three companies working for a social need. Included were Rural Shores, a business process outsourcing (BPO) company dedicated to providing young adults in rural India the same opportunities found in urban centers; Expanco, a packaging, assembly and secure document destruction services provider that employs adults with disabilities, offering them the means to improve their skills for jobs in the community; and the American Heart Association, an organization working to foster heart-healthy communities to reduce cardiovascular disease.

While students made selections for a variety of reasons, one team found the Rural Shores project hit very close to home.

"We're the most international team," said Essilor Regional Sales Analyst Simone Meskelis, DBA '17, explaining that most of her teammates came to the United States due to the lack of opportunities available to them in their home countries. Rural Shores and its mission inspired Meskelis and each of her teammates to name it their first choice.

"The waves of Indian young adults leaving their homes to work in large cities has affected Indian values and created many negative outcomes for the communities left behind. The work Rural Shores is doing goes beyond their employees and improves entire communities. Our work gets to help with that," said Meskelis.

Meanwhile, the Expanco team was drawn to the organization's firm focus on what their employees are able to do.

"They found a way to give them not just any opportunity but a worthwhile opportunity," Robledo explained. "Expanco proves that each of these individuals can add value, when traditionally we would assume they cannot contribute to society."

As for the American Heart Association (AHA) group, they were drawn to the fervent dedication for creating a heart-healthy culture that all AHA employees seem to share.

"I've spent my entire career in the corporate world. Seeing a business operate from a nonprofit perspective, experiencing the passion and drive the employees have, gives a very different meaning to business," said Fidelity Investments Director Mark Brightenburg, DBA '17.

In the course, each team was challenged to identify a way they could bring innovation into a company that was already working effectively.

"The real challenge was avoiding the paradigm that all innovation has to be disruptive," said Meskelis. "We tend to underestimate the small innovation. As a team, we realized we didn't need to reinvent Rural Shores' business or even their approach."

"With the AHA, they're already doing so many things very well," said Brightenburg. "They've been fighting for heart health for decades, and they know their industry well. We believed that the greatest impact we could make based on our collective skills was finding innovative ways to educate more of the community."

Each of the students, however, agrees that the real impact has been on them.

"We've been privileged with knowledge that has the potential to contribute significantly to society," said Robledo. "I feel it's our responsibility to give back this valuable information to organizations that are already improving lives."

Originally published in Tower Magazine, Summer 2016.