2016 “Digital Safari” Offers Students Invaluable Insight into Silicon Valley’s Innovation Ecosystem

1.5-credit spring break course offers invaluable real-world learning opportunity
May 4, 2016

McIntire Digital Safari, 2016

What is it about Silicon Valley that makes it such a remarkably productive engine of innovation and ingenuity—and how is it that the region’s tireless population of entrepreneurs continues creating profitable, sustainable companies capable of evolving to meet the needs of changing market and consumer demands?

It was this fascinating set of questions that some 18 students set out to investigate during McIntire IT Professor Ryan Nelson’s “Digital Safari” course, held March 6-11, 2016, in Silicon Valley, Calif. The 1.5-credit course, now in its second year, is designed to expose entrepreneurially minded students to the complex set of cultural, financial, academic, and technological factors that come together to make Silicon Valley an unparalleled center of technological innovation.

“In planning the Digital Safari, I really wanted to give students the opportunity not only to experience, firsthand, the unique ecosystem of Silicon Valley, but also to really think hard about how that ecosystem produces such a remarkable diversity of digital innovation,” Nelson says, noting that he particularly wanted students to consider the role that design thinking plays in the region’s sustained success as a center of innovation and creativity.

To this end, Nelson set up an action-packed itinerary, according to which students visited an array of highflying Silicon Valley organizations—many of them household names—including Accenture, Airbnb, Expensify, Facebook, Fjord, Google, Handshake, GSVlabs, HotelTonight, Huckberry, Intuit, Instagram, Salesforce, Shapify, and YouTube.

But Nelson says it was the contributions of McIntire alumni and friends, engaged in every aspect of Silicon Valley’s remarkable business culture, that made the trip a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that the Digital Safari’s success is thanks almost entirely to the generosity of outstanding UVA and McIntire alumni and friends in the Silicon Valley area,” Nelson says. “Their willingness to share their invaluable wisdom, insight, perspectives, and experience with McIntire students made our trip a phenomenal learning experience, and we are incredibly grateful to them for their critically important support of McIntire’s ongoing efforts to deliver the best, most innovative business programs.”

Key contributors to the success of the 2016 Digital Safari included Susan Buckner (McIntire ’05), Market Operations Manager, Lead at Instagram; Dan Elron, Managing Partner, Strategy and Corporate Development at Accenture; Andy Forch (McIntire ’07), Co-Founder of Huckberry; Rob Lojek (McIntire ’98), Senior Manager, gTech Publishers, at Google; Michelle Morris (McIntire ’08), Global Operations Program Manager at Airbnb; Adam Parsell (A&S ’09, M.S. in Commerce ’10), Product Operations Manager at Facebook; Sonja Hoel Perkins (McIntire ’88), Managing Director at The Perkins Fund; James Quarles (Engineering ’97), Global Head of Business and Brand Development at Instagram; Amanda Richardson (McIntire ’01), VP Product at HotelTonight; and Linda Yates (A&S ’85), Founder and CEO at mach49.

For the students, the trip proved to be far more than simply an educational experience. “The Digital Safari not only helped me deeply understand how different business models work, but also gave me a fascinating new perspective on how Silicon Valley’s unique culture and ecosystem serve to foster innovation,” says Jacob Peters (McIntire ’16). “It was beyond amazing to hear from such a passionate group of McIntire alumni and friends—it was transformative.”