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Journey to Innovation

McIntire Professor Ryan Nelson leads students on a “Digital Safari” to some of Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies.
May 2015
Safari - Facebook

While some students might think of spring break as time for a surfing safari, 15 UVA students chose instead to ride the wave of the future, traveling on a “Digital Safari,” led by Information Technology Professor Ryan Nelson through California’s Silicon Valley.

“The objective was to expose students to the different types of digital innovation found in the unique business ecosystem of Silicon Valley,” says Nelson of the intensive course, which took place March 13-18, 2015. “I really wanted students to see how different companies develop the kind of profitable, sustainable business models that often prove disruptive to other parts of the economy.”

To this end, Nelson led students to some of the world’s keenest cutting-edge start-up businesses, venture capital firms, and established technology vendors, including:

•    Accenture Innovation Lab
•    Autodesk Gallery
•    Capital One Innovation Lab
•    Computer History Museum
•    Facebook
•    Google
•    Huckberry
•    Instagram
•    LinkedIn
•    Mozilla
•    PayPal Shopping Showcase
•    Shapify
•    Uber
•    YouTube

Nelson is quick to point out that the roles played by Denise Egan, Assistant Dean for Commerce Career Services; Amelia Walton, Associate Director of Development & Alumni Engagement; and Dan Elron, Managing Partner with Accenture (and father of Ben Elron [McIntire ’13]) were critical to the Safari’s success. “At Accenture, Dan has developed a fantastic expertise in organizing comprehensive, high-impact technology tours for his professional colleagues,” Nelson explains. “We are incredibly grateful to him for using that expertise on behalf of the McIntire School to help put together this invaluable real-world experience for our students.”

Calling Elron’s relationship to the School “a vital ongoing practitioner connection,” Nelson notes that the tireless Accenture executive also co-teaches a class in digital innovation with McIntire Professor Stefano Grazioli and serves as an Associate Director of McIntire’s Center for the Management of Information Technology.

Designing the Future

Not surprisingly, the Safari offered students an up-close-and-personal look at some of the latest research coming out of corporate innovation labs, as well as invaluable insight into the development of such “Jetsonesque” technologies as 3D printers, robots, self-driving cars, drones, and so-called “wearable” electronic devices.

But the trip offered far more than a chance to check out cool new technologies; students were also called upon to analyze the business models of each firm they visited, and then provide strategic recommendations for the future. More, the students were asked to approach their observations, analyses, and recommendations from a “design thinking” perspective—that is, by making use of a deeply creative process that includes empathy, diverse teams, an integrative mindset, and a willingness to experiment.

“You have to get on the ground to really understand the users—their needs, desires, or troubles—so that you can build the features that they care about,” explains Alex Struck (McIntire ’16). He points to Capital One’s use of design thinking to create a number of “360 Cafes.”

“The baristas are also bankers,” says Struck. “In addition to brewing gourmet coffee, the staff also joins customers at coffee shop-style tables, where they serve up answers to banking questions, help solve tech problems, or explain the benefits of becoming a Capital One 360 customer. Naturally, there’s free Wi-Fi for all. That’s just one kind of disruption that may be coming to all sorts of traditionally staid institutions.”

Alumni Connection

The Digital Safari kickoff event was hosted by Sonja Hoel Perkins (McIntire ’88), Managing Director at heavyweight venture capital firm Menlo Ventures, Co-Founder of all-women angel investment group Broadway Angels, and Founder of Project Glimmer, a nonprofit that gives holiday gifts to at-risk teenage girls and women across the country.

“Sonja has one of the most impressive track records in venture capital,” says Nelson, noting that Perkins has successfully invested in all stages and areas of information technology. “She’s also incredibly generous with her time and knowledge, and a terrific friend to the School.” Indeed, says Nelson, Perkins’ event served as a fantastic start to the Safari. “She really made our group feel welcome,” he says.

A number of other alumni—including Laura Albero (McIntire ’10), Susan Buckner (McIntire ’05), Andy Forch (McIntire ’07), Omar Garriott (McIntire ’02), Brittany Jones (A&S ’11, M.S. in Commerce ’12), Rob Lojek (McIntire ’98), Adam Parsell (A&S ’09, M.S. in Commerce ’10), Scott Proctor (A&S ’93, Darden ’98, M.S. in MIS ’02), James Quarles (Engineering ’97), William Reynolds (McIntire ’10), Kevin Thompson (A&S ’86), and Alex Wu (McIntire ’07)—also hosted corporate visits and tours. “Getting outside of the classroom into direct experience was incredibly rewarding for everyone,” says Nelson. “There was this fantastic connection between the students and our alumni; it was so fulfilling to watch alumni become completely engaged with our students, who were asking these insightful, thought-provoking questions.”
The transformational nature of the trip might best be summed up by Arthur Wu (McIntire ’16). “I’ve never been so engaged and intellectually challenged as I was when I was asked to think about the importance of every facet of every business that we met with,” he says of his time on the Safari. “Initially, I thought of this as a networking trip—but I came away inspired to venture forth and seek bigger dreams.”