Thriving Innovation Culture Presents Opportunity for UVA Darden Alumni

By Dave Hendrick

University of Virginia Darden School of Business alumni returning to Grounds for the 2016 Reunion Weekend witnessed the degree to which innovation and entrepreneurship are woven into the School’s core curriculum, and heard a call to connect with the next generation of Darden entrepreneurs coming up through the i.Lab at UVA.

Speaking at the Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship forum hosted by the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Darden Professor Jeanne Liedtka said the increased emphasis on innovation was the most significant change to the Darden curriculum she had seen during her time at the School. Liedtka said Darden was in many ways “carried there by the tide around us,” as a concept that was peripheral to corporate leaders as recently as a few years ago was now an obsession.

Responding to both student and market demand, Liedtka told alumni that Darden had worked to incorporate the processes and tools that can help teach innovation capabilities, while developing environments where students put their coursework into practice.

“The core work has not changed, it’s all still there,” Liedtka said of the Darden curriculum. “We’ve thought about how we layer new techniques and ways of thinking, so students are not just super analysts who can test an idea, but creative leaders who can generate ideas.”

Liedtka noted the recent introduction of the new, required first year “Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship in Action”, or IDEA, course as one manifestation of the emphasis on innovation in the Darden curriculum, and students increasingly leave Darden well-versed in concepts such as design thinking and effectuation.

At the innovation forum, Liedtka led the 100-plus alumni, who represented classes spanning more than 50 years, in a brief design thinking exercise to design a better wallet. Alumni paired up and extensively interviewed their partners about a desired new wallet, sketched out new designs and then continued the interview to discover still more insights.

“It’s first about understanding customer needs, then moving into a possibility space and then conducting experiments in order to learn,” Liedtka said.

Alumni were also treated to a crash course in Professor Saras Sarasvathy‘s approach to venture creation, effectuation, with Sarasvathy cold-calling alumni as to how they could take their dreams of a newly designed wallet and turn them into a venture.

Sarasvathy said she did not want theory or long-term goals, but rather what participants could do immediately to build their ventures.

“I always say, what are you going to do today, and how?” Sarasvathy said. “It’s one thing to sit and visualize the whole thing. The idea here is to say what is actually doable and how do we build that chain of do-ability?”

Sarasvathy said one of her goals as an instructor is to demystify the concept of the entrepreneur and show students that the ability to create is both eminently learnable and within everyone’s grasp.

In addition to the classroom, the messages of Sarasvathy and Liedtka are finding an expression in the i.Lab, the University-wide business incubator space that will soon welcome a new cohort of 23 ventures for 10 weeks of intensive venture development facilitated by access to resources, mentoring and networking.

Jason Brewster, the director of the i.Lab, implored alumni as well as members of the Darden and UVA communities to involve themselves in the incubator, saying the cohort would benefit greatly from their guidance and expertise.

Brewster said helpful participation with the i.Lab Incubator program could run the gamut, from “earlyvangelists” to people capable of making introductions to subject matter experts.

If you’re a Darden alumni, Brewster suggested, you have something valuable to offer.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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