Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, once said that innovation is the product of new technology, an old problem, and a big idea. It’s the lifeblood of any industry—the quest to find new solutions for old problems, to make the world a smoother-running place than it was before.
Creating an environment where innovative ideas can thrive is challenging, and it requires a few key ingredients.
Siri Terjesen is the director of the American University Center for Innovation, housed within the Kogod School of Business.
The Center for Innovation is a full-service entrepreneurship center incubating around 25 student ventures at any given time and providing year-round assistance to help the businesses grow—anything from using social media to filling out tax forms.
Recognized in 2017 by AACSB International as one of the top 20 entrepreneurship centers in the world, the Center for Innovation gives each accepted venture $1500 towards their business plan.
Siri teaches classes on innovation to MBA, graduate, and undergraduate students, so she has a few pointers when it comes to pursuing innovation.
One thing she thinks is an important part of the center’s success is a high degree of representation for minority groups, particularly women.
“AU as a university has more women than men—at the undergraduate level it’s 66% women, and at the graduate level it’s at least a 50:50 split—so in our incubator we have more women-led businesses than men-led businesses [at the moment],” she says.
Gender equity is good for innovation, and research backs this up. Accenture recently surveyed over 18,000 workers in 27 countries and found that innovation was significantly higher at organizations that treated women and men more equally.
Students at work in the American University Center for Innovation
An open environment
Another aspect of the center’s success lies in the open-mindedness practised by leaders like Siri.
“We don’t place any restrictions [on the kind of ventures we take on],” she explains. “We just want interesting, viable enterprises.”
The result is a mixture of nonprofit and for-profit businesses across a variety of industries. Recent ventures have included Be Brave, a wearable technology company that works to prevent sexual assault, and The Atys Project, which uses blockchain to provide stability to retail investors in emerging markets.
In addition to welcoming a diverse mix of ventures, the incubator is open to all students at the university, not just those from the business school.
The result is an environment where everyone can learn from each other, as they all bring something unique to the table.
This effect is compounded further when there is greater international representation among innovators—and this is Kogod’s biggest strength.
“You can be from a foreign country or you can be an American, it doesn’t matter, we’ll help you,” says Siri.
The business school as a whole is made up of 25% international students, and Siri believes that international talent is the key to keeping America’s business landscape thriving and innovative.
Research shows that high-skilled immigration directly correlates to increased innovation and economic performance, and companies with employees that have diverse identities and experiences have been repeatedly shown to out-innovate their peers.
Siri believes that the Center for Innovation can be the secret weapon for entrepreneurs from overseas who want to break into the American market.
“It’s really important because they need to get embedded in our ecosystem,” she explains. “They really need to get to know everybody [involved]—the people who can loan them money, their customers, their potential workforce, etcetera.”
Though there is yet to be a startup visa put into place in the United States, Siri still believes that the opportunities are out there for international innovators. She encourages them to persevere and make the most of the resources that centers like the one at Kogod can offer.
“We know that people really need to try things on—it’s not always that someone is a success on their first try,” Siri points out encouragingly. “The average Silicon Valley entrepreneur only succeeds on their seventh venture!”
A representative environment, an open mind to all possibilities, and ample international representation are all must-have ingredients for any innovation hub—and if businesses can replicate this winning formula, it could have big benefits for the economy.