Partnerships Propelling Innovation

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Tuesday, September 22, 2020
By Elliot Davis
Image by iStock
Business schools today are highly focused on fulfilling their own missions, but collaborating with other schools or units can actually help them get there.

Business schools can be unyielding competitors, angling to provide the best experiences possible for their students, each in pursuit of their unique mission. But this spirit of competition has not stood in the way of partnership-created innovation. Many of AACSB’s member schools collaborate with one another to develop innovative programming to improve their learners’ experiences or to create positive societal impact. The following are several examples of colleges and universities coming together through idea-sharing and partnering to deliver a higher-quality outcome than they would have achieved alone.

Western Mass Innovation Jam

Western New England University, College of Business (United States)

Western New England University, in partnership with Smith College and Mt. Holyoke College, has for the past several years offered a “startup weekend” for their community called the Western Massachusetts Innovation Jam (WMIJ).

The WMIJ began in 2015 when Western New England University (WNE) partnered with a national organization to create the first startup weekend. An interdisciplinary team of faculty from the Colleges of Business, Engineering, and Arts & Sciences and the School of Law designed the inaugural event. This event was held at a regional startup accelerator. After the inaugural event, WNE partnered with Smith College and Mt. Holyoke College to broaden the participant pool and stimulate innovation through increased diversity.

WMIJ begins on a Friday afternoon, where student participants meet with faculty facilitators, engage in group icebreakers, identify innovation ideas, and form teams. On the following Saturday morning students work with their teams to identify pain points, target markets, concept design, and value propositions. Saturday evening entails refining ideas and practicing their first pitch. On Sunday morning, mentors from the local entrepreneurial community work with teams, providing feedback and suggestions. Teams then pitch to panelists who had not been involved with the weekend until that point. After each pitch, teams receive feedback to help them improve their ideas.

The weekend jam is not a contest with rankings and cash prizes; instead, it focuses solely on helping students develop an entrepreneurial mindset. The development team from WNE, along with members from Smith and Mt. Holyoke Colleges, continue to innovate, moving the event from campus to campus to expose students to different collegiate environments.

The B Corp Clinic

North Carolina State University, Poole College of Management (United States)

B Corporations (B Corps), like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry's, are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. B Corps go through the B Impact Assessment (BIA), a free, open-source tool, widely regarded as the most rigorous and comprehensive measure of a truly sustainable business. The BIA allows any company to use the assessment as a roadmap for improving their impact among stakeholders, regardless of whether they plan to become a certified B Corp.

The B Corp Clinic, inspired by B Lab's B Impact Teams model, connects groups of interdisciplinary students from academic institutions across North Carolina to local and global businesses for hands-on consulting experience that help the companies strengthen their environmental and social impact. Over the past four years, 300 students from different eight colleges have participated in the clinic, from academic institutions including NC State University, Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill , Elon University, Wake Tech Community College, NC Central University, North Carolina A&T University, and Appalachian State University.

The B Corp Clinic is creating positive impact in the community, helping companies assess and improve their impact, and in some cases helping companies achieve B Corp certification, while also providing transformative learning opportunities through immersive, high-impact, student education. Each semester, five to eight companies are matched with a team of students that includes undergraduate and graduate students from different universities and diverse disciplines, to go through the assessment process and identify strategies they can take to improve their BIA scores. Each team is paired with a mentor, typically a senior leader from one of the NC B Corps. The clinic takes place entirely off campus, typically at coworking and incubator spaces across North Carolina.

To date, teams have completed 56 projects ranging from documenting volunteer hours, formalizing processes and policies through employee training and policies, implementing formal internship policies and procedures, conducting employee satisfaction surveys, sourcing green office supplies, and performing energy and GHG audits.

Cross-Campus Collaborations: Entrepreneurship/Engineering

Virginia Commonwealth University (United States)

This innovation focuses not on two separate business schools partnering but rather two colleges on the same campus coming together to create shared value. At Virginia Commonwealth University, a now signature collaboration combines students in the School of Business’s yearlong capstone course for its Entrepreneurship Program, which emphasizes producing and analyzing innovative ideas that can lead to the formation of new ventures, with students in the School of Engineering's yearlong capstone Senior Design Project, which is required of all engineering students.

The Entrepreneurship Program trains students to recognize and analyze opportunities, apply critical thinking skills, create innovative solutions, develop a business plan, and pitch concepts to business leaders. The yearlong engineering capstone class teams students to address open-ended, real-world engineering problems submitted by companies, nonprofits, and the VCU medical campus. The student teams engage in design and development processes, from problem definition to prototype development and testing.

Both business and engineering students hone their skills in teamwork, conflict resolution, and communication. For business students, the experience exposes them to truly innovative concepts and helps them understand the engineering design process and requirements necessary for technology development. Engineering students, on the other hand, learn how to rigorously explore the entrepreneurial feasibility (business potential) of their projects. Faculty running both capstone projects agree that a merger of the projects has provided benefits to each side.

Examples of technologies examined in the class include a wearable heart monitor that automatically calls emergency responders, a heating and cooling backpack, and a light-dimming cover for incubators used in the neonatal intensive care unit. While the program does not aim to turn all students into entrepreneurs immediately, as most students graduate and work in existing businesses rather than begin their own, students will encounter experiences where the skills developed in this program will be invaluable for entrepreneurial thinking within their respective organization.

About Innovations That Inspire

Since its launch in 2016, Innovations That Inspire has collected nearly 1,000 innovative practices across a variety of themes and areas within business education. For each challenge year, a selection of innovations is featured at the International Conference and Annual Meeting (ICAM). Further, current members of AACSB’s Business Education Alliance can browse through all innovations using DataDirect. AACSB continuously highlights submitted examples in publications, events, presentations, and in other media as examples of business schools doing innovative things that push the boundaries of business education.

Elliot Davis
Director of Data Strategy, AACSB International
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