Smith Undergrads Participate in Innovation Immersion
The innovation immersion experience was part of the College Park Scholars
Business, Society and Economy program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H.
Smith School of Business. Established by
Dr. Mark Wellman, director of the
Business, Society and Economy Program, the innovation experience helped students
better understand how firms compete and use innovation to create sustainable
competitive advantages. Jason LeGrand, director of the West Region in University
of Maryland’s University Relations department, assisted in developing and
managing the innovation immersion experience.
Read about the Innovation Immersion Experience in Dr. Mark Wellman’s own
Innovation is the lifeblood of the world economy, a high priority for
organizations and is frequently recognized as the primary sustainable
competitive advantage for organizations.
Prior to the start of the fall 2011 semester, 18 undergraduate students
completed an innovation immersion experience that provided a rare and valuable
opportunity to visit companies that are recognized innovators including Cirque
du Soleil, LinkedIn, Cisco, eBay, Google, Tesla Motors, Huawei, Pixar, Zynga,
Electronic Arts, Facebook, Salesforce.com, IDEO, WePay, Caesars Entertainment,
Aria Resort and Casino, Zappos, and the UFC.
From Wednesday, August 17th through Friday, August 26th, the class visited 18
businesses located in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Mountain View, Santa Clara, and
Palo Alto that demonstrated the power of innovative ideas in revolutionizing
products and services.
The innovation study trip kicked off in Las Vegas with a stop at Zappos.
Zappos sells primarily shoes, but the real innovation is a unique company
culture that focuses on outstanding customer services and creating fun and a
little weirdness while at work. Zappos’ innovative customer services include
free shipping on all purchases (both ways) and a 365-day return policy. In order
to ensure that new employees are strongly committed to the unique company
culture, trainees are offered a choice of remaining with the company, or
accepting a $3,000 bonus to quit after the four-week paid training program is
Cirque du Soleil
With its unique hybrid of music, dance, and acrobatics, Cirque du Soleil
created a new category of live entertainment in Las Vegas. Cirque started in Las
Vegas with Mystere in 1993 and currently runs seven shows with the newest
offering being Viva ELVIS. Anthony Ricotta, who started with Cirque in 1997
provided the students with an overview of Cirque’s operations in Las Vegas and
discussed his role as a company manager for the Viva ELVIS show that involves
managing the technical, artistic and support staff of roughly 200 people. Cirque
is one of the most frequently used examples of a company that implemented the
Blue Ocean innovation strategy framework that involves creating demand and
developing new market space where competition was non-existent. The visit to
Cirque included attending two shows, “O” and KA. The visit was arranged by Kathy
Merachnik, Vice President and General Manager of the Resident Shows Division,
who is a University of Maryland graduate.
Accelerating innovation at Caesars Entertainment was achieved by developing
Total Rewards, the gaming industry's most sophisticated and successful loyalty
program. With over 40 million customers, it has become a linchpin of Caesars
success in building the world’s largest casino entertainment company. Mike Harty,
Director of Marketing and Business Intelligence Capabilities, explained how the
company has improved its analytical capability to perform dynamic customer
segmentation that provides valuable customer insights. Jason Gastwirth, VP and
Executive Associate to the Chairman & CEO, discussed Caesars’ growth through the
development of new resorts, expansions and acquisitions. Karie Hall, VP of Hotel
Operations, provided a tour and explained some of the new innovative
technologies that are being implemented in their properties.
ARIA Resort & Casino
ARIA Resort & Casino is changing the paradigm, the rules and the landscape of
its industry. ARIA offers the most technologically advanced guestrooms in the
United States. With a behind the scenes tour provided by Bobbi Hart, Customer
Services Manager, students were able to experience the impressive combination of
innovative architecture, sustainable design, high-end service and the
spectacular amenities ARIA provides to its customers. ARIA forms the core of the
CityCenter complex with a 61-story steel and glass tower that has won many
Zuffa / Ultimate Fighting Championship
The last visit in Las Vegas was to Zuffa, the parent company of the Ultimate
Fighting Championship (world's leading professional mixed martial arts
organization). The innovative thinking by the leadership of the UFC has made it
a mainstream, wealth-creating powerhouse sport – replacing boxing. The Chief
Marketing Officer, Bryan Johnston, led an informative discussion with the class
regarding global marketing strategies and merchandise initiatives. The class
also met Dana White, President of the UFC.
The first stop in Silicon Valley was Facebook. With a 145 percent increase in
U.S. users in 2010 and over 750 million active users, Facebook’s record of
innovation is undeniable. Pedro Canahuati, Manager of Site Reliability
Engineering, stressed the importance of having a company culture that encourages
innovation. Pedro explained that Facebook is a well-known proponent of
officially incorporating hacking into its culture. Facebook frequently holds “hackathons”
to rapidly design features or solutions. Hackathons are problem solving sessions
where engineers spend long hours mired in a particular problem to rapidly
develop innovative design features and solutions. Pedro attended the University
Zynga’s innovation in gameplay has made it #1 in social gaming on the web.
Zynga was recently ranked by Fast Company as one of the most innovative
companies because its social games offer people a new way to interact online.
Zynga says it has something for everyone: casino games, word games, board games,
and role playing games. Zynga is responsible for five of Facebook’s Top 10 games
on the web. The visit was arranged by Stephanie Romo (a recent University of
Maryland graduate). Alla Markova, University Relations Coordinator, provided an
informative discussion and a tour of the new company headquarters that opened on
the day we visited.
The visit to Salesforce.com was particularly timely as the company was
recently ranked by Forbes magazine as the “World’s Most Innovative Company,” and
it is frequently used as an example of disruptive innovation. Prior to meeting
our speaker, Narayan (Nadu) Bharadwaj, Product Management Director at
Salesforce.com, many students were not fully aware that Salesforce.com was the
first company to offer online/on-demand CRM/salesforce automation software. Nadu
outlined the vision of the company founder, Marc Benioff, explained cloud
computing, and discussed his responsibilities including strategy and execution
of the Salesforce.com platform. Nadu attended the University of Maryland
electrical engineering graduate program.
As a result of the visit to LinkedIn, students have a greater appreciation
for the power of LinkedIn as it operates the world’s largest professional
network on the Internet with more than 120 million members in over 200
countries. Currently, 75 of the Fortune 100 companies use LinkedIn for hiring.
David Mack, LinkedIn account executive, coordinated the session with assistance
from Gina Pak and Allen Horn of the campus recruiting office for LinkedIn. Gina
and David graduated from the University of Maryland. David explained that
LinkedIn provides companies with an innovative recruiting tool and serves as an
attractive advertising platform.
The students have a greater understanding of the history of Cisco Systems as
an innovator in computer networking, thus transforming how people work, live,
learn and play. Vinod Peris, VP of Engineering, who earned his PhD in electrical
engineering from the University of Maryland, provided an overview of Cisco and
gave the students great advice as they start their careers. Darlene Vales,
Program Manager in the Executive Briefing Center, provided an informative tour
and demonstration of some of Cisco’s most innovative products.
Disruptive innovation and eBay have a lot in common as eBay changed how the
world does business when it was founded 15 years ago. It is currently
transforming the mobile marketplace. The purpose of this visit was to understand
the linkages between an organizations research efforts and its innovation
strategy. eBay has a team of computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians,
statisticians, economists, and linguists that are devoted to driving invention
and innovation. The class had the pleasure of meeting Eric Brill, VP of Research
Labs, who provided an overview of the eBay Labs, and Ekta Sahasi, Head of Labs
Innovation, who coordinated the visit. Nish Parikh, and Gynit Singh discussed
innovation around search and changes in user behavior. Anurag Bharadwaj, Raffay
Hamid and Robinson Piramuthu discussed innovation around vision and its impact
on future of Human/Computer interaction. eBay labs provide an amazing
environment for researchers that are dedicated to innovation to work with data
and conduct experiments at scale.
Most people outside of China are not familiar with Huawei, however the
company is the world's second-largest supplier of telecom and internet equipment
and it leads the market in the newest mobile-network standard (LTE=long-term
evolution). More than 75 percent of its revenue comes from India, China, and
Latin America. Huawei has gone from imitating others’ products to taking on
international rivals with its own innovative computing and communications gear.
Huawei hosted the class at their new 200,000 square-foot facility that includes
multiple state-of-the-art research labs. Deborah R. Stokes, Director of External
Research, provided a company overview. George Vanecek, Senior Principal
Architect for the Huawei Center for Innovation, led a tour of the lab center
that showcased some of Huawei’s innovations. George earned his PhD from the
University of Maryland in 1989.
WePay has been an innovative company for 10 years, but two young
entrepreneurs are gunning to make WePay the new innovation in the industry. The
class met with WePay co-founder Rich Aberman. Rich provided an insider look at
what it takes to raise venture capital funds. WePay has raised $9.2 million from
a range of sources including Highland Capital Partners, August Capital, Y
Combinator, and angels that include WePay co-founder Max Levchin. The company
allows users to set up group accounts on the web site for a specific purpose or
event, such as collecting money from a large outing like a bachelor party to
divvying up living expenses among roommates. WePay makes money by tacking on
deposit fees from money deposited into the accounts. Rich explained that WePay
is a good option if you want to sell something online, but if you want to
collect money from a group, WePay is a better option. The class also met with
Charlie Pinto, who graduated from the Smith School in 2008 and is a sales
executive at WePay.
Pixar became the most innovative animation company of all time through a
combination of high quality computer graphic animation, comedy, strong
characterization, engaging scripts and technical innovations. The class met with
Bob Moyer, Character Supervisor, and Marc Greenberg, VP of Finance & Strategy.
Both are graduates of the University of Maryland. The visit also included a
campus tour and a talk by Tom Porter, who is a three-time Academy Award winner
in technical and scientific categories and a technical pioneer in the world of
computer animation who has been part of the Pixar inner circle since its
inception. The visit was particularly engaging and it helped students understand
the challenges in fostering creativity and innovation and appreciating the
importance of excellent human resources practices in boosting employee morale,
retention and productivity.
With some 2 million searches per second and 3 billion per day, Google
continues to dominate web searches and its software development process remains
the most innovative in the industry. Google is consistently recognized as one of
the most innovative companies in the world. The visit to Google was coordinated
by Jimmy Lyons, an online marketing strategist at Google, who organized a panel
of University of Maryland graduates to discuss their experiences at Google.
Jimmy graduated from the Smith School in 2009.
Tesla Motors is currently the world’s only auto maker that mass produces
electric sports vehicles, thus making it an innovative and progressive car
company. George Blankenship, Vice President of Sales and Owner Experience,
shared with the class his goal to re-imagine the way people buy cars, forgoing
the traditional dealership model in favor of stylish, consumer-focused
showrooms. He also discussed his three decades of retail and design experience
at the world's hottest brands including being the chief strategist behind
Apple's revolutionary retail stores where he changed how people shop for
consumer electronics. Tesla’s goal is to accelerate the world’s transition to
electric mobility with a full range of increasingly affordable electric cars. In
mid-2012, Tesla will offer the Model S, the first premium sedan to be built from
the ground up as an electric vehicle.
IDEO has been consistently ranked as one of the most innovative design firms
in the world. IDEO has a unique brainstorming method that can be used to design
or redesign products, as well as services to provide more value to the end user.
The company is also increasingly becoming involved in consulting with companies
to change their cultures and build the capabilities required to sustain
innovation. The visit to IDEO helped students to understand how to foster
innovation in an organization, recognize what management and organizational
practices encourage creativity and study the framework for designing innovative
Electronic Arts (EA)
The final stop on the innovation study trip was the leading global
interactive entertainment software company, Electronic Arts (EA). Dr. Brad
Margolis, Director of Organization Effectiveness and Change, organized the visit
that included an interactive exercise, Electric Maze Activity, a talk on
innovation and creativity, a meeting with executive producer Rachel Bernstein,
and a discussion led by Karen Morris and Iris Lin from the University Relations
staff regarding future hiring needs at EA. Brad is a University of Maryland
computer science and business graduate.
The quality of visits was spectacular! It was far more than a celebrity meet
and greet. It was an impactful learning experience. Supplementing classroom
knowledge with insights from practitioners really created a powerful learning
experience. It is one thing to hear a classroom lecture on innovation, but quite
another to discuss innovation with company executives. The study trip was also
aimed at providing the class with a competitive advantage in regards to career
Prior to the study trip, each student was required to research one of the
companies the class planned to visit. This task was designed so that students
could become specialists, to a certain degree, in a specific company they would
visit. When the students returned to College Park for the fall semester, the
class met to discuss the course readings and complete a self assessment of their