Experiential / Reality-based Learning / September 8, 2011

Smith Undergrads Participate in Innovation Immersion Experience

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 words…

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 completed.

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.

Caesars Entertainment

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 design awards.

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 of Maryland.


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.

Cisco Systems

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

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 solutions.

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 development. 
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 creativity.

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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