Yale, Wharton & Columbia Team Up For Innovation Summit

innovation summit

Panelists in last year’s summit included Nature’s Variety CEO Reed Howlett, Fahrenheit 212 Chief Strategy Officer Pete Maulik, and Catterton Partners Managing Partner Scott Dahnke.

The top business schools have always had a bit of a rivalry going on (for evidence, refer to this hilarious video). But for the past three years, MBAs from Wharton, Yale, and Columbia have put their rivalries aside to organize the MBA Innovation Summit (MBAIS). This year’s day-long conference will take place in New York City on Feb. 21, and will include speakers from companies ranging from Google to BNY Mellon.

“When people think of design and innovation, they usually think of design school, art school, or design companies,” says June Chang, a second-year MBA at Wharton who’s on the organization committee for MBAIS. Though students planning careers in finance or consulting might shy away from a conference that focuses on relatively soft concepts, Chang contends that these concepts can be applied to any and all work environments. “I think it’s more the way you think rather than pretty products or interesting toys,” she says.

The summit hatched from an inter-school friendship. Dierdre Cerminaro, Yale MBA ’13, came up with the idea for a conference on innovation during her first year. She happened to have two good friends at Wharton and Columbia—lucky her—and the three decided to host it together. Still, the conference isn’t open to the public, and there aren’t any immediate plans to include other schools in the organizing process. Making MBAIS happen is already logistically complicated: “We’ve discussed it internally, but so far decided against it because it’s a question of bandwidth, location, coordination, etc.,” says Eric Plunkett, a conference organizer and second-year MBA at Yale. It’s been marketed to the entire student bodies of the three organizing schools, though, and so far, it’s proven popular: The venue can accommodate 300+ people, and tickets are already selling out. The summit organizers expect to see many design and engineering students as well as MBAs.

Working on the summit has taught Chang, who had been on the corporate audit staff at General Electric, plenty about innovation. On the one hand, rethinking various elements of the conference has given her the time and space to think creatively. Nevertheless—as is the case with any big production—thinking creatively hasn’t translated into abandoning all the rules. On the contrary: “Organizing the conference and having everyone involved and communicating was very process-oriented and involved a lot of structure,” she explains.

Though the summit hasn’t taken place yet, the organizers have already tossed around ideas for 2015. “I know there’s interest from the Yale students in identifying innovations in the social sector, and applying lessons from innovative firms to nonprofits and government,” Plunkett says. “We also want to make sure that the summit continues to become more interactive.” Chang echoed the need for more tangible elements, such as trainings or workshops.

MBAIS—with its buzzword-y name—brings forth an inevitable question: Can innovation be taught? “I hope it’s something you can acquire, and I’m sure there are people who tend to be more creative and innovative,” Chang admits. She believes getting exposure to the right environments can nurture innovative and design-oriented thinking that might’ve otherwise stayed dormant. One thing is clear to her, though: “If you don’t have it, you should seek people who have it,” she says. Take note, future startup CEOs.

MBAIS’ full site will go up next week. Meanwhile, you can learn more about last year’s summit here.

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