Guest post by Emilia Griswold, Foster MBA 2014
She attended the Day of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which was organized by Ken Denman, Edward V. Fritzky Chair in Leadership at the Foster School.
Foster alumni never cease to amaze me, and Ken Denman (MBA 1986) is no exception. Ken has held numerous executive roles across established corporations and new ventures, and he is currently the president and CEO of Machine Perception Technologies as well as an angel investor. In addition, he holds the Edward V. Fritzky Chair in Leadership and has spent this year bringing exciting and inspiring events to Foster. The Day of Innovation and Entrepreneurship that Ken organized was no exception. For this conference, Ken assembled a fantastic group of leaders in the technology, start-up, and venture capital space from both Seattle and Silicon Valley.
The day kicked off with Charles Songhurst, General Manager of Corporate Strategy at Microsoft. The first part of Charles’ remarks was about the five common reasons that companies succeed: geography, an ability to generate positive serendipity, expertise, getting the right mix of skills on a team, and being empathetic. The second part of his speech wasn’t what I expected from someone at a huge company like Microsoft—Charles discussed why big companies have such a hard time innovating. That mix of great insight and thoughtful honesty is something that comes out at all Foster events, and Charles’ attitude as well as his fresh perspective were echoed throughout the day.
After the incredible discussion with Charles, the day’s panels covered a range of topics relevant to innovation and entrepreneurship. Below are highlights from each panel discussion.
Chasing the Inevitable: How VCs identify and assess potential opportunities
The session was moderated by Foster’s own Professor Emily Cox Pahnke and featured three venture capitalists who work across a range of industries: Michelle Goldberg of Ignition Partners, Ghia Griarte of Saints Capital and Andrew Tweed of Thomvest Ventures. Although each VC specializes in different kinds of deals and has expertise in different areas, they all emphasized that their firms have internal theses they work from. When looking at truly innovative opportunities that don’t have a market yet, they look for products and features that can be easily explained and understood by a customer. All the panelists also agreed that investing is about relationships and the strength of the founder. They want to invest in someone who is wedded to success more than a specific idea, is open to feedback, knows the industry well, and has proven success in previous positions.
Changing the Non-Profit Landscape: What does it take for social entrepreneurs to achieve leading innovation and long term success
While a discussion about non-profits seems odd for a business school, Foster has a history of developing leaders who want to give back. Moderator Zaw Thet, co-founder and chairman of plyfe.me and HaulerDeals, engaged Kushal Chakrabarti (founder of Vittana), James Gutierrez (co-founder and partner of Insikt Ventures), and Doug Plank (founder and CEO of Mobilecause) in a conversation about social entrepreneurship. Despite the non-profit focus, the panelists all came back to the same themes discussed in the for-profit panels. In particular, you should practice “intellectual honesty” and admit to your strengths and weaknesses—then get brilliant people to fill in your gaps. They also reminded anyone going into philanthropy that some non-profits fail because they are 99% heart and 1% business, but being 99% business won’t lead to better results. You must have a mix of business and heart to succeed as a social venture.
Assembling Nimble and Functionally Diverse Teams: Where and how to spot the top talent to booster your team
With so many students looking for jobs and internships, everyone was excited to hear what start-ups and established innovation-focused companies look for when hiring. Interim CEO of Vittana, Rebecca Lovell moderated this discussion with Marc Barros (co-founder of Contour), Zaw Thet, and Donna Wells (president and CEO of Mindflash Technologies). It’s no surprise the panelists all advocated hiring people who are able to embrace flexibility, have emotional intelligence, and work well in a team. But it’s most important that you hire people who love and use your product. And when you’re thinking about hiring for your company, remember you should design a position around what needs to be done, not around a title.
The Next Big Themes: What’s next, why it matters, and how you can spot big ideas before anybody else
Ken Denman talked with Seth Neiman from Crosspoint Venture Partners, Tim Porter from Madrona Ventures, and Jason Stoffer from Maveron about the next big ideas. The panelists saw some major trends driving innovation, particularly around cloud computing, big data analytics, mobile, consumerization of IT, biotech, embedding internet capabilities in everyday objects, and perceptual computing. When it comes to predicting the next big thing, these investors look for simple value propositions, pay attention to what the kids are doing, and consider if a new idea fits in with their existing theses and view of the world. But they pointed out that innovation isn’t just about change—it’s about benefiting from change.
Learn more about the Day of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and watch videos from all the sessions.