By David Perry
Julie Lenzer knows a thing or two about the moats of naysayers surrounding castles of accomplishment.
For 2½ years, Lenzer toiled as Director of the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (OIE) within President Obama’s Department of Commerce. During her tenure, she distributed $40 million in grants across the nation, rewarding innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs and served as a senior adviser to the Commerce secretary, representing the U.S. as the innovation leader at the G20 summit in China. She learned that getting things done in the confines of a bureaucracy often requires a combination of fearlessness and creativity.
Her belief: “Innovators and disruptors are what cut through restrictive thinking and make things happen.”
Lenzer brought her message of creative disruption to the seventh annual Deshpande Symposium for Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Higher Education, held June 10-12 at the UML Inn & Conference Center.
The conference drew more than 300 educators, researchers and entrepreneurs, all looking for ways to infuse innovation into academia. The symposium kicked off with a lively Monday night reception at Mill No. 5, where a large crowd mingled, visited shops and sampled foods from local restaurants.
For three days, participants from colleges and universities across the country and the world toured the city, the university and local business incubators, and they gathered in dozens of breakout sessions designed to share knowledge about the joys and challenges of making entrepreneurship and academia work together to better the world. Among the institutions represented were Arizona State, Michigan State, Penn State, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon and Colorado State.
An innovative, entrepreneurial mindset was major fuel in the explosion of new buildings on UML’s campus and the rapid rise in standards, rankings and student population since 2012, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney told a breakfast crowd. That was the same year the DifferenceMaker program took root; since then, student teams making the world a better place with their business plans have raised more than $1.3 million, filed for or been issued eight patents and formed 19 companies.
Lenzer, now working as associate vice president for innovation and economic development and co-director at UM Ventures at the University of Maryland, commiserated with attendees about the challenges they face in an academic setting. She reminded them of the importance of their task as renegades and interrupters of silos, and challengers to those who fear change.
“Higher education is in a crisis. People are questioning its value and worth. It’s imperative that we keep moving forward,” she said.
She stressed that “everyone” must have a seat at the table: “Great ideas are not limited to any one race or gender.”
Steven Tello, UML’s vice provost of innovation and workforce development and an organizer of the symposium, emphasized the need for creative problem-solving, especially in the higher education environment.
“Ultimately, innovation and entrepreneurship are about being creative. Sometimes resources are scarce, but you still need to get it done,” Tello said.
Dianne Welsh, who has been teaching entrepreneurship for three decades, was one of the many people in attendance who knows how to get things done. She is now director of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Entrepreneurship Cross-Disciplinary Program, which won the symposium’s Excellence in Curriculum Innovation in Entrepreneurship Award. Welsh wrote the book on academic and business compatibility: “Creative Cross-Disciplinary Entrepreneurship,” published in 2014.
Also winning awards were the University of Houston’s Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship, the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute and Ted Zoller, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship and director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and Northeastern University.