Innovation Pathways: Finding Team Success Through Diversity of Experience

To help illustrate where the pursuit of innovation management can lead, our Innovation Pathways series asks our current students, recent graduates, and established alumni to describe their journeys.

Jess Stokes headshotJess Stokes WG’21 has launched a startup incubator, consulted for an international market research firm, and accelerated the growth of an entrepreneurship department at a PK-12 school in Philadelphia. At Wharton, she is co-chair of the Private Equity and Venture Capital Conference, co-president of Volleyball Club, and VP of Social Impact for Cluster 3. She served as a WISE Fellow for the Philadelphia Zoo through the Wharton Social Impact Initiative.

How can students and professionals benefit from studying innovation management?
Not only can students and professionals benefit from studying innovation, but I believe that it is absolutely necessary. In my mind, business and management should always be an innovative practice. Investing in innovation can not only help cut costs and drive sales, but it also has a magical effect of flattening hierarchies in a way that empowers all employees to maximize their creative potential and engagement.

Innovation isn’t a job title or a department, it’s an approach to thinking. If we create separate definitions for management with and without innovation, we run the risk of shaping business leaders who have not discovered the power of leading with creativity and an appetite for change. Every year, my 10th grade students would spend a semester working on any entrepreneurial venture of their choosing. The hardest part of the course for them was often idea generation because they had trouble identifying problems worth solving that aligned with their passions. Up until then, success at school was determined by how well they followed a predetermined set of rules, so they were paralyzed when asked to innovate. It is essential that our classrooms from kindergarten to business school are helping students open their eyes to new ways to accomplish old goals while maximizing social impact and sustainability.

Based on your own extensive experience in entrepreneurship education, how do you think the Mack Institute’s Collaborative Innovation Program helps students explore innovation management?
CIP is a fantastic opportunity for any student interested in learning to manage client relationships within a challenging framework of limited time, data, and expertise. Regardless of the project scope, these constraints alone demand innovation. The course provided just enough programmatic support so that we could hit the ground running, while the flexible structure required our newly formed team to quickly establish our own working relationships so we could turn our attention to the client’s needs.

Condensing an innovation cycle into a single semester amplified our pivots and trade-off decisions. The final presentation was a success, but so was the way we had learned to move quickly, fail fast, and welcome feedback as a team. While our project prompt certainly centered around innovation, the process rather than the final product had the greatest impact on my innovation management skills and knowledge development.

What did you find most rewarding about working with your CIP team?
One of the greatest benefits of CIP is that it attracts students with a diversity of experiences. My team was composed of an active-duty Army officer, a former product manager at Amazon, a data scientist studying quantitative policy analytics and myself — an entrepreneurship educator. We each saw this course as an opportunity to build new competencies rather than flex our strengths, so we selected into team roles accordingly.

I highly valued the structure that CIP provided around role assignments because it formalized our commitment to stretching beyond our comfort zones and instilled a shared sense of responsibility to support each other. The roles were especially important as we made the transition to working remotely in the spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic, given that we had established a strong working relationship, clear expectations, and a weekly cadence to both internal and external communication. I greatly enjoyed working alongside these three amazing women who I am confident will continue to drive innovation from the battlefield to the boardroom.

I do think it is important to understand how non-core business groups operate within a corporation if I am to achieve my goal of driving change.

Did you learn anything from the corporate partner in your project regarding managing innovation that has stuck with you?
This project reaffirmed much of my understanding about the challenges of innovation at the corporate level, but also demonstrated how much genuine interest there is for this type of work even in the most conventional of industries. As is common across many corporations, the innovation team we were working with inside the financial services group was siloed from the core business, but I was impressed at the steps that our partner had taken to include as many stakeholders as possible in their problem finding processes. The strong attendance at our final presentation was proof of positive traction to achieving a firmwide investment in these innovative initiatives. I observed that the innovation team was so successful in garnering support because their leader, our point of contact, had a long tenure at the company and was able to blend the traditional and cutting-edge cultures of the firm in a way that resonated widely.

The most actionable takeaway of what I now understand about corporate innovation is that there are often barriers that prevent the work from moving quickly enough to be truly innovative. Without the opportunity to “move fast and break things” in controlled environments, many ideas likely won’t make it off of the shelf and certainly won’t go through essential iterative testing. Post-MBA, I have made sure to select an organization and team that I believe is open to new ideas and supports entrepreneurial thinkers. I am sure I will encounter roadblocks at certain points, but that is where I can put my lessons learned from this project into practice.

You want to be a global leader of innovation who supports companies committed to social impact and sustainability. Did you learn anything in CIP that you believe will help you in those spaces?
The goal of this project was largely to improve efficiency and collaboration within the firm by leveraging existing software solutions. While the focus was not on social impact and sustainability, I do think it is important to understand how non-core business groups operate within a corporation if I am to achieve my goal of driving change. I have been fortunate enough to find many ways to learn more about social impact and sustainability at Wharton, so a main motivation for enrolling in CIP was to round out my understanding of change processes and priorities within established for-profits.

What other steps have you taken at Penn to prepare you for managing innovation in your career?
After graduating Penn as an undergrad, innovation and entrepreneurship was something that I was lucky enough to fall into and, upon which, build a career that I loved. As strong as my abilities were in regard to the creative side of innovation, I decided to return to Wharton to develop my strategic understanding of the practice.

Last year, I competed in Baker Center’s Ideathon with Ralph Lauren and the Mack Institute’s Innovation Challenge with Vanguard. I had the privilege to speak about how I taught design thinking to 10th graders on an Innovation & Design Club panel and have learned equally as much about innovation from conversations with my peers who are passionate about the space. This summer, I co-launched a virtual incubator for college and grad school students who were interested in exploring entrepreneurship and hosted weekly roundtables with top corporate innovation executives from firms like Amex, Kellogg, Dupont, and LinkedIn.

I have always admired the innovative environment at Penn. In one way or another, every student here possesses an entrepreneurial spirit. I am finding new paths to continue learning about and practicing innovation during this virtual semester (Fall 2020), from serving on the advisory board of a student-run startup to helping grow its digital presence to launching my own venture that provides investing and entrepreneurship education to middle-school students.