University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 49: Jessica Salmon and Sarah Goforth Discuss the Impact of the McMillon Innovation Studio

December 04, 2019  |  By Matt Waller

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Jessica Salmon is the Senior Director, Strategy and Innovation of the McMillon Innovation Studio. She is passionate about driving retail innovation by starting with the customer and designing a new future. Sarah Goforth is the Director of Outreach for the Office of Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Sarah co-teaches New Venture Development and supports student teams forming high-growth science and technology businesses.

Episode Transcript 


00:06 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to be epic, the podcast where We explore excellence professionalism innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today. I have with me today, Sarah Goforth the Executive Director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Arkansas and Jessica Salmon, who is the director of the McMillon Innovation Studio as well, and we're going to be talking about the McMillon Innovation Studio primarily today. The studio was launched four years ago and Jessica Salmon has been the leader for the past year and the studio has really expanded since then, and really grown strong. It's now on the map as a first stop for any student with an interest in solving real-world problems using principles from human-centered design. It really is a key culture builder for a growing student community of innovators and entrepreneurs, many of whom have returned as Student Leaders. And have now pursued deeper levels of training and pitched for seed funding for their ideas. So Sarah, would you mind kind of giving us a road map as to how this fits in?

01:31 Sarah Goforth: Sure, so the Office of entrepreneurship and innovation oversees a number of programs that support students in their journey from before they enter the university system, so when they're in high school, just interested in innovation. We formally merged with the McMillon Studio, just about seven months ago, and the way that that came to be was I was working on the entrepreneurship side of the house, doing startup training and mentor programs and things of that nature, for students interested in forming companies. And when Jessica was new in her role, and we had a first meeting it was this incredible, I think shared recognition that early stage innovation experiences of the sort that the studio is responsible for pair really well and really importantly, with entrepreneurship training. And in fact it's not a linear journey. So, a student doesn't just start in one place and then go to the next step and then go to the next step and then boom, they're an entrepreneur, or boom, they're ready to go into a corporate innovation role. It's messier than that. It really does require an ecosystem of support and resources and a community. And I recognized Jessica as somebody who has this incredible vision, talent and creativity for bringing students from all different disciplines, all different stages of their experience into an innovation mindset.

02:54 Matt Waller: So, Jessica, I'd like you to talk just a little bit about what is the purpose of the studio, what does the studio do, and just kind of review a little bit what's happened over the past year.

03:07 Jessica Salmon: Merging with the Office of entrepreneurship and innovation has really been a catalyst for the studio to expand and scale. Our purpose has been the same in terms of shaping the future of commerce by developing and enabling students to be catalysts of innovation. We do this in several ways: The first way is through our design teams. So last year, we had five design teams, this year we had eight. We have over 20 different majors as part of these teams, everything from biology to architecture to finance, we have over 1300 hours that students have volunteered their time to do this as an extra-curricular activity. In addition to that, we had 21 mentors surround our student teams this year, and the thing we tried to do with the mentors is it's not a one-to-one relationship and that you don't have one mentor for one team, we try to pair you with two or three mentors from different perspectives, so maybe it's a non-profit perspective, an industry perspective or a startup perspective. All on the same problem, the two other ways the studio feeds back to the broader ecosystem is they have a maker space. This year, of the eight project teams, we had five prototypes that were 3D-printed and then as part of the broader OEI team, we have a workshop series, and this fall semester, we hosted 17 workshops and we had over 250 people, students participating in those workshops and so really trying to meet students where they are in the innovation entrepreneurship journey.

04:36 Sarah Goforth: We have two kinds of workshops really, one kind as our core series, which is intended as a series of four to help students understand the foundational principles of innovation. It's an ability to define meaningful testable problem statements, to interview customers, and there are various techniques that we teach in the workshops for that, and use that data to inform your hypotheses about your problem to prototype your solution. So to be comfortable with the minimum viable product to get something out there and test it, before it's perfect and polished. And then communication skills. So sometimes, we call that the art of story telling or the art of the pitch, but the idea is being an innovator requires an ability to speak across disciplinary languages and boundaries. The other kind of workshop that we do is more on-demand or ad hoc and topical, so this is opportunistic based on the availability of great instructors who volunteer their time and also based on the needs of the students or topics such as when opportunity zones were being passed as a legislative opportunity for investors. Entrepreneurs wanted to know what does that mean for me? And so we did a workshop and a series of talks on that subject at the time.

05:56 Matt Waller: So Jessica, I know a key part of the McMillon Innovation Studio are the innovation design teams. Would you mind talking a little about that?

06:06 Jessica Salmon: Sure, so this year, as I said, we have eight design teams and they start with the problem. We have one team that's looking at the problem of food waste, we have another team looking at the sustainability of single use plastics. And so we have a broad range of problems that these teams are working on, and we've worked with the tech ventures and tech transfer office to really craft an IP agreement with these companies that are mentors for us, so that students have majority of the rights as part of that process. And the reason for that is really to get them comfortable with what is IP and how do they learn about IP. And so we have a unique IP agreement that favors the students on all of these design teams. And then we teach the companies alongside the students, the design thinking methodology, and although it's a hot topic, a lot of people don't really understand what it is. And so we go through a process of teaching them through. We have an Executive Education program called innovate to lead that we've taught several companies in the area through this process, and we actually do the design team kick-off and around the same content as our executive education program. So these students and these companies are both learning alongside of each other as part of the process.

07:25 Matt Waller: So Jessica one thing that really caught my attention about what you all are doing in the studio is you're serving as a mechanism to prototype curriculum for the new department 'cause we created this new department we call SEVI, it's the Department of strategy entrepreneurship and venture innovation, brand New department. So would you mind talking a little bit about how you're gonna partner with the academic department and to help create prototypes?

07:53 Jessica Salmon: As a studio, There's a lot of freedom in experimentation and prototyping and figuring out how we do things that the traditional university can't always consume at the time that it's being experimented with. For example, the studio has been doing interdisciplinary teams for several years now, and really learned through that process of how getting students from different areas, different colleges, different parts of the university together, how that works. And now the SEVI Department is really exploring how do they get interdisciplinary curriculum up and running, whether that's kind of a certificate program, or minor or those types of things and they're exploring that on a broader level. So the other thing we talked about is mentors learning alongside of the students as part of the process. So it's really about actually the students and the organizations need to learn the same things to solve the problems in the future. I think that's just a small example of how we've been doing this learning and experimentation in the studio on a small scale, and now we get to export that to a more scalable audience. And hopefully have impact on the future of higher education honestly.

09:06 Sarah Goforth: Yeah, there's a lot of evidence that shows that experiential learning is powerful for students, but by and large, universities have struggled to figure out how to do it, how to scale it, how to manage it, and this platform allows us to do that for students Across all the boundaries.

09:24 Matt Waller: So I know that you two have come up with some ideas on how we could potentially create a deeper innovation model for the McMillon Innovation Studio. And I was really intrigued by this for a number of reasons, but would you mind talking about that a little bit?

09:40 Jessica Salmon: When you think about the depth of innovation and the potential for these real solutions that will change and can be exported back to industry, We started to ask ourselves hey, how might we actually think about a deeper relationship with these industry partners? We have such a ripe ecosystem in Northwest Arkansas of industry, whether it's retail, food or health-oriented industries. And how do we actually partner with those companies in a different way? And we looked at a lot of different models and actually have found that the Live Well collaborative in Ohio is a model that it's really interesting to us, but we thought, How do we take that a step further?

10:20 Jessica Salmon: So the idea is actually instead of having these broad mentors pair with our students, how do we actually get faculty engaged this problem-solving for the future, how do we continue to get students engaged but then how do we get the industry engaged at a deeper level. In looking at this, the idea is for the companies, could we create exclusive IP agreements with them where they're actually getting some of the IP out of these joint teams, if you will, but the students and the faculty get in mentorship as part of the team. And then could the companies also get some sort of education experience out of being part of the team? So, if they dedicate two or three of their associates, maybe those associates get an MBA or get an MSTC after going through this experience Alongside their classroom learning experience with the Walton College.

11:19 Jessica Salmon: So you're up-skilling the company's talent and you're getting a potential pilot project off the ground. And then for the university, the students get exposure to these unique industry problems. And then they... Could there be unique internship opportunities for the students in that process as well as for the faculty, could there be Fellowships or things like that, where the faculty could actually be on-site with the company? Learning along side of it? And then research goes hand-in-hand with the innovative problem-solving that the team is working on really it could be the future of teams. You think about solving problems differently in the future, And pretty sure the diversity of teams will only continue to grow. And when you think about matching students with faculty with industry to really solve problems as a team, to innovate for the future, I think it changes this entire region and what it's capable of innovating around.

12:12 Sarah Goforth: There's a lot of talk right now about and a lot of passion and energy about building the entrepreneurial culture in Northwest Arkansas. And the funny thing is when you look at the literature, the best time in your life to be an entrepreneur is not when you're 21, it's when you're 40 and you've held an innovation role, inside a company or two. And you've seen problems from the inside out, and had the opportunity to resolve them from the inside. So I actually think the building of capacity for corporate innovation talent is the best way to build entrepreneurial capacity in the region.

12:48 Matt Waller: That's a very compelling argument. I've seen some of that research. I know Ross DeVol when he was at the Milken Institute, he did some research that showed the probability of a startup becoming a growth company eventually is directly proportional to the age of the founders, but the probability of someone starting a company decreases with age. So if there were a way to get people with a lot of experience to start companies and maybe this Master's of Science and Technology Commercialization through the McMillon Studio could be a way to do that.

13:29 Jessica Salmon: I just want to say too, I think that... How do you unleash your current talent like for companies, they have so much talent that usually is restricted to their job title, and I think there's this entrepreneurial spirit that we really wanna instill as part of this potential partnership where it can unleash the company's talent for innovation for the future and that hopefully some will be entrepreneurs, but then also hopefully some will truly change the direction of the company because they've been able to be unleashed as part of the process, and I think there's no mechanism today to do that outside of... There are some small programs within each of the organizations around here, that they've tried to spin up, but I think a partnership with the university would only make that go further.

14:16 Sarah Goforth: Yeah, I love telling stories about my own bumpy career path because I think all students the one thing they can expect is to have a bumpy unexpected career path in the modern era. And for me, it was getting my dream job right out of grad school, covering science at the Dallas Morning News, and then getting laid off with all of the other science reporters of the Dallas Morning News a month later, because the newspaper industry was being disrupted. So that's when I started my own company, and it was out of necessity, I didn't have the skills to do it, I just had to build the plane while flying, as we say. But those skills then later helped me innovate from within a very large media company when I went to work at the Discovery Channel, same skill set, looking at problems, being comfortable and confident creating something new, educating my colleagues about what was coming down the pike that some of my colleagues could see and others couldn't telling those stories. I think and being vulnerable with students, it's not something that professors have traditionally done, but they respond really well to it and we learn alongside them and they respond well to that too. That's another, I think, great thing about pairing the mentors in the studio who are very seasoned and very experienced with students learning the same principles. It's a way of saying, "hey we're all facing disruption, we all have to keep learning if we wanna do meaningful work."

15:36 Matt Waller: One last thing I'd like to talk about very briefly is Demo Day. What does demo day mean for the McMillon Innovation Studio?

15:47 Jessica Salmon: The studio is about the learning journey, it's not about the outcome necessarily. In terms of companies being formed or specific things happening from an outcomes perspective. And so they get to take the community through their learning journey, from customer discovery to empathy interviews to prototype failures to iterations and pivots out of that. And it's been really cool, just even sitting and hearing them. We've had a couple this year in particular, have changed what they wanna do with their career because of the studio, which is really cool To hear and I always love to hear the student impact as part of it, because to say they were on this path to go this one direction and something changed that path.

16:30 Sarah Goforth: Like the biology student that's prototyping a civil engineering prototype, It's pretty impressive.

16:37 Matt Waller: Well, you know, most economic value is created through innovation and the future of work, and the best way to protect your job and your career is through innovation. So, thank you both for what you're doing. This is really important for our students and for the state of Arkansas. Thanks for listening to today's episode of The be epic podcast from the Walton college. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching be epic podcast, one word that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is dean emeritus of the Sam M. Walton College of Business and professor of supply chain management. His work as a professor, researcher, and consultant is synergistic, blending academic research with practical insights from industry experience. This continuous cycle of learning and application makes his work more effective, relevant, and impactful.His goals include contributing to academia through high-quality research and publications, cultivating the next generation of professionals through excellent teaching, and creating value for the organizations he consults by optimizing their strategy and investments.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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