5 Lessons for Innovators


The University Innovation Fellows create a culture of innovation on campus, and they want you to be a part of it. Read more about their recent trip to Silicon Valley for a UIF Meetup in the guest blog below, written by University Innovation Fellow, Kurt Dawiec.


To give you all a bit of background, the University Innovation Fellows (UIF) is a global program that gives students across the world the necessary tools to bring change to their campus communities. The program was built as part of Stanford University’s d.school, an institute built to nurture entrepreneurs and innovators by teaching methods of design and management. Simply put, UIF turns students into changemakers. Last year, Mahmoud Khedr, Chelsi Ampawa, and I took a training course built by some of the world’s greatest innovators and were eventually initiated as fellows. Recently, we attended a UIF Meetup in Silicon Valley where we worked with 300 other fellows from schools across the nation to master the changemakers’ toolkit. I had no idea how much it would change me…

So here’s the story. We were sponsored by the Zahn Innovation Center to represent our school as the first fellows from CCNY. During our training together, we developed a distinct identity shaped by the struggle most CCNY students face. It’s difficult for us to get the most of our education when the University system is underfunded, when our peers don’t spend time on campus because classes are sandwiched between work and commuting, and when the entrepreneurial ecosystem is limited. Combine those struggles with food insecurity, student homelessness, and low retention rates, and you’ve got our struggle.

We were inspired to start a movement at CCNY that might address these issues. Yet, the more research we did, the more impossible our mission seemed. Would this trip to California give us the clarity and motivation we needed?

The most beautiful thing that happened that week was realizing just how wrong and naïve we were. We would come back to New York City almost enlightened with a new set of ideals we could use to tackle practically any problem in the world. It’s difficult to summarize everything we learned, so here are our main takeaways…

1.) Innovation isn’t an event, it’s a process.

In the entrepreneurial space, you find many buzzwords, like “innovation.” Many people have interpretations of what the word “innovation” really means, but it’s all pretty redundant. Innovation cannot be defined because it is completely reliant on HOW you innovate.

On the first day of the meetup, we went to Google HQ in Mountain View, CA. We were greeted by the founders of the UIF program as well as Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist (cool title, right?), Frederick G. Pferdt. 300 of us poured out of our busses and were greeted by a roaring applause from UIF and Google staff. The slew of high fives and cheers led us into a room where tables were whiteboards and there must have been a thousand markers, stickers, legos and pens scattered around the room. We opened with a giant rock paper scissors tournament, then started to engage in activities that made us closer to the people at our tables. We drew spaceships together, created new board games, and even shared our biggest fears. Our facilitators offered riveting and empowering talks, and we were treated with a deep panel discussion led by Google employees.

Every element of our day contributed to innovation. Our day, WAS innovation. The team building, mindfulness, creative juices, and general elation we all felt heavily contributed to our ability to create. Innovation is the combination of different engagements that activate human connection and individual creativity. The process of sharing our biggest fears with our teammates made us feel more connected to each other. It was easier for us to get along and collaborate when we felt comfortable and safe around each other. The speakers made us think and reflect. We would take mindfulness breaks to focus on our own individual potential.

The combination of private and public creativity is how Google taught us to innovate. There is no one “eureka” moment when you’re trying to create something huge. Throughout the process of innovation, we reflect on where we are and how far we have come. The process can take as long as it needs. The best part is, whether your project is a failure or a success, in the end, it doesn’t matter. You created something from nothing and were along for the ride. That will always be valuable.

2.) Happy people change the world.

It probably sounds simple. That’s because it is.

We spend a lot of time learning technical and applicable things. We focus heavily on the people around us, but what about ourselves? A primary focus of our trip was focusing on our internal peace. What I genuinely enjoyed was its incorporation into our work.

Including moments for emotional growth and healing in the workspace makes the experience much more inclusive, leading to amazing things. Achieving happiness doesn’t have to take place solely at home. If we design our management styles around embracing our teammates’ flaws rather than subsidizing them to personal growth, we create something beautiful and productive.

3.) Diversity is inviting someone to the party. Inclusion is asking them to dance.

People thrive from diversity. Your group of friends is probably a great example. Any successful person wants to surround themselves with multifaceted people. As we choose the groups we immerse ourselves in, we must focus on variety, which is the catalyst of social learning.

However, it’s more than just diversity. What about inclusion? If someone isn’t an expert in something, or isn’t familiar with a subject, the answer shouldn’t be to leave them out of the decision making process. Including this individual in the process is a powerful tool in manufacturing a creative and effective plan.

We are naturally inclined to work together. Every aspect of your project should include every person on your team. Building something beautiful, starts with as many opinions and criticisms as possible.

Just like inclusiveness builds a strong team, it builds a strong sense of pride. Including the struggles and pains of everyone around you creates almost a collective human resilience. This trip has taught me that we are all a part of something such larger than ourselves.

4.) Focus on the user, and all else will follow

It begins with empathy.

University Innovation Fellows are trained to apply the design thinking process to every problem. It’s all about the problem, and less about the solution. Humera Fasihuddin, Co-Founder of UIF, teaches: “If you have 1 hour to work on a project, spend 50 minutes on the problem, and 10 minutes on the solution.” The first step in the process is to empathize with the person you’re designing the solution for. There’s no point in creating something if there is no need for it.

Throughout the week, we learned to divert most of our energy into learning about what the world’s missing. Whatever you produce is completely reliant on your user. Start with empathy. Identify the need, and success will follow.

5.) We manufacture our own luck.

Perhaps the most important part of a person’s happiness is their ability to give themselves credit. By far, my biggest lesson learned was that luck is what we use to downplay our own accomplishments. You need to know that you are where you are today because you’re worth it, you’re valuable, you’re an accomplished individual. It’s almost insulting to believe that you got where you are today by sheer luck. We are products of our failures, but we are also products of our own successes.

I want to give you credit for reading this blog. I want you to know that we are all capable of building great things. A poor self-image, not believing in ourselves, doubt, they’re all roadblocks.

Like me, you have to believe that you are a superhero for change. Wear your cape.