Center for Innovation finalist outlines vision

Entrepreneurship programs head at Clark University (Worcester, Mass.) touts student training and community partnerships

Amy Whitney

During her visit to UND on Monday, Amy Whitney, the lone finalist to be the next director of the UND Center for Innovation, recognized the important role of mentoring programs, internships and experiential learning opportunities in creating a forward-looking educational environment. Photo by Tyler Ingham/UND Today.

Amy Whitney was given a single prompt for a 15-minute open forum presentation on why she should be the next director of the UND Center for Innovation:

If you were starting with a blank canvas, describe what you would create in terms of vision and programming for the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota to cultivate a campus wide, Grand Forks and state of North Dakota entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“It’s no small task!” Whitney laughed as UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo invited her to the Center’s Idea Lab stage Monday afternoon. “And in 15 minutes or less, right?”

Whitney, currently director of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Program at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., was the lone candidate from a pool of six that was invited to UND for further interviews.

Monday’s public forum was a chance for the campus community – as well as local business and regional development leaders – to ask some questions of the Center’s potential new director.

“[Whitney] had a lot of the qualities we were looking for in someone who could take the Center to the next level,” DiLorenzo said. “She’s the director of a program right now, she has skills in helping students to be more entrepreneurial, and she has shown good town-gown relationship building.”

Building innovators

Whitney told the forum crowd that her seven years with Clark University’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Program have given her experience in examining the landscape of innovation in higher education.

“It’s a very interesting landscape, and there are a lot of opportunities for synergy,” she said. “When thinking about how you can cultivate an entrepreneurial ecosystem, it’s important to understand what’s happening in the dynamics of that market.”

Whitney explained that today’s budding entrepreneurs – really, students in any discipline – must be equipped with “21st century skills” to make it in the age of innovation. Those skills include creative problem solving, the ability to deal with ambiguity and having a global mindset.

Once students are properly trained, the ecosystem begins to truly take hold.

“I enjoy working with students, and I also enjoy working with the business community. My doctoral research actually looks at the intersection of the two,” Whitney said. “I’m currently studying how you teach creative problem solving skills through entrepreneurship education, and what happens when we sent those students out into the marketplace.”

Whitney recognized the important role of mentoring programs, internships and experiential learning opportunities in creating a forward-looking educational environment.

She said she wanted to begin developing that environment at the Center by fostering a welcoming, vibrant, collaborative space; empowering students and entrepreneurs by giving them permission to try new things without fear of failure; and offering programming and resources to guide people through the entrepreneurial life cycle.

Amy Whitney

A crowd filled the Idea Lab in the UND Center for Innovation on Monday to listen to Whitney explain why she should be the next director of the center. Photo by Tyler Ingham/UND Today.

Community connections

Whitney spent a portion of her presentation discussing the importance of partnerships in developing an entrepreneurship ecosystem.

She pointed to possibilities in joining forces with small business development centers, other colleges and universities, local organizations, companies, chambers of commerce, the military and more.

“That’s what an ecosystem is,” she said. “It’s the communities coming together and saying, ‘These are the services that I have, and these are the services you have. Let’s map those, let’s look at those and let’s think about where those synergies are.’”

Some in the audience had questions about what those partnerships would look like.

Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation’s Brandon Baumbach – a board member with Evolve Grand Forks, a group that supports downtown’s coworking space, The 701 – asked Whitney what kind of relationship she could see growing between the Center and a community coworking space.

In Whitney’s role at Clark, she worked in collaboration with two Worcester coworking spaces, promoting an incubator program for college entrepreneurs.

“Part of [the UND Center’s] role could be being a conduit to bring people to the space, helping to generate traffic to the space and letting people know it’s a part of the ecosystem,” she added.

Moving forward

Center for Innovation Foundation trustee Phil Gisi, who has worked with the Center’s student-run Dakota Venture Group for more than six years, says a new director should embrace the Center’s recently revamped mission – equipping students and entrepreneurs to serve as leaders in action throughout the business community.

“We should have students from all UND colleges and schools be active within the Center for Innovation somehow, either through entrepreneurship or experiential learning opportunities,” Gisi said. “I think we can really expand on that. Because the Center for Innovation has to impact more students’ lives – that’s what it comes down to for me.”

And, as Whitney told UND Today following the forum, that’s what she plans to do if she is offered the chance to lead.

“I’m most excited to think about how the Center can be a place of opportunity for the students, for the faculty and the University, but also for the community here in Grand Forks,” she said. “I want to help create those synergies between them so that we can create a more vibrant Grand Forks and University.”