'An Infrastructure of Innovation'
Entrepreneurial spirit soars in the Bellisario College
It begins, as so many things do, with a story.
The story grows. More people get involved in telling it, in showing it, in amplifying it. In using the story to make connections, build bridges, bring groups together. Along the way, thoughts turn into actions, ideas into businesses, ambitions into careers.
Slowly, the story’s journey morphs. The people carrying it do things differently, try new approaches, fail and try again. Young people with dreams of success climb aboard — and, in the best cases, steer the story to victory, using the tools that they accumulate along the way.
The Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State is, at its heart, a story factory — a place where the different permutations of storytelling are used to understand the world, bring people together and power new things.
But with each passing year — and particularly in a year that saw the debut of the Bellisario Media Center that is changing everything — the words “build” and “new” just keep evolving. And so do the ways that stories resonate, and the ways they can help students succeed.
This is the Bellisario College at this moment in history: more than a year out of the worst of the pandemic, still re-emerging with velocity and big plans, running toward the new.
Entrepreneurialism. Stick-to-it-iveness. Something that one staff member calls “an infrastructure of innovation.” A building of dreams and possibilities to bring it all together. And infusing it all: an interdisciplinary spirit that, when very different things collide in productive ways, can produce the best of results.
All the elements, all in one college. All to make the discipline of communications — an interdisciplinary discipline if there ever was one — the most welcoming it can be for the students who will navigate where in the world it goes next.
In these jumbled, fast-changing days, innovation is an easy buzzword. Almost anything can fit under its banner if you stretch the word enough. But to actually innovate effectively, you have to blend two key ingredients — the willingness and ability to think different, and a steely commitment to the concrete outputs that thinking different can produce.
At this intersection of the theoretical and the concrete stands the Bellisario College’s dean, Marie Hardin, utterly certain that magic can be made — is being made. The crucial seasoning, she says, is to teach students to think like entrepreneurs — and to give them the support and skills to turn their fascinating dreams into even more fascinating realities.
“You can’t have successful entrepreneurship without innovation, but you can have successful innovation without enterpreneurship,” Hardin says. “So we encourage them to take the next step — to think like an entrepreneur. How do you take this concept and move it to tangible reality, and make it a process or a product that has the potential to be sustainable — and to get someone to pay for it?”
This is an area that Anne Hoag knows intimately. The associate professor of telecommunications and media industries heads the University's Intercollege Minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. She has been deeply involved in the mix of communications and entrepreneurship at the University for most of the 21st century, and the media entrepreneurship class she created in 2003 may well have been the first such class ever taught in a communications college.
“There are so many people in our college who are innovators or entrepreneurs or both in some form or fashion,” Hoag says in a Zoom interview from Botswana, where she spent a chunk of the summer on a Fulbright. “I like to remind people that the real entrepreneurs are solving problems.”
Hoag has a loose collection of things necessary for entrepreneurial innovation. Among them:
- Unlearn what the media has typically taught society about entrepreneurs. Someone like Elon Musk, Hoag says, is not the main example of the breed. More likely, it's a woman or a person of color. But "the media does not portray them that way," so many people who don't think they fit the "mold" might be dissuaded.
- Show a bias toward action. "You may have come up with a good idea for something, but what did you do about it? Did you put on a show in the barn?" One of the key goals in teaching entrepreneurship to Bellisario College students, Hoag says, is to show them that they have real agency — and thus can start down the path toward being entrepreneurs.
- Stick with it. "Grit and perseverance," she prescribes. "Problems are not easy to solve, and you can't give up. And if you give up, you're not an entrepreneur.”
- Be realistic and don't expect to be swept up by a grand narrative. “Most of the students who take our classes are not going to attract an angel investor and move their way up the funding funnel to big VC money and exit with an IPO. That’s unlikely to happen," Hoag says. “It’s more likely entrepreneurs whose money came later.”
- Finally, make something useful and new with what is at hand. This notion of “bricolage" — creating things from what happens to be available, in a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention way — is one key place where innovation and entrepreneurship meet. “People say, `I’m not an entrepreneur,’" Hoag says. “I say, 'Tell me the last time you made something from nothing.’ Even if it’s cooking something. It’s problem-solving. And then they can see that they’re innovators.”
Hoag sees entrepreneurial innovation taking center stage in the Bellisario College as never before. There used to be “lone rangers out there talking about entrepreneurship and innovations,” she says. Now, 87,000 undergraduates around the Penn State system have access to entrepreneurship education thanks to three key things — an independence from college and department structures, centralized funding and an array of faculty champions in many colleges. Together, those principles work wonders.
That ethos of aggregation — determine the things that work, bring them together and provide the resources needed — permeates today’s communications curriculum at Penn State. Not incidentally, it maps to the realities of the “real world landscape,” too. Hoag, for example, sees one of her aims as preparing her students for the gig economy — a place where so many of the skills taught in the Bellisario College are pivotal.
“What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?” Hoag asks. “That my students don’t have to go work for The Man. Let me give them the skill, knowledge and values to go out there and find opportunities and act on them and be persistent.”
“CommAgency allows students across the Bellisario College to give it a shot, see whether it’s a good fit. Mistakes are going to happen. I welcome them. Let’s learn from them. But you don’t need to worry about getting fired because you forgot batteries for the camera.”Catie Grant, CommAgency director
Innovation in Action
In January 2017, when CommAgency launched within the Bellisario College as a student-run outfit dedicated to providing communications services to University clients, it had about a dozen students dedicated to video production.
Now, 5½ years later, it is a flourishing operation with more than 50 student staffers and up to 20 clients per semester — contracting for everything from video and photo services to web streaming services to social media strategy to graphic design. Also on tap: the possible addition of a writer and project managers.
And this big piece of progress: In January, the agency held a soft launch to do work for some groups outside the University community — nonprofits and student startups who might not have the resources to enlist a larger agency.
“Let’s take what you’re learning in the classroom and add more stakes to it. These are real clients. But you have to learn time management and there are other things you have to juggle,” says Catie Grant, CommAgency’s director. She says the approach with students is one of low stakes and high yield, but with a responsibility to the client that simulates — no, mirrors — the full-on working world.
“CommAgency allows students across the Bellisario College to give it a shot, see whether it’s a good fit,” Grant says. “Mistakes are going to happen. I welcome them. Let’s learn from them. But you don’t need to worry about getting fired because you forgot batteries for the camera.”
These days, this ethos increasingly permeates both the college and, beyond it, the university writ large. It’s the notion of having your major but also being encircled by opportunities that exist outside the classroom, both those offered in a structured way and those students create themselves using the tools available to them.
Imagine you’re a Bellisario College student today, taking classes in public relations or telecommunications or journalism or any other major. You want to innovate, but you’re just learning how — and you’re not in a position where you can marshal the tools of innovation and entrepreneurship on your own. You know that telling stories — in one form or another, to one end or another — is your goal.
Imagine, then, if what’s around you is a theme park of stretch opportunities like CommAgency — a Magic Kingdom of communications with the media center, smack in the middle, as its castle. It is, Grant allows, “an infrastructure of innovation.”
These are just a few of the things percolating in the Bellisario College when it comes to the robust encouragement of entrepreneurship and innovation.
- Shaheen Pasha, an assistant teaching professor of journalism, co-founded the Prison Journalism Project, a nonprofit that trains incarcerated people in journalism skills to give them voices and —as the organization puts it — bring "transparency to the world of mass incarceration from the inside.” Among its projects aimed at centering those in prison: a series called “What is it like to be you?”
- Maura Shea and Rod Bingaman, who teach in film production and media studies, have been working with students to make feature-length films for 25 years. Shea’s advice to students: "School is a job. And to succeed in a job, you have to show initiative.”
- The COMM 361 Entrepreneurial Journalism class taught by Hoag unites the principles of journalism and business, and helps students come to understand what needs to be done to succeed in a global journalism landscape that has changed almost beyond imagination in a single generation.
- Sascha Meinrath, the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications, has worked with folks from across the University and the state, uniting CIOs from various institutions with the aim of bringing broadband to underserved parts of Pennsylvania — not only rural areas but parts of cities such as Philadelphia without good access.
- New to the journalism program is prominent journalist Maggie Messitt, its first-ever editorial director. Messitt, who led the growth of the Report for America initiative, will coordinate coverage across the Department of Journalism and will build a team of student interns to begin covering issues. She'll also be working on strategies to address Pennsylvania's news deserts and doing a set of workshops for skills-building, such as how to chase documents and how to improve camerawork, according to John Affleck, head of the department.
“Basically, I want the journalists while they’re at Penn State to create journalism that matters, that’s beyond classroom exercise while they’re here, And I want them to be primed to do things that matter even more once they leave Penn State,” says Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society. He’s referring to journalism, but his words fit across the Bellisario College in so many ways. Particularly these:
“I want them to be able to do all that in a variety of ways that can only be described as wherever their imagination takes them. How the story is told isn’t that important to me as long as it connects to the consumer. And I want us to do it at the highest level we possibly can.”
Across many disciplines
When you think of a communications curriculum, the first thing that comes to mind is probably not the words “autonomous vehicles.” And yet the Bellisario College is smack at the middle of the conversation about vehicles that run on their own. How did this happen?
It has much to do with David Norloff. The assistant teaching professor of tellecommunications and media industries (and, not incidentally, last year’s faculty co-chair for the University’s Startup Week) teaches a class called Wireless Devices and Global Markets. He has always talked about connected cars and autonomous vehicles — and, lately, the role of 5G technology in it all.
So after Startup Week 2021, he reached out to colleagues across the University to see if they’d be interested in forming a consortium around autonomous vehicles and sharing knowledge and projects. Thirty-three people came forward from four colleges — business, communications, engineering, and information sciences and technology. Work groups emerged dealing with transportation, risk management, technology management and IT.
Norloff is particularly interested in how media works inside a vehicle — “if,” he says, “it’s going to be the next living room.”
“I don’t think people are considering the media implications in vehicles right now,” Norloff says. “There’s so much to be learned and studied. … I see the world through the lens of products and technology that have led us to this path where we can innovate much better than we could previously. And the risk of failure is much lower.”
Norloff has been involved in Penn State’s Startup Week since its early days, representing the Bellisario College. The college’s deep involvement in Startup Week is, Norloff says, a natural, given how many startup possibilities spring from its many areas of study. There’s media (“Look no further than Netflix or TikTok”), telecom (“As 5G continues its rollout, that’s pivotal for applications you’re bringing to the market”) and advertising/public relations (“Have you leveraged these social media channels to bring people to your product?”), among others.
Behind the principle of Startup Week is something fundamental to the Bellisario College’s thinking these days — the notion that one curriculum, one department, even one college isn’t enough. That the world overlaps so much, and there’s so much to be learned outside a single specific discipline.
“We are seeing more and more that the challenges that need to be solved today don’t fit into a specific academic college. … It requires a multidisciplinary approach,” Norloff says. “When I think about my colleagues, both in my department and outside my department, they’re some of the most collaborative people that I know. That’s one of the biggest strengths of Bellisario is the ability to work collaboratively both inside and outside the college.”
And inside the college, support for that notion is causing students to reach beyond what their counterparts of 30, 20, even 10 years ago might have — and become not only innovators but entrepreneurs, at least to some extent.
“College is a giant experiment in adaptation,” says Jeff Ballou (‘90 Journ), a former National Press Club president who works for al-Jazeera.
“There is this recognition that today’s (communications) graduate has to be multiskilled,” Ballou says. “He or she really needs to have the technical savvy and interdisciplinary convergence. … You have to have a grounding in a specific knowledge subject — business, science, international politics, diplomacy, a foreign language, a study abroad experience and pulling from one of the other colleges. You have to have something that’s going to make you stand out and make you at least the beginnings of an expert at something.”
That means outreach. It means coalition-building. It means realizing that someone who has what you need or knows what you need to know may be elsewhere. Most of all, it means — no surprise — communication.
Hardin loves what’s going on and watches with enthusiasm as projects beget collaborations and collaborations beget consortiums. After all, communications lies at the heart of just about every successful endeavor, and the skills and abilities of a college dedicated to communications are arguably more pivotal than ever.
“We’ve seen a real move at the university toward interdisciplinary problem-solving — the understanding that the greatest discoveries, the greatest innovation, the place where new knowledge is being created is not in the disciplines but it’s at the intersection of the disciplines,” she says.
Even when what’s passing through that intersection is an autonomous vehicle. Says the dean: “Who would have thought it would involve a faculty member from the Bellisario College of Communications bringing people together to make that happen?”
Innovate through both success and failure
Dean Marie Hardin, who oversees many and varied successes, gets passionate while talking about failure, too. To be specific, she’s talking about TALKING ABOUT failure. In an environment of innovation, she says, it’s vital to develop the muscles for that kind of conversation. It lies at the heart of efforts to push forward.
One key principle of design thinking — a way to make development of just about anything more humanistic and aimed at its users — is that you fail fast or, as some people put it, fail forward. The bottom line: If you don’t mess up or fall and skin your knee along the way, odds are you’re not really innovating. That is becoming a core principle.
“You need to have an environment where the faculty understand that in innovation, failure is OK. If the faculty positions failure as part of innovation, it gives students tools to understand it that way.”Dean Marie Hardin
“It’s in how we talk about failure in the college and how our faculty talk about failure,” Hardin says. “You need to have an environment where the faculty understand that in innovation, failure is OK. If the faculty positions failure as part of innovation, it gives students tools to understand it that way.”
So at the Bellisario College these days, the paths to success are varied and textured and even involve not succeeding — at least at first. But the spirit of innovation is around every corner. Conversations that would not have happened 10 years ago are happening now. People who might not have met are sitting down — in person or virtually — and building things that, separately, they might never have conceived.
In a landscape that has upended virtually all media and the industries behind it, students are receiving the tools — actual and intellectual — to think their way out of problems and push their way forward in all aspects of the storytelling factory. And straight ahead lies, like never before, the potential for success. “There’s nothing preventing any group of students from launching the next TikTok,” Norloff says.
Stephen King once wrote that “it is the tale, not he who tells it.” But the master storyteller got this one wrong. Look across the Bellisario landscape. From autonomous vehicles to broadband initiatives, from prison journalism projects to media entrepreneurship training to creating targeted content for those who need it, the tales are being conceived and built and told in unique and unexpected ways. And they’re propelling students and faculty forward, helping them navigate a confusing world in which stories matter more than ever but take more forms than ever, too.
The story is important. But without the storyteller, it doesn’t exist. And for storytellers to punch through the static of an information-overloaded planet, they need more than the stories. They need everything that wraps around the discipline. They need to understand stories as ingredients and stories as endpoints.
“Creativity is a skill and it is a craft. This notion that great creativity comes naturally, I’m not convinced of that,” Hardin says. “Not all students come to us with well-honed creative skills. They need our help and our guidance understanding what creativity means and how to practice it, in whatever form they wish to practice it in.”
“It’s a muscle,” she says. “And muscles need to be worked."
Most of all, students need the keys to doors that don’t yet exist. And in classrooms and labs and initiatives across the College, with an innovative spirit and an entrepreneurial mindset, those keys are being forged.
“People are in the mindset of 'Hey, let’s try this. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,’” Catie Grant says. “That’s much better than being afraid.”