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The Business of Innovation

Alex Couture ’95 tells the same story to every new hire at Google, where he has worked since 2008:

“There was a scientific study where they put five monkeys in a room containing a ladder with a banana at the top. When one monkey goes to the ladder, all the other monkeys get blasted with water from a fire hose. Eventually, every time a monkey starts to go toward the ladder, the other monkeys beat him up to prevent themselves from getting blasted.

“Once all the monkeys stop going for the ladder, scientists turn the fire hose off. Then they take out the old monkeys, one at a time, and replace them with new ones. When the new monkeys go toward the ladder, the old monkeys beat them up, even though there is no fire hose. As more new monkeys are introduced and old ones removed, the cycle repeats itself until only new monkeys are in the room. If you could ask the monkeys why they don’t go toward the ladder, they wouldn’t know. They’d say, ‘That’s just the way we do things around here.’”

That attitude, Couture says, is exactly what Google doesn’t want from its employees. In fact, Couture’s formal job assessments are based on factors that include challenging the norm. “When I hire someone new who knows nothing about how Google operates, that’s the person I want to talk to,” he says, “because they haven’t been jaded by the way things have always been done.”

Another College of Business Administration (COBA) graduate, Michael Ziggy Giles MBA ’13, co-founder and art director of Blacknight Studios in Wakefield, is also questioning the norm. In fact, Giles was drawn to the new MBA program in strategic innovation precisely because of its unique, interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. “All of the fields required for aspiring business professionals (marketing, accounting, management, supply chain, finance, technology) are woven into projects and assignments so that they begin to blend into your daily life and thought process,” he explains. “When you’re approaching problems in the work place, this is the type of mindset you need. It takes knowledge in each of these disciplines to solve the problems that every business will ultimately face.”

Couture notes that while specific classes he took are not part of his work today, “all of them taught me how to learn and how to prioritize what is and isn’t critical. I learned how to apply theory and execute a vision. I stand toe to toe with Stanford, Harvard, MIT alums every day at Google. URI taught me how to think on my feet.”

Couture and Giles are two examples of today’s incredibly successful generation of COBA graduates. At 90, COBA has come into its own. A culture of innovation and risk-taking, the ability to anticipate future trends, and the consistent leadership of its deans and advisory board all contribute to COBA’s strong position on campus and beyond.

“I believe in students ‘learning to learn,’ ” says Kathryn Jervis ’87, award-winning associate professor of accounting and information science. “We focus on strategies to solve problems and access research resources, so that they can manage changes in the discipline of accounting, or actually any discipline, that will occur over their careers. To me, it’s not simply content. Instead, it’s learning to manage change, to develop new knowledge on your own, to clearly communicate.” Also a respected healthcare researcher, she chairs a committee for graduate healthcare management education.

Jervis is the first woman to hold the chair named for Richard Vangermeersch ’64, a much-lauded professor who, over 34 years, launched generations of accountants from URI. She says that mentoring has been a critical component to COBA’s approach. “Richard was an excellent mentor to me when I was an undergraduate, encouraging me to get my Ph.D.,” she recounts. “Now, I can give back as a mentor to my students.” Faculty advisor to the Women in Business club, she also chaired the COBA Diversity Committee, and helped a student team with a presentation that won first place this winter at the National Association of Black Accountants Inc., (NABA) 29th Annual Minority Business Conference.

Success Counts

A URI team won first place at the NABA 29th Annual Minority Business Conference last fall for a business plan proposal for a Boston hospital, and in February, they were honored by state legislators in an event at the Statehouse.

Left to right: Rep. Donald J. Lally Jr. ’77, South Kingstown-Narragansett, who sponsored a resolution in the students’ honor, along with Providence Rep. Joseph S. Almeida, and Kwami Moreno ’16, team captain Kelechi Agwunobi ’16, URI NABA Chapter President Jose Perales ’16, Kenny Adefiyiju ’14, and Raven Sannon ’15.

Alumni are on board. Brendan McCorry ’92, a partner at Ernst & Young, has worked closely with Professor Chet Hickox ’84 on minority recruitment and mentoring [Diversity: A Win-Win for Students and Enterprise]. The company’s program, Launch Internship, “is targeted at students early in their college careers,” McCorry says. “Historically, students did not have contact with the firm until they interviewed as juniors or seniors. At Ernst & Young, we believe that when we begin to develop a relationship with students early, they enjoy the best chance of a full-time job offer.”

What’s next for COBA? While the milestones at COBA’s Kingston campus are noteworthy, COBA advisory council member and Pricewaterhouse-Coopers partner Michael Morrow ’77, believes the college’s off-campus programs are helping to transform COBA and enhance its reputation.

“Within the last five to 10 years, COBA really became ferocious in its appetite for engaging in the marketplace and got involved in distributed learning—taking classes to companies like GE and IBM,” Morrow says.

The classes and programs have proven to be popular, and COBA recently expanded its reach to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer (a part-time MBA program) and Taco, America’s leader in heating and cooling systems for residential and commercial building applications.

Another advisory council member, Fred Newton ’78, senior vice president and senior human resources officer, Apollo Education Group, wants COBA to embrace learning management platforms.

“Don’t rush to be online, but the right mix of modality will give COBA a lot of flexibility. As an example, COBA could bring its classroom to [renowned Harvard Professor] Clay Christensen,” he suggests. Christensen was named the World’s Most Influential Business Management Thinker in 2011.

While Newton wants technology to break down barriers between COBA and the outside world, there’s also a push to break down the walls separating URI’s colleges. “A COBA education should be less about space and more about the beauty of ideas,” Newton says. “There are great things happening throughout the University, so let’s create more joint programs. I can see a joint finance and medicine program as a possibility.”

COBA—especially its doctoral program—is playing a key role in Rhode Island’s comeback from the Great Recession. “As the only university in the state with a doctoral program in business, our faculty members examine cutting-edge issues in their fields of study,” says Dean Mark Higgins. “In the accounting department, we have 10 faculty members who are certified public accountants. Some of these faculty engage in tax policy research while others examine issues in strategic budgeting. Our supply chain faculty has significant experience in both process and port management, an important factor in Rhode Island’s economy, and two of these faculty are Six Sigma Black Belts. Our marketing faculty has expertise in branding, consumer behavior and market research, while our management professors have studied job performance, workplace bullying, and the impact of furloughs on employee well-being. Finance professors are involved in neuroeconomics—an interdisciplinary field that examines why people make financial decisions as well as international and domestic capital markets. This and all the other research being conducted in the College can help us better understand how Rhode Island can recover from the financial crisis.”

Sometimes, though, it simply comes down to the kind of connections that a school earns after 90 years in business. Case in point: Couture believes that he owes not only his professional success to his URI experience, but also his position at Google.

During the renovation of Ballentine Hall, COBA Coordinator of Communications Michaela Mooney ’87 phoned Couture and offered to buy him a cup of coffee. Couture had known Mooney during his undergraduate years and was happy to reconnect. Fifteen minutes into their coffee date, Couture had pledged a significant gift to the renovation campaign. As a major donor, Couture attended an event in New York featuring Tom Ryan ’75, retired chairman and CEO of CVS Caremark, and Mike Fascitelli ’78, former CEO of Vornado Realty Trust, as speakers. At that time, Couture worked for DoubleClick, which had just been purchased by Google. Ryan offered some sage advice to Couture at the reception afterward: “Tom told me I had two choices: adapt or leave. If you want to stay in your current culture, leave now, because you’re going to fail. But if you want to succeed, be flexible to change.”

It’s a philosophy Couture has lived by ever since, and he’s grateful for the chance series of URI connections that brought it to him. “If not for that cup of coffee, I never would have gotten that advice and would not be where I am today,” he says. “Years after graduation, URI had a major impact in a very unexpected way.”

It seems that, nonagerian status notwithstanding, COBA is doing anything but resting on its laurels. With 2024 right around the corner, continue to expect the unexpected.

—Melanie Coon and Maria Caliri ’86

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