Dean Linda Oubre discusses innovation in business, education

Linda Oubre, who became dean of the College of Business in July, says her priorities include expanding the College's connections with the business community, attracting more students and raising revenue. How to reach those goals? Innovation is central, she says. Oubre explains more in the Q&A below.

Dean of the College of Business Linda Oubre

Dean of the College of Business Linda Oubre

Q: Innovation has been a key part of your message since you became dean. What does innovation mean to you?

A: We need to teach our students how to think differently and how to solve business problems in creative ways. To be successful in business, they need to be prepared to find new revenue sources, new ways of solving problems and new ways of doing things that will add value to their organization.

Q: Is it possible to institutionalize innovation?

A: You can create an environment where it is OK to try new things and OK to fail. When I teach leadership I use the example of Michael Eisner, the CEO I worked under at the Walt Disney Company in the late '80s. At that time we were launching so many businesses all at once and Michael used to tell us, "We are going to fail at half but we have to try." That's really important.

Q: How do you teach innovation?

A: We already do a great job teaching innovation but the nature of innovation is that it's always changing. Bringing the latest thinking into the classroom is important. Because of where we are located, our faculty has great connections in the business world. When a faculty member is talking to students about social media, it's likely they were just in a meeting yesterday with someone from Facebook or Twitter.

Our students get face-to-face time with organizations through events like Business Ethics Week, when businesses come to campus to discuss sustainability or by working on team projects in classes. For example, Ian Sinapuelas from the Marketing Department organizes a class where students come up with a marketing solution for Target. Leaders from Target come to the class and Target always ends up hiring a number of our students onto their management training program.

Q: One of the College's flagship degrees is the MBA. What makes our MBA program stand out?

A: The fact that we have a great location and such great faculty. The Downtown Campus is right where professionals are and that makes it very convenient. We are great academically, and the faculty is excellent, both in terms of breadth and depth. We have a large number of faculty (some of the other programs in the Bay Area have a much smaller faculty) and they are very entrepreneurial, very innovative and they are passionate about teaching. We also have a strong emphasis on sustainability. We've opened a new Center for Ethnical and Sustainable Business, and we teach sustainability across all areas of the curriculum.

Q: You've spent 30 years as a successful entrepreneur and been involved in the start-up of more than 30 new business ventures. What lessons has that taught you about innovation?

A: First, the importance of culture. The businesses I've been part of have all succeeded or failed because of the people. The people represent culture. You have to make sure that the people who interact with your customers are happy, have the right tools and see themselves as leaders.

Second, to be innovative you have to think creatively. I was a financial analyst at the Los Angeles Times when they were deciding whether to build a half-a-billion dollar newspaper plant in the early '90s. When I asked people in the advertising team how much additional advertising we would get if we could print more color pages, they said it was too difficult to estimate. So I turned the question around and asked, "If we can't offer color ads to those movie studios in our backyard, how much would we lose?" It was finance but it was creative. The people who succeed in business are not just those who can add two plus two and get four, it's those who can ask "But what if there were three?" or "What if there were five?" As a business school, we need to bring out the artist in people.

Diversity is also really important. A lot of research says that the more diversity you have in an organization the more innovative a company will be. Because of the kind of students we attract at SF State, our students are used to being around a lot of different types of people. This diversity changes the conversation in the classroom, for example when you are talking about a business case and a student says "Well I'm from China and this is how we do it there." It helps our students develop a different world view and gives them strong interpersonal skills.

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SF State's College of Business confers approximately 1,200 undergraduate degrees and 225 graduate degrees each year. The College offers MBA programs, including an MBA with an emphasis in sustainable business, an MBA with study at the University of Nice, France, and an Executive MBA. In addition, it offers master's degrees in accountancy and economics.

Apply by Oct. 1 for spring 2013 admittance to the MBA program. For more information about applying, visit http://cob.sfsu.edu/graduate-programs/mba-admissions

The MBA program has been named one of the best in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Business Times, was ranked 13th in the nation by the Aspen Institute's Beyond Grey Pinstripes survey, and is the CSU's first MBA with an emphasis in sustainable business.

Learn more about the College of Business at: http://cob.sfsu.edu/

Read more about Dean Linda Oubre at: http://www.sfsu.edu/~news/prsrelea/fy12/037.html

--Elaine Bible