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The makings of a triple threat talent pool: How universities are preparing the next generation of designers and C-suite execs

August 24, 2021, 11:30 AM UTC

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Vanessa Cho, design partner at GV (Google Ventures) in San Francisco, jokes that she chose to study at Brown University for the simple fact that she was off the hook for a biology credit. In truth, while at the time she didn’t realize it, she chose the school she did because it allowed her to somewhat chart her own path with coursework she was curious about: art, art history, engineering, and computer science. “I was trying to shape the field I was going into; I just didn’t know it,” says Cho, who earned a degree at Brown and also attended Rhode Island School of Design.

In her role today at GV, Cho builds products for all sorts of businesses and has helped start and grow design teams across a wide range of industries from cloud-based software to hardware to e-commerce. She’s spent years in product design and research and is keenly aware that the number of design jobs available outnumber the candidates ready to fill them. “In years past, design openings were available anywhere from one to three months before a candidate was identified,” says Cho. “Now the hunt is six to 12 months. In the last 18 months there’s been a huge rise in design recruiters. We’re seeing a strong desire to hire designers.”

New York University’s Andre Koo Tech MBA is one of a handful of young programs aiming to help address that call. It offers a cross-disciplined approach to business, technology, and design education in an accelerated, 12-month program. Students there participate in classes on entrepreneurship, storytelling, product management, design thinking and more. In a summerlong immersion to kick off the program, they have access to weekly speakers from the likes of Deloitte Digital, JP Morgan Chase, Uber, and Union Square Ventures and then participate in design-minded, hands-on workshops to solve problems facing companies today. (In one such project, the Koo Tech students worked with Verizon’s 5G Labs to dream up new business ideas built on a 5G platform and bring them to life.)

While still an MBA program, the Koo Tech curriculum is a progression on entrepreneurship, innovation, and problem solving that aims to address the infusion of technology and design in the fabric of how businesses operate today. It’s a sign validating Cho’s affirmation that the talent pool is shifting, and that companies’ needs are, too. The academic shift can be seen across a myriad of schools and universities: Harvard Business School, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, University of Southern California, Sloan School of Management at MIT, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Rhode Island School of Design, Savannah College of Art and Design and so many others have all launched coursework, if not cohort programs, in recent years that link core business know-how to the design process. And, while still not the bread and butter of what these schools do, the notion that grads will need to navigate their careers with both the tools and communication skills to leverage the power of design and innovation is not just accepted, but expected.

JP Eggers launched the NYU curriculum just five years ago with 32 students. This fall the program will be 50 strong, with expected growth in years to come. “The goal of this program is to develop people that sit at the intersection of business and technology,” says Eggers. “One reason we built it, is that every year five more companies we work with come back and say we’re a tech company instead of a finance or media company. Technology isn’t an industry. Technology is a function and aspect of business and it stands across every single organization. The link between the entrepreneurial idea and the implementation of tech, that common language, is design.”

The space between this program and the traditional MBA NYU offers at Stern School of Business is constantly evolving. “We started this program targeting the business/technology overlap, very traditionally,” he says. “There is an increasing emphasis on entrepreneurship and a design-thinking skillset because that is what companies are looking for: The ability to think big. Business schools have always taught innovation from a process perspective, but where do these ideas come from? That’s the piece that has been missing.” Design-thinking education is about where that answer lands, says Peter Aeschbacher, who teaches landscape architecture and architecture at Penn State University’s H. Campbell and Eleanor R. Stuckeman School. “Design thinking has helped people who think linearly, think broadly,” he says. “It helps people think not just problem, solution. It makes reframing a critical skill, creating space for opportunity.” 

Design thinking brings a level of comfort to the uncertainty faced when problem solving, says Aeschbacher, especially in engineering and business, where there is an  “absolutely critical need for things to succeed.” “I can take a step forward, explore an idea, not know where I’m going yet, but recognize when I get to something that will be successful, and also recognize that the process is being affected by all of these scales,” he says. “Technically, we don’t solve a problem; we just address it in the best possible way.”

For design students, that paradigm isn’t all too different. SCAD Pro is a department within Savannah College of Art and Design. It is an innovation lab that aims to prepare students for careers at some of the largest corporations across the globe through project work and direct interaction with industry leaders. Khoi Vo, Vice President for Industry Relations at SCAD, says the decade-old program works with firms such as HP, Ford, Coca-Cola and others. In a recent project with HP, students were asked to create a laptop for grade school aged children. In the discovery phase, says Vo, SCAD students spoke to teachers and students, observed classroom time, noted how and when the children interacted with technology, and examined what interested them. “At the midterm presentation, the students presented to HP and said, ‘Unfortunately the solution isn’t a computer,’” he says. “The whole point was that they came to us for a computer. But our research showed the children were interacting with tech in different ways. They played with building blocks.” The end result, says Vo, was a multi-faceted and multi-functional solution: a tablet that could interface with blocks that had interactive touch points and a software component.

The project, says Vo, is just one of many examples of how students are leveraging their design skills to chase a broader range of career paths, and, conversely, how companies are broadening their scope on candidates. “There’s been more of an acknowledgement that when you graduate from SCAD, you’re not just confined to the fine arts or your design discipline or profession,” says Vo. “Our graduates are going to work for companies like Capitol One, Bank of America, Deloitte. It’s a signal that the business world is accepting that there are different ways of approaching what is conventionally considered a business problem. We’re proud of that.” Yet, Vo acknowledges, there aren’t enough industry projects to meet student demand. Just 15 are selected each time to participate. (This fall, SCAD expects an enrollment of 15,000.)

Another cohort model lives at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. The Master’s Degree program in Integrated Design and Management (IDM), is an effort to blend, in a first-of-its-kind approach, engineering and business degrees under the business school’s umbrella. Faculty is made up of equal parts engineers, designers ,and business professors, while coursework lends itself to a studio setting ripe for interdisciplinary work and a human-centered design process. The program will welcome 30 students into its seventh cohort this fall and grew from a popular course Professor Steven Eppinger taught to engineering and business students at MIT on product design and development. One of the program’s goals, says Eppinger (who is now director of the IDM Master’s Program), is to showcase interdependence of all areas of business, design, and technology.  And then, how to communicate across disciplines within an organization. “It’s not just about assuming you’re smart enough to understand a problem,” says Eppinger. “It’s about going out and thinking about it, coming up with 10 or 20 approaches. These students get to deeply appreciate the idea that, ‘Even though we think we do product and service design well, why is that not complete? Or maybe I learned that from a marketing perspective. Why is each of those perspectives so incomplete?'”

For Cho’s part, while she’s enthusiastic to see movement in new curriculum, new programs, she’s also hoping to see it accelerate even more in the next five years: “One big trend is a desire for seamless, well-designed experiences. That is something that’s really been a big struggle as we talk in the design leadership group. How do we keep up with that?” The hope, Cho says, is that programs like these keep growing. Every year, Cho is part of an annual gathering of 10 to 15 top design executives. She says part of the conversation is about diversifying teams and communicating with schools and upcoming graduates. “That is a big topic,” says Cho. “How can we broaden and diversify the funnel? How can we be better liaisons? I’d love to see more of an interdisciplinary understanding. I’d love to see more of a technical understanding, as well as an ability to deliver on the business goals.” Cho doesn’t mean that MBAs should enroll in design school or that designers need MBAs to succeed. And, of course, neither need to train as engineers. Instead, she urges schools to blur the lines across disciplines and teach grads “a real way of working together, to mirror how we work now.”

As these programs grow from 60 to 600, so does the looming question: What’s next? Is the small, cohort-style program too precious and can it grow in the way Cho hopes? If it can, what does that mean for the traditional MBA curriculum? At MIT, Eppinger is part of a committee charged with “envisioning design education more broadly across the disciplines of engineering, architecture, and management,” and says he expects the program to evolve over the next several years, though isn’t yet sure what that will look like. For NYU’s Eggers, that question is slightly on the backburner and can be for a tiny bit longer. “The Dean of Stern and I have had conversations – what’s the fate of the tech MBA versus the traditional MBA?” says Eggers. “We have always viewed them as two separate things. As more consulting firms, CPG companies, and banks want to hire these graduates, how much do we play into that and continue to expand this? That’s going to be one of the key questions I think for the next five years. Or should it be that there’s another flavor of this built off of the same framework that we can grow and expand? The skill sets, for the most part, coming out of this program are ubiquitous. Everyone wants those skills and needs them. It’s a big question.”

Preparing the future of leadership isn’t only happening at universities, it’s happening at Fortune as well. Today we launched The Modern Board, a newsletter and vertical focused on the changing landscape of corporate leadership, and what current and incoming business leaders need to know to navigate new challenges. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Nicole Gull McElroy


Ultimate edit

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Innovation in Amsterdam

The world’s first 3D-printed steel bridge opened in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, weighing in at 4.9 tons. The structure, built by Dutch company MX3D, took four years to make. The bridge is the first of its kind and will serve as a living laboratory, outfitted with sensors monitored and tracked by researchers at Imperial College London. The data will be used to create a “twin” of the bridge and will ultimately help researchers understand how 3D printed steel behaves over long-term pedestrian use.


Online media and arts education

Smashcut, the online education platform, secured $7 million in series A funding from Pearson Ventures. The investment will support animation and gaming development courses at Pearson College London’s Escape Studios. Smashcut has previously worked with NYU Tisch School of the Arts to deliver coursework in filmmaking, screenwriting and branded storytelling.


Fashion forward

Browswear, a software company in the fashion industry with clients like Nike, Addidas, and Lululemon, completed a $35 million series A round of funding with New York-based Radian Capital. The company aims to use the investment to back its 3D printing technology aimed at reducing waste, decreasing time to market, and increased sustainability. Browswear creates software allowing clients to make digital renderings of designs (which came in extra handy amid a pandemic), and expects to double its size and triple its workforce across the world in the next two years.


Business by Design-Juicy Salif-Philippe Starck
Lemon squeezer ‘Juicy Salif', by Philippe Starck, an icon of industrial design, at Alessi stand in Ambiente 2015, Frankfurt, Germany, 15 February 2015.
Horacio Villalobos—Corbis/Getty Images

“The provocative object. We think of function as the thing the thing does. It looks like what a juice press should look like to do what it needs to do, but when you use it, it doesn’t work as well. Maybe it’s a social spark? It’s there in the kitchen so someone says my goodness what is that? It sparks conversation. The things around us should be our friends. We should have a relationship with them. The provocative exercise goal is to rethink function from what it typically does, and to make it into a device that reveals something about the world. When we see it, we learn something about ourselves or about the world.” - Peter Aeschbacher, professor of landscape architecture and architecture at Pennsylvania State University.

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