Cura Personalis: Gerard Athaide, Ph.D.

By D.R. Belz, '78  |  Photograph by David Rehor

Gerard Athaide, Ph.D., is a professor of marketing in Loyola’s Joseph A. Sellinger, S.J., School of Business and Management. He received his Ph.D. and MBA in Marketing from Syracuse University. He specializes in new product development and innovation management with an emphasis on the commercialization of technology-based innovations.

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YOU TEACH INNOVATION, BUT ISN’T IT A CHALLENGE TO GET GRADE-CAUTIOUS UNDERGRADUATES TO THINK CREATIVELY?

More than “teaching” innovation, my approach is to guide them toward being innovative. That means taking any product, process, or management practice and thinking through how to do it cheaper, better, faster. It’s the philosophy that whatever you see around you can be improved. But, as added incentive, students are evaluated on whether the innovations they come up with are what I call “new and different.” These evaluations are actually conducted by industry experts—new product managers from local companies. One of the criteria they use is: “To what extent is this idea new and different as opposed to just new and better?”

HOW DOES USING A “HANDS-ON,” EXPERIENTIAL APPROACH HELP STUDENTS BECOME BETTER BUSINESS LEADERS?

I begin by providing simple examples of how innovation starts. Reed Hastings started Netflix because he was frustrated with a $40 fine at Blockbuster. James Dyson developed vacuums that use balls to maneuver because he was frustrated that other vacuums didn’t corner well. With these examples in mind, students start the process by listing everything that frustrates them. I call these their “bug lists.” Once students can articulate what bugs them, developing innovative solutions to these frustrations is a pretty natural process. This helps them learn to create environments that encourage everyone’s creativity: Explore, experiment, and even foul up once in a while. Then the question becomes “How do you learn from foul-ups?” Too often, innovation gets stifled because the focus is on blame rather than on learning.

IN HIS BOOK HEROIC LEADERSHIP, CHRIS LOWNEY CALLS THE SOCIETY OF JESUS ONE OF THE MOST INNOVATIVE, AUDACIOUS, AND EFFECTIVE CORPORATIONS IN HISTORY. DO YOU AGREE?

I agree completely. St. Francis Xavier’s innovative work in India motivated the Jesuits to get involved in education. Today, the Cristo Rey system shows how that plays out by using a novel work-study program that allows students to finance their own education. Their innovativeness is also apparent in all facets of Ignatian spirituality—finding God in all things, serving others, using the examen for discernment, and so on. The innovative practicality of this approach is what makes it so appealing.

WE HEAR A LOT TODAY ABOUT HOW OVER-RELIANCE ON TECHNOLOGY DEHUMANIZES US. BUT HOW CAN TECHNOLOGY HELP RATHER THAN HINDER STUDENTS TO BECOME INSPIRED FUTURE BUSINESS LEADERS?

The technologies that facilitate social networking take advantage of the creativity and imagination of everyone—employees and customers alike. It’s what we call, in the world of innovation, open innovation. Open innovation invites your customers to share their creative talents with you. Starbucks, for example, has a website called “mystarbucksidea.force.com” that invites customers to share ideas in terms of new packaging, new flavors, and so on. These technologies will make it easier to take advantage of the creativity of a truly global marketplace.

WHAT’S THE NEXT “BIG THING” IN PRODUCT INNOVATION?

Innovations that focus on sustainability. In less developed countries, it will be economic sustainability. The example comes to mind of peanut butter you supplement with vitamins and calories and distribute in little foil packets to sustain life where malnutrition is an issue. In a country like ours, it’s moving toward environmental sustainability. So whether it’s cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells or car sharing—Zipcars, for example—sustainability of the planet is going to be very important.

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