UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Alumni, school double-down on innovation


The relentless innovation that Dyson brought to vacuum cleaners and Walt Disney brought to entertainment — that’s what Jason Kilar (BSBA ‘93) is bringing to television. As CEO of online video behemoth Hulu, Kilar put his company’s innovative spirit on display for a large part of the world when he opted to run its first advertising spot — a risky ad featuring Alec Baldwin as an alien declaring that Hulu was planning to destroy the world — during the 2009 Super Bowl.

“From a creative standpoint, we did something that most people thought was insane,” Kilar said. “It just changed our business, and we literally grew 60 percent as a company as a result of that spot. To do it another way — the plain vanilla approach — we wouldn’t even consider that.”


The best businesses at their essence are humble and self-aware and know when they are missing something and need to double down on innovation, he said. “UNC Kenan-Flagler was very good at teaching that.”

During the hunkered-down survival-mode environment of the recent recession, many companies kept busy learning from the stress. As businesses cautiously emerge into a recovering economy, their innovative changes have made them as strong and flexible as tempered steel. Innovative programs at UNC Kenan-Flagler prepared many business executives to lead with a creative edge. Innovative programs such as MBA@UNC.

In his July Forbes.com article, Steve Cohen, author and former professor who’s been writing about education and college admissions for more than 25 years, distinguished MBA@UNC by claiming, “What Apple’s Mac did for the personal computer, the MBA@UNC is about to do for higher education.”  

After sitting in on UNC Kenan-Flagler’s online MBA offering for several weeks, Cohen declared MBA@UNC as unlike any online educational experience he’d experienced because of of its technology platform and intimate virtual classroom. That kind of innovation is in UNC Kenan-Flagler’s DNA, and it’s molded alumni pioneers in management, marketing, finance, consulting, accounting, sustainability and entrepreneurship.

The Innovation Game

IBM recognized the possibilities in the ability of Phaedra Boinodiris (AB ‘94, MBA ‘08) to harness sophisticated gaming engines with cloud computing so that business process models could be stress-tested and tweaked before implementing costly changes to real-life operations. For years, gamers have played sim-city games with unseen competitors and collaborators over the Internet. With the ability to load real data and processes into a game, the fantasy-world manipulations offer real-world benefits.

A game designer responsible for IBM’s serious gamers’ segment, Boinodiris uses strategy games targeting health care, education, military and government operations to explain complex systems, which is increasingly important as businesses try to make sense of the huge amount of data available and collaborate with others to optimize it.

IBM discovered Boinodiris during a business process management case competition at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Boinodiris completed an entrepreneurship focus during her MBA program and threw herself into the excitement of case competitions, competing in a half dozen while at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

“Coming out of the recession, it’s more important than ever to be able to wrap your arms around complex systems,” she said. “People are deluged with data right now. A lot of money is wasted under suboptimal processes. Gaming could result in an incredible amount of cost savings.”

Innovative at its core

Ted Zoller, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and an associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler, would cite Boinodiris’ work as an example of “intrapreneurship” — entrepreneurship within a company.

“Business leaders are taking the vagaries of the current economy in their own hands and showing leadership in developing new ventures and driving sustained growth in existing firms,” Zoller said. “MBA training at UNC Kenan-Flagler, where we are known for entrepreneurship, is most helpful in building these leaders.

“The UNC Kenan-Flagler experience fuses strategy and entrepreneurship, so our graduates are prepared not only to manage an organization but to lead its transformation by fundamentally understanding a problem and putting in motion actions toward a solution. We train students through actual business scenarios. This approach brings about innovative capability to derive solutions that are adaptable and that can easily weather changing market conditions.”

Shortly before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, UNC Kenan-Flagler established a Joint Center for Logistics and Enterprise Development with Tsinghua University. Noel Greis, director of the Center for Logistics and Digital Strategy at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, and a co-director of the joint center along with Professor Cai Linning at Tsinghua University, played a key role in that initiative, which helps U.S. businesses enter markets in China. With rising labor costs in China and competitive innovations and automation implemented by U.S. manufacturers during the recession, “it’s no longer a slam-dunk to go to China,” Gries said. “We teach students to take a broad view of where the best place is to locate production to serve the markets they want to serve. The calculus of making that decision may have changed because the global situation has changed. We teach students that they need to develop good analytical skills and decision processes that are able to incorporate these changes in making sourcing and production decisions.”

Greis recently helped launch a dual-degree program with Tsinghua. Geared toward senior executives in China, the program offers a UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA and Tsinghua MEM (master’s in engineering management). Gries, along with Cai and a professor at Cranfield in the United Kingdom, will teach a signature course on logistics innovations that are changing supply-chain thinking and global trade patterns.

“We want to train the next generation of supply-chain leaders to integrate the supply chain around the world,” she said. “In meeting the challenges of today’s global environment, innovation is the key to success.”

Innovation Supersized

The economy collapsed within a year after Google had hired Brent Callinicos (BSBA ’87, MBA ’89) to build a world-class treasury. But four years later, the amount of cash he manages has tripled, and the number of employees in the treasury has increased sevenfold. The onsite trading room he created to manage Google’s portfolio was profiled in Businessweek.

Knowing that businesses adapt or die, he built his team with “people who can switch gears really quickly,” he said. “The more adaptive people are, the more creative they are.”

Google’s innovative culture leads to a plethora of new products. All are tied to finite expectations, and each is measured. The company encourages critical feedback and change.

“I don’t want anybody to think that because I created something we shouldn’t change it,” he said. “If we haven’t changed something in 12 months, why? The best idea holds.”

At another American institution, Aaron Watkins (MBA ‘10) recently won Walmart.com’s top award for talent. Watkins, senior marketing manager for Walmart.com, collaborated with bloggers and YouTube personalities to talk up certain items that, as a result, showed a sales lift of between 60 percent and 600 percent.

As marketing budgets have tightened across industries in recent years, Watkins has leveraged the power of social media in new ways for Wal-Mart. (Stores have been rebranded as Walmart, but the corporate administration retains the Wal-Mart spelling.)

“Commerce is still very much brick-and-mortar, but dollars are flowing online now,” Watkins said. “As customers start to find things online in a mobile space, they’re making more purchases. We want customers to see Walmart and Walmart.com as one entity rather than two separate channels.”

In a leadership and management class he took at UNC Kenan-Flagler, Watkins learned techniques to persuade people to buy into an idea that might seem crazy to a large, conservative company. His core analytics and statistics courses have given him an edge over other marketers.

“I’m not afraid to dig into data and mine for insights,” he said. “I’ve been able to get information to prove that some of my crazy ideas might work.”Watkins helped blur the line between dot-com and brick-and-mortar space by launching Spark Studio, a Pinterest-like experience on Walmart.com. Rather than selling items, he advocates selling solutions. He encourages cross-merchandising — strategically placing fabric swatches seasonally for Back-to-College: furnishing a 700-square-foot space for under $700; optimizing the Super Bowl Sunday experience: or shopping one-stop for a couch, a TV and a bag of chips.