Business

HER take on innovation: A conversation with Mandy Webber

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Mandy Webber, director of innovation at NewBoCo, knows her job title might be confusing.

“My dad tells people that I’m a professional problem-solver, and my husband tells people that I use a lot of Post-it notes. Both of those descriptions are accurate,” Webber said.

NewBoCo, short for New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative, is a non-profit located in the Geonetric Building near NewBo City Market in southeast Cedar Rapids. NewBoCo focuses on three main areas: advancing entrepreneurship, education and innovation locally and throughout the state. Its programs include a variety of resources for business start-ups, computer code training for students and teachers and innovation training for area businesses.

Helping organizations in Iowa succeed has special meaning for Webber, who was born and raised in North Liberty. “I like to say that I lived in North Liberty before it was cool. I was one of five kids picked up on the bus, and we had a 55-minute commute to school. Now there are three elementary schools in that same area.”

After graduating from the University of Iowa, Webber moved to Chicago where she worked in marketing for five years. After meeting her husband, Tom Webber, they decided to move back to Iowa.

Through her job, she helps teach organizations how to keep talent in Iowa.

“We have about 3,700 tech jobs and not enough qualified people to fill them. That’s a problem.”

Following her own experience, she understands the allure of leaving to explore other cities and cultures, but she does hope to encourage people to come back.

When she’s traveling outside of Iowa, she cringes a little when she hears people say “Iowa nice.”

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“It’s also a great place to get educated, raise a family and to work. It’s more than just nice.”

Since joining NewBoCo in 2017, Webber has helped create the Intrapreneur Academy with the goal of teaching existing organizations how to be innovative and prepare for the future.

“Your organization might be fine right now, but the pace of change is exponential,” she said. “Doing things how you’ve always done them might not keep you relevant.”

Webber brought up a recent example of why existing organizations need to invest time in learning how to innovate. “Amazon is now selling groceries. Someone out there is trying to disrupt your business.”

So far, 10 Eastern Iowa businesses have had 44 individual employees participate in the year-long Intrapreneur Academy, which is more in-depth than just icebreakers and games. Webber stresses that there’s nothing wrong with playing games as a team, but the goal of her program is to help organizations solve business problems. Some of the activities that she leads help organizations prioritize ideas and weed out programs that are taking up too many resources.

“There’s just as much value in killing off programs that aren’t working as there is in creating new ones,” Webber said. “Organizations sometimes hold on to programs like babies, but they need to let go of their ugly babies.”

She teaches organizations to constantly ask for feedback from customers, and she does the same thing with her program. “It’s important to me that I’m doing what I’m teaching,” she said. Academy participants have voted on the speakers and activities that they think would be the most beneficial. Webber constantly evolves the program in response to feedback, but she’s careful to distinguish between those who are offering constructive feedback and those who are not.

“When you start a new program, editors will pop-up. I’m looking for co-authors, not just editors.”

She relied on co-authors from local organizations to get the Intrapreneur Academy up and running quickly. She used feedback from smaller workshops held in late 2017 and early 2018 to create the program, which launched in April 2018. The attendees of the smaller workshops said that they wished that more members of their organization would come with them to learn about innovation. This inspired Webber to create a team-based program.

“You don’t innovate by yourself,” she said.

She appreciates that NewBoCo trusts her to build programs like this and that her programs have a broad reach across the community. “Everyone at NewBoCo deeply cares about Iowa. The fact that I can impact the community by working with multiple companies is really exciting.”

Webber says that some people see her as a person who “rides around on a rainbow passing out Skittles,” but she believes that positivity is a key part of innovation.

“Everyone in every organization is on their own innovation journey. You have to believe that you’re going somewhere better.” Being a positive person doesn’t stop her from asking people tough questions and getting people to reflect on what kind of organization they want to run or what kind of professional they want to be.

“My goal is to challenge you.”

Quotes on Innovation:

• “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” - Jeff Bezos

• “Software innovation, like almost every other kind of innovation, requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people, and to sit down and talk with customers and get their feedback and understand their needs.” - Bill Gates

• “Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.” - William Pollard

• “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” - J. K. Rowling

Books about Innovation:

• How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

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o Johnson explores the history of innovation, including stories of accidental discoveries which shaped the modern world.

• The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

o This book helps readers understand and embrace the technological changes that will impact the way we work, learn and communicate in the future.

• Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner

o The founder of Harvard’s Change Leadership Group explores what educators must do to encourage young people to become innovators.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.