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Program pairs ASU employees' ideas with CEO know-how

Steve Loranger, chairman emeritus of Xylem
April 21, 2015

Sometimes the smartest move is admitting what you don’t know.

For New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences dean Marlene Tromp and her team, they knew they had a great product. What they didn’t know was how best to get the message out.

Enter The Idea Enterprise, which brings high-level business leaders across a variety of industries together with teams of Arizona State University faculty and staff who have promising ideas with societal impact. The executive leaders offer their advice in one efficient, organized session.

And unlike the reality-TV show “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneurs’ ideas come under often-vicious scrutiny, the Idea Enterprise operates with a strict “no jerks” rule. The atmosphere is honest, constructive and kind, more of what participants call a dolphin tank.

New College was one of the latest teams to go through the process.

“ASU New College represents a really unique enterprise,” said Todd Sandrin, associate dean and associate professor of microbiology. “We exist at an intersection of a large research institution and a smaller liberal-arts, very familiar campus.”

Even though the New College has been “wildly successful,” Sandrin said, the challenge remains on how to get the word out about the immersive, interdisciplinary experience available there.

“Some places do it, but they have more ivy on the walls and are a lot more expensive,” he said.

New College’s core mission includes real-world experience for students – with faculty conducting research with undergraduates, not just graduate students ­– and a strong, well-publicized focus on recruiting first-generation college students.

What the team needed was outside perspective.

“If we tell students and parents that they’ll be taught by research professors … to me, that’s amazing, but to someone outside, that might mean nothing,” said Tromp, who is vice provost of ASU’s West campus in addition to serving as New College dean.

The insight offered by the Idea Enterprise intrigued her.

“We have this incredible resource at the university, where we can take these great ideas that we have and vet it with people who are brilliant strategists … ” Tromp said. “This is one of the things that makes ASU ASU – actually having a place to think about and work on these things. That’s really a thrill.”

Craig Weatherup, one of the Idea Enterprise’s executive leaders, praised the program’s setup.

“That room is really a whole set of experiences and consultants – for free, of course,” said Weatherup, who served as chairman and CEO of Pepsi-Cola before retiring. “And I think that is a unique value, especially to an academic who is trying to kind of jump-start this idea, figure out how to market this idea, how to present this idea, how to finance this idea.

“Not things that they deal with every day, right? So the fact that they can get all, or many of those assets, many of those resources in one sitting, an hour and a half, I think is quite unique.”

Take a sneak peek inside the Idea Enterprise Dolphin Tank.

For the New College team, the process involved several months of refining their approach with Idea Enterprise staff, culminating in a 1.5-hour meeting at SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, in April.

There, executives with leadership experience at such companies as Motorola, PetSmart and Make-A-Wish America dug into the New College plan.

The group was divided over whether the word “new” in the college name was confusing their message, but everyone agreed that one core part of the marketing should be dropped: the prominent mention of first-generation students. It carries too much baggage.

“We were all sort of bowled over by that,” Tromp said after the meeting. “Todd said after that it’s kind of our blind spot. We’re all so proud of that, we never thought about it having a negative connotation.”

The session explored refining New College’s messaging, handling any residual negative history of the West campus, New College’s plans for expansion and smart fundraising strategy.

Sandrin found the advice on finding business partners in the community to be particularly helpful and said his team was “energized and galvanized” after the meeting.

The Idea Enterprise is also rewarding for executive leaders.

“I’m a fan of ASU; I’m a fan of Michael Crow,” said Phil Francis, former president and CEO of PetSmart. “And so if we can contribute by making some part of ASU bigger, better, stronger, faster, I feel like that’s giving back to an institution that I admire.”

The Idea Enterprise has two more sessions this year, in October and December. To learn more about the program, go to

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