In this episode, Dr. Corbin's talking with Dr. Jim Woodell, founder and CEO of Venn Collaborative, about his career journey and entrepreneurial experiences. Woodell shares his background in academic technology and distance learning and his discovery of how colleges and universities drive community and economic transformation. He also discusses his decision to earn a PhD at the age of 40 and his work at the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. Woodell talks about his entrepreneurial journey, starting with his consulting work on online professional development for teachers and then founding Venn Collaborative with family and friends. He shares how his network sustained him and how his company helps colleges and universities partner and collaborate for community impact.
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Jim: What design thinking does is it allows you to kind of think about something, but then try something out, test it, right? And also what you do in design thinking. I mean, my favorite thing about design thinking, I think is the first part, this inspiration mode. Where it's all about empathy. It's really about understanding who's, who do we wanna benefit, how do we wanna benefit them, and how do they need or want to be benefited?
Becky: Welcome to this episode of Forward With NACCE. I'm Rebecca Corbin and I'm happy to be here again in the NACCE studio with our partner Earfluence, to hear the story of Jim Woodell. He is the founder, principal and CEO of the Venn Collaborative, and I've had the opportunity to work with him and his partners, and I've just been inspired by the work that they're doing. So welcome to the program, Jim. How are you doing this morning?
Jim: I'm doing very well, Becky, thank you so much for having me.
Becky: Great. Well, I'm glad that you're here and you and I have a chance to start to do some work together, in 2022 and, we're gonna talk about some of that. But to begin, Jim, tell us a little bit about your story, because you've got a really interesting background and, you know, share with us what led you to the, the career path that you're on today. You know, let our audience know who you.
Jim: Sure. Yeah. Well, I mean, sort of, I had this prior life, before doing what I'm doing now out for about 20 years. I was working in the world of academic technology and distance learning and I managed technology programs for universities, including distance learning programs.
Like I was the manager of the online programs at Southern New Hampshire University. And then I also worked at a community college doing the same thing. North Shore Community College outside of, Boston. I, I really enjoyed that work but around 2006 or so, I was starting to think, you know, if I'm gonna spend my career in higher education, I ought to get a PhD.
So crazy at 40 years old, I decided I would start a PhD program, which I did at Penn State University. And while I was there, I kind of discovered this idea, which I just had never really thought about before, that colleges and universities help in addition to sort of graduating students and doing the research that they do and things like that, they also are big drivers of community and economic transformation and I thought that was really cool.
Like I, it is interesting that I hadn't thought of it that much before even having worked in colleges and universities. But when I sort of realized that, I was like, okay, this is something I want to know more about, and decided to focus my doctoral research on how a public research university oriented itself towards, economic development.
And then I got a job at the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, APLU, and that was the focus of my work there, helping our members think about how can they bring their impact to new levels by thinking about new ways of partnering and collaborating and, strategizing for impact.
Becky: Yeah. That is such a, a great background and it occurred to me, I didn't realize that you went back and earned your doctorate a little later in life. I did the same thing. I, I was working in community college at the time and they had a sort of a casting call. They said any who might be interested in earning a doctorate.
And I showed up along with 20 other people and by the end of our three years together, earning our degrees, there were four of us left. We called ourselves the Fab four cuz we, man, we stuck with it, did the research, but I had an epiphany, similar to yours when I was, working on my master's degree at the University of Akron in an urban studies program of really how a public university could really make tremendous impact in the community. So it's really interesting that our association work and our, our, our efforts collide.
One of the things that I was really excited to, to hear more about, and I think people would be curious about this as well is, you know, your entrepreneurial journey. So, you know, you talked about your background and working in association and then you kind of decided to go off on your, your own and create this, Venn collaborative with some family and friends. So tell us, what that journey was like and maybe give us some idea. I think I know what the name implies, but maybe you could share that with every.
Jim: Sure, absolutely, I'd be happy to. So, I had been an entrepreneur once before, had, kind of struck out on my own in my thirties and had done some consulting and then it was all focused-on building online professional development, in particular online professional development for teachers because I had been doing some work in the K to 12 universes in addition to working in higher ed, technology.
But, but this time I had been at the association, APLU for seven years. I had built a really tremendous network there, thankfully. And you know that, as you know, entrepreneurs can sometimes feel a little bit of butterflies when they decide they're gonna go ahead and go out on their own, do their own thing.
I felt a lot less of that because I felt really confident about my network and I knew that when I went out and started doing this work independently, my network was going to sustain me. I, I had no idea just how well it was going to sustain me. And I, I feel very fortunate that, you know, starting in 2018, in October of 2018, when I left APLU, I immediately had work and I've had work consistently throughout and, and then that's been fantastic.
I did it because, I've been working at this national association. You understand this. When you're at a national association, you get this great view of everything that's going on across the country. You see all of these different practices and, and ideas and approaches and, and it's really cool. But what you don't get is really close to any of those activities, right?
don't get a,
you don't get to be sort of in them. And I wanted to be more in some of those activities. I didn't want to go so far as to get a job at a university because I didn't want to kind of just be looking at one place, cuz I really liked that national purview and, and looking across multiple institutions. So I decided that consulting would be the way to go because then I could get involved in projects but not be just focused on one particular institution or community.
So that's kind of how I made the entrepreneurial leap. There are days when I think to myself, I don't know what the heck I'm doing. This is, you know, not something I should be doing. I'm not a business person. But you know, we all learn and, we kind of muddle through, I guess. And that's sort of what I feel like I'm doing sometime as an entrepreneur, not around the work. The work I feel confident about. Running the business that part, I feel like I need some help with.
And so I'm so grateful that I actually work in this universe of entrepreneurs because I get an opportunity to learn where the resources are and where the kind of, where the helpers are, with regard to entrepreneurship.
Becky: if you don't mind, I'm gonna share with you a resource. it's an open-source resource that NACCE has available to all entrepreneurs to help, like with the business side of what they do, cuz some of them are subject matter experts like yourself and they're good at getting grants and things like that.
But sort of the business modeling side of it. It's through our, NACCE's partnership, with Verizon business digital ready. So it's all these really cool videos that can talk about different aspects of, building a business, whether it's that or a nonprofit. So I just wanted to throw that out there cuz one of the things that we've worked with them on is designing, a URL so we can kind of track how many people actually use these resources and we, we've had a chance to go on the platform and it's amazing that they're all free.
You know? I mean, obviously they're not free because they pay for them, but
But I love, what you said about your venture out in 2018, and I think a lot of us, myself included, can relate to the fact that some days you're like, oh my gosh, what am I doing? you know, because we're confronted with constant challenges, right? just the virtual world, which I think we've all gotten better at. Sometimes funding challenges. We could probably share with our audience how, you and I and some of our colleagues got connected through the Kaufman Foundation and that was very fortuitous.
Cause we've worked with them over many years and they've gotten to understand kind of the value of community college and how we can get our network sort of up and moving very quickly through our association. And one of the things that Andy Stoll saw who, who you know, is with the Kaufman foundation is really that alignment of networks, you know, combining efforts.
So maybe what you could share with us a little bit is, is about this project that I, that I mentioned that was kind of fostered through some work that a colleague of yours did at, at, UW, Oshkosh and some other things. But just as an example to give people an idea of like, what are these kinds of projects that Jim works on? Why is this network of, of people and, and higher ed sort of fueling, I, I think the growth of your own business, but also of ecosystem work that we're all doing together.
Jim: Yeah. So let me just start with this, which is that, you know, when I left at my job at APLU, I brought with me a conceptual framework that we had developed while I was there, along with our member institutions. Very simple framework. We, you know, we spent a lot of time talking about how do universities contribute to community and economic development.
We developed this, you know, seemingly simple framework, but there's really a lot behind it. But it's essentially a Venn diagram, thus Venn collaborative. and the Venn diagram is got three circles: talent, innovation, and place. and the idea was that colleges and universities contribute to economic and community and develop economic and community development across these areas, right?
It's not just one set of things. And importantly, the reason we drew it as a Venn diagram was to say working at the intersections of those areas is really important because you're actually gonna have a higher scale of impact. So that's where Venn collaborative comes from, and it's informing, it's informative to your question because.
I have always in that work that I was doing at APLU in the work that I've been doing as a consultant, I think very broadly about ecosystems. Ecosystems to me are not just entrepreneurial ecosystems, they're ecosystems of talent, innovation, and place. And how do you make those ecosystems happen?
Well, certainly entrepreneurship leads the way a lot in these ecosystems, right? But there's a lot of other considerations beyond the entrepreneur and the entrepreneurship that's going on. In fact, in order to support entrepreneurs, we have to think about all of these elements. Entrepreneurs want great places to work and live, right?
They need good talent and access to good workforce development resources. So, This broad idea of ecosystems was something that I developed at APLU in partnership with another organization. You were talking about networks of networks. We very much operated in a network of networks mode when I was at APLU and we partnered with UEDA, the University Economic Development Association. And we developed that framework. And in fact, if you go to a UEDA, meaning you see talent innovation in place everywhere, it's very much a kind of core, sort of logic of the organization.
So at UEDA, and I was on the board of UEDA for a bit, and we got some funding from the Lemelson Foundation, which I know you're also familiar with. The Lemelson Foundation supported UTA to look at how can we take the principles of design thinking and apply those to ecosystem building. So we got a group of universities together about 10, and we asked them to bring their ecosystem partners, chambers of commerce, entrepreneurial support organizations, and a variety of others.
We had about a hundred organizations doing this activity of applying design thinking basically, you know, ideation, a lot of discovery work and coming up with new ideas about how to strengthen those ecosystems. And that was great work. We really enjoyed it. We called it the Ecosystems Design Network.
Through that work, I worked, with my colleague Jeff Sachse from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, who's, soon to be president of, UEDA. Jeff and I thought that there was some really valuable follow-on work that could happen. And we met Andy Stoll, who of course is interested in entrepreneurial ecosystems, as we know.
And we talked to Andy about the possibility of UEDA potentially in partnership with a number of other organizations, including Jeff's institution, UW Oshkosh, taking it one step further and looking really at how not only could we sort of experiment with universities and colleges in, in and their role in entrepreneurial ecosystems, but really develop a set of tools and a framework that will help those institutions as well as their ecosystem partners, kind of identify what the right role is for those universities and really understand how to leverage the assets of an institution of higher education post-secondary institution in the ecosystem.
So this toolkit that we're building, and we're very happy, you know, Venn Collaborative is very pleased to partner with UW Oshkosh on this, but also with NACCE and with APLU and UEDA, as, additional partners to help us really think about this. because we think what's gonna happen with, what we certainly hope will happen is that universities will have new tools for really understanding how they can best contribute to entrepreneurial ecosystem building, and they'll really have a better sense of connectivity across the ecosystem.
Universities, colleges can, as you know, sometimes be kind of siloed, and sometimes think of things in very kind of narrow ways. What we want is for colleges and university leaders to be able to think more broadly about how that ecosystem works, what all the connectivity is, and for their ecosystem partners who already know what the value of colleges and universities are in their ecosystems, but to, to help them really leverage it because they sometimes find it hard to work with a college or a university because, because they're big and complex places.
So we're really excited about this toolkit development project. We're very grateful to the Kaufman Foundation for supporting us. We're very pleased to be partnering with NACCE and others to deliver what we think is gonna be a really valuable tool.
Becky: It's gonna be exciting too. I, I know NACCE's annual conference is gonna be in Nashville, Tennessee, at the end of October, and I think it'll be great to see, all of that, you know, come together. I think the other thing that you mentioned I think it's really important is the idea of leverage and everyone sort of has their strength and their role to play.
And I think about that in the context of, you know, projects. Because I know, you've done this in, in your work in many different ways, but if you have, an institution like UWO or. You know, MIT or something like that they, there's this enormous bureaucracy that's just inherent in, in the work they have to manage, you know, millions and millions of dollars and people and all of that.
And sometimes aligning with an association or even a community college can help them cuz it leverages that nimbleness and flexibility if partners come together and, and trust one another and, and I think the design, think. Process is a really robust one for that because you're sort of leaning into, everyone around the table, you know, kind of contributing to defining a problem and trying to ideate on solutions, ultimately to test it.
But Jim, could you just tell, us a little bit more about design thinking from your, standpoint, cuz it's a tool that you use a lot. people may not have heard about that before, so maybe give us a little bit more information and context around, you know, what design thinking is and how, how you use it.
Jim: Yeah, sure. So I first got exposed to design thinking when I was working at the association and would work with folks who were tapping into the College of Engineering, around the entrepreneurial efforts or the technology transfer kinds of things that could come out of those schools. And I learned that engineers used something called design thinking, and that that was part of their everyday work.
I have to say for a while I kind of thought, well, that's for engineers. I design thinking is not for the rest of us, you know, it's for people who really, you know, are solving like really highly technical problems and things. Well then I discovered that it is actually for the rest of us. It's for everybody. And it's a set of tools that can really help you, to really kind of, either break through or advance things, move things along very quickly.
In particular, you mentioned trust in particular. I think that design thinking, what I learned about it was that it helps break down some of the barriers that exist, which include trust when you're working in complex collaboration, right when you have multiple organizations and different folks. So I got really excited about it and then in fact, it was in the first year of the pandemic a couple years ago that I finally decided, you know, I keep talking about design thinking. I'm really interested in it. I just need to learn more about it.
So I enrolled in the advanced certificate and design thinking, with IDO University, I d o being the big design shop in California that, you know, very connected to the Stanford Design school and, you know, really kind of promulgated this idea of design thinking from the very beginning. Anyway, I had a great time, doing, by the way, I'd recommend that certificate program to anybody. It's a fantastic set of, content and it's delivered incredibly well. it's designed very well, as you might imagine.
Um, so I learned all these new skills and tools. Like I kind of knew what design thinking was, but I actually learned how to move from the process of inspiration to ideation, to implementation and what that meant, and to do it in a way that was sort of open-ended and agile.
You know, in the world of universities, you think about things like strategic plans and, and, grant initiatives and so forth, and they're all very kind of linear, right? people think, well, we're gonna lay out the plan and then we're just gonna move forward lockstep and implement it. And of course, that's not how the world works, basically.
Um, but what design thinking does is it allows you to kind of think about something, but then try something out, test it, right? And also what you do in design thinking. I mean, my favorite thing about design thinking, I think is the first part, this inspiration mode. Where it's all about empathy. It's really about understanding who's, who do we wanna benefit, how do we wanna benefit them, and how do they need or want to be benefited?
And really kind of, you know, doing discovery interviews and really developing empathy for the user or the audience or, the beneficiaries, whatever term you want to use. So I got really excited about design thinking and I thought there's this whole thing about ecosystem development going on.
Colleges and universities are thinking about what is their role in, in ecosystems, whether those are entrepreneurial ecosystems, talent and workforce development ecosystems, community development ecosystems. I think that this design thinking is a really great way to sort of break down some of The barriers that exist to making the complex collaborations happen across many different organizations.
You know, I'm also a, a practitioner of a methodology called strategic doing. and in strategic doing, we do a very similar thing, which is we think about how can we break down these barriers and move very quickly in a complex collaboration into actionable steps. Well, design thinking is very similar.
It's a, it's a different set of ideas, but there's a lot of overlap. But at the core of it, you know, I would say we go right back to the thing that you mentioned before, which is trust. What I see the value in design thinking of being is that it kind of puts everybody in a space where we're like, we're all understanding what we need to do here, and we're all gonna share ideas and we're gonna appreciate each other's ideas, and then we're gonna try them out and we're gonna see what works and we're gonna learn from that.
And if we fail, all the better because we've learned something and we can make something even better. So that whole idea of kind of really taking chances collaboratively. Building trust around that. I think it's so vital in this work that we call ecosystem building, and I think that even if it's not sort of saying, well, we're gonna take design thinking and, and implement it as a model for how we do things.
Even if it's just taking bits and pieces and the lessons that can be learned from things like empathy and iteration, and being willing to create and try things. You know, these are little pieces that can really infuse a lot of energy into ecosystem building in my view.
Becky: Yeah, that is beautifully said, and as you were talking, I was thinking about all of us wrestling with how can we do more with, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, and the process that you just laid out and some of the things that you gave us to think about really show that something like a design thinking where you're, you're bringing people together, to solve a problem together.
In the process, they're building trust, they're understanding one another. And if we do it, Everybody feels like they belong because everybody's part of the solution. So it's just very interesting, to think about. You've shared with us some, some resources. I hope people that are listening will, will think about following your example. You could A go back and get your doctorate or B, you could get a certificate, from
Jim: I am not sure I recommend the first one.
Becky: You don't recommend that one. Okay, got it. and also, you know, I would throw out there too, Intuit is one of our corporate partners here at Macy, and they have a, a really interesting design thinking, tool called Design for Delight. And so they use some of that online. It's their own version of it, but. Just like you said, it all, it all begins with empathy.
So Jim, I thank you so much for being here with us today. It's been a great conversation. I feel like we could talk for hours, but you've given all of us a lot to think about. I'm grateful for our partnership and just, knowing you, and the work that you do. So I, I wish you a good day and, and thank everybody who tuned in today to, take what you've learned and, and make your life a little bit better.
Jim: Thanks so much, Becky.