Igniting the Creative Spark

How—and why—Virginia Commonwealth University has put creativity at the heart of its mission.
Igniting the Creating Spark

In the fall of 2016, VCU's artist-in-residence Noah Scalin used donated clothing to create this portait of Richmond businesswoman and activist Maggie Walker.


THERE’S NO DENYING the importance of creativity in business. We hear it from executives, from employers, from the startup community. They all want business school graduates who are full of “fresh ideas.” Adobe’s 2016 State of Create Report finds not only that creativity promotes productivity and heightens performance, but also that people who are encouraged to be creative in their workplaces are more satisfied in their jobs. It even goes so far as to say that “creativity drives business success.”about interdisciplinary business education, we often first think of pairing business with engineering, medicine, or other STEM fields. But what happens when business schools collaborate with more creative and abstract fields, such as music, art, history, and philosophy? What do these disciplines have to offer business education?

Business schools traditionally have not capitalized on the creative potential of their faculty, staff, and students. But as a former Disney executive turned dean and a senior associate dean with a research specialty in innovation, we have seen the power of creativity. And, now, we have put it front and center at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Business in Richmond.

Our move to embrace creativity started in 2014–2015, when we asked our stakeholders to help us develop a strategic plan that addressed challenges facing individuals and businesses in complex, rapidly changing times. We learned that our faculty wanted the plan to emphasize research; students wanted experiential learning and internships; and alumni and employers asked for student preparedness, adaptability, and soft skills such as communication. All believed that critical thinking and problem-solving were fundamental.

Interestingly, after we completed our initial draft, many told us that we were being too generic with our intentions. Instead, they told us, if we were going to make students’ creativity an essential part of our programs and culture, we needed to “put a stake in the ground.”

With this in mind, we turned to our existing strengths. We wanted to tap into our city of Richmond’s desire for innovative thinkers and its new brand called “RVA Creates.” In addition, we wanted to build on initiatives such as the VCU Brandcenter, our business school’s graduate program in advertising and branding; and the da Vinci Center, a collaboration among the schools of business, engineering, and the arts, as well as the College of Humanities and Sciences. Finally, we wanted to take advantage of our partnerships with the School of the Arts and the VCU Medical Center.

Our efforts led to the creation of EPIC, named after each pillar of our strategic vision: experiential learning, problem-solving curricula, impactful research, and creative culture. By basing our programs on these four pillars, we want to produce creative graduates who are ready to solve problems, start new ventures, lead research discoveries, and invigorate companies with new ideas. We want to drive the future of business through the power of creativity.


As part of EPIC, we deliver two creativity-focused courses in our undergraduate business foundations program. Creativity and Ideation provides students with frameworks for coming up with new ideas and applying creative thinking to business. Winning Presentations helps our students gain confidence when giving presentations. It is taught by faculty from the theater department, as well as professional actors.

In Winning Presentations, students learn to understand the power of nonverbal communications such as body language and voice pitch. They participate in improvisational exercises so they can overcome stage fright.

The course also teaches students to avoid “death by PowerPoint,” in which presenters simply read bullet point after bullet point straight from their slides. Students learn that presentations that consist of only facts and figures will be too dry to be persuasive and too boring to be memorable. Instead, we ask them to come up with creative hooks to grab the audience’s attention and to wrap up their speeches with clear calls to action. We emphasize the importance of incorporating storytelling over bullet points and teach them to tap into the power of analogy and metaphor to engage their audiences.

After learning these skills, one student gave a presentation that outlined the steps to starting a small business. Instead of simply listing the steps, she walked her audience through the journey of a real person who followed those steps to create his own small business. The members of her audience were able to connect to her words on an emotional level and more likely to remember the steps she outlined so vividly.

Inspired by this course, we have opened our Presentations Rehearsal Studio, a space where students can practice their presentations in front of audiences made up of student volunteers. Presenters receive coaching from faculty before and after their presentations. The purpose of the studio is to help students overcome any sense of false confidence they have when presenting to their classmates, roommates, or even their pets. We want them to practice in an unfamiliar space, before unfamiliar faces, so they have an experience that is closer to presenting in real-world settings.

Finally, last year we held our first Creative Communications Competition for undergraduates. To qualify for the annual competition, students must complete Winning Presentations and submit one-paragraph descriptions of their intended presentations. Those who pass the initial screening receive one-on-one coaching from the coordinator of Winning Presentations. Only those who exhibit competitive skills move on to the competition. We award cash prizes in categories such as “most persuasive presentation,” “best use of a story in a speech,” and “best overall presentation.” In our first competition, students presented on topics ranging from the use of fuel cells to the purpose of tattoos.

We believe these efforts complement our emphasis on the other three pillars—particularly when it comes to applying creativity to problem solving. For example, our entrepreneurship program recently partnered with the School of Engineering. Within that partnership, students from our New Venture Strategy and Initiation Course team up with students in the School of Engineering’s capstone design course to reimagine solutions to existing problems and launch new companies based on those solutions. They also present their ideas at the School of Engineering Capstone Expo held in the spring. Last year, student teams created products such as a device that can diagnose heart attacks more quickly and a caddy that keeps ventilator tubes from tangling.


The task of ensuring that creativity is embedded throughout our curriculum falls to our department chairs, who work with faculty to establish how to incorporate creativity into their department’s undergraduate and graduate courses.

For example, the accounting department is integrating projects in which students must find new and innovative ways to solve financial problems, discover trends, and understand market opportunities through a data analytics lens. In addition, each semester, our new online MBA program includes a one-credit course on a contemporary business issue such as creativity and innovation, cybersecurity, globalization, and entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, the information systems department has developed a course in which students are asked to create solutions that can be implemented with Raspberry Pi devices—inexpensive, open-source computers about the size of a deck of a cards—in hospitals and clinics in the rural villages of Nepal.

Another group of faculty has volunteered to work closely with a curriculum specialist to plan, in very practical terms, how to bring their classes alive through creativity. As a result, the economics department is creating a series of videos that introduce key concepts in creative ways. In strategy courses, faculty members are putting an emphasis on business growth, incorporating books such as Creativity, Inc. and Lead and Disrupt.

Some faculty even base their research on creativity. They include Elena Olson, assistant professor of information systems, who has received numerous fellowships through VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, including one for her paper, “Stimulating Creativity and Focus Through Mindfulness Practices Within the Information Systems Curriculum.” She co-authored the paper with two undergraduates and presented it at the 2017 conference of the Southeast Decision Sciences Institute.

Finally, we have hired the former dean of the VCU School of Education, Christine Walther-Thomas, as a consultant to lead us through defining experiential learning and mapping it throughout the curricula. Our goal is to quantify what is happening now and capitalize on unique opportunities to build creativity into our programs in the future.


With EPIC in place, we launched the EPIC Challenge, a pathway for faculty and staff to develop new ideas that fit the EPIC spirit. Last year, five interdisciplinary teams of faculty and staff competed in front of a panel of trustees in a “Shark Tank”-like challenge for prizes totaling US$250,000. Winning faculty use the money to implement their ideas to improve teaching or transform aspects of student life. These prizes are supported by the VCU School of Business Foundation, which provides funds designated for strategic initiatives.

Last year, two teams won for their expansion of projects that also had won prizes the year before. Members of the first team plan to build on their program to coach students in creativity and presentation skills, as well as to continue the schoolwide Creative Communications Competition. The second team will continue to reimagine the traditional lecture course in economics, engaging students with digital delivery of content and active learning opportunities. A third team won for its project “Startup Spring Break,” in which students spend the week of spring break developing new or existing business ideas.


To further fuel our creative culture, we wanted to designate individuals who would challenge our community’s everyday creativity. That led to two somewhat unconventional strategies:

We now designate a “creativity czar.” This is a faculty leadership role that comes with a salary supplement and rotates annually from department to department. For example, last year our first czarina, an economics professor, created what she called 10-10-Talks that invite local businesspeople to give informal talks to faculty using ten slides and answering ten audience questions. The czar for 2016–2017 was Suzanne Makarem, associate professor of marketing. Makarem continued the 10-10-Talks, which have included presenters such as the executive director of the Richmond Symphony and a representative of an urban apple cidery. She also began offering meditation and mindfulness sessions.

In addition, Makarem launched an event called the “ten-day creative sprint,” in which students, faculty, and staff were encouraged to respond to a daily challenge to create something different. One day they were asked to “make something inspired by coins,” and the next to “make something using or inspired by sticky notes.” They were encouraged to “make something and leave it for someone else to discover” and “have someone teach you something you don’t know and do it.” Makarem started a Facebook page where people could share their creations and experiences.

No one “won” these challenges. Rather, the day was about creativity in the purest sense of “putting ideas out there and not being shut down,” Makarem told our campus news center. “When you do what you do while having fun, that’s when you’re the best at it.”

We established an artist-inresidence. Our first artist-in-residence is Noah Scalin, a nationally celebrated artist and founder of the art and innovation consulting firm Another Limited Rebellion. In addition to working with professors, giving guest lectures, and issuing creative challenges, Scalin has worked with student volunteers to create two temporary installations.

The first was “Portrait of Innovation: Maggie Walker,” a colorful 30-foot-by-10-foot portrait of the historic Richmond business leader and civil rights activist. Over five days in the fall of 2016, Scalin fashioned the sculpture out of donated clothing, later given to Goodwill, in our school’s atrium. Last spring, Scalin and a group of students created a second installation, “Portrait of Innovation: Frances Lewis,” in honor of a prominent local businesswoman and philanthropist. This time, the portrait was made entirely of canned food and other dry goods.

Viewed from many angles, each of these installations looked like a random arrangement of clothes or objects. But from the proper vantage point, both portraits came into perspective. This lesson on perspective applies to business as well as art. As one senior faculty said, “I really didn’t know how I felt about this artist-in-residence, but after seeing the exhibit, that was cool. Now I get it.”


Initially, our Faculty Council challenged the use of our budget to fund creativity initiatives. They wondered whether an emphasis on creativity conflicted with the traditional teaching of business.

However, as the faculty see how various initiatives are leading to unique, impactful results and experiences, their skepticism has subsided. The more we are recognized by external entities such as AACSB International, which named our artist-in-residence program as one of its Innovations that Inspire, and the more that students and the community rally around us, the more faculty are convinced that we have struck a chord.

We know that when faculty take the lead, others in their departments are more likely to support their peers. The same is true across all of our constituencies. That’s why we must continue to encourage faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the business community to become active participants in EPIC. We must always seek out champions.


We have made EPIC the basis for our school’s fundraising campaign, and it’s been very exciting to talk with alumni and donors about furthering the work on our EPIC pillars. We also are working on infusing creativity into our marketing communications and branding efforts.

Moving forward, we will measure how well we achieve certain milestones, such as levels of student creativity and faculty productivity, graduation and placement rates, enrollment, and business community perception. Over time, we hope to demonstrate how manifesting a creativity mindset translates into business performance success.

While it’s not an asset on a balance sheet, creativity is important, not just for a business school, but for every organization. As we go about our work of producing research, contributing to our communities, and educating tomorrow’s business leaders, it is essential that b-schools find ways to embrace and apply their untapped creative potential.


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This article originally appeared in BizEd's May/June 2018 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

Ed Grier is the dean of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business in Richmond. Kenneth Kahn is the school’s senior associate dean.