A stream of innovators

Despite the pandemic, a CWRU speaker series continues to showcase leading innovators and entrepreneurs—many of them Case engineers--and finds a receptive audience.

When he shares his insight into entrepreneurship on Monday, April 27, Larry Sears ’69 will become part of a forum that is remarkable for its frequency and its flexibility.

Since its launch barely three months ago, the CWRU Entrepreneurship Speaker Series has presented more than two dozen speakers, all of them accomplished innovators or entrepreneurs, about half of them Case Western Reserve University alumni.

The series continued and even expanded as the coronavirus pandemic ended public gatherings. The Veale Institute for Entrepreneurship at CWRU, the series' sponsor, switched to online presentations and discussions via streaming services.

The pivot barely caused a bump. Speakers continued to enlist from around the country. The series is offering, on average, two and three presentations a week, and engagements are scheduled into June.

Dozens and sometimes hundreds have tuned in to hear from innovators and inventors who, like Sears, have disrupted industries with their smarts and moxy.

“The reaction has been good,” said Michael Goldberg, the director of the Veale Institute for Entrepreneurship. “We’ve heard from alums. We’ve had prospective students tune in. I think it’s been really positive.”

Goldberg, who teaches entrepreneurship as an associate professor at the Weatherhead School of Management, launched the speaker series soon after being named leader of the Veale Institute in January. He said he wanted to promote entrepreneurship across campus and position the university as a thought leader by bringing in entrepreneurs to share their insight and experiences.


Debut, then pivot

The first presentation, by Etsy CTO Mike Fisher on Jan. 24, established  much of the current format. Fisher addressed an audience on the sixth floor of Sears think[box], where the Veale Institute is headquartered. But his talk was also streamed live to viewers online via the institute’s Facebook page.

A student, Nsisong Udosen—the former president of the Case chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers--introduced Fisher and facilitated the discussion. She took questions from the live audience as people raised their hands and from the online audiences via a chat app.

In mid-March, when campus emptied and classes went remote, the speaker series tacked and sailed on. A production team led by Doug Degirolamo, think[box]’s program manager, transitioned to a fully online series.

“We had already begun to experiment with the format,” Goldberg said. “Then  when the world changed, we flipped the switch.”

The viewers kept coming. So did the speakers. 

“It’s been easier than ever (to book presenters) because everyone’s sitting at home,” Goldberg said.


Engineers lead eclectic mix


Entrepreneurs often come from tech and engineering fields, and alumni of the Case School of Engineering have been prominently featured. Ali Ahmed ’95, the founder of Green Strategies, presented from his home office on March 30. He was followed April 8 by Sam Jadallah ’87, the head of smart home technology at Apple. Aarti Chandha, MS ’88, a director of the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund, presented the very next day.

Many of the speakers graduated from other schools and colleges at CWRU, notably Weatherhead. And Goldberg integrates entrepreneurs who were already addressing his Entrepreneurship Strategy class. The result is an eclectic mix of speakers and fields represented. During the week of April 13-17, viewers heard from innovators from Twitch, Netflix and Slack.

Jeff Stotland, the vice president of strategy and global development at Walt Disney Company, is scheduled for May 12.

On Monday, April 27, viewers will hear from Larry Sears, whose innovation may be eclipsed by his philanthropy. Sears and his wife, Mather College graduate Sally Zlotnick Sears, have donated millions to CWRU, including a $10 million commitment to Sears think[box], the campus innovation center.

But his contribution to engineering and modern society is equally compelling. Using radio waves, Sears, an electrical engineer, developed a remote meter reading system that drastically changed the way utilities calculated power consumption.

Before his innovation, human “meter readers” regularly stopped at the homes and businesses of customers, trotted down the basement steps with a flashlight, and read the meter. It was a slow, expensive, door-to-door process that begged for automation. Still, it took years for a staid industry to adopt a disruptive innovation from a non-name inventor.

Today, the remote automatic meter-reading device developed by Sears, who started in a storefront in Little Italy, is used by utilities across North America. But the ingenuity and perseverance required to win over skeptical customers is a big part of his story.

Tune in at 1 p.m. April 27. Register here.

For the complete list of upcoming speakers, click here.