BetterMIT Innovation Week Emphasizes Importance of Soft Skills

With Elon Musk’s recent successful rocket launch, it feels like there is no limit to human ingenuity. BetterMIT Innovation Week comes at the perfect time—a series of events aimed to reflect upon current technological breakthroughs, as well as inspire a new generation of thought leaders.

During the week of Feb. 8, a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students organized and hosted the first-ever BetterMIT Innovation Week & Makeathon. Each day had specific workshops and talks geared toward topics ranging from “Ideation & Design Thinking” to “Innovation in the World.”

These talks and workshops were led by an assortment of people with backgrounds in entrepreneurship, innovation, and industry. Some of these included Linda Foster, head of innovation at Lockheed Martin; Rebecca Hui, founder of Roots Studio; Douglas Terrier, chief technologist at NASA; and Reinaldo Normad, entrepreneur-in-residence at The Martin Trust Center. They each touched upon their experiences and shared insight into what it truly means to be an innovator.

This event has been in the works since last fall, but one of the organizers for the event, Kaila Pfrang, MIT ’21, conceded that she has always had a fascination with the idea of innovation.

“I personally see innovation not just as the big tech or business buzzword,” Pfrang said. “It gets to the core of how you actually change people’s lives. So innovation for me is … how can you not only change the way people think, but how can you change someone’s life for the better? I think that’s something I’m personally very passionate about.”

Such innovation at MIT, however, is still in its infancy. This year, Pfrang worked in tandem with a few underclassmen on an innovation committee to cultivate these big ideas on MIT’s campus. They had a common interest in addressing topics of leadership, social entrepreneurship, and most importantly innovation. With the committee being only a few years old, the group is mainly composed of freshmen.

“The innovation committee is supposed to be that Trojan Horse,” said Kaylee DeSoto, a committee member of MIT ’21. “We’re the ones that set out and do all those crazy initiatives. We have more freedom. We’re like the sandbox of the undergrad association.”

Longing for more innovation on campus and a desire to have MIT’s own version of a TED talk, Pfrang reached out to talk with Suzy Nelson, MIT Dean of Students, and pitch her idea. To her surprise, the Dean wholly supported the idea and advised Pfrang on how to proceed. Shortly thereafter, the Innovation Committee contacted many resources on the MIT campus for innovation and received a generous amount of funding. Groups such as the MIT Innovation Initiative, The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, and the Bernard M. Gordon MIT Engineering Leadership Program were eager to get involved.

Similarly, the Innovation Committee attempted to reach out to anyone it thought could have interest in speaking. It was open to anyone coming, ranging from former president Barack Obama to the head of NASA. Through much trial, error, and hundreds of emails, it was able to secure multiple unique speakers for the week.

These events delved deeply into topics of teamwork, leadership, and how to enact change in society. These were not surface-level conversations but instead aimed to provide practical knowledge on how to innovate. During a workshop by the Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, MIT Professor Joel Schindall detailed many misconceptions about teamwork and the skills needed to succeed. He explained that people often study these skills, but fail to practice them and gain a real-world understanding.

In the world of entrepreneurship and innovation, Schindall explained that people often forget how having soft skills such as teamwork and communication is almost as important as having hard skills like engineering and computer programming. These soft skills allow people to pursue great ideas and clearly advocate them for other people, whether it be a boss or a family member.

Much of the crowd was made up of MIT students due to convenience, but the event was open to anyone willing to come. DeSoto summarized that Innovation Week has an “MIT centric audience, [but] not MIT centric ideas.” There was a fair amount of people from all across the New England area enthusiastic to participate. Students from the Rhode Island School of Design, Harvard University, and various other institutions became aware of the event via Facebook and showed up hungry to learn.

“I think that’s really the goal of this week is to show that innovation is part technology, part entrepreneurship, but it’s also part social change and really understanding, you know, communication and how do you actually change the world,” Pfrang said.

In regards to future plans, Pfrang and DeSoto are already in the preliminary stages of planning for next year’s “Innovation Week.” In fact, they have almost filled up their entire roster for speakers and hope to expand to an even larger audience.

Featured Image by Shan Rizwan / Heights Staff

February 18, 2018