Virginia Commonwealth University

Make it real.


Amy Shankle – Member Spotlight

Amy Shankle, da Vinci Program Coordinator, VCU Alumna

When you hear the words VCU da Vinci Center, what is the first thing you think of?
Probably comradery because so much of all of our programs are about teamwork, making connections and bringing amazing people together. Forming those friendships and bonds that last beyond just individual classes is really important. Being able to make those connections and meet people who you are going to create these partnerships and do amazing things with is something we really value.

What makes the da Vinci Center unique?
There are quite a few departments and schools that are doing a really good job of providing students with amazing opportunities in innovation and entrepreneurship, but there hasn’t been much of a concerted effort to broaden that to the whole university until the da Vinci Center was created.

What does innovation mean to you?
For me, most of it is trying to solve problems creatively. Looking beyond what’s been done before, and being able to think of solutions that aren’t obvious. But there is definitely innovation in improving a process. It’s not always about creating brand new things. Creating these amazing unexpected ways to solve problems, streamlining processes, figuring out what does and doesn’t work and how to improve what already exists is absolutely innovative.

What made you interested in working for the VCU da Vinci Center?
I used to work for Records and Registrations in the graduation office, and the very first year that applications started coming in for the da Vinci center none of us knew what it was. So we did a little bit of research to figure out what [the Baccalaureate Certificate in Product Innovation] was. In doing that research I found out about the Center and I had that moment of “Why was there not a program like this when I was an undergrad?” When I was job hunting the program coordinator position popped up for the da Vinci Center and I just had to apply for it.

What is your favorite da Vinci program?
I don’t know if I have a favorite, but I definitely have a soft spot for the Product Innovation programs, both undergraduate and masters, because there were students in them when I started so I’ve known more of those students and I keep in touch with many of them. I’m also really excited about the stuff we are doing with Venture Creation, Human Centered Design, the Social Innovation Lab and all these really amazing new certificates and events. There is a lot to look forward to.

What is your favorite thing about da Vinci culture?
I guess it ties back into what I was saying about comradery. We have such an amazing team of people, and Garret is doing an amazing job of pulling people in from outside who still fit in with our culture. We like to spend time together, it’s one of the reasons we like coming into work. When you really enjoy your coworkers and they are good, solid people who you like to collaborate with it, your job becomes so much more enjoyable.

What is next for da Vinci?
We are doing so much new stuff right now that I don’t even know. I hope that the Social Justice Innovation Lab that we are piloting this fall will be successful and amazing because we have been able to work on some social innovation projects for our masters students, but it would be really awesome if there was a more established way for people to get involved with social entrepreneurship.

What is next for you?
Finishing my masters this December and then figuring out how that can be worked into what I do for da Vinci and the future of the center.

Rachel Zhou – Member Spotlight

Rachel Zhou, Graphic Design, Certificate in Product Innovation, VCU Class of 2017 graduate

What made you interested in the VCU da Vinci Center?
I began da Vinci when I was a sophomore and I joined because I wanted more opportunities to meet students from different majors and backgrounds. Being in graphic design, I only had the chance to be in class with other graphic design majors and I really wanted to work and meet people from other schools. So, when I heard about VCU da Vinci Center, it got me really excited to work with people from Engineering, Business and the Humanities and Sciences. That was the main reason why I joined the VCU da Vinci Center.

Which undergraduate certificate did you receive?

I graduated with the Product Innovation certificate, which mostly focuses on how to develop a successful product and teaches you how to brand and market it. If I had only stayed in the art program, I would have only learned how to design a product, but being in the Product Innovation track I also learned how to build and market it. The track combines all these different areas into one, which I loved.

What was your favorite project that you worked on?

I really enjoyed the project I worked on in my engineering class where we had to redesign a bicycle part for someone with a disability. My team was assigned a person who had left hand nerve damage. We made a game app that helps them practice riding a bicycle to make them feel comfortable riding again safely.

What does innovation mean to you?

To me, innovation means taking steps forward into the future, to constantly improve the current standards, to use creativity and ingenuity to improve the world, to seek better methods, to create more opportunities for future exploration and to pave the way for future generations.

How has the da Vinci Center impacted your life?

The da Vinci Center has provided me with opportunities that would not have been possible by staying in my major alone. I really treasure these memories with my groups because even though we came from totally different backgrounds we learned how to work together. Being able to interact with students of various backgrounds, combining our skills and problem solving together, taught me about respect and appreciation.

What was the most important lesson that you learned in the da Vinci program?

As cliche as it sounds, it taught me that “Dream Bigger” should not be treated as a throwaway phrase. It is incredibly important life advice. In da Vinci there are so many supportive programs, such as pop-up pitches and the accelerator program, for students to always pursue their dreams. The program encouraged me to go after my own goals, and I felt supported the whole way through. Always take risks, though i may not always achieve, as long as i try hard enough I will always learn something in the process.

How do you think that this program will help you as you move forward in the future?

I definitely learned about teamwork and how to work with people who don’t always have the same mindset or skillset as me. In a professional setting, I learned how to turn my specific set of skills into something helpful for my teammates

When you hear the words VCU da Vinci Center, what is the first thing you think of?

I think of creativity, ingenuity, very supportive staff members and a great place to find yourself. I don’t think of home because home is more of a comfort zone, da Vinci pushed me outside my comfort zone. Nothing is impossible with da Vinci!

What’s next for you?

I will be attending the VCU Brandcenter in the fall for its Experience Design track. The program is two-years long. I’m excited about meeting my future classmates and working with them during the next phase of my life. For the summer, I’m working as Graduate Assistant for Graphic Design at University Student Commons and Activities while working on personal projects on the side.

Toys: Then, Now and Beyond!

Whether you were building spaceships with Legos, having tea parties with Barbie or neglecting your Tamagotchi – most of us can agree that it was these nostalgic toys and others that shaped our childhoods. But have you ever wondered what kids are equipped with now and how toys have evolved over time? [Feel old yet?]

Originating in 1959, the Barbie Doll has been a staple in many young girls’ lives. Offering a range of customizable looks from skin color to hairstyle to clothes and personas – one thing Barbie seems to have always lacked is offering different body types—until now! After complaints from parents, Mattel decided to take action by creating 3 new Barbie sizes including tall, petite, and curvy.

3d-glassesOLD3D Glasses
The progression from red and blue glasses to virtual reality is an obvious jump. But what might not be so obvious is that 3D “technology” originated as another one of da Vinci brilliant discoveries in the 16 th century. His studies in depth perception proved that he revealed the key to 3D technology long ago. Today, Oculus Rift leads the way in VR (virtual reality), applying these principles in the digital realm and changing the way we game and live.

Happy legoLego
Still an all time favorite, Lego has allowed us to build on our own imagination. We make ships, towers, villages, and robots while Lego creates future architects, artists, gamers in anyone who has a desire to make things. Their iconic bricks have evolved, offering endless fun for busy hands worldwide. Today, Lego’s newest products include NEXO KNIGHTS where they are “merging physical play with digital gaming” for next level creativity.

Digital age gamesThe Digital Age
Drones, Apps and Smart Tablets may not have been in our vocabulary as kids, but it’s become today’s norm. Games are abundant, advanced and accessible, making learning easy and creativity endless. Barbie can now recognize speech commands, AR (augmented reality) technology like Osmo is bridging the gap between physical play and digitization, and what better way to spy on your neighbor than with advanced remote control drones? The future has arrived my friends!

Post Written by Shannon Hood, Current MPI Student

B My Valentine

“I would rather someone give me a present ‘just because’ instead of because a card told them to.”

I’m sure we’ve all heard variations of this sentiment before. Whether it’s about Valentine’s Day or another holiday with similarly commercial overtones. But if you’ve ever googled the phrase “unique gift ideas”, chances are you have stumbled upon the website Uncommon Goods . If you have not visited the site, I highly suggest you go visit it after you finish reading this article of course as it tickles the maker in all of us.

But perhaps what makes Uncommon Goods unique is not simply their relentless pursuit of novel ideas, but their pursuit of creating a company that sees its “makers” as partners not an assembly line. In fact Uncommon Goods is a B Corp business. If you have never heard of the term B Corp, they are a type of for-profit company who have social, environmental, performance, and accountability goals written into their charters. This ensures that positive impact and transparency can occur at every level of the business. It’s an interesting concept, taking the values of nonprofits and infusing them into for profit business practices to create meaningful and measured impact in the lives of all employees and ecosystems a business

B Corps have been growing in popularity in the United States since 2010 when Maryland became the first state to pass what is known as Benefit Corporation Legislation. Since then about 30 states have followed suit. Virginia became one of those states in 2011, and currently is home to 19 B Corps with about half of them residing in Richmond.

Being a B Corp can mean a lot of different things, but perhaps what is the most inspiring is the culture of “changemaking” that B Corp employees exude and the ownership they take over making change happen for others. Becoming a B Corp is flexible in itself as the certification is a framework to create and build a business within rather than a prescription by which to make one. So this means a company in almost any industry has the capacity to become one. You can see the diverse spread by some of the companies they have on their roster: Method, Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, Warby Parker, and more.

B Labs, the nonprofit behind the B Corps Certification, have recently developed a more comprehensive method for companies to compare B Corporations. This method is called B Analytics, and was originally created to measure B Core values and how that impacts an investing portfolio, business network and even supply chain. Although the goal of B Analytics is primarily to help companies better target where they are shifting their impact and measure their success, it’s important to note that B Labs and B Corps don’t prescribe one way of tackling these problems. Rather, they provide a framework that enables businesses to innovate and continue to change as they grow. But no matter what type of company you are, new or old, a startup or a multinational there is a path for you to become a B Corporation too.

If you’re on the hunt for some innovation, motivation and inspiration check out some of the talks that founders of B Corps have given here:


Post Written by Milgo Yonis, Current MPI Student


What is CreateAthon?
If you haven’t heard about CreateAthon@VCU, you should definitely learn about this exciting event now! CreateAthon@VCU is a pro bono where students volunteer to creatively help non profit organizations in the RVA community. The exciting part about it is that it is done in a 24 hour period. Sounds intense, but all the fun activities and amazing people, make it a ton of fun!


2010 How do I get involved?
No matter who you are there is a way to get involved with CreateAthon. If you are a student you have the opportunity to become a Team Leader, Production Team Member, or Team Volunteer. If you are a member of the community at large or perhaps a graduate student and working professional you have the opportunity to become a Mentor. Each role is detailed below:

Team Leaders: Enrolled in a Non Profit Management Course (MASC 467) during the spring semester. Each team leader is then paired with a nonprofit organization and work with them on finding out their communication problems that need to be solved. During the event, after the teams are organized, the team leaders gather their knowledge on what they have learned and guide the team towards creating amazing work for the nonprofit organization.

Production Team: Enrolled in CreateAthon@VCU Production (MASC 491) during the spring semester. Their role is to make the entire program flow successfully. The students commit to specific roles such as, Product Manager, Public Relations, Event Coordinator, Sponsorship, Art Direction, Copywriting, Social Media, Photographer, and Videographer. Team Volunteers: Share their skills on an online application and sign up to be a part of this 24 hour marathon for the spring. The volunteers are made up of art directors, designers, photographers, videographers, audio video producers and editors, web strategists, UX designers, and app developers.

M2013entors: Professionals working in RVA that attend the event to meet and guide all the participants in the program.

How did CreateAthon start?
CreateAthon was originally founded by Teresa Coles and Cathy Monetti of Riggs Partners in Colombia, South Carolina in 1998. The first 24 hour national marathon event was held in 2002 and since then, CreateAthon has recruited more than 100 different partner organizations to host the probono marketing marathons in their community generating more than $20.5 million in pro bono marketing services! That’s a lot!

Former University of South Carolina Professor, Peyton Rowe, now the Executive and Creative Director of CreateAthon@VCU held the first CreateAthon@VCU event in 2007. Today CreateAthon is a competitive opportunity for nonprofit organizations in the Richmond area to gain access to high quality probono services.

The next CreateAthon@VCU event will be held over Spring Break on March 10th to 11th in the T. Edward Temple Building. If you are interested in being a mentor, contact the program through the website and complete the application. During the event you’ll have the opportunity to meet some interesting students, sponsors, and nonprofit organizations.

For more information on their past projects and sponsers check out their website. And if you want to constantly be inspired by what they do, follow them on their Social Media!



Twitter: @createathonvcu

Instagram: @createathonatvcu


Post Written by Swetha Gav, Current MPI Student

Reflections from the Interim Executive Director

“On a scale of 1 to 10, your team delivered at a 57!”  This was the first time I have heard such superlative praise but was not surprised that it was from a project sponsor who was complementing their da Vinci team. They exceeded expectations by a larger measure – delivering in months what the sponsor thought might take a year or more. Experiences like this make it a pleasure to serve as the interim executive director of the VCU da Vinci Center for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Our Certificate in Product Innovation program led by Allison Schumacher will have more than 125 students enrolled this year and will graduate more than 50. Ten teams will work on industry projects this year. The program works so well because of the energy, spirit, and experience Allison brings, our faculty and mentors who provide sage advice, and our operations team who helps it run smoothly day to day.

Our new Venture Creation Certificate program led by David Holland already has 25 students and expects to graduate 13 this first year. David uses his own experiences as well as his network of entrepreneurial contacts to provide our students with insights and opportunities. David’s leadership goes beyond the Center. He is generous with his time, advising several university and community organizations and shares insights with students. We look forward to growing this program substantially since President Rao has shared that more than 50% of VCU students have an interest in starting their own business.

Our newest program, VCU Innovate Living-Learning Community shares many attributes with a startup, where funding and serendipity play outsized roles. Innovate is fortunate to host Lighthouse Labs, a Richmond incubator, in Innovate this fall and we plan to host them again this spring. We started with 10 students this fall and hope to have 30 by next year. Somiah Lattimore, our director, has so many great ideas in the pipeline for our students, but like a startup, the path to success has many roadblocks and is often circuitous. We are lucky that Somiah leads this program since she has so much experience with startups – both winners and losers.  I especially appreciate Somiah’s patience while we get this program up and running.

I am in awe of the talent, enthusiasm, and energy of the VCU da Vinci Center faculty and staff.  In quick order the team created a common application for students enrolling in the various undergraduate programs. They take the time to interview every applicant and advise applicants on the best way to fit the da Vinci courses in their curriculum. They seek out interesting and inspiring speakers and identify challenging projects for our students. They freely give of their time to create wonderful learning opportunities in the classroom and in the field. And it shows.

Joseph Cipolla

Interim Executive Director, VCU da Vinci Center

Finding Innovation at Lighthouse Labs

Tucked back from the hubbub of West Grace Street you will find on of VCU’s newly opened Living-Learning Programs, VCU Innovate. Tucked inside that, past the lobby, down the hall, and in a small seminar room, you will find something somewhat different.

That small seminar room is the home of Lighthouse Labs, a startup accelerator that helps entrepreneurs in Central Virginia get businesses off the ground and ready for taking investment. Founders receive $20,000 to invest in their startups, as well as 15 intensive weeks of mentoring and training in preparation for pitches to investors. The best part is that they get this with no strings attached (Lighthouse Labs takes 0% equity, unlike most accelerators).

Lighthouse Labs is able to do this through their nonprofit status, participating in their own fundraising efforts year round. But this also means the program has some limitations, specifically with regards to the number of participants. At this point in time the program only accepts 6 applicant companies per year, a slim portion of the total applicant pool.

But, what does this have to do with VCU? And why are they in a VCU facility?

Well, Lighthouse partnered with the VCU Innovate, the da Vinci Center’s Living-Learning Program, who saw an opportunity to provide an insider experience for students participating in the Living Learning Program. These students live in the residence hall and work among the various founders, gaining hands-on experience in the world of entrepreneurial ventures.

I recently visited Lighthouse Labs to talk to the founders and get a sneak peak of a typical day in the Lab. All the startups in Lighthouse that I spoke to are at the forefront of their industries. Zoozil, for example, has digitized the choose-your-own-adventure novel format and integrated it with backend tools to help educators help their students with reading. Another, MajorClarity, helps high school students pick a career my assessing their interests and strengths, and then finding them hands-on experiences with the work in that field. As I talked with each of the founders, I became more and more impressed with the caliber of their ideas, and the work they continually put into developing them.

Despite the already small seminar room, I felt a little small compared to these all-stars of the Richmond startup scene, at least, until the weekly standup meeting began. These meetings are an important part of the process because they allow each founder to give the group a status update. As the founders talked about being stressed, what was exciting them, and where they needed help, I was reminded that you don’t need to be an all-star to be an innovator.

Talking with the founders afterwards, I learned that the founder of Zoozil was a struggling reader when he was a kid, and the founder of MajorClarity switched his major several times. I found it funny that we typically would assume it’s the award winning teachers and career counselors who drive innovation in these fields. Often though, it’s the dropouts and soul-seekers who know when something isn’t working and try to fix it. Even if we are all not cut-out to be entrepreneurs like the founders, both the founders and students working with them prove that it’s our ideas, not accomplishments, that make us innovators.

If you’ve got an innovative idea that has potential, go for it. Or if you want to help any of the startups currently in Lighthouse Labs work on their ideas, shoot them an email and let them know!

Lighthouse Labs website

Diapers on Demand


Photo: Courtesy of Forbes

As a father of five, I’ve made more than my fair share of begrudgingly late night convenience store diaper runs. So when Amazon started shipping their Dash Buttons this week, they had my attention. Amazon’s Dash Replenishment service takes a literal approach to the push button economy. Most of us have become familiar with the wonders of Amazon Prime’s free two-day shipping, but the latest approach places a product specific button precisely at the location you realize you need something. See that you’re out, or soon will be, and just press a button. Your home’s Wifi notifies Amazon of you’re looming unmet needs and poof, a box arrives at your doorstep. Now I can’t say that before Dash buttons I knew of the pain-point of not having to open my computer and use Amazon’s already awesome one-click ordering, but hey- if Huggies are available at the touch of a button, I’m in.

At $4.99 a button, I couldn’t resist choosing two highly sought after items in my house, razor blades and diapers. My first glance at the packaging left me so impressed that I didn’t want to open them. After all, this was the intersection of the doorbell and a mobile app, but I finally tore into them and setup the Wifi using my smart phone. Next up, peel and stick just at the place where you know you need something. The only thing left to do was run out, which lasted all of 30 seconds. I couldn’t resist, I had to push the button. And what happened as I signaled a warehouse hundreds of miles away of my pending need for new razors…? Nada, zip, not even a gratifying ding-dong to let me know satellites were tracking my instant gratifications. No more than a quick blink of a green LED and a nondescript cardboard box that should be on my porch in 1-2 days.

I couldn’t help but think that this technology felt like a bridge. You know, the innovation that comes out and isn’t so innovative, but more of a preview to upcoming tech. Its technology that falls between the cracks of two larger, even better ideas. So I’m a big fan of Amazon Prime and their free two-day shipping. But there’s something that seems a little antiquated about placing product-endorsed buttons all over my house. I want a smart washing machine that knows I’m low on detergent and orders it for me. If time is the new currency, then give me a smoke detector that automatically sends me batteries when they need replacing. I love what the Dash is attempting, but shouldn’t all of our devices be smarter? I don’t know if the Amazon Dash will grow to be considered a bridge or a conduit that drives innovation in smart devices. But for now I think I’ll hold out for the smart device and not the smart button. Until then, the so-called button of the push button economy will remain the click of my mouse.

Post Written by Blue Crump, Current MPI Student

Does this City work for Me?

johnbonanoWe often dream of faraway places we will one day travel to. We hope this travel will either help us attain the job of our dreams, the vacation we always hoped for, or provide the escape route that arrived in just the nick of time. But what happens when you finally arrive at your destination? What happens when you actually have to live in the city you always dreamed about?

That is something that one of our MPI Alumni John Bonano set out to discover.

Recently John made the decision to start over. But instead of choosing to simply relocate to a city he found a job in, he decided to take the cities he was curious about for a test-drive.

He told me, “there’s something about being in a new city, you immediately know whether or not you belong there.” John knows for him personally, that means living in a city that is close to nature. In the cities he has visited so far, he has seen how access to nature can dictate the culture of an area. But more importantly, he has found that access, or lackthereof, can affect your work/life balance.

As I am sure many of us can agree, “There needs to be more synchronization between what you do for pleasure and what you do for your career… People need to travel, get away from their jobs, take a break.” It can be disappointing if you relocate to a city and discover, you don’t have access to the kinds of things you are interested in. Or even access to the things or people you need to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

This can be tough to focus on especially straight out of school, or when you are trying to get to the next level of your career. John noted that this kind of tunnel vision can be dangerous, especially when, you don’t think about how “when you are doing all these amazing jobs, you also have to have a normal life.”

But while John stressed the importance of taking the time to figure out what you want, he also stressed the importance of taking a leap of faith and going outside your comfort zone. For him this trip has enabled him to learn how to be ok with the unknown, take risks, and focus on just the essentials.

He likes the fact that what he is doing now is similar to what he learned at the da Vinci Center because, “If you have the mindset of innovation, barriers do not exist. There are a million things you can do. You can create your own world, in your environment in anyway you want. What I am realizing now is, I can do anything I want to. I can go anywhere I want to.”

The Operetta of Innovation

We are all familiar with the legend that is, was, and has become Steve Jobs. On October 23rd we will no doubt discover a new interpretation of the Steve Jobs mythology as yet another film, chronicling his successes and failures, premieres across the nation.

If you scan any list of top ten innovators in the past decade you will undoubtedly find Steve Jobs. Yet as his counterpart, Steve Wozniak says to Jobs in this latest film, “What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?”

young-steve-jobsTo this Jobs respond, “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.”

If we are trying to answer Wozniack’s question, then describing one’s occupation is a limited view of what and how individuals arrive at innovation. And yet conversely, it is not simply the “aha moment” either.

This year we will explore what it means to be an innovator. What does it take to be considered an innovator in your field? And how hard is it to stay there? Who is involved in that process, and how did they get there?

Throughout this journey we want to hear from you, our readers. We want to know what your definition of innovation is, who you think is achieving it, and what you hope it will mean for the future.

We hope you join us as we search for what it means to be a part of the operetta of innovation. Until then, we remain curious.

Page 1 of 41234»