Wharton’s Tyler Wry Designs a Program for High School Students: ‘Innovation Is a Mindset As Much As a Business Practice’

by Diana Drake

The Wharton Global Youth Program is preparing to launch its second summer of Innovation and Startup Culture (previously Essentials of Innovation) for high school students. This introduction to the world of new-venture creation will be held on Wharton’s San Francisco campus, July 2-July 14 and July 16-July 28, 2023.  

Wharton management professor Tyler Wry (pictured above) who designed Innovation and Startup Culture, sat down with Wharton Global Youth to discuss the nuances of innovative thinking.

Wharton Global Youth Program: The concept of innovation shows up often in different contexts. I see that Latin root Nova, meaning new. Can you provide a deeper definition of innovation?

Tyler Wry: One of the reasons that I love innovation is that it can be defined in different ways. As a noun, innovation is something new and valuable. As a verb, innovation is a process of creating something new and valuable. And, if we go back to the root, we can use “innovate” or “innovative” as adjectives that describe different creative outputs. All three are central to entrepreneurship.

Wharton Global Youth: Why is innovation so critical to business? Is it synonymous with entrepreneurship?

Wry: It’s an interesting question. The nature and level of innovation that are useful for a business varies a bit. For some companies, there is a need to introduce innovative new products or services almost constantly in order to stay competitive. Others benefit from innovating on their internal processes to take advantage of opportunities or fend off rivals. Still others need to innovate in order to get out of a competitive rut and unlock new revenue sources. It’s a balance, though. Trying to innovate too much or too often can destroy value as easily as it can create value, and innovation for its own sake rarely pays off.

In terms of the relationship between innovation and entrepreneurship, the two aren’t synonymous but they are often related. Arguably, the most exciting new ventures have some sort of innovation at their core. This could be a product or service that addresses a need better than anything currently on the market; it could be something that generates profits while addressing an important social or environmental issue; it could also be a business that sells existing products or services in new ways, or through a new business model.     

Wharton Global Youth: What are some important qualities of innovative thinking?

Wry: There are lots of important qualities related to innovative thinking, but I like to focus on two. One of these isn’t surprising, and relates to having an open mind. Innovative thinking benefits from a willingness to question the status quo, adopt an inquisitive mindset, and not fixate too quickly on any given idea or solution. The other quality that gets overlooked a lot of the time, relates to knowledge. Studies consistently show that “good” innovations come from people with very deep knowledge about the context where they are innovating. This type of insight allows people to identify problems more easily, understand why these problems exist, and generate meaningful, tractable, and profitable solutions.

“It’s tempting to look at successful entrepreneurs or innovators and think that they’re inherently different than us, or that they’re gifted with some type of special skill. Neither is true… at least not entirely.”

Wharton Global Youth: We are excited to hold our Innovation and Startup Culture high school program at Wharton’s San Francisco campus in two sessions this July. Why is the San Francisco Bay Area such an appropriate region for a program like this?

Wry: I’m excited too! I can’t think of a better place to learn about innovation than the city that’s synonymous with tech entrepreneurship in the US. The Bay Area has been on the cutting edge of entrepreneurial innovation since web 1.0, and is home to arguably the most exciting and innovative startup scene in the world. We’re going to be right in the heart of the action.

Wharton Global Youth: How does Wharton San Francisco fit into this landscape?

Wry: Wharton San Francisco provides a home for (arguably) the world’s top business school (ours!) in the world’s top tech ecosystem. This is where we engage with West Coast innovators, investors, and entrepreneurs. It’s also where we teach west coasters how to get outside of their current companies and start their own ventures.

Wharton Global Youth: You designed the Innovation and Startup Culture class. What can students expect from this opportunity? What kinds of interesting industry concepts and problems will they be challenged to think about?

Wry: At the risk of overselling, the course is going to be awesome. Students can expect a highly experiential two weeks where they will work in teams to go through the entirety of the early-stage startup process. Covering much of the same material that we teach to our MBA students, participants will learn how to generate and test a new business idea, link this idea to an innovative business model, stress test the idea and iterate based on customer feedback, acquire resources, and ultimately pitch to real investors. Throughout, we’ll also discuss how ventures can create and sustain positive social impacts — in essence, generating wealth while doing good for people and the planet.

Wharton Global Youth: Will they be able to see some of these concepts in action at Silicon Valley businesses?

Wry: Absolutely! We’ll be bringing in entrepreneurs and investors to speak directly about how they’ve applied concepts from our course in their own businesses and careers. We’ll also be doing site-visits to see innovation in action in Bay Area businesses.

Wharton Global Youth: How might students apply their new Innovation and Startup Culture skills to not just the business world, but their own lives?

Wry: Innovation and entrepreneurship are mindsets as much as they are business practices. Plus, you won’t get good at skills like these without practice! It’s tempting to look at successful entrepreneurs or innovators and think that they’re inherently different than us, or that they’re gifted with some type of special skill. Neither is true… at least not entirely. Successful innovation comes from endless hours of practice and many, many false-starts. After taking this course, students should start generating ideas related to their daily lives. Think about problems you have, and how you might solve them. Try some stuff, see what works, learn from your experiences, and keep iterating until you succeed!