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Business as Usual: RMU's Massey Center Director

Business as Usual

We are going to have an exceptional conversation with Eliada Griffin-El, PhD, Associate Professor of Management, Director of the Massey Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Robert Morris University.

Having a rich experience in creating ecosystems for entrepreneurial learning, Dr. Griffin-El has led the development of signature co-curricular and academic programs for promoting the entrepreneurial mindset and student-led venture creation at RMU. Her work includes spearheading high-profile community engagement, and overseeing the construction of the new Massey Center.

She will detail how the Massey Center’s vision is to be the epicenter of RMU’s innovative campus - serving as a regionally-relevant and globally-minded center of excellence - that cultivates leadership in workplace innovation and new venture creation, to positively impact society.



So good afternoon. This is Audrey Russo, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Today like many of our days, we just have amazing people that we get a chance to talk to and today is no exception. In a moment I will bring up Eliana Griffin L. She is an Associate Professor of Management and director of the massive Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Robert Morris University. When we get into some of the things she's done, I think you'll all be pretty blown away and proud Pittsburgh route. So I want to give a thanks to Huntington bank. Huntington bank has supported us through the series, right from the onset loving to take experiments with us and who knew we'd almost be approaching a year of keeping the community connected, and having a chance to just talk to incredible people who Against All Odds are doing amazing things and also 40 by 80. That's the wholly owned subsidiary of the Pittsburgh tech Council. And it is the longitude and latitude of Pittsburgh. So on that note, I'm going to tell everyone we've muted you we've done that on purpose and we have a chat and the chat is for you to ask questions of our guests not to sell your wares that's not what today is about. All about our guests. So now I have the privilege of bringing up Dr. Because you deserve to be called doctor after the work that you're doing so thank you. Eliana w Griffin L. And I will if it's okay with you refer to you as l yada. Yeah, that's great. Okay, so good afternoon. Thank you so much for being here.

Thank you. I am I'm elated. I'm like, let's go.

So much to cover with you. There's so much to cover. I did a little bit of research and I was like, Whoa, we have to pack this in. What I always like to do elliana is start with who is so who is Eliana Griffin l? Meaning what what has been her journey? What are some inflection points anything about her family? The continued connections that you've had to Pittsburgh, you know, the leadership of the Massey, Center for Entrepreneurship. Those are just sort of my opening pieces. So really want to start? How do you want to start?

Ah, anywhere you want to take us?

I am on your train. Talk about this. Give us a little bit about yourself. Where were you raised? Where did you go to college? How about we start with that?

Okay, that's great. That's that's always heartwarming stuff. So I am Eliana and I am the daughter of immigrants. I am of Nigerian heritage, born in the good old state of Oklahoma, actually. So that is where my roots started. My parents arrived in the United States in the late 70s. My father was a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma. And from then became a really incredible academic. One of the first was a PhD in Engineering Physics, which is what drew me into the university world. We've always been a part of it growing up. But then we, I, we moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, which is where I came of age. So you know, Nola, always, always a part of my heart. I have lifelong friends and family, who are still there. And just learn the beauty of loyalty and friendships, deep, resonating culture, being unapologetic with one's identity. And as the oldest of four of the four of us all together, so I have my three younger siblings, this really kind of grew up to appreciate what it means to kind of reconcile our different identities out once the fact that we are proudly children of, of West Africa, yet at the same time, also proudly, American and then African American. And so this just variety in our identity really started to seal itself together as we were coming of age. And then suddenly, we were coming of age in New Orleans. And then, you know, years went on my family eventually moved to Pittsburgh, in 2000, but at that time, I was an undergrad at Yale University. So I went to Yale University for college. And that is where I met some of the most incredible people as friends, as well as educators who you know, now we kind of link arms as this really affect you. As it's really, um, powerful, this cohort of women and men who are like really making moves in their fields. And so that's University is kind of where I really started to explore what I love and what I have passion for. And one thing that really stood out is that I wanted to be part of a global conversation of change, what what that change looked like I knew had to be people driven. And so my heart was drawn towards policy. As a result of that. It was like, you know, maybe the policy world is where we kind of change institutions. And we reimagine, like structures so that people are enabled to make change within it. And that is what then brought me to the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. So I got to get to you, as a master's student in international development. Not knowing fully what that was, but I was drawn to it. I felt as if I knew that it would draw me into a circle, where people across the globe are asking the same pertinent questions about the world. And I knew that it would hold the integrity of human life at the core of how change should happen. And so um, but it was in gifts via under, you know, the great tutelage of Dr. Louis Picard, where I then was able to access opportunities of research within the African continent like full circle, concerning economic development. And that is where I saw the power of entrepreneurship. That that was it. It was in those early days of being a young graduate student, I was 2223 years old, in South Africa, visited again, 25 in Senegal, but saw individuals make incredible novelty with what they had at hand. And it was what they were providing for their community that was starting to not only invoke the creativity, and the value creation and others, but it was also starting to demand changes, and legal systems and institutional institutions so as to enable them to realize that that's where the change is, it is invoked by people. So that's what took me on this journey of entrepreneurship. And I've been on it ever since.

You have been at the helm of the Massey center. Can you talk a little bit about what that means one of the services one of the programs or classes?

Sure. So Tomasi center was reinvigorated in 2016. We have an incredible dean of our business school, the Michelle Patrick, who restruck like a really great relationship with a massive charitable trust. And I arrived at the same time, where as she was looking for a director. So she came and gave me a gentle nudge. And so at that time, the Massey center had to be it had to be re, almost like, reconfigured, like reimagined. And one of the first questions that we asked ourselves that I asked myself was, what's the DNA of arm you like? Who is rMu of arm, you put a stamp on entrepreneurial action? What would that look like? And so after conversations with Dean's and different colleagues, and students across the campus, it, you know, became very clear that rMu has a green innovation, innovative culture. But it all that takes place alongside a very strong brand and identity around professional prowess, you know that the students that are coming from rMu would be positioned to be effective thinkers and doers within their respective professions. And then alongside that, is this third stream of identity of being really heartfelt, you know, rMu has, is really kind of homegrown, humble persona, you know, if I'm you as was was like, a person at a coffee shop, they would give you a big smile, and then listen to all you have to say that ask the question later, like this is a really good heart of a campus, believes in people and believes in taking care of people. So taking all those these nuggets in, we thought that we could cultivate a center that helps to support individuals who are about action, and hence, who are about entrepreneurial action, whether it be through their own venture, to through founding a startup, or whether it be through the platform that their profession provides them. Because we believe that entrepreneurship is probably a method. It's an approach to life, but it's also an approach to cultivating very serious solutions for very serious problems. And so that's what the message center has become. It's become this epicenter of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking on campus that helps to cultivate leadership. in our, in our students to be entrepreneurial, either through venture creation or through what we call workplace innovation. And it does this by providing a suite of CO curricular and extracurricular programming. We are constantly seeking and fostering relationships with across campus and across the region. So we also support our curricular bedrock of of courses, which are fully committed to entrepreneurship known as the undergraduate certificate in entrepreneurship and innovation. So yeah, we keep ourselves busy. And our students do too.

Are you seeing the demand? How are you seeing a demand for engagement in all this? Oh,

I love this question. I love because when, you know, when we first got started, I think entrepreneurship, it wasn't a new conversation, in general, but I think it was a new conversation when thinking about his position at the university. So you know, I'm also a full time academic, I teach on average 100, you know, about 100 students a semester. And when I would engage with my own class, my own students in the class of entrepreneurship and innovation, I would ask especially Adria like 2016 2017, I would ask them say, so anyone with entrepreneurial ambitions, anyone want to, you know, kind of start your own thing. And they will look at me. And in the beginning, it would be like the one slow hand that creeps up, and then they do the wave, you know, because it's like on the shore, but maybe sweater and then they put your hand down. But then I would ask, okay, that's cool. That's fine. And if you have relatives, friends, who are entrepreneurs, and at least like maybe out of a class of 48, would raise your hand, I'm like, aha, so it's in our million like it's around us, you know, whether or not we're seeing ourselves take that on. So that was 2016 2017. Now, what we have started to see is that usually midway through our different entrepreneurial curriculum, bad attitudes with shift, so where it was one person with like the unsure hand, now we'll see about a third of the class pop their hand up. What has been really cool is that we develop this certificate program of which the capstone courses is a lab, and we call it our business model innovation lab. Brand new course just offered this semester. We expected I expected let me just open it I expected like 10 or so students, you know, true. Just movers and shakers. Gonna make it happen. We got 38, you got near 40. And that was and we've just gotten started. It's only been here two and a half of the program. So we're starting to see the momentum pick up we have a new Fellowship Program committed entrepreneurship that has 10 new fellows under the rock well named Rockwell fellows

are also leading that tell us about the fellowship. Sure.

So the Rockwell fellowship on entrepreneurship and innovation is funded by the ken Rockwell foundation. And it is brand spanking new and it has been so much fun. Our students across campus are so incredible, what working with this first cohort of 10 students has been very promising as to what is just brimming on the campus. So the work the wrapper fellowship provides a selected cohort of students we bring in 10 every year so this is our first cohort of 10 with the curricular support through the certificate program, but then also very specialized and targeted support through networking, through prototyping resources, and through other kind of venture building resources that we could provide, we try our best to really kind of get them out there like it's easy to sit in the classroom. We want to get them to meet people want them to start to activate their ideas. And so we have our we're right now starting we're gonna assume start to recruit for our second cohort which will start in the fall and in addition, they're given a scholarship for two years.

So you know, get a lot of things are going on at arm right I heard about the scholarships via Netflix we you know, there's just a the athletic you know, growth there just to name it and the amount of innovation there. It's just we didn't have time to cover it all. To you. Um, you've been in Pittsburgh now for how long?

I since we've come back, well, I'm, I'm a boomer. Boomer anger. I Boomerang So as you know, I was here in Pittsburgh since 2002. Initially, then finished up my doctoral program in 2010. My first academic position was actually overseas. So I was a professor at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa for six years. So then in 2016, my family and I came back. So I've been back in Pittsburgh for this second round since 2016.

And so what do you think? What do you think from where you're sitting? Because the world that we live in, we talked about is innovation, tech, entrepreneurship, etc. So what what do you see?


I tell you this, Audrey. Um, when I left in 2010, yes. CRISPR was at the beginning of this was the beginning of this exploration of, of what its innovation identity could be, again, always here, but I think it was it was brilliant. It was simmering. I remember being a graduate student assistant for now, Dean Sabina Dietrich, Associate Dean Sabina Dietrich ecosphere, and at that time, she was doing research on the possibilities of the emerging like biotechnology and biomedical technology industry in the region. That was there. That was like 2008 2009, then I left, and I came back. And I said, what has happened, like, the conversation around the startup vigor was you It was so thick, it was, so the pulse was high, like it was so energetic, and I said, something like, I'd only been away for six years. And so to see what was happening around the different type of support organizations and definitely like, positioned themselves, to see the different circles and associations that were dedicated to entrepreneurs and startup founders, to see the strengthening of the programs across the universities, and then mid size universities like rMu, starting to move into that space, even like more intentionally, to see the it was it was just, it was incredible. And so I think that we have the we have the pieces of the machine moving. And I think what I'm seeing is that there is more and more a very mindful effort to make sure that those pieces of the machine are as seamless as possible together. So we had this, you know, we use the word ecosystem all the time, you know, as I always question, you know, yeah, we want to make sure though, that our ecosystem isn't needlessly crowded. And we also want to make sure that our ecosystem is integrated. We want to make sure that that flow of resources that is supposed to take place within or between the different actors that occupy the ecosystem isn't hindered. And that that flow of resources and information can be accessed by those who have that vigor to build something. So I'm seeing folks in the middle of this who are asking those questions as we're building this Pittsburgh entrepreneurial environment. And that that excites me that really excited there

are a couple of there a couple of like statements, and I think Nancy Washington started something. And she didn't finish it. Recent McKinsey report shows that black entrepreneurs, do you know what, Nancy, if you want to complete that Jonathan will grab it. The rest are just statements. Right. No other questions? You gotta

know about this Pepys thing? Come on?

I don't have anything about that. Do you? elliana about the pizza? About the No,

I don't think that. Okay.

So what do you see are some of the biggest obstacles and challenges in innovation? And then I want to, and then, Sarah, you should hear some of her research because I think some of that she's explored.

Okay. Oh, well, some of the biggest challenges, I think, for innovation within the Pittsburgh environment. It kind of goes away, where we were coming from with regards to this idea of this arbitrary environment is unreal ecosystem. I come from a background of, of economics, sociology. So the whole premise of that is that any economy is able to thrive and is able to internally interact as enabled by the status of society. And so if society is, you know, harmonious integrated, then presumably the economy will be as well and then also vice versa. I think we, I think what can be of eight, what can be and it's a challenge to Pittsburgh was that true to form it's both is, you know, my husband will call it the, it's, um it's a it's a, it's a poetic law where you have, you know, small communities that for long over generations have cultivate deep seated relationships within themselves. And as results are pretty airtight, like they're strengthened. But yet at the same time when it comes to the connectedness between communities, we see very weak and sometimes fragile connectedness. So then therein lies the question, how do we build an economy that is truly cross cutting and integrated, when our society is still working towards that? I think that shows up with entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial resources, when made available to folks who may not sit in the middle of the, in the middle of the action. So and that and and they could be excluded based upon accurately based upon attributes of race, based upon attributes of gender, based upon even attributes of geographic positioning. So back to that question of this idea of an entrepreneurial environment, are all actors and institutions and organizations and and the resources that flow between them? How do we make sure that they're available to black entrepreneurs, to entrepreneurs of color to immigrant entrepreneurs, as well, to female entrepreneurs, to entrepreneurs who live outside of Pittsburgh? How do we make sure that that that fluidity across this thing that we celebrate as this entrepreneurial ecosystem is as unhindered as possible?

Yeah, that's a great point. And we got to have a lot of care and feeding. And a lot of candor, and personal reflection, and policy reflection can make those things happen. So Nancy Washington gave another start. She said a recent McKinsey report shows that black entrepreneurs are more likely to fall to fail than others, because of the combination of economics marketing, socio cultural reasons. Have you seen any models that can change that narrative? And she apologized, she sent it to me and she apologized for the false false start

isn't anything? Um, have I seen any models at the change that narrative? I have seen examples, or I've seen work that I think is exciting. Um, I'll take one, internationally to start. So you know, Johannesburg, South Africa, where I spent a good part of the beginning of my career, you know, it's, it's race dynamic, kind of mirrors that of the United States with regards to historically institutionalized segregation and of black people, and then also the, the hindrance, or sometimes a blockage of their access to certain resources, or certain platforms by which to get make their work possible. And a one particular organization that I appreciated, which I took my students to see, because we circled back to South Africa as rMu, now in 2019, and I was able to take my students back to Johannesburg. And there, they have what they call the river sands business incubator. And this thing is the size of an entire campus. The Quint essentially at its core, what they recognize was that one, sure, you know, the foundational knowledge and the foundational skill sets are necessary. So yes, let there be training and marketing and accounting and leadership, and you know, how to achieve and maintain financial viability, and so on and so forth. But they made it a campus at large, because what they also realized was that there was a need to create a physical community of entrepreneurship, or entrepreneurs, for black entrepreneurs, black South African entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color, where they not only have access to, they have access to office or to workspace like that is sizable, you're talking about, not just like a small, a small office, but a place that can actually hold a small production facility for each entrepreneur, that's part of it. So now they have access to the space, they have access to the material, there's also the learning and then they have access to each other. And they in it, because they realized that some of the hindrances when it came, when it kept when it came to black entrepreneurs being able to afford was the inability of, of accessing assets, the inability of accessing anything from a storefront to a particular type of high quality machinery that you need in order to ensure the high quality of your products, you know, and how can those subtle, how can those subtle hindrances or obstacles How could those be addressed as well? Then, of course, the creation of the community by wishing There is a strengthening and a resilience, resilience creation by connecting to each other, but then also how they are able to find the people who will vouch the individuals who about an open doors and sponsor them when they are engaging with the market. Because we know that the market is is behavioral and it could be biased. And so they have found that that model has been helpful in helping to kind of respond to some of those very deeply embedded prejudices that kind of keep black entrepreneurs from being able to thrive.

So, you know, you I went and looked at some of these papers that you've written over the years, and the one that is very interesting to me, given what you're talking about. I'm gonna read the title, it's DS work synergies, conceptualizing African American entrepreneurship based upon translocal. Yeah, yeah. So what does that mean for? What does that really mean? You did you co authored? Yes.

That was my awesome colleague, Joy olabisi, who's an associate professor at the Saunders School of Business, which is at the Rochester Institute for technology. And there, we were exploring, we were particularly looking at the power of the entrepreneurial power of the, of the, of the African diaspora of the black diaspora. So we're, you know, in entrepreneurship these days, so much we're celebrating the idea of the born Global's, you know, the, the businesses that are launched with the intention of being able to engage with international markets and doing it and achieving it. And we're also, you know, increasingly talking about the idea of our whole, like, supply chain design, like how we're able to source maybe really, really useful, or high quality inputs or material from different parts of the globe, by which we then you know, a value and produce in another part to then make it available to another region. And so that was particularly looking exploring the power of the connectedness between our African Diaspora people of African descent here in the United States, and the African continent, and then other communities of African descent, other parts of the world, including the Caribbean, and just examining like the power of the again, the flow, you know, the flow of information in recent my research was a network. So the flow of information and resources between nodes that occupy like individuals or organizations that occupy the the black diaspora, and we, we was a conceptual paper. So what we were proposing was that, there is a lot to be said, there's a lot to be gleaned from local networks, and transnational networks. So our local community of venture building, with, with entrepreneurs, with fellow black entrepreneurs, as well as entrepreneurs that are really interested in wanting to collaborate or wanting to join forces, but then there's also power in exploring relationships with entrepreneurial forces that are taking place and other parts of the globe as well, including the African continent. So you know, I have a great friend who I adore so much, and I mean, Pittsburgh adores or liketo Wolf, who runs ujamaa. I'm instrumental in the uzoma collective. And I think of her as a very incredible force when it comes to the idea of the trans local network.

That's great. So you know, you, you are really a blessing for us here in Pittsburgh, at Robert Morris, we're gonna continue to pull you out a little bit. Because we know that the work even just we did the Civic hackathon. And Ileana was a judge was a judge. And, you know, you've been in Graceland and one of your classes, right?

I did. I did. I, I thought about sending a message

like, hey, this was so great. I use it in my class. So we were

talking about design thinking, you know, it's a popular conversation amongst the entrepreneurial community, and has been for a while as an approach to innovation and I raised the question of the COVID vaccine dissemination efforts. And I asked my students of which several have elderly parents or grandparents, which they are thinking about, you know, which they're trying to secure access to the vaccine floor. And like, if any of you could offer, um, if any of you could offer an alternative way of doing this, what would that be? And from whose vents points. Are you? Like, whose vantage point are you considering when you think of this alternative way? So some students suggested, you know, well, maybe it could be, it could be a more mobile effort where the vaccine can be brought to people's homes and administered in their homes for elderly who aren't able to get out, you know, maybe it is one of our, you know, students pushed against the grain, he was like, well, maybe there's nothing wrong with the process, maybe there needs to be an innovative effort to help to educate us so that we're more patient. And our expectations are managed, and the conversation was great. And so then I was like, Well, here's the winner of the Civic innovation hackathon. who approached it from a scheduling, a scheduling and a kind of convenient of information point. And I showed them their pitch from the competition, and I was like, wow, if that works, that'd be really great. Like that, that would be really, really, really great. So um, so yes, it was, it's so great to be able to bring those experiences that I have, and experiences that even other entrepreneurs have brought into the classroom, especially for a conversation. That's so now it's so timely.

Well, we have spent 30 wonderful minutes with you. I tried to pack in as much as we could. And it's been thrilling to have this conversation. If people want to reach out to you. Can they reach out on LinkedIn? Is that the best way or through your website over at rMu?

Yet LinkedIn is great. I'm also my email address student University. It's very simple is Griffin L. My last It comes straight to my computer straight to my phone. Yeah, happy to engage with more and more thoughtful individuals from across the region and from across the world. Yeah, are you it's picking up this momentum. And we have this growing community of energetic and forward thinking students. And and yeah, we're looking to continue with that energy.

Well, I can't thank you enough. Just the fact that you have 100 students in a semester on top of everything else. Thank you, and how you keep up and and with the family. But we're lucky to have you here in Pittsburgh. I'm really appreciate you taking the time with us. And get you can find her she's easy to find, and we're gonna stay connected to you as well. So I want to thank you Ileana for taking the time with us today.

And what do we have coming up? Tomorrow we have jeans a Julius from visit, Mo stopping by to talk about all things analytics. I mean, everything from vaccine distribution to debunking social media myths, and everything in between. And we also have Teresa Huber stopping by on Thursday, and we're ending up the week with Congressman lamb so we've got a heck of a schedule in front of us. That's great. All right. Well, I want to thank everyone for joining us today. Thank you so much Giuliana for being a champion and for the work that you're doing, we will stay connected to you guys. You

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