TechStars’ John Hill on Pushing for Innovation in Higher Ed

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John Hill, network catalyst at TechStars (and EverTrue advisor), has helped people make valuable connections to build their careers for over a decade. As the director of career services at Michigan State University, he helped grow the world’s largest LinkedIn university group. He then transitioned to LinkedIn to lead the company’s launch of university pages. Now, John helps TechStars’ network of company founders connect with each other. 

At each stop, he’s either built programs from the ground up or made seismic shifts in business practices to deliver more value to community members. We asked John what it takes to be innovative in a world that is often content with the status quo.

You’re Either Born an Innovator… Or You Force Yourself to Become One

I’ve been in the middle of it for a decade now. It’s hard to put myself in a perspective of not pushing innovation. I can give you concepts that have helped me, but there has to be a personal inflection that sets you on the pathway to pushing innovation or entrepreneurialism.

Innovators See Crisis as an Opportunity

For me, the catalyst was the recession of 2008. I was the director of career services at Michigan State University, 80 miles away from the auto industry that imploded. We had 260,000 in-state alumni, almost all of whom were immediately looking for new jobs. It was impossible to deliver for them all on a one-on-one basis.

That type of chaotic environment breeds innovation: Either we continued to do what we were doing, which wouldn’t be effective, or we could turn to technology to help us reach our goals.

We realized early in the recession that the best way to reach as many people as possible was to put people in an online space, together. So we leveraged LinkedIn groups to do that. We looked for alumni who were CEOs, company presidents, or owners and invited them to a space where they could say, “We have jobs.” Then, we put everyone who came into our office looking for work into that space, too. It became a perfect storm and just grew and grew.

We were helping people help themselves, which in turn positioned them to help the university with their own time, talent, and treasure when the time came.

[bctt tweet=”Either we continue to do what we’re doing or we can turn to technology to help us reach our goals.” username=”evertrue”]

Innovation Requires Risk

LinkedIn saw what I was doing at Michigan State and reached out. They offered me a job and I had a decision to make: Leave the comfort of my alma mater or go work as a spokesperson (I’d never done that before) and a product person (I’d never done that before, either) in San Francisco.

The risk was high, but it was worth it.

While I was at LinkedIn, we built four products including the alumni search tool and university pages. I spoke at 178 universities worldwide, teaching them to use LinkedIn to support their own career services programs and getting feedback that helped our team build better ways for alumni to connect.

I learned that the more you jump off cliffs, the less they feel like cliffs.

Passion for Helping Others Drives Innovation

I enjoy connecting people together for opportunity. I like the serendipity of making those connections.

Never have the expectation that something you do will come back to you. The ethos of TechStars is “give first”—help other people and it’ll come back to help your success. At TechStars, we’re building an online network of entrepreneurs by trying to help them first. We solve their needs, connect them to investment firms and get them tapped into ongoing learning opportunities.

We sometimes miss this give/get philosophy in higher ed. The ask is the first (or only!) time that we hear from the university.

That’s backward: We need to minimize the transaction and maximize the emotion. University affiliation is one of the most powerful affiliations that anyone will ever have. We have the choice to provide value through meaningful engagement and help people find success in their own lives… or not.

Training graduates to better navigate alumni relationships and further their careers helps them point to your organization as a crucial part of their success. The long-term support will follow.

[bctt tweet=”University affiliation is one of the most powerful affiliations that anyone will ever have.” username=”evertrue”]

Look at your organization’s approach to community and alumni engagement. In what ways are you providing ongoing value to your members or graduates? How are you helping them access the right resources to advance their careers, solve problems, and connect with each other? Is your top priority meeting the organization’s needs, or are you focused on the needs of your community?

If you aren’t happy with your answers, it may be time to take a risk, step out, and shake things up.

For out-of-the-box ideas on building strong networks, check out how Longwood University is helping students and alumni connect on LinkedIn or read up on donor-focused fundraising at Cornell.

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