From the President's Desk: Innovation in Unlikely Places
On one lonely subway ride last year, I was listening to my favorite podcast series called “How I Built This,” which interviews founders of successful startup companies. That morning I was listening to an interview with the founder of 5 Hour Energy, Manoj Bhargava. When discussing why he went into the energy drink industry he explained, “I had no interest in going into the energy drink business, I just didn’t understand why every single energy drink had so much liquid? Who wants to drink 24 ounces for the sole purpose of energy?” Through careful product placement (it can always be found at the register of the store) and rectifying a gaping hole in an industry (making sure that his energy drink was only one shot), Bhargava’s product quickly hit 1 billion dollars of annual sales.
Bhargava’s explanation of the innovation that helped him succeed really stuck with me. He said “You do not need to be a genius or an expert in a field to innovate, you just can’t accept the status quo. Innovation isn’t inventing something more complex or developing a new technology, rather, thinking differently than everybody around you.” When thinking about running for President of Syms, this line kept popping back into my head: “do something different.” Now, as I sit here today, almost two months into school and my term as a president, I realize the one thing I never calculated: how much people hate change. Change is a synonym to risk and humans are naturally risk averse.
I have now been a part of the university’s bureaucratic system for two months, and I have watched good ideas (by my council as well as other councils) get squandered for reasons that scream “we don’t want to change the status quo.” I think about other companies that failed because of an inability to take the leap of faith and change. For every Warby Parker and Tesla there are hundreds of companies that fall through the cracks. IBM created the first hard disk drive and Kodak made picture-taking accessible to the masses, but today neither is close to being a leader in its industry. I think about the future of YU and can’t help but wonder, are the glory days of YU behind her, or is the future brighter than ever before? Although nobody can answer that question definitively, I have seen sparks of hope. From the TEDx Yeshiva University initiative on campus to TAMID and the new entrepreneurship major on campus, there is innovation all around us. Students are buzzing about ways to fix the YU student emails (ystuds), help students secure high level internships and jobs, and make Shabbat life on campus more enjoyable.
Whenever I think about innovation, I think about a man who I pass by every day along the streets of Washington Heights. There are many individuals on the streets giving out advertising pamphlets for restaurants, barbers, and bars, and I typically keep walking, never glancing at the advertisement. However, one man does something a bit different. As people walk by he hits pamphlets against his hand very loudly, causing people to instinctively turn to him and make eye contact. At that point, he wishes them a good morning and asks them to read his ad. I take his ad every morning, not because I am interested in his product, but simply because he does something different than everybody else. This is not exactly what you think of when you hear the word innovation, but it hammers home the point that being different can be incredibly effective.
I conclude with a challenge to every student. Don’t be satisfied with the status quo. If you don’t like something, change it. People like you will make YU a better place when you leave than it had been when you arrived. If you need funding or support for your pursuits, just email myself or one of the other councilmen and we will do our utmost to make your dreams a reality. Innovation is not just a word for business and startups, it’s a way of life.