Innovative Thinking, Chicago Style

by Jay London on May 1, 2013

in Alumni Life, Events, Learning, Media

Chunka Mui '84

Chunka Mui ’84

MIT has more than 126,000 alumni and nearly 100,000 live away from the Boston-Cambridge area. And while alumni away from campus can feel separated from Institute happenings, there are many ways to stay connected.

An example of this is View from the Top, an Alumni Association event that brings together Institute alumni and community members for networking and discussion in locations throughout the U.S. The interactive events feature prominent alumni who share their professional journey and provide perspectives on innovation, entrepreneurship, and the role MIT played in their lives and careers.

Smita Shah SM '96

Smita Shah SM ’96

The most recent event, “Innovative Thinking, Chicago Style,” took place on Thursday, April 25, 2013, and focused on a variety of topics, including the future of the automotive industry, innovations in printing technology, hiring strategies, and the perils of building a company from scratch.

The program, which was moderated by Scott Marks ’68, SM ’69, former vice chairman of the First Chicago NBD Corporation, and featured GrubHub co-founder Michael Evans ’99, MNG ’00; author Chunka Mui ’84; and entrepreneur Smita Shah SM ’96 and Gordon Smith SM ’90, ScD ’93, CTO of GSI Technologies.

Mui began the program by sharing one simple business strategy: Start small, think big, and learn fast. He discussed the dichotomy between Google’s innovative self-driving car with the slowly-evolving strategies of traditional vehicle manufacturing—a $35 trillion industry.

“Failure comes from companies that only rely on incremental change—that’s thinking small,” Mui said. “Companies like Google rely on the law of disruption, which is basically making changes based on advances in technology. That’s thinking big.”

Evans, a finalist for the 2011 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, shared the origins of Grub Hub, which began as a side project in 2004 and now has investment funding of more than $84 million. GrubHub is a web-based company that allows users to find takeout restaurants and order online for free.

(From left) Smith, Mui, Evans, Marks, and Shah

(From left) Smith, Mui, Evans, Marks, and Shah

“In true MIT fashion, GrubHub started as an all-nighter,” he says. “It started as a small idea—I was basically sick of ordering pizza from the same place. So I took this problem and tried to write a code to solve it.”

Evans also discussed the company’s rapid evolution, which featured new technology, employees, and strategies.

“Innovation is, to a large degree, identifying problems,” he says. “Sometimes you can break those problems into smaller problems. We tackled questions like ‘How do we make service better?’ and updated technology like switching from fax orders to tablets.”

Shah, the CEO of the SPAAN Tech engineering firm discussed how her MIT education helped prepare her for a successful professional career.

The Chicago alumni host committee: Christopher Resto ’99; Alex Menchaca ’85; Claudia Perry ’81; Aaron Barlow ’86: and Benjamin Hellweg ’97, SM ’00.

The Chicago alumni host committee: Christopher Resto ’99; Alex Menchaca ’85; Claudia Perry ’81; Aaron Barlow ’86: and Benjamin Hellweg ’97, SM ’00.

“MIT is home to the best virtues of education—it’s elite but not elitist,” Shah says. “The school of life can be hard and MIT prepares you for that. You have to be good to be part of the MIT club but you’re encouraged to do well. It takes a very structured approach.”

Smith discussed how his MIT education prepared him for a career beyond his degree in chemical engineering.

“Innovation can take time,” he says. “It doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s important to adapt technologies from sister markets—it’s something our company has been very successful with.”

Other recent View from the Top events include “Global Capital Markets,” which was held in New York and featured Goldman Sachs director Armen Avanessians ’81, and “Exploration: New Frontiers in a New Era,” a Houston event moderated by Emmy-winning meteorologist Gene Norman ’82.

The program, which began in 2008, has also taken place in Boston, London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Check the Alumni Association site for information on future events.

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