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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

How Radiate Works aims to help companies unlock innovation

Radiate Works is a new innovation and strategy consulting firm launched by some very experienced folks. I met one of the founders, Melissa Carrier, last March up in Littleton, in Halifax County, at an innovation conference held by the Kerr-Tar Regional Council of Governments and the Kerr-Tar Workforce Development Board.

Carrier, then the director of the Office of Social Innovation at Innovate Carolina at UNC Chapel Hill, was leading a session on “Unlocking Your Innovation Spirit.” I was impressed by her presentation of how various kinds of bias interfere with creativity and innovation. 

In September, Carrier and Elizabeth Benefield, who had been at N.C. State, started up their new consultancy.

Talking to both of them was a chance to learn what their business does but also how to start a consulting business.  

Who they are

Carrier, a chemical engineer by training, with a Wharton MBA, spent the early part of her career working for Andersen Consulting (pre-Accenture) and SAP, helping clients implement enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to tie together all their processes.

Carrier

Over time, she learned how organizations, large and small, for-profit and nonprofit, work and don’t work. She spent nine years at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she was founding director of the Center for Social Value Creation. She joined UNC in 2016 to do similar work, and is still a professor of practice at the School of Public Policy. 

Benefield, with a master’s degree from Duke, had an extensive background as a fundraiser in academia, at the UNC School of Social Work, and taught graduate-level classes in nonprofit management. More recently, she spent 10 years at N.C. State as director of social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Like Carrier, she was focusing on how organizations could innovate and be entrepreneurial with a larger social purpose. 

This was where much of the corporate and non-profit world has been heading over the past couple of decades, as companies and organizations tried to respond to significant changes in what people expected of them, particularly young talent coming out of universities.

Benefield and Carrier saw the need for a consulting firm that would help organizations improve their processes to deal with these challenges, not just fix specific problems.

“Our goal is never to become a consultant that works with a client to do a specific project, per se,” said Carrier, “but, rather, [to] share our methodology and bring our clients along with us. So that we’re focusing on solving a particular challenge, but that they also leave with some tools and practices so they can kind of work through the next one, and the next one and the next one.”

Tools, not just solutions

Radiate Works starts with a “strategic scan,” meetings with top management, boards and then employees at different levels. What are the hidden challenges and levers for change. Usually, one problem is connected to 10 others, so there’s work before solution design. Organizations with an action bias jump right to solutions. 

Then there is a “Deep Dive” which might include data collection, opportunity identification, brainstorming and possible solutions, including testing. There’s workshops and training in things like design thinking, collaboration, biases, and innovation tools. 

Authenticity and talent

Today, running organizations is more complicated than it used to be. They are expected to be good places to work. They are expected to hire and retain diverse workforces. They are expected to be good environmental stewards, and ensure that their suppliers are living up to their standards.

This is a change since I was an undergrad in business school; the mission then was to maximize shareholder value, i.e. make money for the owners.  

Carrier said she has seen changes in how companies recruit business students. In the early 2000s, the companies talked about how big they were, the clients they had, and their generous compensation.  

“And over time, it was more like, um, we also do really good mission-based work,” said Carrier. You could get paid time off to volunteer in the community or even longer sabbaticals.

“But, authentically, at the end of the day, did that change how they did their business practices, materially? Probably not. And I think that’s where some kind of struggled a bit.”

Meanwhile, universities were turning out graduates who wanted to work for organizations whose practices matched their social responsibility rhetoric. They wanted to work for companies where innovation had the goal of helping people, not just making a lot of money. The tensions over this can be seen in artificial intelligence and social media companies with a lot of younger talent.

“We hear from our students,” said Benefield. “They learn about social innovation and entrepreneurship and impact work and mission-driven businesses, and then they go out to find jobs, and can’t find those companies and those jobs. 

“A lot of times [companies and other organizations] hire a director of mission-alignment or something to do with impact, and try to get it contained in a staff person.”

What Radiate Works talks about with clients, she said, is “being better stewards of the planet, creating more impact, driving more customer and client loyalty and retaining new talent.  Creating cultures where people’s voices feel heard.”

“You can create a new company and make a profit, but you can also lean into social impact.”

How you build from scratch

Out of the gate, the main assets of Radiate Works were Benefield and Carrier. They had decades of experiences and relationships. That is one of the benefits of starting a consulting firm in the second half of a successful career, after you have built that foundation of experience and reputation. 

Because entrepreneurs have an action bias, there’s a tendency to come up with a product or service and start selling. Benefield and Carrier wanted to test the market. “We had an idea about what value we thought we could bring,” said Carrier, “and we had to know if people were interested in that value, and that they would pay for it.”

“So we did a lot of coffees and meetings with clients across the spectrum and sectors and sizes to explore what we were offering and the words that we were using.”

“And then from there, once we had a sense of where there was a lot of heat and light, we did a couple of pilot projects,” said Carrier. “So by the time we launched in September, I think we felt really good about where we were [and] what kind of work we wanted to take on.”

The firm’s clients have renewed and referrals are coming in. Radiate Works has had clients so far like the city of Raleigh, the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, and Walter Magazine’s WINnovation summit. It is targeting mid-sized companies and organizations where Millennials are getting C-suite jobs, new leaders who are trying to adapt to evolving stakeholders.  “We’re right at that point of time where there’s a lot of head-scratching going on,” said Benefield.

They have assembled a group of affiliate partners contracted to help with an array of tasks. The firm can scale as needed. “Lots of them have full-time jobs and do a ton of freelance on the side.”

A dozen years ago, Carrier started hearing students refer to their resumes as “portfolios.”

“And that was my big ‘aha’ moment. I had a resume and I had jobs. But these students had portfolios, and I’m not talking about, like, art students. I mean business students’ portfolios.  Their resumes were about all the different ways in which they did work in the world. That’s how they’re approaching their careers.” 

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