UNCG Campus Weekly

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Dr. Cheryl Nakata is Bryan School’s new Distinguished Professor of Innovation

When it comes to business, Dr. Cheryl Nakata is all about the soft side.

“The best organizations that truly have innovative cultures account for the whole of people and how they work together,” said Nakata, UNCG’s new Joseph M. Bryan Distinguished Professor of Innovation.

Nakata, who joined UNCG this summer, teaches innovation in the Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Hospitality, and Tourism Department of the Joseph M. Bryan School of Business and Economics.

With very few universities offering a professorship in innovation, UNCG provides a unique opportunity for innovation to impact its students, faculty and communities.

“The Bryan School wanted to make innovation a pillar of the entire business school in research, teaching and outreach,” she said.  

The Bryan School’s diverse student population was another draw, as well as the emphasis on a clear, strategic vision.

“That articulation was attractive to me,” Nakata said. “I could see being part of a team with a goal in mind and wanting to make an impact on students.”

Prior to her appointment at UNCG, Nakata was professor of marketing and international business and department head of managerial studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has a master’s in management from Northwestern University and PhD in business administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has been recognized for her teaching with the Honors College Fellow of the Year as well as Favorite MBA Professor of the Year awards from the University of Illinois.

Before entering academia, Nakata worked for several years in managerial and analytical positions in the U.S. and China, as well as started and operated her own international business consultancy. She provided marketing research services in over 40 countries to Fortune 500 corporations to expand their global reach. She was a marketing researcher at General Mills in Minneapolis and Kraft in Chicago, and she lived and worked in China as head of business intelligence at a joint venture.

As part of her holistic and integrated approach, Nakata brings a broadened vision of innovation to UNCG – what she calls the “soft skills”: thinking, attitude, openness, relating and well-being.

“This mindfulness notion is permeating a lot of spheres,” Nakata said. “Leading companies like Google and Apple are incorporating mindfulness and soft skills into their innovation practices. They are looking at workers not as widgets who only need to crank out new products to grow the bottom line, but as people with thoughts, feelings and even physical sensations that can be positively directed toward problem solving.”

You can have the best technology to do the work of business, she added, but you also need people who know themselves and can know others in ways that build off of each other’s strengths.

“And realize the process of innovating is uncertain, messy and ripe for failure, but failure is OK in this approach,” she said.

Tapping into deeper human capacities in order to create a more thoughtful and generative innovation culture is Nakata’s interest – and she’s well aware that this human-centered language isn’t commonly heard or used in business schools.    

“So much of good ideas, motivation and energy comes out of identifying what’s possible and positive,” Nakata said. “Our tendency as problem-solvers is to look at what’s wrong, but if we tap into positive experiences or perspectives and cultivate the art of the possible, it’s a more engaging and fruitful activity or enterprise.”

At the Bryan School, Nakata said she will work with other faculty to add another foundational layer of these kinds of skills, abilities and mindsets to the innovation curricula for students.

“That way, they can become good and strong leaders not only attending to the bottom line, but empathic, servant-leaders understanding that at the end of day this is all about people moving toward a common cause and wanting to deliver on the mission of an organization.”

By Elizabeth L. Harrison

Photo courtesy of Cheryl Nakata