Feb. 14, 2023 | Podcast

Episode 12: Leveraging Innovation for Companies At Any Scale

Betsy Ziegler, CEO of innovation hub 1871

About the episode

What does it mean to enable innovation—whether your company is a start-up, a fast growing company, or a mature corporate? In this episode, Betsy Zeigler, CEO of the nonprofit innovation hub 1871, discusses how her organization works to unlock and accelerate innovation at organizations of all stages. 


Betsy Ziegler

CEO of 1871, Chicago’s innovation hub and the No. 1 ranked private business incubator in the world. Betsy has previously served as the Chief Innovation Officer at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and is a board member, investor, and TedX speaker.


To start off, could you share what 1871 is and what kind of services you offer?

1871 is a 10-year-old nonprofit innovation hub. At our core, regardless of who we’re working with, we aim to enable, unlock, and accelerate innovation. I, along with my team, work with people on various levels: people who have an idea and are trying to figure out if that idea can turn into a business, people who have already reached product market fit and are scaling, and those who are in corporate land trying to figure out their innovation strategy. Our job is increasing the probability of success and decreasing the time to reach that success. 

As for our services, we focus on some primary points that help guide companies based on their level. For instance, if it is an early-stage company, we focus more on building a community. For a more grown company, it is about how to ensure the team continues to up level across many functional areas. When you are a corporate company, it is more about spreading awareness and making connections to what is happening in the outside world. 

How do you think organizations are embracing digital?

From what I have seen, newer and growing companies are foundationally digital. Everything is designed digital. However, it is the big corporates that are trying to figure out how to translate something they have built over decades to being more digital. I also think big corporates have teams of thousands of people who did not start out in a digital way, so it is about bringing together your product and team to unlock data and execute digital strategy. 

In your opinion, do you think you need to be digital to be more innovative, or do you need to be innovative to be more digital? 

Honestly, I think that the theme of “digital” is as much a mindset as it is actually being digital. In my meta view, I have accepted that the norm now is that there is going to be constant change, whether it’s the need of the employees or the customers, and I am always going to need to evolve and adapt. The ability to change is what I think is a part of the digital narrative. However, when you think about innovation to talk about driving change, you can embrace innovation to be digital.

I don’t think you need digital to drive innovation, but I don’t think you can be digital without innovation. Innovation and digital are, at the core, inseparable.


How do you coach people on the importance of finding the problem statement and articulating the statement in a way that is helpful? 

I think no matter what your profession is, scientist, veterinarian, nurse, or anything else, the two most important skills people should know are 1) how to define a problem, 2) how to influence or drive change.

One of the training courses I offer to my team and the other founders I work with is how to start working on a problem in a group. It is essential for teams to start slow, really discuss what the problem is, what success looks like, a time period, and how to get to success before doing anything else. Such conversations provide an overall structure to the team, which in turn increases efficiency and reduces room for error. 

Who owns innovation in an organization?

In my perspective, innovation happens everywhere in an organization. However, the question is how innovation is being talked about to understand its value. I think organizations must have a person responsible for talking about innovation and a shared metric that the team can agree upon. I think some companies have figured out having such a person where the role is more cross-functional across business units. For instance, if you look back, Chief Marketing Officer was not a role that existed, but today it is a key role in the growth of your company. Similarly, I think career roles that handle talking about innovation such as Chief Digital Officer or Chief Innovation Officer will be more evident. 

What are you most excited about when it comes to 1871? What’s next for 1871?

The most exciting thing to me is the people and positivity I am surrounded by. The last few years have obviously been difficult overall, but the people I get to meet and help solve problems with every day have a positive mindset who see constraints as opportunities to be agile and do something new. I also particularly get excited by solving problems I didn't even know existed. Overall, I am always inspired by the community of people I work with. 
 As for what’s next, we went virtual due to the pandemic so now my goal is to be able to reach even more people globally. In the last three decades, most of the job growth has been due to startups, and now my mission is to ensure that this job creation cycle continues, and I can reach and help more people looking to start up more companies. 

What does being digital mean to you?

Being digital for me is about the mindset. It is the sense of embracing change and using data to understand the upcoming shifts and being agile so you can deliver quickly. 

This is Digital

West Monroe's team of experts and guests pull back the curtain on how to build digital throughout an organization. Through real-world examples, you will learn how to spot digital transformation in real life, and how to make small decisions every day that make a big impact on growth.

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