The IE Interview

Travis Sheridan: Fostering Innovation and Building Community

How higher education can innovate, lessons learned during COVID-19 about connectivity, and more from the NAFSA eConnection guest speaker.
Charlotte West

Travis Sheridan has spent the past 20 years designing knowledge and innovation communities in 15 cities across six countries and four continents. Passionate about building environments that lead to economic mobility and social change, Sheridan earned an undergraduate degree in psychology with a minor in conflict and peacemaking and a master’s in organizational behavior. He also completed the coursework toward a doctorate in organizational leadership. 

Sheridan spent the better part of the last decade with Venture Café, a nonprofit organization founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that has since evolved into a network of gathering spaces across the globe to foster innovation and build community. After overseeing Venture Café’s global expansion, he became chief community officer at Wexford Science + Technology, a real estate development firm that builds innovation districts around the United States.

Sheridan was a guest speaker at NAFSA’s eConnection program, where he shared his perspectives on fostering innovation and healing through community building.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


You’ve traveled considerably in your work. What have your international experiences taught you?

A lesson that I learned from Tokyo was to never underestimate the significance of a seemingly insignificant connection. I walked around Tokyo, and there’s 25 to 30 million people. I felt incredibly lost in a crowd. I had attended a Halloween party while I was there for business, and standing on a balcony on the 49th floor of this high-rise, I was talking to two people who happened to be from the United States—and we both knew somebody in common back in the United States. And it made me feel like the world is both big and small at the same time. Tokyo taught me that every interaction you have can be, and should be, a meaningful interaction, because we don’t know [at] what point we will be connected to those people again. 

Travis Sheridan
Travis Sheridan

The moment I started traveling, I realized why it was so important to get out of my ecosystem and outside of my own bubble. When I go to cities and evaluate them, I try to identify who are the boomerangs. Meaning, they lived there, they moved, and they came back. Who are the transplants? And who are the legacy people, born and raised and never really left? 

I think international education gives students who have grown up in legacy homes and families an opportunity, even if it’s just a semester. It doesn’t take much to shift a person’s perspective and for them to see that the world does not revolve around them, or their hometown, or their belief system. 

How do you connect the local, national, and international? 

There are two [examples] that I feel like capture that the most. COVID-19 has actually facilitated more connectivity, because a lot of the work that we’re doing is virtual. Venture Café runs a program every Thursday, called “the Thursday Gathering”—it does it in all of its cities. It’s usually housed within an innovation district. Now that it’s virtual, that means that people, regardless of where they live, can get connected to different innovation ecosystems. We’re really seeing some interesting connectivity. Whether it is a venture capitalist in Boston listening to a pitch from an entrepreneur in Rotterdam or Miami or Winston-Salem, without the borders, without the boundaries, it facilitates more introductions and more connectivity. 

In the analog environment, the nice thing about community and how business gets done is [that] oftentimes we start by building friendships, and then those friendships evolve into something else. We saw people that would come to Venture Café because they were traveling to a new city and they were familiar with [another] Venture Café, let’s say in St. Louis. [Then] they travel to the Netherlands, and they find Venture Café there, and they know they can meet their people—right there, their community. Even though there might be a language barrier, they know there are some similarities. That’s what’s been really interesting about building a global network: There are more people and more of these places that you can visit around the world where you can find your community.

Given the role of innovation in promoting inclusive communities, what are some lessons that higher education, and international education in particular, might take away from that?

As I mentioned during my talk, operating across disciplines and outside of silos is the first step. Those could be departmental silos or programmatic silos within the university, but also university-to-university across two geographies, [and it’s important to find] more opportunities to collaborate. That’s where the new ideas are going to come from. It really does require a subordinating of individual agendas, more of an agreement on a common goal, and less concern of who gets credit. [It is an] opportunity to celebrate the impact that’s made. 

The other piece is having student populations participate more. That’s both good for innovation and social justice, but it also allows the students to have a very practical experience while at university. For a number of years, the challenge…with our educational systems is that they produce people who are book smart but lack very practical skills. If our educational systems are able to produce innovative graduates, they’re always going to have great career opportunities. 

Do you see the current pandemic as an opportunity to promote innovation in higher education? 

Absolutely. I think that it will take [universities] being flexible in what is allowed and not allowed. What does success look like? Beyond the government structure of cities and municipalities, the educational system has been one of the slowest to evolve. We are seeing more experiential learning and challenging the status quo of the educational system and structure. But I think universities need to do that as well and be willing to take a few chances to innovate in the product that they are offering, which is the college experience. 

Whatever campuses may look like in the fall, they are not going to look like they did. Based on your experience in building inclusive communities, how can institutions not only welcome international students and students of color, but also make them feel safe? 

I think it starts with authenticity and a certain level of vulnerability by the institution acknowledging that these are not ideal conditions. This is probably not what [students] envisioned as the beginning of their college experience, just like it was not what they envisioned as their graduation ceremony from high school. These students have been living with a certain level of trauma for the last 6 months, if not more, depending on what their life circumstances are. So, acknowledging that and providing the resources either through counseling or peer support. 

Then, get these students reacclimated to the college experience in whatever way that is able to be done in the fall, because that is one of the most magical times of a person’s life. They learn about themselves. They learn about cultures. They challenge their core belief. They get in touch with their parents. Those are all things that we want kids to continue to experience, and so it’s incumbent on our universities to know what the student experience should be and give a lot of thought to creating it for a new type of user. 

The student in the fall is going to be a different type of student than we’ve seen at any other point coming into the university experience. There’s never been a perfect online education experience. And I’ve always felt like if people had to choose between online and analog, they’re going to choose analog because of the richer experience that they have during their college years. But, if we are now forced to experience most of our lives in a digital format or in a virtual format, I think we run out of excuses to not innovate in that area. A lot of it could be getting students involved and helping them create the experience that they want to have within the university. 

You talk about the importance of asking the question “for whom?” in conversations about innovation. What advice do you have for anchoring that question?

I think the important part [about asking] “for whom?” is who’s in the room when you’re asking that question. If it’s only deans and above, and you’re out there creating something for somebody else, and somebody else isn’t in the room as part of the decision process, then it’s potentially broken. The reason I think that question is so important is, if the answer to “for whom?” is Person X, and Person X has no representation at all in the process, then we have to find a way to get Person X involved in the process.

What’s the best way to bring them into the process?

Asking them, letting them show up, giving them a prototype, and giving them a blank slate. One of my favorite things [in college was] experiencing the cafeteria and the on-campus food. So, if it’s [a project for] reimagining the food experience, giving incoming freshmen a blank tray and saying, “What would you put on this five days a week? What is healthy to you?” Have them help create the product or the solution that meets their needs. Yes, you can have the dietician check it for proper nutritional balance. Then, you can have the procurement department figure out if you could even get kumquats in the wintertime. There are other people who could work on the operational side, but let’s not let the machine dictate where the car is driving. 

What does the idea of innovation as a process to improve the human condition mean in 2020? 

I’ve been working on my organization’s statements related to George Floyd’s death. Innovation is a process to improve the human condition, but if we’re not improving the quality of life for the black community, whose condition has been [affected by] systemic racism, then it’s a fool’s errand. It goes back to the “for whom?” question—whose human condition? We still see police brutality. We still see a militarization of the police force. We see a lack of understanding.

I think the university’s role in this is continuing to have people graduate who realize that they’re graduating with more questions than answers. That’s how innovation is healthy—it is that people don’t believe they have a single answer. They believe they have a piece of an answer, that they would love to add to somebody else’s, or they understand the limitations of their fractional answer and want to connect with somebody else who might have another piece to add to that. That’s how we’re going to improve the human condition—asking more questions, challenging the status quo. 

Every industry has to realize the racism that is built into its own system. Even in an industry like higher education that is about free-thinking and broadening the mind, there are still racist components and systemic racism built into that. We have to dismantle every industry, because the entire system is contaminated. I would challenge the educational industry to think about where those areas of systemic racism are and where they can be improved. • 


Travis Sheridan was the guest speaker on Day 1 of NAFSA's eConnection. Register now for the remaining days of eConnection and gain access to the recording of his talk, available through July 31.

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