Alumni innovators eagerly return to Grinnell to share wisdom with students

Sept. 7, 2018  Douglas Caulkins, a Grinnell College emeritus professor of anthropology, is the first to admit a class mainly devoted to alumni speakers is not the usual way of teaching.

“But it sure makes sense to the people who participate because it’s a class about living experiences,” Caulkins said.

Douglas Caulkins
    Douglas Caulkins

Entering its 13th year in its current form, the course, Leading Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and two related spring courses have been a hit among both students and alumni. This fall’s class will featured 13 Grinnell College alumni coming back to share stories with students, as well as interested faculty, staff, and community members.

Anyone is welcome to sit in on the alumni presentations, which take place from 3 to 3:50 p.m. (on the dates listed further below) in the Noyce ’49 Science Center, Room 2022.

The setting is especially fitting because Robert N. Noyce himself was the first alumnus to come speak in a Caulkins-taught class. In 1984, Caulkins wrote Noyce, co-founder of Intel and co-creator of the first microchip, a letter inviting him to speak. Alumni speakers have been some part of Caulkins’ courses ever since, with the current format established in 2006.

The classes typically are one of the most popular on campus with more than 100 students enrolled in the courses annually. In fact, the spring courses, Learning from Alumni and Sustainability and Social Responsibility in Organizations, were the two highest enrolled Grinnell courses this past spring.

Many alumni have come back multiple times to talk with classes. Part of the reason relates to Grinnell’s emphasis on giving back, but it’s also because alumni have enjoyed interacting with students.

“At Grinnell, it’s regarded as highly appropriate and even expected that alumni help out students who come after them,” Caulkins says. “Alumni are serving the College by using their experiences to communicate with the students and serving as a networking opportunity. Alumni frequently write to me about how this experience made them feel good about what their lives have produced. They love fielding questions from students.”

Cullen Davis ’94, a real estate developer who is dedicated to preserving and rebuilding areas of Chicago, wrote Caulkins a note after his class presentation in 2017.

“I found the class interaction to be really energizing and it spurred me to have a break through on my current deal in which we are charged with creating a framework for helping solve generational poverty,” Davis said.

After the presentations, students in the class have the option of joining the speaker for coffee and/or dinner. Students are required to have at least five of these informal interactions with speakers per semester.

“Without fail, every alum who comes to speak talks about networking,” Caulkins says. “These informal get-togethers produce a networking opportunity. The students learn a lot and in several cases the informal conversations have led to internships, jobs, letters of recommendation, or introductions to colleagues or other alumni.”

The courses are sponsored by the Donald and Winifred Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership. Thus, there is a strong entrepreneurial thread present.

“The fall classes focuses on innovation and entrepreneurialism,” Caulkins said. “How do people get these ideas started? The spring class focuses on sustainability. How to keep these things going.”

Several of this fall’s speakers have demonstrated genuine innovation.

“They are good speakers who relate well to the students,” Caulkins said. “They have good stories to share. All of the speakers are real innovators. Attendees will learn a lot from them.”

The fall speaker lineup:

Marcus Eagan ’11
    Marcus Eagan ’11
  • Sept. 7Marcus Eagan ’11 leads a team of software engineers at Ford Motor Co., where he works on a global software platform with team members in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. He also founded Nodal Security, a system for securing home networks for remote employees.
  • Sept. 10Bryan Boyce ’08 is the founder and director of Cow Tipping Press, a program that teaches creative writing for adults with developmental disabilities. For his efforts with the program, Boyce was awarded Grinnell’s Joseph F. Wall ’41 Service Award in 2015.
  • Sept. 12Chris Bair ’96 is the environmental and safety manager for Grinnell College and heads the EcoCampus committee that selects the winner of the Leonard Kurz Sustainability Grant competition. Grant proposals are submitted by students in the spring.
  • Sept. 14Asha Moran ’92 is a partner in Glen Street Capital, a lower- middle-market investment group that seeks to create value through business ownership. She also is a principal with Clear Path, a management consulting firm providing advisory, strategic planning, and interim leadership services.
  • Sept. 19Lori Myren-Manbeck ’86 is a licensed clinical psychologist and creator of Inclusivi-tee, a company that creates wearable art and donates profits to organizations involved in making the world a better place.
  • Sept. 28Nancy Radermecher ’83 is president at JohnRyan, a Minneapolis company that creates digital signage and messaging solutions for leading retailers and banks.
  • Oct. 1Amelia Lobo ’99 is assistant director of major gifts for the Grinnell College Office of Development and Alumni Relations. She previously served as director of credit and lending at the Iowa Center for Economic Success, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Iowans.
  • Oct. 3Mitchell D. Erickson ’72 facilitates science and technology activities with other federal, state, tribal, and territorial agencies for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
  • Oct. 12James Decker ’75 is a retired data scientist who led Proctor & Gamble’s pharmaceuticals statistical computing group. He currently has a consulting role with an oncology analytics firm.
  • Oct. 31Cameo Carlson ’93 is president of mtheory Nashville. She has been at the forefront of the digital music revolution from its earliest stages.
  • Nov. 2Will Schnabel ’89 is an experienced marketing and technology executive who found and ran a marketing technology start-up providing a cloud-based offering that was eventually purchased by IBM.
  • Nov. 5Kenji Yoshino ’11 invented and released the plans for the first smartphone microscope. He is now retooling it into a commercial-grade microscope to sell directly to consumers online.
  • Nov. 30Jeff Dickey-Chasins ’81 specializes in working with online job sites and related recruiting services. He previously was the first marketing director for, the world’s largest IT job site.

—by Jeremy Shapiro

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