When Marketing Communication faculty member Sharon Tolpin Topper recruited author and television host Tim Gunn for the 2021 MarComm Speaker Series, their first collaboration at Emerson, they discovered a special chemistry. They teamed up again in the Fall semester to encourage students’ entrepreneurial interests and provide resources for them to help their communities. The product of their efforts was the “Innovation for Impact” program, which debuted as an intensive, three-week winter term course.
“I fell in love with Emerson,” Tim said, indicating that the experience had as much impact on him as the students.
This summer, he and Topper are bringing Innovation for Impact back as a seven-week program, with a new slate of speakers and a renewed excitement for students’ ingenuity. All students are encouraged to pitch an idea for the program, regardless of year or major. Applications are being accepted until April 22.
Emerson Today talked to Topper and Gunn about the summer iteration of Innovation for Impact.
Q: What was behind the creation of Innovation for Impact?
Sharon: Tim’s involvement with Emerson started with the webinar series we did …[in] February . The theme was ‘Leading with Equity, Integrity, and Empathy.’ I knew of Tim peripherally through my sister since they worked together at Parsons School of Design for a very long time. As soon as we came up with this theme, I knew I needed Tim to kick off this series. After we finished the webinar series, we wanted to find other ways that we can continue to engage Tim with the Emerson community.
Tim: When Sharon invited me to do the webinar, we just had fantastic chemistry. You never know until you actually work with someone what that relationship will be like. I fell in love with Sharon, and I’ve made a vow. Sharon’s my academic Heidi [a reference to his longtime TV partner/producer Heidi Klum]. I won’t do anything academically without her. We had a blast during the winter term course. It was invigorating. It was inspiring. We look forward to doing it again.
Sharon: Both Tim and I have had our commercial success, but then we also have always made it a point to give back, to do things in our lives that support causes that we believe in. So our idea was, why don’t we do a class on innovation—on being able to take any idea and envision what it would look like to turn it into a reality? We came up with the idea of “Innovation for Impact.” The students can come up with any idea that in some way betters the human condition.
Tim: In the case of our winter term students, these were issues that were very personal to them. There was a passion, there was a fire inside. That meant that Sharon and I didn’t have to fan the flames. They were already there. It was really a pleasure and a treat, to be able to bear witness to these incredible young people, their creativity and zeal.
Q: The program was adapted to be held this summer, so the instruction is more spread out. What other changes and new details can students expect?
Tim: It’s all about the students. They really determine what direction we take and what kind of sequence we may have in guest speakers and instruction in general. Sharon and I are there to help guide and direct. Our orchestra happens to be the students, so they come with their metaphorical instruments and they play. It’s all to be determined.
And quite frankly, it’s what keeps me energized, being a teacher because you don’t know what you’re going to get. It’s thrilling to see the unexpected. During the winter term, I was blown away by the objects that the students brought to us and also blown away by the refinement that occurred over those mere three weeks. Sharon and I are looking at the seven weeks thinking, “This is a luxury. This is like being in a five-star resort.”
Sharon: This summer, we will actually have time to think about things between classes. The three weeks were so intense. We are, as Tim said, forever learners ourselves, and so we’re learning how to make it better. [For] the seven weeks, we’re bringing a whole new slate of speakers, which is also such an important part of this class.
Q: Can you give us some details regarding the new speakers?
Sharon: We are bringing in experts from the fields of human-centric design, branding, and storytelling. Just as a teaser, we have already gotten OKs from someone who used to be with Kickstarter for five years, to guide the students into seeing how crowdsourcing plays a part in fundraising. There’s also Sara Rea…
Tim: I’ve worked with Sara for nearly 13 years. She was the showrunner on Project Runway. When Heidi and I moved on to Amazon, we insisted that Amazon Studios at least interview Sara, and they fell in love with her too and since then she has been running Making The Cut. She’s very creative and very resourceful. She and I are going to talk about the Making The Cut journey this summer.
Sharon: We also recruited the chief communications officer from the MSPCA to talk about value-driven organizations. For us, it’s going to be almost like a new class. Seven weeks gives a little bit more breathing room for the students to revise their ideas and work with each other.
Q: All of the program’s students come from different backgrounds, ages and majors. What attribute or quality brings them all together?
Sharon: What we learned from the first time is that they learned so much from each other. We’re going to make that a more formal part of the class so that they break into peer-to-peer supervision where they can help each other develop their projects. What ties them together is that they’re all dreamers in the best way. They dream of a better world, and they’re part of making that a reality.
Tim: As we know, life’s a big collaboration. No one’s a solo, so we don’t want any of the students operating as solos.
Q: What does the process of refining ideas look like? What sort of guidance and collaboration should participants expect?
Sharon: It could be anything from analyzing the market that they plan to enter, to talking about perceived competitors. What’s the unique value proposition? Who would be potential partners in their venture? What is the need that they’re filling? Every day is an adventure.
Tim: At the core of the experience for the student is very substantial problem-solving. That translates to everything in our lives. Everything that we do is a kind of problem-solving—through the introductions that we make, the structure of the course and the subsequent experiences of the students. I can’t help but think that this won’t have an impact on all their other work and also how they conduct their lives.
Sharon and Tim are excited to see students’ project pitches and officially select 12-16 of them to pursue during the summer program. Applicants will be notified of the selections on April 27.
Isa is a sophomore journalism major minoring in media studies. She is from Omaha, Nebraska but loves coming back to the city. Outside of coursework, Isa is the Managing Editor of Your Magazine, the secretary of Emerson's chapter of NAHJ and a freelance writer for publications nationwide. She loves reading in the Common, going for long runs and sipping iced coffee.