Q&A: The Engine of Innovation

The pandemic is disrupting business and the workplace. UCI Beall Applied Innovation Executive Director Richard Sudek says the winners will be companies that can adjust their culture to the new reality.

As Executive Director of the University of California, Irvine’s Beall Applied Innovation, Richard Sudek connects entrepreneurs and startups with resources that can help them succeed. Once described as “the master of innovation,” Sudek is also a successful entrepreneur and investor, with a long track record of successful ventures. In an interview with Catalyst, Sudek talks about what is ahead for startups, entrepreneurs and the ‘democratization’ of the workforce.

Do you think the pandemic is going to permanently affect how entrepreneurs and resources connect?

I think there will be a change. Once we’re back to whatever complete safety is, we still need to be able to do face-to-face meetings. However, I think we’re going to see more of a hybrid workplace model moving forward, especially in the investor world. I think that it’s going to take a long transition time for people to go back to face-to-face only. And I think that there might be structural changes in the workforce in how companies engage their workforce. We’ve accelerated the timeline to remote work. It doesn’t mean everything is going remote, it just means there’s going to be even more of it.

What would you tell clients about how to structure their workforce going forward?

It depends on the company. I work with startups and one of the problems with startups is they have limited cash and they are always in need of technical resources. Because coders and web designers and those types of people are in such high demand, they are going to be able to work from where they want more than ever before. I’m not saying everything is going remote – we’re still going to have large office complexes with lots of people in them — but I think the startup community has already had to adjust to off-shore programming and different ways to get to those resources with less expense.

The workplace plays an important role in the culture and branding for many young companies. Will that change?

My background in my graduate work was organizational behavior, so I appreciate the power and the importance of the environment and the culture. That culture remotely is going to be very different. And the companies who can figure out how to adjust to the hybrid while somehow maintaining their culture are going to be the winners.

How do you build that culture in this new environment?

I think it’s really hard. You can do things like send people food kits to have lunch online over Zoom, but I think that that will get old at some point. I think people are going to have to be more thoughtful of how they create their culture and message.

There is an assumption that we’re never going back. It’s never going to be the same again.

I think as humans we’re drawn to being in an office and face-to-face interactions. Platforms like Zoom that allow us to have easy face-to-face time takes care of part of that, but it’s still not the same as being in the office. I could see some hybrid model where they still bring people back, but they work mostly remote. I’m not suggesting that the office building has died, I’m just saying that we’re going to see more hybrid spaces because cost of living is a big factor and if you can get a coder salary at the level of the valley.

What advice would you give CEOs about the future of the workplace?

I think the ones who can adapt to leadership and culture styles that support remote work are going to be the winners. What we’re doing is, we’re democratizing the workforce across the country. I can get a coder in Iowa a lot cheaper than I can here. Those companies who can figure out how to manage and lead remote workers are going to have significant cost advantages and significant employee satisfaction.

You created the Cove (Beall Applied Innovation’s new meeting headquarters, opened last year) with very specific ideas about how to bring people together. Has that changed? Is it still valid?

I think it’s as valid as ever. As we transition back, we’re still able to host meetings there. I don’t think we would design it differently. I’m still optimistic we’re going to be back to normal. We’re not going to be in pandemic mode for five years. We’re still here to help entrepreneurs and we’re still here to help innovators create innovations and inventions, and get them out into the world to have impact. All that keeps going.