NIMBLE founder Mariette Wharton helps lead a team of Mitchell Scholars and Alumni through a prototype development exercise as part of the Innovation Lab held at the Mitchell Institute.
On a warm, mid-July Saturday morning, 15 Mitchell Scholars and Alumni gathered around a conference table at the Mitchell Institute’s headquarters in Portland. Some had yet to begin their academic journey in college. Some were sophomores and juniors. Some were a couple of years out and finding their way in the world of work. Their academic majors spanned the gamut of the college catalog: biochemistry, business, chemical engineering, economics, English, mathematics, media studies, and psychology, just to name a few.
Most had never met each other, but they had one thing in common. All had come to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime, free opportunity to participate in an Innovation Lab and learn about Design Thinking — a human-centered approach to innovation, problem-solving, and product development that emphasizes customer observation and rapid prototyping.
Leading the Innovation Lab at the Mitchell Institute — and giving freely of her time and expertise — was Mariette Wharton, founder of NIMBLE (the National Institute for Mentoring Business Leaders & Entrepreneurs). Headquartered in the heart of Silicon Valley, NIMBLE aims to inspire and empower young leaders with 21st-Century skills such as adaptability, empathy, teamwork, creative problem-solving, and mindfulness. Joining Mariette was her husband, Scott Wharton, Vice President and General Manager of the Video Collaboration Group at Logitech, the American–Swiss multinational manufacturer of computer peripherals and software.
Among Mariette and Scott’s many business accomplishments, the pair cofounded Vidtel, the first any-to-any cloud-based video conferencing service, in 2008. Mariette launched the strategy and innovation firm Change Agent Partners in 2014, after innovative work at Fortune 50 and Fortune 100 firms with PricewaterhouseCoopers and boutique firms. And prior to serving as CEO of Vidtel, Scott was Vice President of Marketing at Broadsoft Inc. (acquired by Cisco in 2018) and VocalTech Inc.
Suffice it to say, they know a thing or two about developing innovative applications and products, bringing them to market, and expanding market share.
And they dazzled Scholars and Alumni with the Innovation Lab activities, including exercises on diversity of thinking and the impact of constraints on creativity as well as brainstorming, brainswarming, mindmapping, and Design Thinking as ideation techniques. The morning program concluded with teams of participants running through the full cycle of Design Thinking to produce and present a prototype headset for videoconferencing.
Natalie Bickerstaff, the 2020 Mitchell Scholar from Central High School in Corinth and junior chemical engineering major at the University of Maine, said a key takeaway from the Innovation Lab was to always consider whether the endgame of a design thinking exercise — a new product, service, or application — is a “vitamin” or a “painkiller.”
“We learned to think of a vitamin as a solution or product that is nice to have and provides some benefit but isn’t essential,” Bickerstaff said. “On the other hand, a painkiller is a solution or product that fixes a serious problem and is more meaningful because it is necessary.”
Marina MacKinnon, the 2016 Mitchell Scholar from Brunswick High School and recent Biology graduate of Bowdoin College, said the Innovation Lab exercises gave her a new perspective on teamwork and how idea generation can be most effectively executed.
“During the Innovation Lab, I appreciated that Marriette and Scott emphasized the importance of ’21st-century skills’ such as empathy, emotional intelligence, collaboration, and creativity,” MacKinnon said. “I also appreciated that they showed us how to recognize our strengths, abilities, and styles of thought, and be open to practicing those skills that we may not have as much confidence in.”
“Mariette’s process made it exciting to create something that is useful and personal, all while finding a reason to create and innovate,” said Evelyn Fuentes (upper left), the 2021 Mitchell Scholar from Waterville High School, who is now pursuing a degree in Business/Entrepreneurship at Bentley University.
How two such stars in the world of tech made themselves available to Mitchell Scholars and Alumni is a testament to the power of friendship and networking — and Mitchell Institute Scholarship Director Kim Gustafson is the link. She and Mariette were fast friends in college and have remained close ever since. When Kim shared the Mitchell Institute’s mission with Mariette, she and Scott offered to conduct the Innovation Lab while they were vacationing in Maine — as a gift in kind, just for Scholars and Alumni.
“Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting one of the Scholars in a networking session and was impressed with his questions and eagerness to learn,” Mariette said. “The experience inspired the idea of a partnership to advance leadership skills for as many Mitchell Scholars and Alums who were available.”
And the opportunity to share NIMBLE principles directly with Scholars and Alumni didn’t disappoint.
“The participants were all highly engaged and enthusiastic,” she said. “The teams grasped the design thinking framework easily and collaborated to create radically innovative technology solutions to address comfort, safety, convenience and design considerations. It was a very rewarding experience!”
For Gustafson, the opportunity to bring a longstanding friend together with Scholars and Alumni was personally and professionally rewarding.
“The Mitchell Institute is immensely fortunate to have an expansive network to support Mitchell Scholars and Alumni wherever they are in their professional, leadership, and personal development,” Gustafson said. “It was truly inspiring to observe how quickly our Scholars and Alumni learned about concepts and immediately put them into action at the NIMBLE Innovation Lab workshop. We are deeply grateful to Mariette and Scott for their expertise, generosity, and enthusiasm — and for joining a community that supports aspirations and fosters the development of lifelong skills of our Scholars.”