Professor Sheena Iyengar’s Innovation Salon brings together experts, alumni, and students to imagine the post-pandemic world.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of Columbia University and the halls of Uris emptied out, the vibrant building that hosted daily events and endless networking opportunities fell silent. As a Columbia Journalism School alumna and current 2020–2021 Knight-Bagehot Fellow, my dreams of calculating and running valuations in Corporate Finance class in Uris Hall and networking with the School’s faculty were snatched away during what I had planned as a pivotal year for my career.

However, perusing the Fall 2020 course catalog prior to orientation, one course offering from the Management Division caught my eye: Innovation Salon. Further probing revealed an application-only course taught by Professor Sheena Iyengar, the S.T. Lee Professor of Business. A brief course description citing the pandemic, potential guest speakers, and very detailed application instructions intrigued me; the journalist in me wanted to know more.

We are witnessing innovation, the evolution of business, and the development of the future right before our eyes.

Professor Sheena Iyengar

New both in its offering and format, Innovation Salon was born from the pandemic as a way to examine the impact COVID is having on all aspects of both business and life—everything from retail to transportation—and reimagine the new, post–COVID-19 normal. “We are witnessing innovation, the evolution of business, and the development of the future right before our eyes,” read the syllabus.

Students were required to submit resumés and a short essay clearly detailing their interest in the course and what they sought to both contribute and gain. In my essay, I noted that I was a career journalist attracted to the diversity of ideas, topics, and sectors that were being proposed for discussion. I wrote that I was eager to discuss issues surrounding the pandemic, noting that my own industry, media, was unraveling in its own unique way.

For each class meeting, Iyengar invited multiple C-level executives from a number of industries, expertly leveraging the expansive network of CBS. Each week, the guests joined the select group of roughly 100 students on Zoom. A limited number of spots were also reserved for alumni, who participated in breakout-room discussions and were invited to network with students and speakers afterwards.

Public health, innovation, democracy: Topics that have proven to not only be critical to a new way of life during the pandemic, but also polarizing. Professor Iyengar was seeking to elevate the issue to more than cable news soundbites. Through a stellar lineup of executives, alumni, and experts in their fields, Innovation Salon was after solutions.

Every other week executives would join the bi-weekly virtual sessions to discuss a topic, how they grappled with the issue, and what they believed was needed or was on the horizon. Students were privileged to hear from Lloyd Trotter, founder and managing partner of GenNx360 Capital Partners and former vice chairman of General Electric, along with Scott Clemons, partner and chief investment strategist at BBH, and Walt Mossberg, former tech journalist for the Wall Street Journal, who gave an overview about the pandemic’s effect on the economy, business, and technology. Students also heard from Paul Francis, senior advisor to the commissioner of the New York State Department of Health and Governor Cuomo’s deputy secretary for health and human services from 2015 to 2020; Marc Lore, president and CEO of Walmart’s eCommerce arm in the US; and Kai-Fu Lee, chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures and former president of Google China.

This class was created because we are going through an unprecedented disruption.

Professor Sheena Iyengar

With A-list guests and a teaching method involving Zoom breakout rooms to allow for deeper dives and even some debate, the class was the most timely and relevant one I enrolled in as a first-semester student at CBS. Each session, after the full group heard from the guest, we would divide into breakout rooms to discuss what we had just heard. Debates were sometimes intense, but overall respectful. As a journalist who thrives on the exchange of ideas, it was the perfect antidote in a time of high uncertainty and having to adjust daily to a “new normal.”

“This class was created because we are going through an unprecedented disruption with the pandemic,” says Iyengar. “It presented a massive challenge, but one that was simultaneously an opportunity for us to innovate to look toward new ways of thinking about and solving problems. It’s important to really dig into the innovation we’re seeing, even amid a global pandemic, as we are seeing the future unfold before our eyes.”

I wanted to know what other students thought of the class, so I asked Hannah Levintova '21, a second-year MBA student, president of the Government & Business Club, and staff reporter at Mother Jones magazine. She says she was instantly drawn to the course, citing its unique and timely offering in the midst of the pandemic.

A session called “Reimagining Democracy” in which Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, Ira Shapiro, former US Senate staffer and trade negotiator for former president Bill Clinton, and Jake Schlesinger, senior Washington correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, discussed the political atmosphere in the US struck her as highly relevant and timely. “I enjoyed hearing their honest, thoughtful perspectives, and being privy to the debate that ensued among both panelists and attendees,” Levintova says. “Especially in the midst of a presidential election.”

The virtual environment was not only appealing to many but also offered advantages. CBS alumni, no matter where they were in the world, were able to log into the class via Zoom, offering more diverse perspectives and networking opportunities for students. “To be honest, I enjoyed this class on Zoom. In some ways, holding the class virtually made it better for me. Each lecture had over 100 attendees,” Levintova noted. “Had all 100 plus of us been crammed into a classroom, I imagine that would have presented its own challenges and distractions that could have taken away from the content.”

Rounding out the semester was an exciting session on “Reimaging Sports.” J.B. Lockhart, chief financial officer for the NBA, joined the session and offered an in-depth and fascinating first-hand account of how the NBA pivoted its business model and created a “bubble” in Orlando, Florida, for teams to safely live and work. Lockhart also offered behind-the-scenes insights into the costs of this massive undertaking. He was joined by Dan Farrell, senior vice president, sales and marketing for the St. Louis Cardinals, and the session proved to be a favorite among students and alumni. As a lifelong fan of the NBA, I found “Reimaging Sports” to be an impressive and incredibly relevant class with which to end the semester. The speakers offered hope for the future with a dose of reality of what may or may not lie ahead. A “new normal” indeed.

Iyengar sees the class as a platform for students and alumni to continue exchanging ideas in an ever-changing world. “Ultimately, this course goes beyond the pandemic. It’s really important to understand the ways in which different industries are changing and what opportunities for innovation exist,” says Iyengar. “I hope that new innovations will emerge out of the Innovation Salon because, in a sense, we’re trying to inspire people to innovate. What’s a better way than to show them what the challenges and opportunities present?”