Jill Ker Conway Center Sparks Innovation, Entrepreneurship

Monica Dean, administrative director of Smith's new Jill Ker Conway Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center

A new center with a familiar Smith College name greeted students returning to campus this fall.

Named for Smith’s first woman president, the Jill Ker Conway Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center builds on the great work done over the past 15 years through Smith’s successful Center for Women and Financial Independence.

President Kathleen McCartney said she was delighted that an anonymous donor who provided a $5 million gift for the center wanted the effort to bear Jill Ker Conway’s name and inspire others. “Jill was a widely respected innovator in education and a pioneer for women in business through her distinguished service on corporate boards,” McCartney said. “This is a perfect way to honor her impact at Smith.”

The new Conway Center will support creative thinking, problem solving, interdisciplinary teamwork and development of business and entrepreneurial skills. The center also will continue to coordinate the Draper Competition and the Global Financial Institutions Concentration and will support the new University Innovation Fellows program.

Administrative Director Monica Dean came to Smith in September from Baruch College, City University of New York, where for 12 years she led entrepreneurship programs and taught courses on women and entrepreneurship.

Here’s what Dean had to say about the new Conway Center and about innovation and entrepreneurship at Smith.

What is the Jill Ker Conway Center?

It’s an intellectual hub that expands on the financial education and programming offered by the Center for Women and Financial Independence from 2001 to 2016. It’s a community that allows students to test innovative ideas while advancing their research and education. And it’s a center that supports creative thought, problem solving, and development of business and entrepreneurial skills.

The Conway Center has both “Innovation” and “Entrepreneurship” in its name. Why?

There’s a difference! An innovation is something that’s new, but it doesn’t have to create a business opportunity. Entrepreneurship is taking an idea and turning it into a business idea that creates value. Innovation is important to entrepreneurship, but innovation doesn’t have to be about building a business.

Why a center?

It’s important to have a coordinating entity.  I came from an institution that offered a major in entrepreneurship. But at Smith, we have an opportunity to infuse entrepreneurship throughout the life of the college. The Conway Center can introduce topics related to entrepreneurship and innovation into campus conversation, encourage cross-campus collaboration and give students an opportunity to practice the skills that go along with that.

What kind of skills will students develop through the Conway Center?

Skills that are important both inside and out of the classroom—skills like opportunity recognition, creative thinking, problem solving, leadership, collaboration and reflection. We hope that the skills students learn will be helpful to them as they move forward in their development post-graduation, whether it is graduate school, working for a corporation or an entrepreneurial firm, government, a nonprofit or actually launching a business.

What opportunities will the Conway Center provide for students—and for Smith more broadly?

Many! We’ll offer workshops, lectures, networking events and presentations by visiting speakers. We’ll support business plan and pitch competitions, where students will learn with support from faculty and mentors. Exposure to the Jill Ker Conway Center will allow students to become women of the world and innovators in the marketplace.

Your hopes for the future?

The sky’s the limit! It’s important to have a strong foundation—but the really important thing is to be creative and to take risks.