"It definitely started in kindergarten," Jonathan Arena says about his interest in art. "I attended a Waldorf School that believed in immersing children in creativity, rather than in the industrial processes of most public schools. I literally knew how to sew and knit when I was five."
Jonathan’s grandfather worked at the Heywood-Wakefield Furniture Company in Gardner, Massachusetts; his father “is an amateur photographer and professional writer – and he had his own business, which influenced my interest in entrepreneurship.” In high school, Jonathan “made a lot of ceramics” and for college, he attended one of the most prestigious art schools in the United States, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
Yet even as he made art, business was never far away. “I would start companies all the time,” Jonathan says. “In the summer, I tried to build and sell surfboards. In the winter, I would fix skis and snowboards. I wouldn’t earn much, but it felt great.” While most people see fine arts and business as worlds apart, Jonathan sees them as kindred interests. “When you’re an artist or designer, you’re a maker and creator. The joy you feel is in crafting something from nothing. I realized the same is true about entrepreneurship. It’s putting things together to make something new.”
xDesign puts Harvard schools together
When he applied to HBS, “a lot of my friends thought I was crazy,” says Jonathan. “At RISD, many of my classmates were brilliant content generators, great at coming up with ideas. But ideas need wheels. It’s not enough to have a brilliant idea or a brilliant product. You need a brilliant system to deliver content and capture value in order to have an impact.”
In a variety of post-college positions, Jonathan had the opportunity to see how design “shapes how users interact with things, not just how things look.” At HBS, he was impressed by how “the i-lab and the FIELD program integrate design thinking into business.” Jonathan decided to put his beliefs into action and push the integrations even further. “xDesign is effectively a collaboration between HBS and the Graduate School of Design (GSD),” Jonathan says. The first-ever design conference at HBS, xDesign is also the first conference that brings together all the Harvard schools.
“Our mission is to promote design as something important to business, and business as something important to design, while encouraging experimentation,” says Jonathan. “We posed the conference as a question: what does the conversation between design and any other discipline look or sound like? For example, if you put design and medicine together, what innovations would come out of that? Or with the Kennedy School: how does design affect policy? With education, what’s the impact of design on curriculum?”
In just three months, Jonathan, with colleagues Miriam Roure, a student at the GSD, and Roderick McMullen, a fellow MBA candidate at HBS, put together an inaugural two-day conference with approximately thirty speakers and more than 400 attendees. “We sold out two weeks before the event,” says Jonathan. One part of the conference featured traditional speakers and panels; the other part, “a new type of HBS conference,” used the i-lab as a workshop in which xDesign teams were given a design challenge: “rethink or reframe education for the 21st century.”
Continuing on the design/entrepreneurship track, Jonathan has launched a startup, with a colleague at HBS, called Zeum. Intended to “connect creativity,” Zeum will use the web and mobile applications to address the mutual interests of creators, cultural institutions, and end users or consumers. “We see it as a way to provide structure to facilitate discovery while giving consumers better access to new artists, designers, and cultural institutions” says Jonathan. “I want to support makers. If I can help these people thrive, that’s what I want to dedicate my time to.”