13 May 2020

Managing Through Crisis: Innovation, Mission, and Leadership—a Q+A with Harvard i-lab’s Matt Segneri


by Shona Simkin

Matt Segneri started his new role as Bruce and Bridgitt Evans Executive Director of the Harvard i-lab on March 9. The following morning Harvard announced the move to remote online learning, and shortly thereafter most departments around the University began working remotely. We Zoomed with Matt to ask about what it’s like to begin a new position under these conditions, and what the i-lab is up to now.

What was it like to have one day at work in your new position before the announcements about remote learning and work started coming in?
I had an awesome welcome from the team, and then we quickly began having conversations about COVID-19. We decided that day to go virtual for one of our marquee events, the President's Innovation Challenge. We started preparations for when and if the order for remote work came, and began to pilot having some people in the large Batten classroom, some spread throughout campus, and others working from home. But by the following Monday (March 16) I was the only i-lab staff member in Batten.

What is Batten like right now?
It’s pretty empty. We had a handful of students coming in during spring break, working on their ventures and picking up key equipment and materials. Guidance on gathering limits was changing rapidly, and I wanted one person on site so it made sense for it to be me. Since we’ve gone fully virtual, I’ve been the one to be in the office as needed because I’ve stayed healthy, and as there isn’t anyone else here I’m still isolated. The Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab remains open for critical lab operations, as biopharma research and design is deemed essential by the state, but otherwise it’s just me. We have morning Zoom calls with the entire team to touch base. The good news is that the i-lab community has always been bigger than any physical space.

Has the crisis changed what you and the i-lab are focusing on?
From day one to now I’ve been focused on being responsive to the moment but also learning more about what we do. I’ve had a lot of individual time with folks on our team, which has been incredibly helpful from a relationship building point of view as well as to better understand the organization from all of their different perches. I’ve talked with student teams and our external stakeholders, value creators, mentors, and other incubators and accelerators around the country. It’s really no different from anyone else across the school who was envisioning and building a new future with all the uncertainty that exists. I’ve been incredibly grateful for my institutional knowledge—being a part of the Social Enterprise Initiative and an active alum of the College and HBS has been essential. It would be much harder if I wasn’t able to draw upon the advice and support of the amazing array of thoughtful leaders across HBS and the University.

This crisis has put renewed focus on our mission and vision. Innovation has never been more important. The expertise of folks who know how to navigate these crises, whether that's public officials, leaders in public health, or the entrepreneurs who have navigated and built companies through them—they are deeply important, but I believe that the folks who are building something new and responding to this moment are at the vanguard and the leaders of tomorrow. I get a lot of energy from being in service to those leaders and entrepreneurs, and of the amazing array of teams in our orbit who will survive and thrive in this challenging moment.

How is the i-lab helping those teams through this crisis?
We're continuing to offer the same value proposition we always have, while ensuring that we're rising to meet the moment and offering the support of additional programming and conversations with folks who have been through similarly turbulent times in history. It was apparent that we needed to meet entrepreneurs quickly as they thought about what the effect from this crisis would be. This situation propels some people; it’s a kind of jet fuel to their business model or for the space or industry that they're working in. For others it's meant a short-term pivot, like LovePop making PPE, while for others it’s meant a more fundamental change in what they're doing. For another group it's a pause—putting things on hold to reassess their customer base, or a permanent pause. The beauty of the i-lab is that it serves all stages, all industries, all schools, all sectors. We're trying to continue to serve with our existing programming and meet them in the moment and support all the things they're doing now.

What does that look like on a day to day basis?
A lot of what I’m doing is thinking about the core of our work—supporting our students, teams, and alumni. Those segments are student venture programs, venture teams in the Launch Lab X program, and Life Lab teams (health and life science teams that have affiliations with the University and are part of the i-lab ecosystem). We’re here to be in service to one another, and in service to the teams that are part of the i-lab—supporting their solving of complex problems and building meaningful organizations that do great work out in the world.

From a team point of view, I’m clear that the answers don't sit in my head, solo in this room. My hope in all things is that I can help drive, shape, and guide the team forward, but the wisdom of the team is already here. I bring fresh eyes, but also the ability to tap the gifts and talents of this team to lead in a moment of crisis and come together and draw on each other's strengths. New leaders always bring an opportunity for change, but it's also a chance for the team to step up and assert itself in new ways and flex new skills and show their greatness.

What’s next?
We're working on more long-lead scenario planning. At first it was trying to figure out the next two weeks, and now with more breathing room we can begin to look further ahead and ask more questions about what reactivation looks like, how to re-envision this space and community for the summer and the fall. There is no exact playbook for this moment—we’re going to have to build it as we go.

So much of the i-lab’s serendipity and excitement and creativity is having people from all 13 different schools coming together and packing this place to the brim. With the guidelines we've seen so far and anticipating our future, it will look different on the physical side. Certainly, the inheritance of nine years of growth means that this community is far bigger than any physical space, and so having that foundation of community is really important.

How are you taking care of yourself through this?
When I do go in to the office, I'm in a giant physical space without any people around. As a very extroverted person, that's a little strange. I’m set up in the staff conference room, which is right next to the snack cabinet. I'm making meaningful progress on eating my way through a 15-pound box of the Honey Mustard Snack Mix. (Dream big.) I take laps around the first floor of the i-lab, and when I get home my wife and kids and I walk around our neighborhood. Now that we're settling into this routine the structure of the day has been really helpful. I wouldn't yet say I have a great meditative or exercise practice but those walks with family and by myself are my saving grace so far.

Have there been any particular bright spots or silver linings?
We’re excited for the May 21 virtual finale for the President’s Innovation Challenge. We’ve got 25 incredible finalists across five tracks—and it’s a great moment to celebrate the journey of all of our teams over the last year.

With the i-lab as a hub for innovation across the University, it’s been remarkable to see the ways in which our entrepreneurs and venture teams are responding in these unprecedented times.

And innovation is more than just creating a new venture. We’ve pulled together a (growing) list of the incredible efforts across the Harvard community. Whether they've built new projects, fostered new communities, or found simple ways to support others, it really is the best of our community coming together to serve the greater good. That goes all the way up to the Dean—it's an extraordinary act of leadership to recommit to his role and all of us.

I’ve always believed that social enterprise—and this spirit of service— is essential to what it means to be part of the HBS community. I’m grateful for—and inspired by—all the ways in which this community is rising to meet the moment.

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