Rob DelCampo of Innovation Academy at desk

On Being Innovative

City Alive Education, Entrepreneurship, Talent and Skill Development

On Being Innovative

Many will say that higher education is based on systems that don’t provide the most inspiring experiences for students. But the University of New Mexico’s new Innovation Academy is taking a step outside of the often mechanical mindset that prevails in higher education. The man behind the monkey wrench? No other than Rob DelCampo, former Associate Dean of the UNM Anderson School of Management. As the director of this new program, Rob has been immersed in recruitment, curriculum development, and cross-collaboration with the city and community to embark on a new chapter in UNM’s history. Rob is impeccably measured in his commentary on the current education system, and his politeness knows no bounds. He perfectly fits the Clark Kent model; aside from his good manners, there’s something superhuman in his one-man operation—it’s no bird, no plane; it’s a guy who’s taking on the seemingly insurmountable task of creating a new, hopefully ingenious model for higher education in our state.

Fortunately, Rob DelCampo is innovative about being innovative.

The Innovation Academy is UNM’s component of Innovate ABQ, which is aimed at providing our fair city with a dynamic and lively innovation district for researchers, inventors, and entrepreneurs. Rob has his sights set on creating curriculum at the Innovation Academy based on experiential, in-the-field training that cuts across disciplines and breaks out of the classroom. Innovation Academy student fellows will almost immediately gain hands-on know-how from established business leaders and entrepreneurs. “[The Academy] is about approaching questions from a new frame of thought,” says Rob. “We have business students going out and solving problems in the field. Great for business students. But what about sociology students who have some really great ideas? Psychology students? Philosophy? By cross-listing these courses we can put students from different disciplines on a team and allow them to work together.” This cross- departmental approach opens the door for highly relevant learning and lots of those unlikely, creative collisions that lead to compelling innovation.

Before directing this program, Rob went through an entire life cycle at UNM; he was a student, faculty member, professor, and associate dean, all in the Anderson School of Management. To say the least, he’s familiar with UNM and its body of students. It’s because he’s so familiar that he’s the best guy for this job. He says, “Think about the types of students we attract at UNM—a lot of first-generation students, a lot of people from different walks of life looking to do something different and with entrepreneurial flair. But what do we do? They’ve got an idea, and they show up here and we throw them into English 101, Math 121, and we beat it out of them. We say, ‘Oh, forget about those ideas. How are we going to get you a job at Sandia Labs?’ We can’t change the whole institution in a day, but we can introduce ideation, creativity, and entrepreneurial thought into existing courses and new courses alike.”

I myself attended UNM, and while I’m proud of it, I still graduated without much of a résumé, minimal “real-world” experience, and some uncomfortable ambiguity about how to place
myself in my field. What’s heartening about Rob’s formula is it encourages students to seek on-the- ground professional experience, preparing them for high-level marketability upon the completion of their degrees. Students hone their portfolios, and the program sees to it that they have the competencies, resources, and a network to succeed.

So, Rob DelCampo has experience with building experience.

“If we’re going to implement a curriculum that provides students with guidance, we can’t just have this one egg in the basket,” says Rob. Having this program available as part of the University’s catalog attracts potential students to study here, and draws talent and energy into Albuquerque, a win for both the school and the city. “I think that the goal of this project, Innovate ABQ, and Living Cities is to fundamentally change the existing economic structure of Albuquerque—to do it ourselves and to take this entrepreneurial spirit that we know exists here and expand it. We’re simply creating new resources. We’ve got the brain resource here at UNM; we’ve got the infrastructure resource with what’s happening at Innovate ABQ. We need to let those things grow, build, and stay in Albuquerque.”

So, Rob DelCampo is resourceful.

He knows full well that nothing “quick” is going to systemically change how Albuquerque approaches the job market or skill development. New opportunities will only appear once we’ve changed our approach. “I like this place. I want to see opportunities for Albuquerque again. I’ve had friends move away because there’s nothing more than mid-level positions here. Some of them are really bright, really dedicated to the community, and wanting to change things, but it’s not economically viable for them.” The Academy is positioned to not only foster more of these bright and dedicated individuals, it will also contribute to the shift that allows them to stay.

We need to recognize, celebrate, and foster Albuquerque’s richly innovative culture. Citywide initiative or not, I would be content to view the new Innovation Academy as home to a butterfly effect, beginning with a change in the way we approach education and rippling out to build the human assets, resourcefulness and abilities that prime our city for a bright future.


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