The New Workplace Frontier: CSUN’s Innovation Conference Fosters Entrepreneurs

  • Harry Sefton III speaks in front of PowerPoint slide at the Art of Innovation Conference.

    CSUN alumni Harry Sefton III '85 (Engineering), M.S. '91 (Electrical Engineering), a senior manager at The Boeing Company, served as keynote speaker of the Art of Innovation Conference. Photo by David J. Hawkins.

  • CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison at a podium to welcome attendees to the Art of Innovation Conference.

    CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison welcomes attendees to the Art of Innovation Conference. Photo by David J. Hawkins.

  • Harry Sefton III speaks in front of a PowerPoint slide.

    CSUN alumni Harry Sefton III '85 (Engineering), M.S. '91 (Electrical Engineering), a senior manager at The Boeing Company, served as keynote speaker of the Art of Innovation Conference. Photo by David J. Hawkins.

  • A panel of CSUN alumni discuss big data, AI and machine learning.

    A panel of CSUN alumni discuss big data, AI and machine learning. Photo by David J. Hawkins.

  • Bird's-eye view of the Art of Innovation Conference.

    The Art of Innovation Conference focused on trends, opportunities and best practices for launching new ventures. Photo by David J. Hawkins.

Innovation is key to unlocking new systems, ideas and products. It is essential for all areas of business to thrive. To prepare its students for the workforce of the future, California State University, Northridge is fostering an environment for future innovators to thrive.

On Nov. 2, CSUN hosted its fifth semi-annual The Art of Innovation Conference to continue the university’s deep exploration of current and future trends of technology. Entrepreneurship, startups and tech are changing everything — including how we shop, how we get around, how we age, how we’re entertained and how we learn. The panel-style event included a broad range of entrepreneurs and business owners discussing these topics, including big data (large, complex data sets) and artificial intelligence (AI), as well as advancements in healthcare and transportation.

The conference focused on trends, opportunities and best practices for launching new ventures. The ultimate goal of the program is to spark ideas for entrepreneurial ventures and help build networks for all attendees — students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the community — according to event organizers Ryan Holbrook, entrepreneurship program director for the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics, and Shereazad Jimmy Gandhi, professor of manufacturing systems engineering and management. This event was hosted in collaboration with the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics, and the College of Health and Human Development.

“At CSUN, we want our students to have the creative skills and talent to succeed in this workplace frontier,” said CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison, who welcomed attendees to the event. “We also know that the entrepreneurial mindset is one that looks beyond standard, functional boundaries and considers and fosters multidisciplinary collaboration.

“Entrepreneurship represents the future of work,” Harrison continued. “Beyond the value of the ‘traditional’ entrepreneur, we know that the skills, capabilities and creativity that come from an entrepreneurial mindset are what generates jobs and competitiveness, and stimulate innovation and economic growth. The future is now.”

CSUN alumni Harry Sefton III ’85 (Engineering), M.S. ’91 (Electrical Engineering), a senior manager at The Boeing Company with more than 30 years of leadership experience specializing in commercial and government satellite systems, served as keynote speaker of the event.

“Human nature is to resist change, so when entrepreneurs get good ideas, human nature is to resist their ideas and to resist that disruption,” Sefton said. “Part of our job as entrepreneurs and innovators is to also be leaders. As leaders we have to have the courage and the passion to speak up and say, ‘We are going to implement an idea and make it work.’

“I would ask that all of you young leaders be an early adopter, to be courageous and have passion in what you do,” Sefton told the large crowd, which included scores of students. “It is fundamental to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is a new idea, a disruptive idea, and what makes the difference is having the courage to take action and implement that idea when everyone else is stuck in a different paradigm.”

Executive and innovator Dale Deardorff ’84 (Art), M.A. ’87 (Two-Dimensional Art), M.S. ’93 (Industrial Engineering) introduced a panel of CSUN alumni who discussed big data, AI and machine learning. The panel included Kimberly Sanders ’95 (Afro-American Studies), director of global TV distribution at NBCUniversal; Subash D’Souza, director of data and operations at Warner Brothers; Elena Bolbolian ’05 (Public Administration), civic innovator for the City of Glendale; Seyed Sajjadi ’18 (Computer Engineering), a systems engineer at NASA; and Sina Talebian ’14 (Engineering Management), a data scientist at Versus Analytics.

Deardorff asked the panel, “What does artificial intelligence in our daily lives look like, that we don’t recognize?”

The panelists all noted that AI is everywhere. Sajjadi said that big data is the new norm, and he discussed a commonly used type of data called sentiment analysis data.

“This type of artificial intelligence gathers data about you to see what your preferences are,” he said, citing examples of companies that use sentiment analysis. “The most obvious is Netflix, which makes suggestions like, ‘We think you would like this movie because you have watched x, y and z.’ Another one that comes to mind is Amazon. These recommendation engines are everywhere.”

Another panel discussed the topic of telemedicine, which is the use of telecommunication to provide healthcare anywhere, removing the necessity to go to the doctor’s office. Telecommunication enables services such as in-home medical devices, virtual consults, chatbots to answer questions, and interactive education, aiming to streamline care by making it more convenient for patients. In addition, medical apps are offering digital cardiac monitoring, diabetic monitoring, and exercise and diet plans for patients to monitor and improve their health. Kaiser Permanente is offering ear-infection monitors, which allow at-home ear-infection checkups for children (administered by parents and guardians).

The telemedicine panel was led by Sal Esparza ’94 (Health Administration), an associate professor in health sciences at CSUN, who posed questions to panelists Lou Rubino, chair of CSUN’s Department of Health Sciences; Hadley Washburne, regional manager of strategy at Providence St. Joseph Health; Thomas Chan, assistant professor of psychology at CSUN; and Kara Snow, director of patient care experience at Kaiser Permanente.​

The day’s final panel focused on the future of transportation and was led by Jeff Joyner, attorney and co-founder of Uscooter, a folding electric scooter. The panelists included alumna Flaurel English ’79 (Psychology), founder of Gridlock Solutions and executive advisor to the Toyota Mobility Foundation; Ian Gardner, president at Chanje, a startup manufacturing the first medium-duty, all-electric commercial truck; alumnus Terenig Topjian ’08 (Art), founder of Have A Go, an electric scooter company; and Rick Teebay, transportation specialist for Los Angeles County.

The panelists discussed the current dynamics of transportation, including the issues and benefits of electric scooters, future transportation technology, how officials in LA and across the nation are rethinking urban mobility — as well as the importance of future innovators, creators and engineers to continue to develop future transportation options and solutions.

Organizers and participants said the conference aimed to inspire and prepare CSUN students to face challenges that can be solved by technological innovation.

“The job of an innovator is to question the status quo,” Sefton said. “The quality of our answers depends on the quality of our questions, and the quality of our questions depends on the diversity of our thoughts.”