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RIT sees golden opportunities in California’s Silicon Valley

Oct. 10, 2016 
by Bob Finnerty

RIT leaders and California alumni see a perfect alignment between the mission of the university and Silicon Valley, the region that is world-renowned as the heart of innovation.

That’s why an 82-member delegation held strategic meetings with 27 global high-tech companies and organizations this summer. Discussions during the “Silicon Valley Engagement Initiative” centered on innovation, entrepreneurship, corporate research and development, philanthropy, recruitment and alumni engagement.

“RIT aspires to be more engaged with the West Coast, particularly in Silicon Valley,” said RIT President Bill Destler. “We are building deeper relationships with our alumni, companies and foundations. We are exploring what key opportunities there are for RIT to become more aligned with this incredibly enterprising region. We have the talent; how can we help? RIT is a place where innovation is in our DNA.”

California is the sixth largest economy in the world and Silicon Valley—home to many of the most valuable technology companies on the planet—is the 10th largest. The region has an abundance of patent holders and traditionally attracts more than 40 percent of all venture investment in the U.S.

RIT’s presence in California is growing. More than 4,000 alumni live in the San Francisco Bay region, a figure that has doubled in less than a decade. About 700 RIT co-op students complete 1,200 work assignments each year in California, mostly in Silicon Valley. And California is the fifth highest state for RIT freshman applications; sixth highest in freshman enrollment.

“University leadership visited Silicon Valley in 2008 and incorporated many of the recommendations provided by the tech community into our curriculum,” said Christine Whitman, chair of the RIT Board of Trustees. “Since then, RIT’s momentum in research, innovation, entrepreneurship, sustainability and online education has produced impressive results. We came out again to learn what the next generation of jobs will require in terms of additional skills. As times change, what do our students need going forward?”

The RIT delegation included members of the Board of Trustees, Alumni Association Board of Directors, President’s Roundtable, West Coast Board of Advisors, governance groups and campus leadership. The delegation split into teams and made house calls to each of the 27 companies and organizations. From Adobe to Tesla, each delegation looked for future strategic opportunities for research and development partnerships, as well as new relationships for career and co-op placements, and future philanthropic support. Jeremy Haefner, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said the opportunities ranged from cybersecurity to UX (user experience).

“The takeaway from our visit is that our mission as a university aligns perfectly with Silicon Valley. We are committed to having a greater presence in the region,” said Haefner, who is leading RIT’s West Coast Board of Advisors, a team that is advising university leadership on strategies along the Pacific.

So what are the immediate next steps?

Haefner said RIT plans to offer certificate programs in information assurance (cybersecurity) to students in the San Francisco Bay area starting this spring. The certificates are designed for working professionals who will study in a hybrid format which features online and a lab environment with faculty. The “stackable” courses allow students to progress toward a master’s degree. RIT plans to lease space in a convenient Silicon Valley location, which will facilitate the delivery of hybrid programs and create a sense of community for RIT alumni and current students. “Ultimately the space will serve as a foothold for a greater presence and recognition in the Bay area,” said Haefner.

RIT is also committed to hiring a full-time director of West Coast Engagement. The director will be the face of RIT in Silicon Valley and seek opportunities for research and philanthropic partnerships, as well as advancing new relationships for career and co-op placements.

“Our alumni have been extremely instrumental and passionate in helping the university develop a strategy out West,” said Lisa Cauda, vice president for Development and Alumni Relations. “We are building off that momentum and it will be exciting to have a director living and working in Silicon Valley.”

Kevin Surace, the 2009 Inc. magazine “Entrepreneur of the Year,” was a lead organizer for the initiative and was inspired by the visit. “Our engagement with technology companies is critical as we deliver students with the skills they require in the coming decades,” said Surace ‘85 (electrical engineering technology), an RIT trustee. “We’re producing students that will be sought after by more companies. And the best ambassadors for RIT are the alumni because we can learn so much from each other.”

“Think of all the opportunities RIT has out here,” added Mark Oney ’81 (electrical engineering), a member of the West Coast Board of Advisors. “Just having more co-op students work with alumni is one easy way to get connected to Silicon Valley.”

Oney personifies the enterprising culture of Silicon Valley. He has served as an Apple vice president and has been involved in eight startup companies. “Geek is chic in the valley. And RIT produces problem solvers and doers,” he said.