By Michelle Grainger
The Olympics aren’t usually associated with innovation, despite the new events that debuted at the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia, in February. In fact, it would be hard to find an event more wedded to tradition and continuity.
But for CIMS Industrial Fellow Lee Clark-Sellers, the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver represented an opportunity to create and share new telecommunications technologies on behalf of her then-employer, Nortel, which had won the rights to be the data provider for the games.
Lee, who at the time was Senior Director of Innovation & Services R&D, led a team that spent months preparing for the event, including attending the Summer Games in Beijing in 2008. There they learned about procedure and protocol and prepared for a “communications of the future” showcase they would stage in Vancouver, all the while drinking in the excitement and energy of the athletic events.
Although Nortel went out of business about a year before the Winter Olympics, much of the work that Lee and her team accomplished lives on in products and patents the company sold as part of the bankruptcy process.
The whole opportunity, especially meeting many young athletes, was one of the highlights of Lee’s career. “Truly, I know it sounds like a slogan, but to see the athletes having the experience of being in a foreign country, knowing that even if they never did anything else in their lives, at least they would have this—it was an unparalleled experience.”
Today, Lee is Innovation Officer at Ply-Gem, a manufacturer of building products. She looks back on her Olympic experience as a challenge—and she’s not afraid of challenges. Take the example of her first few months as a newly minted engineer, when she discovered a product her team was developing was defective, and none of her more experienced colleagues would believe it. So Lee built another version of the device—this one minus the problem—and was finally able to convince her coworkers of the first unit’s problems using a side-by-side comparison.
She also got to stretch beyond her comfort zone during a three-year stint in India, where she led the start-up of a new software lab and developed strategic partnerships with leading Indian software firms. Later, she also developed and implemented an overall software development lifecycle platform and framework, leveraged across Nortel’s 12,000 designers.
Another opportunity that Lee took on after her Nortel tenure ended was assuming the CEO role of Western North Carolina-based VoIP provider Digitalk. Lee, who originally served as a mentor to the company’s founders through a nonprofit called EntreDot, helped the company achieve its venture-capital exit.
Now she’s a couple of years into her latest challenge: Working in a new industry. Lee brings the same out-of-the box thinking and ability to make connections she used in the IT/telecom industry to the building products business.
She’s also tapping into the experience she gained during her first project as a CIMS Industrial Fellow: Planning and executing an executive series called Managing Disruptive Innovation sponsored by CIMS and the Poole College of Management.
It helps that she has the support of the top executive, because the construction business is a traditional one that might seem resistant to new approaches or technologies. But given the challenges of the economy, regulatory climate and sustainability, the time is ripe for a systematic approach to innovation.
“Our CEO, Gary Robinette, believes that embracing innovation is the primary way we’re going to generate top-line growth,” Lee said.