Pursuing opportunities for diversification and growth By Susie McCormick March 31, 2023

Reflecting on Innovation Week 2023 with Nelnet’s Director of Innovation

Thanks to the active participation of nearly 700 Nelnet associates who flexed their innovation mindset and fostered their curiosity during the week of January 23-27, Nelnet’s Innovation Week 2023 was an impressive first showing. We’ve been hosting programs that spark creativity and original thinking for years – and Nelnet Director of Innovation Brian Ardinger confirmed that we can expect them to continue.

Nelnet’s Culture of Innovation

Nelnet’s focus on our Core Value of pursuing opportunities for diversification and growth is nothing new. Over nearly five years, we’ve held more than 50 Spark events featuring internal and external speakers discussing new trends and developments in Nelnet’s business lines. We also host a weekly stand-up meeting with the Innovation Advocates, a group of volunteers spanning various parts of Nelnet who collaborate on efforts across the organization. Nelnet’s Innovation Studio is an internal program that provides a platform for increasing innovation, a framework for managing and reducing risk of inventive efforts, and resources to help opportunities grow.

Additionally, while other companies may encourage IT associates to participate in hackathons – intense collaboration on creative projects to design, build, and present an innovative solution to a problem – Nelnet has encouraged participation by all associates at our hackathons. We know the best ideas come from those who work most closely with products, processes, and customers.

Why Innovation Week?

“Innovation Week is basically a great way to go to the gym and start building those muscles of innovation, exploration, experimentation – trying new things and seeing what works,” explained Ardinger. “With the collaboration effort around Innovation Week, you also meet new people and see new things – and it gives you an opportunity to build new value.”

The week’s events included an executive roundtable exploring innovation and how it shapes Nelnet; a presentation of an idea from a past hackathon that’s been implemented; a fireside chat with the CEO of startup Alpaca Packs; a guest speaker from Proctor and Gamble who was on the team that developed the original Swiffer talking about the innovation process; a new hackathon; and more. “With Innovation Week, we brought in other outside and inside speakers besides BuildIT to tell more of the stories around innovation so if you couldn’t participate on a BuildIT team, you still could get a lot of the insights around innovation,” said Ardinger.

With Innovation Week, plenty of advance notice about upcoming activities and sessions was provided to associates. Managers encouraged their team members to block off time to participate in our BuildIT 2023 hackathon or any of the other events, sessions, or BuildIT presentations.

Ardinger was happy with event participation. “We had anywhere from 200 to 300 people participating in each of the sessions, which is significant. Participation in BuildIT was up 30% to 40% from last year as far as the number of teams – and the number of ideas that were pushed through increased as well.”

Here’s how participation for Innovation Week 2023 stacked up.

Nelnet Innovation Week 2023

10 Events

Nearly 700 Attendees

BuildIT Stats

  • 44 Ideas submitted
  • 26 Ideas in the presentation gallery
  • 146 Team members signed up

Presentation attendees:

  • 216 Gallery One
  • 197 Gallery Two
  • 252 Gallery Three
  • 215 Gallery Four

Idea Categories:

  • 7 Internal Efficiency
  • 9 Technology Enhancements
  • 4 Customer Benefit
  • 7 New business

“The other thing that’s interesting is the types of ideas that have come through. There are operational efficiencies – and some of those projects have gone into the queue and are being worked on. But other teams are doing further research and determining what it would take to make their idea become reality,” Ardinger said.

Ardinger explained that innovation is an iterative process. “No idea comes out fully baked and 100% perfect. How do you take that early hunch and basically incrementally move it forward by testing things or saying ‘What do I have to learn to give me more confidence that this idea can create value in the company’? This is how we move good ideas forward as we’re de-risking them.” Nelnet’s process for managing inventive efforts is outlined for associates in Nelnet’s Innovation Studio.

Recordings from all of the week’s sessions and presentations are available for associates who were unable to attend. Survey feedback from participants will be used to help the planning committee build on this success with Innovation Week 2024 – and BuildIT 2023 again this summer. “Preliminary feedback we’ve received is fantastic – off the charts positivity when it comes to Nelnet’s dedication to giving time and making innovation an important characteristic of what we do here,” emphasized Ardinger.

What does Innovation Week say about us – and what does the future hold?

“Innovation Week points to the fact that innovation is a Core Value of what we do [at Nelnet]. We realize that in a world that’s constantly changing and ever evolving, we’re going to have to get better. If you don’t have people who are building those muscles of innovation, it’s hard to get better and you’re riper to be disrupted – or changes that do happen can put you off track,” noted Ardinger.

He added, “Nelnet is known for being innovative in the corporate space because we value it both internally, but also externally – looking at companies or investments or things that would not typically be in our wheelhouse. That’s because we’re always looking for new ways to create or find value. The reason we do Innovation Week is to not only help our internal teams, but to speak more broadly to the importance of innovation everywhere.”

When it comes right down to it, Innovation Week is about being proactive and making space and time for innovation, said Ardinger. “It’s about how do we find innovation opportunities and create value along the way? How do we stay ahead of the curve? How do we start building those muscles and finding opportunities to create value that wasn’t there before?”

BuildIT hackathons are held at least twice annually, and Innovation Week will be repeated – but there are no limits on Nelnet’s plans to provide opportunities for innovation for associates. According to Ardinger, “What we want to leave with everyone is that innovation is everybody’s job and responsibility – and anybody can innovate. At the end of the day, innovation is nothing more than transforming your ideas into something of value. You can do that as a frontline person: You notice a problem or opportunity, and you can take the steps to solve that and create value in the process.”

It’s clear that every day is Innovation Day at Nelnet.




Susie McCormick

Senior Corporate Communications Writer