In the business world, “innovation” has become one of the most over-used terms of our time – but for good reason.

Innovation launches successful enterprises and changes lives. It solves global problems and cures microscopic ills.

Every company on Earth wants to talk the talk.
Very few really know how to walk the walk.

Recently, a focused effort from a cross-functional team at Nelnet started working to answer the question, “How do we make sure innovation is part of everyday life at our company for every associate?”

You either innovate or you fade away.

Joe Popevis

President, Nelnet Diversified Services

A Focus on Every Associate. Every Hour. Every Day.

Nelnet has a storied history in bringing new products and services to market to serve our customers. Over the years, we’ve embraced our core value to diversify and grow. It’s why Nelnet has made 19 acquisitions in the last 18 years, with investment in Nelnet Bank, ALLO Fiber, HUDL, and more.

To build on our past success, we focused on unleashing the creativity and sparking engagement from all associates. The goal is to ensure all associates feel empowered and take responsibility for using their voices to shape the future of Nelnet.

A cross-functional team was formed to drive participation from every corner of the company to take on the task. They set out to create a plan for innovation that incorporates every associate and weaves innovation into the fabric of every day.

We know it needs to be more than a small group of people that are coming up with “the next thing”. Whether it’s big things or little things, we want to support anyone who finds a better way to do things.

Isaac Greenlee

IT Director – Diversification and Innovation, Nelnet Diversified Services

The cross-functional team started building a model for how to incorporate innovation into the everyday working experience of each associate – those who worked more closely with the common definition of innovation, and those who didn’t consider innovation part of their job.

It was a company-wide effort to get every associate contributing to the 24/7/365 evolution of Nelnet by instilling innovation into its lifeblood.

The team quickly developed several actionable steps to encourage and incentivize innovative thinking among associates:

  • Quarterly Innovation Events: Hosting multiple innovation-focused events every year, including an AI Innovation event in August and a re-imagined Innovation Week in November.
  • A Streamlined Idea Process Flow: Deployment of a dedicated idea management platform, as well as the implementation of a 2/3/4 Innovation framework put in place by Nelnet Director of Innovation Brian Ardinger.
  • Innovation Advocates: Creation of an open forum group for associates who are passionate about innovation, new technologies, and the sharing of broader ideas and advances. This group meets weekly and helps to organically share interesting ideas and new information across their networks.
  • Innovation SharePoint Site: An internal site that’s a one-stop shop for everything innovation, including:
    • Innovation training material based on McKinsey’s Three Horizons of Growth framework.
    • How-to videos for Innovation 1-2-3-4, Nelnet’s milestone-based process for submitting, filtering, launching, and iterating ideas.
    • Updates on internal innovation initiatives.
  • A Bi-weekly Corporate Briefing on Innovation: Ongoing communications about innovation initiatives within Nelnet.
  • Introduction of an 8th Cultural Pillar – The Nelnet Diversified Services Culture team took things a step further to introduce innovation as the 8th pillar of culture within the division to ensure there is ongoing visibility and focus on innovation.

Nelnet’s leadership team believes the foundation that’s being set with this all-in, 24/7/365 focus on innovation is opening doors that can’t yet be seen, but will soon be realized.

We want to always be able to see the forest through the trees, and when the fog clears, we want to be ready to pounce.

Mike Dunlap

Executive Chairman of the Board, Nelnet


Jeff Deans

Copy Director

Jeff Deans is a Copy Director. With decades of creative experience behind his work, he concepts ideas and crafts language for a wide range of projects and businesses across Nelnet. Away from the keyboard, Jeff turns his creative focus to smoking meats, obsessing over fantasy football, and getting lost in TikTok.