Growing Young Innovators


Kaylee Cusack

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

College of Business & Public Administration


New class of UND University Innovation Fellows develops student-driven platform to spread entrepreneurial spirit to others.

The University of North Dakota congratulated its first University Innovation Fellow in the fall semester of 2015.

In the spring, it celebrated two additional fellowships.

This fall: three more.

UND now touts a total of six students who have been selected concurrently for the prestigious Stanford University leadership program.

“It’s not unusual for universities to have only one,” said Tim O’Keefe, executive director of the UND School of Entrepreneurship. “We’re actually being lauded as being quite unusual because we’ve had three classes in a row. They haven’t had a lot of institutions that have had this many in a row (as UND).”

The University Innovation Fellows (UIF) is an intensive training program that empowers students to become change agents at their schools by defining campus issues and creating innovative and collaborative ways to resolve them. The program consists of six weeks of online training in design-thinking, empathy and instilling creativity in others. The online education is followed by a yearlong mentorship from trainers and program peers, as well as an all-fellow conference in California’s Silicon Valley.

O’Keefe has served as UIF program sponsor for all six UND recipients, including this semester’s trio: Jonathan Puhl, Atle Alexander Johansen and Brian Porter.

“They have a fire in the belly,” O’Keefe said. “They use phrases like ‘Make a Difference’ and ‘Change for the Better.’ When you talk to them about the program, you can just see them light up.”

‘DIBS’ is born

Puhl, Johansen and Porter approached O’Keefe about a big idea this summer before they even thought about sending in their UIF applications. The three wanted to develop a campus platform of resources and support that enabled students to pursue the kind of change they’re passionate about, without the need for a business degree.

That’s how DIBS was born.

“DIBS is Dedicated Individuals Bettering Society — where, no matter what program you’re in, no matter where you hail from, you can go with what interests you the most, whether it be at UND or in the community,” explained Puhl, a Le Mars, Iowa, native, and a graduate student in UND’s Department of Teaching and Learning.

The UND fellows hope to combine their UIF training with DIBS to extend the entrepreneurial spirit beyond UND’s Center for Innovation, part of the College of Business & Public Administration and home of the School of Entrepreneurship. They’re starting small, working on Honors Program projects and improving the communication and enrollment plan for the School of Entrepreneurship. The goal is to spread the utilization of DIBS to even more areas of campus, the community and, ultimately, other colleges around the world.

“I feel like DIBS is a tiny UIF here at UND,” said Johansen, an accounting major from Drammen, Norway. “We bring the students in and give them the same education, and we empower them to take on these projects that either they have had in mind or that we are working on.”

Global experience

Puhl, Johansen and Porter join past UIF recipients Ben Olson (fall 2015), Emily O’Brien and Dan Daffinrud (spring 2016) to round out UND’s fellowship class. The most recent fellows say they’re thankful for the groundwork of those before them, and they can’t wait to pass on what they’ve learned to the next set of campus innovators.

“Yes, the number of UIFs is growing, but we’d love to have that mindset grow faster,” said Porter, a native of Waconia, Minn., and a senior majoring in operations supply chain management. “Instead of just planting seeds here or there, we want to farm the whole field here.”

Puhl is excited about another opportunity for DIBS — this one, across the ocean in Helsinki, Finland. He joined seven others from UND on a trip to the world-renowned Slush expo, a student-driven entrepreneurship festival organized by Finland’s Aalto University. The annual event brings startup companies and student-led organizations together with investors to facilitate new connections.

UND’s Slush attendees hope the experience will create some opportunities back home.

“Aalto’s entrepreneurship society wants to make a chapter in the U.S.,” Puhl said. “I’m talking to the vice president of Aalto University to try and collaborate with DIBS and see how we can reincorporate that into a different culture and how we can bring it to that global scale.”

UND’s participation in UIF is supported in part by the Edson and Margaret Larson Foundation and alumni donations.

O’Keefe says his sponsorship of the fellows is well worth the time and funding.

“These are the young people we’re going to be reading about in 10 to 20 years — that’s just the way it is,” O’Keefe said. “UND has great students. We have really great people who want to be involved. You do not have to be an entrepreneurship major to be a UIF. We’re looking for the right students — not the right major.”