Laura Townsend with students

Townsend, director of Innovate LLC, pictured fourth from right

The Creativity and Innovation District (CID) Living Learning Program Residence Hall is the home of three living learning communities: Studio 72, Innovate and Rhizome. The CID brings these three Living Learning Communities (LLCs) together and helps create a community for students to thrive in the arts, entrepreneurship and tackling global challenges. 

Laura Townsend, program director of Innovate, shone a bit of light on Innovate itself, its history, its objectives and her own journey in business and entrepreneurship.

Innovate started out as a small group of students at Oak Lane in 2013 and then moved to Pritchard Hall in 2015 as the program grew. Townsend became the director of Innovate in 2016 and decided to move the LLC to the CID after working to resolve the design issues of the building for the past two years. 

“We were really excited to move over and be a part of it (CID) since it's a really good collaboration of innovation and the arts,” Townsend said. 

Innovate is interdisciplinary and is open to anyone interested in entrepreneurship and business. The LLC has a wide array of students, including some who already have a company but need help with starting and others interested in establishing one. Innovate cultivates entrepreneurial skills through various activities such as ventures to companies, invitations to different CEOs and executives to speak with students, and connecting students with local startup businesses for internships and access to local entrepreneurs. 

“It (Innovate) just kind of really introduces them (students) to this whole entrepreneurship world and network and we try to get them introduced to that and let them see the possibilities that are out there,” Townsend said. “Maybe one day they will start something, or if they have something now, we try to help them think through issues they may have or how to raise money.”

Townsend promotes community-building activities in Innovate to cultivate camaraderie, such as bowling, family dinners, holiday parties and much more. Townsend also recently created a monthly musical event called Venture Vibes, where members host concerts and musicians in the CID’s performance hall. 

“That’s like a way to revitalize the music scene here at Virginia Tech because music is really entrepreneurial,” Townsend said. “We have a lot of hidden talent here for students that are interested in going into the music industry and don’t have any outlets for it.”

Townsend’s passion for business and entrepreneurship comes from her childhood. When Townsend was a child, she grew up poor with a Korean mother and a white father whose families both disowned them for marrying each other. 

“When I was growing up, the Vietnam War had just ended and my mom, as an Asian woman, was terribly treated,” Townsend said. “We were terribly treated as Asian young people and a mom because ‘we’ lost the Vietnam War.”

Townsend took the hardships and toughness of her childhood and turned them into determination to improve her life. She saw education as a way out and a way to create a better life for herself.

“I think there was always this drive and motivation to want more for my life and to always look for opportunities because I didn’t have anything, so I was always looking for opportunities to make a difference, or, ‘How can I improve things?’” Townsend said. “So, I grew up that way because I didn’t have a lot so I had to figure out ways to make things work.”

She became the first in her family to attend college, where she received an undergraduate degree in management at Oral Roberts University and completed her master’s in human relations at the University of Oklahoma. She also studied entrepreneurship during college, where her entrepreneurship professor inspired Townsend’s passion for business and entrepreneurship. 

“I remember him saying that ‘entrepreneurship will be the next big thing,’” Townsend said. “The class is very similar to what we do now; we had to come up with a company and pitch it in front of a panel of judges, and this was before Shark Tank.” 

Townsend eventually worked as a college pastor and then as a director of a dorm of 600 students under the dean of women at a university. It was during this time she found a love for being a part of college students’ journeys. 

When Townsend reflected on misconceptions that revolve around the business world, she noted that entrepreneurship can often be seen as a profession only welcoming to white males due to a lack of diversity in the field. 

“Entrepreneurship has been very white male dominated because there have been a lot of barriers of entry for women and minorities,” Townsend said. “I think it's really important for aspiring entrepreneurs to see themselves represented and other business leaders, so it's really important to have that representation.”

Townsend thinks that the biggest aspect of the business world that should be improved on is representation, especially when talking about diversity, equity, inclusion and most importantly to her, belonging.

“A lot of the business principles and systems are established by white men and they don’t serve minorities and they don’t serve women and they are very patriarchal,” Townsend said. “We have to rethink how leadership and business is run and how we can create this sense of belonging.”

Townsend noted that she wants Innovate students to fully embrace the components of what a Living Learning Community is. While Innovate is all for learning about entrepreneurship and business, Townsend also wants students to value the “living” and “community” aspects of the LLC; to her, the “living” aspect means to participate in life and find out who you really are aside from other people and the “community” aspect means to live and connect with others.

“What I want students to get out of it (Innovate) is I want them to engage in life and find a sense of purpose and to learn they aren’t limited by others; they are only limited by themselves,” Townsend said. 

When thinking about the future for Innovate, Townsend hopes that the LLC will be known as one of the best entrepreneurship programs in the nation and aims to expand the program to have a far-reaching impact on more students' lives.

“One thing about being an entrepreneur is, when doing a startup, you really look at scalability, and so we have maintained kind of a smaller community until next year,” Townsend said. “The point is that I have spent years trying to develop a really good infrastructure because I want to maintain the integrity of what we are trying to do here and I don't want it to just be a name-only thing that people are a part of. I want it to really make a lasting impact for students, and in order to do that, we have to make sure that we are structuring things in a way that still has that high personal impact as we grow.”

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