"Be more than what's on the page" -- how to build a career in innovation.

It's a rowdy Thursday night at a student pub in Melbourne, and we've drawn a crowd. Academic staff, undergrads, mid-career explorers and job seekers have gathered together with one common goal: to learn what it takes to build a career in innovation.

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"Work isn't what it used to be," says Ben Sandhu, co-founder of Ida Sports and lead coach at RMIT Activator's RISE startup program. "It doesn't need to be either-or. You can build a great corporate career, while also creating a business or passion project on the side. And people who can flex to both environments are going to get ahead."

Nicole Blair, Innovation Manager at Bupa, agrees. "Corporate innovation used to mean 'anything that's not a core system'. But that's changing. We love to hire people with the bravery of an entrepreneur who can also be strategic, think global, and bring that diversity of thought into a room."

Meanwhile, Jane Kou, founder & CEO of food rescue app, Bring Me Home, challenged the room to create innovations out of personal passion. "It's your job to figure out your passion - what it is that you believe in? I am ready to dedicate my life's work to fighting food wastage, so I make sure I learn what my customers need, and find innovative solutions to the problem."

Moderated by Matthew Kwong, final year business & industrial design student at Monash University, and business development coordinator at The Hacker Exchange, our lively panel shared plenty of tips for creating your own future in innovation. Here are just a few:

Be the person that figures it out

"If I give you a problem to solve, and you have the ability to search for the answers and figure out how to do it -- through YouTube videos, asking others, trial and error, whatever it takes -- as far as I'm concerned, you're an innovator!"

Ben and the panel were in agreement. The skill of being able to 'figure it out' and make the most of the resources at your disposal is crucial whether you're a founder building a startup or proving your value in a large team.

Be ready for your elevator moment

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While openly sharing some personal career 'challenges' (always fascinating!), Nicole dared the audience to be bolder in their decisions and always ready to speak out.

"I want to hire people who have clarity of thought and communication, but also bravery! If you step into the elevator with our CEO, I need you to be able to explain what we're working on and what value we're creating for the business. And don't be afraid to share your thoughts. There's no point having a great new idea if no one ever hears about it."

Be prepared to reach out and build your network

A resounding tip from everyone? Meet more likeminded people. Stepping outside your existing circles can do wonders for your innovation career. Attend free meetups and workshops; update LinkedIn and reach out to interesting people; ask for introductions from your network; and be open to coffee catch ups. All simple ideas which anyone can put into practice. Nicole even credited a 'process of elimination' for her chosen career path -- going through her corporate directory and having coffee with people from different departments.

And a Guy Kawasaki-esque tip from Ben? "Don't write an email with more than five sentences. No one will read it."

Be self aware

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"You need to learn quickly what you're great at -- and what you don't want to do." Jane joked about bypassing a traditional law or medical career to focus on her passion for food rescue, but was serious when describing how important it is for founders to be in tune with their energy levels and mental health.

Nicole added "If you have skill weaknesses, cut them loose! Find others who are great at covering your blind spots and really lean into what you're good at. That's how you'll create a team that can innovate fast."

Be endlessly curious

Our MC, Matthew, is the perfect example of a curious future innovator. He shared his habits for trying new design projects, asking endless questions, and reaching out to professionals in different fields just to get a fresh perspective. And our panel agreed that being open to new ideas and feedback, and being coachable and curious is a key mindset for an innovation career.

Be more than what's on the page

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Whether you're building a business or seeking a corporate innovation career, Ben, Jane and Nicole all agreed that you need to differentiate yourself through your lived experiences, demonstrating interests and activities outside of work and uni. No matter what you studied or your career background, there is never just one single pathway to success.

"I have a history degree," Ben laughed, "who would have thought that would set me up for a career in innovation! But it turned out to be super relevant. So you have to re-think what's considered a good CV."

"Bringing a global mindset and being able to empathise with a range of different perspectives. This is what I look for when I interview talent," shared Nicole.

And I'll give the final word to our inspiring social entrepreneur, Jane:

"You are the people who are going to create new things for the world, and you spend most of your life at work. Make sure you do something meaningful."



Jeanette Cheah is the co-founder and CEO of The Hacker Exchange , a company created to create leaders who will thrive in the future of work, and shake up entrepreneurial education in Australia and beyond. The Hacker Exchange partners with leading universities, businesses and startups to give students the opportunity to immerse themselves in world-class innovation ecosystems like Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Singapore and beyond.

Jeanette Cheah