Marina Onken 825x464


Shaping Minds: Marina Onken

Associate Professor of Management

The child of immigrants, Marina Onken was a first-generation college student when she arrived at South Dakota State University in the 1980s. After earning her B.S. in news-editorial journalism, she added an MBA and a Ph.D. to her list of accomplishments and eventually settled down at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she now serves as an associate professor of management and marketing in the College of Business and Economics.

“I’m a South Dakota girl, born and raised. Being in the Midwest is best for me,” she says. “One of the things that attracted me to UWRF is that a lot of the students here are first-generation college and that’s what I am, too. I understand what that unique mindset is for a first-generation student to go through the educational process because there’s a lot less mentoring that goes on for that student.”

“Students who come from families who had parents that went to university just naturally get a lot better mentoring. They have better role models, probably in their family, of other people who’ve gone to university,” she continues. “I didn’t have any of that, except for that there was this general feeling that I needed to go become educated somehow. I think that is one of the things I really liked about UWRF. I thought that I was uniquely suited to and fit with the students here.”

Not only has she found a natural fit at UW-River Falls, Marina also found a natural fit within her chosen field.

“When I was getting my MBA, there was a course that I took called Information Systems and I was in the library trying to find material that talked about the strategic management of information systems because information systems was still a fairly new area back then,” she recalls. “So, I'm digging in the library and I fell upon a book by Michael Porter called 'Competitive Advantage' and I picked it off the shelf.”

“About three hours later I looked up and I'm still sitting amongst the stacks in the library and I was still reading the book and it was the only business area that really made sense to me,” she says. “I had taken courses already in organizational behavior and finance and marketing, but this was the course that really answered the question that I had, which is ‘how do businesses make a profit?’ Strategic management answers exactly that question so that’s when I fell in love with it.”

Now entering her 12th year of teaching at UW-River Falls, Marina has taken that love for strategic management and pivoted it into a shared love for the university’s Innovation Challenge. She serves as an adviser to the competition, which is billed as an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to “explore the possibility of turning their business ideas into reality.” The competition utilizes Lean Startup Methodology as students develop their ideas into viable business models before being judged by a panel of community and business leaders.

When asked about the importance of the Innovation Challenge and why the competition was so close to her heart, Marina’s answer makes clear her care for her role as an educator.

“I think it’s important for students to think about what they have to offer after they get their degree. A lot of times I think there’s an assumption that students will just go into a job and be told what to do, but a lot of life is about problem solving and I think that's one of the best skills to get out of participating in the Innovation Challenge,” she says.

“They [the students] are essentially trying to find a big idea and they’re trying to solve it. Michael Mader for instance, a few years ago, he wanted to help homeless people. That was his big idea, that was his big problem. He asked how he was going to help homeless people and found that they needed socks,” she shares. “He has now started a business, Hippy Feet, that is about helping homeless people and connecting with homeless people in this area in Wisconsin and in Minnesota.”

“I want students to think about big ideas. I think sometimes we get so involved in a topic, in our subject matter in our class, that we don't think about the bigger picture,” she says. “I want students to think about the bigger picture and about what it is they have to offer to the world once they graduate. I want them to be able to contribute their big idea and learn how to solve problems in society and for their business.”

That big picture philosophy extends beyond the Innovation Challenge. She says one of her goals for her students is to get them out of the country.

“I wish I could convince all my students to do that, to have that international travel. It's something that I talk about with every single one of my advisees, every single semester,” she says. “I try to get them involved in international education. I want them to get a passport and I want them use it. I want them to leave the country.”

The reasons for encouraging her students to travel, says Marina, are boundless.

“I wish I could get them out of the country so they could see what it's like elsewhere and talk to people elsewhere, so they can bring those experiences home," she says. "I find that through international travel, you’re inspired more and become more innovative. I think it’s in your thought process of how you bring it back into your job and into your life in general.”

And when she does get her students to cross a border or two?

“I like to talk to them about what it was that they saw, what did they experience? What was the food like? What were the people like? How was the weather? How did you get around? How did you travel? What problems did you have? Were there any crises? How did you get yourself out of it?” she says.

“We’re teaching students how to problem solve, how to be able to – as an adult – see that they’re in trouble, that they have a problem and then solve that problem. Because international travel never goes smoothly, so how do you solve the problem and how do you adapt and deal with it? I think having those international experiences makes a student so much more adaptable, a better citizen of the world,” she says.

That global element of education comes full circle for Marina as she again talks about her initial passion field:  strategic management.

“By its nature, strategic management is very global. The companies that we talk about are more likely to be global. I make sure that I assign cases on companies that I'm pretty sure they won't have any experience with, especially global ones,” she explains. “I want them to think about, ‘well, how is that you penetrate the market in China and what is the difference between China and India and why didn't that company have luck or have success functioning in China? What were the reasons behind that?’”

“I'm hoping that students have some sort of cultural grounding where they understand that there are differences in culture," she says. "I want them to know that these are the questions that you have to answer up front before making that kind of decision and as you’re implementing that strategy, these are the kind of issues that you'll likely encounter and how do you solve for that?”

The problem of solving for “that” is constantly reinforced when talking with Marina. She is teaching a class, Innovation and Business Models, for the first time as a permanent course this fall. That class – one of three new innovation-centered course on campus –  is one where she hopes students will find the problem of solving for “that” as a healthy challenge.

“I’m hoping I can get them thinking about the big ideas in society. How do you solve for homelessness? How do you solve for poverty? How do you solve for climate change? For hunger? The questions are endless. How do you solve for that?” she asks. “And then drilling down and taking this tiny little piece and contributing to the solution.”

“I think that’s important for students to know they can do that. It’s empowering. So, when they see the problems that our society faces, they don’t have to feel powerless, they can contribute to the solution. I want them to know and feel that - that they are able to solve for the problems our society faces,” she says.

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