By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Robert Grajewski’s model for a strong and effective town-gown relationship is the role Stanford University played in the dynamic growth of Silicon Valley.
The Entrepreneur turned higher education administrator sees Vanderbilt University’s The Wond’ry playing a similar catalytic role in the burgeoning economy of the place many people across the world know as Music City.
“Nashville is a unique city that retains its Southern charm and Midwest values,” Grajewski says. “We want to help grow the innovation and entrepreneurial parts of the community.”
The transplant from North Carolina has the full support of Vanderbilt’s leadership as he works to better connect the city and the campus, something that has been a challenge in the past.
“We had heard from the community that they wanted to engage, but it had been difficult,” Grajewski said in describing the meetings he had with business and community leaders soon after arriving in April 2016.
He cites three key trends that should make his mission easier.
In its earlier years, Vanderbilt was located outside the core of the city. That reality has fundamentally changed with the exponential growth now occurring.
As a globally-recognized leader in research and education, the university is drawing even greater talent to the city, both in its student body and faculty and staff.
“We need to be a place that connects students to the community to keep them here after graduation,” Grajewski believes. That also holds true for faculty and staff who have entrepreneurial aspirations.
Third, Vanderbilt’s leaders have seen the value of experiential learning or what he calls the co-creation approach that The Wond’ry fosters. Those opportunities occur by being more engaged beyond the boundaries of the campus.
Vanderbilt Provost Susan Wente espoused that strong town-gown philosophy in comments she made last November when The Wond’ry held its grand opening.
As he approaches building new relationships and strengthening existing ones, Grajewski is driven by a partnering philosophy that encompasses not only departments on campus but also organizations across the community.
“It’s silly to replicate the wheel,” he says. “We’re not here to compete; we’re here to help and support.”
“We’re at the top of the funnel,” Grajewski says in terms of idea creation. “Others can go a mile deep. We just want to help spark things.”
That’s consistent with the servant leadership role he has embraced for The Wond’ry and its team.