October 2019
Innovation: A Cultural Imperative in an Increasingly Competitive World
Kevin Rettle
Kevin Rettle
Vice President,
Global Offer Development - Universities

The drive for innovation is unifying. From small, private colleges to large companies that span the globe, innovation is a cultural imperative. As higher education becomes more competitive both at the local and international level, industry leaders must infuse their organizations with new ideas, approaches, and perspectives to succeed.

As I read the latest chapter of President to President, “Building an Innovation Culture in Higher Education,” by Dakota Wesleyan University President Amy Novak, Ed.D., I noticed many parallels between what the author described and Sodexo’s own approach to innovation. Novak details a comprehensive system that helped her institution overcome challenges through a proven, continuous, five-phase cycle of innovation.

Regardless of the size or nature of an institution, the underlying foundation of innovation largely remains the same. In my experience leading teams to find creative solutions to challenges and bring new ideas to our campus partners, these pillars have been critical to keeping innovation at the forefront of our culture:


The most successful innovators quickly respond to changes by maintaining agility in both the planning and execution of programs and processes. This is especially necessary in fields like higher education, where the customer base constantly changes as waves of students enter and leave campus.

Willingness to Fail

It may sound trite, but a willingness to fail is the cornerstone of innovation. Without the space to take risks, innovators may be unwilling to put forth ideas that, with proper development, become game-changers.

Meaningful Partnerships

Fresh perspectives are critical for fostering innovation, and one of the best ways to do that is working with other organizations both within and outside the industry. From established names to ambitious startups, new ideas can come from anywhere, and seeking partnerships with a wide array of organizations promotes a culture of innovation. For example, Sodexo’s partnership with Starship Technologies to bring robotic delivery vehicles to campus is revolutionizing the dining experience.

Disrupt the Business Model

Getting stuck on how things have always been weighs down an organization and makes it sluggish, creating a culture that is antithetical to innovation. Innovation requires—or creates—disruption, but that disruption often leads to meaningful change and improved outcomes. One example is our current work with delivery services such as Grubhub to pilot meal-plan integration, a new approach that could have long-term effects on the campus dining model.

Seek People Who Challenge the Status Quo

Organizational culture is meaningless without employees who truly champion its tenets. Innovation comes from those who value and prioritize it, so it’s vital to seek people who believe in challenging the status quo and share the values that are integral to innovation.


As Sodexo continues seeking new ways to anticipate and address the changing expectations around campus experiences, our culture of innovation will drive the creation of new programs, services, and solutions that meet our partner campuses’ evolving needs. Innovation is inherent to who we are, and it is an essential part of our culture.