Former Cree CEO returns to Marquette to foster innovation in Milwaukee

Chuck Swoboda, former CEO of Cree Inc., is Marquette University’s first innovator-in-residence.
Chuck Swoboda, former CEO of Cree Inc., is Marquette University’s first innovator-in-residence. Credit: Marquette University

After graduating from Marquette University’s college of engineering in 1989, Chuck Swoboda headed to the nation’s hub of innovation and technology, Silicon Valley.

Thirty years later, Swoboda has returned to his alma mater, intent on seeing Milwaukee experience an innovation boom of its own.

“There is an opportunity here,” said Swoboda, who retired in 2017 as chief executive officer of Durham, North Carolina-based lighting company Cree Inc. “I see some of the first pieces that are coming together … There’s a totally different vibe to Milwaukee than when I left 30 years ago. It’s a cool, hip place. And it wasn’t then.”

This fall, Swoboda was named Marquette University’s first-ever innovator-in-residence, a position that complements the school’s ongoing efforts to foster entrepreneurial and leadership skills in its students. The university has identified innovation leadership as a key academic priority, recognizing that – in order for the region to capitalize on its potential – it needs future leaders to help steer industry changes.

Serving as the hub of that effort is Innovation Alley, a university initiative focused on developing leaders, engaging industry partners around innovation and creating more opportunities for students who have not previously had access to programs that promote innovative thinking and collaboration.

Swoboda’s role as innovator-in-residence is a piece of that effort. He plans to leverage the lessons he learned from leading a company that is credited with pioneering change in the consumer lighting industry by producing the first sub $10 LED bulb. During his tenure with the company, Cree grew from a $6 million to a $1.6 billion company with 6,500 employees worldwide.

“What I saw at Cree is the things we commonly teach in business schools across the country, while they’re great for management, they’re fundamentally opposed to behaviors required for leadership,” he added.

The challenge with innovation, he said, is it requires a different mindset than how people are often trained.

“Most of us go to work every day and we’re rewarded for managing risk and delivering some kind of predictable outcome,” he said. “But innovation is fundamentally about taking risk to find some new unpredictable outcome. You have to be very comfortable with the idea that it’s not all going to work.”

So far in his position, he’s launched Innovators on Tap, a podcast that highlights stories of thought leaders who have firsthand experience with leading innovation. He envisions young professionals as his target audience, but Swoboda also sees an opportunity for a broader conversation in the region about how industries can evolve and take risks.

“The goal of doing this is not just to train students or help Marquette, it’s to really engage with businesses,” he said. “If I look at most industries here, they were really innovative when they were founded 100 years ago. It’s really hard to reinvent yourself, but it’s possible. I would love to engage with them to think about how we can help them look at their challenges differently.”

While he spent the majority of his professional life in the Raleigh-Durham area, Swoboda has maintained strong ties to Marquette. He spent 12 years on its board of trustees, including a two-year term as board chair. Both of his daughters are alumni and his son is currently a senior at the university. It’s also where he and his wife, Karen, met more than 30 years ago.

“There’s a great connection among my siblings and spouse and kids (to Marquette),” he said.

Swoboda was invited two years ago to speak with a cohort of students from Engineers in the Lead (E-Lead), a three-year leadership development program housed in Marquette’s Opus College of Engineering. That led to him providing feedback on the program’s curriculum.

Out of those discussions, Swoboda was encouraged by a few Marquette leaders to write a book about his thoughts on leading innovation. He has now finished the book and it is set for release  next spring.

In April, the Swobodas, who co-chair the university’s capital campaign, donated $1 million to support Innovation Alley, along with another $1.5 million to support the university’s men’s basketball program.

“One of the priorities I’m passionate about (at Marquette) is Innovation Alley,” he said. “It’s really this idea of thinking about innovation not just as a technical problem but as a multidisciplinary problem … While one goal is to bring industry collaborations here on campus, it’s not just to do research. It’s to pursue this idea of developing how people think about innovation.”

The gift allowed the university to double the size of E-Lead and open it up for the first time to non-engineering students.

The program launched six years ago to address a common challenge among engineering graduates. Many would be moved into management positions in the early stages of their career without ever receiving training on how to lead people.

“Most leaders need more than technical expertise,” said Kristina Ropella, dean of the Opus College of Engineering. “They need to know about leadership issues, like interpersonal communication, strategy and culture.”

E-Lead takes students through a three-year program that includes formal coursework on topics such as emotional intelligence, having difficult conversations, leading diverse teams and leading in innovation, along with experiential opportunities, such as internships and leader shadowing. So far, six cohorts of about 20 students have gone through the program.

This year’s class includes 40 students from engineering and other majors.

Ropella said the goal is to cultivate graduates who are ready to hit the ground running, making immediate contributions to their companies when it comes to innovation.

“They are comfortable having conversations with supervisors about how the company might look at things differently, working with their supervisors and peers on running ideation sessions,” she said. “They have more confidence and courage in having those conversations … They don’t sit back and wait for someone else to make a change.”

Swoboda said Marquette will play a key role in driving innovation in the region as it develops leaders who are comfortable with challenging the status quo.

“For where Marquette sits in Milwaukee and the technology change that’s coming to so many industries, if we can really work on the people side of this, we can take a lot of industries looking at change and give them the people to solve those problems … I think Marquette can do more than just help people develop products,” he said. “It can develop people that can then develop those products.”

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