On February 1, Nat Irvin began his new role as the Assistant Dean of Thought Leadership and Civic Engagement for the College of Business. Although he’s a new face on the College’s leadership team, he’s no stranger to the College, where since 2007 he has taught many innovative courses in the management department such as Managing in the Future and Connections, Leadership, and Team Dynamics. Irvin is also the Woodrow M. Strickler Executive in Residence, Professor of Management Practice.
UofL: I understand that you came to UofL in 2007 as part of the Bucks for Brains program. What initially attracted you to UofL?
Irvin: I was at Wake Forest University for 10 years and did not have any intentions of leaving. I was happy with my life as a professor, teaching and leading the think tank: Future Focus 2020. However, when Wake Forest Dean, Charlie Moyer, left to come to the University of Louisville as Dean, he encouraged me to join him. After two failed visits due to weather conditions, I wondered if it was a signal not to go. However, after a 3rd try, I met wonderful people both in the College and in the community and reconsidered. After the trip, I received calls from U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, U.S. Representative John Yarmuth, and a few others that let me know how much they wanted me to be part of this community. They wanted me to occupy an endowed chair position named in honor of Woodrow Strickler, a remarkable President at UofL who led on matters of civil rights. This confirmed my feeling that this would be a great place for me. I arrived in the summer of 2007 and I have loved every single day.
UofL: As a self-described “Futurist”, how did you get started in the field and how do you identify trends that will shape the future?
Irvin: My interest in the future goes back to when I was a grade school student with a fascination for “what comes next?” In 1970, I read “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler, and his writing, along with authors John Naisbitt and Peter Drucker, have made a profound impact on my thinking. As a young black American, I wanted to understand more about what happened in America beyond focusing on the narrow construct of race. Race has always had a major role in our American history but there had to be other factors that caused society to change. I wanted to explore factors that make an impact on the course of history. Factors like technology and other demographic shifts that affect society. I wanted to broaden the discussion in my community. Drucker’s article, “The Age of Social Transformation” convinced me to pursue the work of studying the future. To do this, I felt the need to leave my job as Vice Chancellor at Winston Salem State University and launch a Futurist think tank at Wake Forest.
In the early ’90s, the provost of Wake Forest invited me to take part in “Vision 2020” designed to help the city of Winston Salem figure out where it would be in the next 20 years and discuss trends that would affect the community. Since then, I have participated and moderated several other visioning sessions with business and community leaders around the world.
UofL: With your new role, will you continue to teach?
Irvin: Yes, absolutely. Teaching is the lifeblood of my mind. My energy comes from constant reading and sharing thought spaces with my students. They help keep me on constant alert. When teaching MBAs, you have to be your best and well-prepared!
UofL: What is your vision for the type of programming that will be directed by the Office of Thought Leadership and Civic Engagement?
Irvin: My goal is to forecast 10-12 years (2020-2030) and think about what factors will influence that landscape. How we can better understand the social, political, economic, technological, and environmental factors driving the future. I am especially interested in using these insights to develop the next generation of leaders and thinkers. Some programming will target people in their late teens to mid-20s and provide them with information, perspectives, and data to help them understand the context where they will be heading.
As we explore the idea of moving beyond the walls of the University to engage in conversation and deeper understanding, a partnership with the KY Author’s Forum makes sense. Making a connection between those who are already in leadership with those who will assume leadership in the future is essential. That’s the big strategy. Let’s say we want to get more people interested in a social issue; then we need to focus on bringing them together early to explore and have conversations on addressing crucial attitudes. These are the types of discussions we need to involve younger people in, and run experiments on, when developing solutions for our social and cultural issues. Our College of Business is the perfect platform for innovation and incubation. We can take capitalist models and apply them to solving social problems.
UofL: It is my understanding that Idea Festival will take off a year to assess its format and viability. Since Thrivals occupied the first day of this annual event, how will this decision impact this year’s program?
Irvin: It appears that Idea Festival will not continue after all. Its funding is not available. However, Thrivals will continue and become even bigger and better. I do appreciate Kris Kimmel for his vision of Idea Fest as a TED-style event. When I attended my first TED conference, 2005 at Oxford University in England, I concluded that this was the solution we needed to reach urban communities and the next generation, so I founded the first Thrivals. I believed its influence would shape policy going forward. We are so excited that this year’s program will be 2½ days. Its focus will be on the future of healthcare. This is one of the single biggest challenges facing America and the world. We will address public policy, digital-disruptive technologies, biotechnology, genetics, euthanasia, the quantified self, aging, business of health, and anything else that deals with health. Our focus will explore shaping the future through informing young and emerging leadership in Louisville.
UofL: Is there anything you would like to add?
A fun fact—I get to be a partner with my two of my kids in writing music. On the Grammy-nominated “ArchAndroid” album by Janelle Monae, the last number, “BaBopbyeYa,” is a composition that I wrote before my kids were born. My youngest son has now rewritten and adapted it into his own work. My wife and I have had the pleasure of hearing it performed by symphony orchestras throughout the country. It is such a delight to coach them and compose music with them.
Another fun fact–Nat Irvin’s work at WXII News Channel 12, in Winston-Salem, NC, helped the station earn a prestigious Emmy Award in Editorial Commentary, for his heartfelt coverage of the devastated victims who lost their homes, businesses, and loved ones in the 1999 Stoneville tornado. This was after only a year on air and was one of the few Emmy’s the station earned.
- Hometown: North Augusta, SC
- Undergrad: BA in Philosophy, University of South Carolina, Masters in Media Arts
- Graduate studies: Doctorate of Musical Arts in Music Composition, University of North Texas and a graduate of the Institute for Educational Management, Harvard University Graduate School of Education
- Previous position: From 1996-2007, Irvin led Future Focus 2020, a think tank dedicated to providing leadership in bringing futurist thinking to urban communities. In 2000, Future Focus became a center in the Babcock Graduate School of Management at Wake Forest University, where Dr. Irvin served as Executive Professor of Future Studies and as Assistant Dean for MBA Student Development.
- Hobbies: Plants a vegetable garden every year.
- Favorite Restaurant: Mojito’s for a weekly date night with my wife.
- Favorite Vacation: Trinity Retreat Center at Emerald Isle, NC