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The 2023 Sales Gala: Bigger and Better

An inside look at Innovation Studio during their busiest time of the year.

With just two days left until the Sales Gala, Innovation Studio (IS) and The Hive have taken on the atmosphere of the New York Stock Exchange. 

Our second annual Sales Gala is a life-changing opportunity for student innovators to launch businesses and present the passion projects they’ve been working on this past year. It is, first and foremost, a showcase of all their hard work. As the big day approaches, some students are melting wax for their candles in a crockpot, some are 3-D printing their final designs, some are editing cookbooks, some are perfecting their pitch for their podcast, some are trying to finalize their logo, some are still debating price points and strategies for their balms. At the heart of it all, guiding, directing, and cracking jokes, is NEIA’s Head of Innovation Studio, John Turner, and the rest of the IS team.

While pursuing his interest in art, liberal arts, and business at the University of Connecticut, Turner realized that he had been inadvertently collecting all the skills necessary to be an entrepreneur. In 1997, he founded Flannel; Harvard University would become his first client. Many recognizable companies such as Blizzard, Nordica, Rollerblade, and King Arthur’s Flour turned to him for his help in rebranding their businesses. For a year and a half, he pursued his love for hockey by goaltending for minor league teams across the country (his longest tenure was with the Elmira Jackals). In more ways than one, John Turner represents the spirit of NEIA: kindness, enthusiasm, entrepreneurship, and a fearless pursuit of his passions.

Students gravitate to him. Sometimes they need help with their project, but most of the time, they just want to have a conversation with him. According to Turner, that relationship starts with mutual respect.

“I think I treat them like peers,” he said. “I think I treat them like I’ve got as much to learn from them as they do from me.” 

His mission is to inspire people and help them tell their authentic story. He is constantly chasing that moment when a student figures out their passion–when he can see them get jazzed about a project or topic.

Last year, at our first-ever Sales Gala, student innovators launched a combined 21 businesses, sold out inventories, and raised nearly $10,000 (a portion of those proceeds going to causes and charities). No one at NEIA is content to just match last year’s success. They want this year to be bigger, better, and even more fun. The Sales Gala, in more ways than one, is the culmination of our school year. Turner said, “It is the one time that we bring to school together, and all the parents and the local businesses get to see what we’re working on.” 

Nicholas Tamas, Innovation Studio teacher and industrial designer, has been impressed with their students’ drive and focus. Tamas believes NEIA’s unique educational setting allows students to try new things and practice without necessarily being concerned with financial viability. 

“It’s kind of in the name,” Tamas said. “It’s the New England Innovation Academy. Innovation is so many things. The way we focus on innovation is: how can you take like novel ideas and innovate, iterate, or make better versions of them using human-centered design?”

Fransico Mireles, Industrial Designer in Residence, wants to highlight the time that has gone into these projects. He explained, “They did research, developed prototypes, got reviews from their prototypes, and improved upon them. Then they made their prototype into a manufactured good, which should be replicable. And now they’re selling those replications of the product.” These teachers guide their students when they encounter challenges, but sometimes students will be interested in something they’re not an expert in. So what do they do then?

“We go get experts,” Mireles said. 

On Thursday, June 8th, the Sales Gala’s doors will open at 4 p.m. Student passion project pitches commence at 4:15 p.m. Our guest speaker, Neal Yanofsky, a former Panera and Dunkin’ Brands executive, gives his keynote presentation at 5:30 p.m. Sales open at 6 p.m. and continue until 8 p.m. This event is free and open to the public; RSVP here. This year’s theme: Wonderland. The dress code is “whimsical.”

“I think that magic and wonder is why this place was started,” Turner said, “to create a sense of wonder in students and to get them to be creative, to think creatively, to learn all the necessary things, but also to keep that piece of magic.”

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