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Heven Ambachew ’24 combines her passions and experiences to design major in innovation studies

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Image: Image: PLU’s first Innovation Studies major Heven Ambachew poses for her Senior Spotlight portrait, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, at PLU. (PLU Photo / Sy Bean)

June 7, 2024
By Lora Shinn
PLU Marketing & Communications Guest Writer

Like many students, Heven Ambachew ’24 wasn’t yet sure of her major when embarking on her PLU journey. Four years later, thanks to PLU’s individualized major pathway, she is the university’s first graduate with a major in innovation studies.

An Innovative Major

Ambachew’s family moved to the United States from Ethiopia. She first heard about PLU from her older sister, who graduated in 2022 with a degree in biology.

At first, Ambachew thought she’d go into computer programming and user experience design by majoring in computer science. In her first year at PLU, a Microsoft internship taught her about software engineering and product management.

Ambachew dove into the field, working part-time during the school year and full-time one summer with Geeking Out Kids of Color (GOKiC). GOKiC is a Seattle-area after-school and summer program offering multicultural STEM education using integrated curricula that teaches computer science and robotics alongside gender and racial equality. As a GOKiC educator, curriculum developer, and career development expert, Ambachew helped prep students for internships, including organizing career panels.

Her PLU journey took a detour when she visited village-based women’s co-ops during a sophomore J-term trip to Mexico. “It was a really interesting experience to see first-hand how women are solving issues in the community, particularly regarding financial freedom in smaller villages,” Ambachew says.

“Traditionally, men bring the income, and women do chores,” she says of the villages. “But I saw women in cooperatives doing craft work and all kinds of creative things to bring in family income without relying on men. It was empowering and cool to see women doing great work.”

Ambachew decided to switch her major to innovation studies and apply earlier credits earned to a business and computer science minor.

“Even though I did have a little bit of fear in switching my major and uncertainty on how it would be accepted, I mostly felt empowered choosing this path because it aligned well with my passion of co-creating solutions with the communities I want to serve.”

Creativity by Degrees

Innovation studies is offered as a minor at PLU, but Innovation Studies Director Dr. Michael Halvorson helped Ambachew “shape and create a [major] program,” she says. Cosette Pfaff from PLU’s School of Business also offered mentoring.

Innovation studies is an interdisciplinary program focused on creative solutions, using design thinking, collaboration, and entrepreneurial mindsets. Working in teams, students develop opportunities and solutions for contemporary problems. The program’s class options span the gamut from video game history to business to graphic design. A makerspace in Hinderlie Hall offers sewing machines, electronics, paints, and more for crafting inventions.

In an innovation seminar, Ambachew learned about the cyclical creative problem-solving process.

First, you identify a problem. Ambachew noticed that many people in her community wanted to start a business but still needed a unique brand identity.

Next, you find a solution. Ambachew created an agency to serve as a consultant for minority business owners.

The third step asks innovators to experiment with what works and what doesn’t, repeating this step by trialing – and then improving – solutions, until success is achieved. At present, Ambachew is assisting two women in starting new businesses.

“I want to help them with branding, business strategy, and storytelling, which are essential for a business to thrive,” she says.

Applying Innovation to the Everyday

Ambachew wonders how Mexico’s women’s co-ops might succeed in Ethiopia, which she says has a culture similar to Mexico’s regarding gender roles. “I’d love to see more co-ops in Ethiopia, where women can benefit from having a platform to sell goods and bring in income.”

As a career peer advisor at PLU, Ambachew applies her skills of spotting problems and finding solutions. She gives students feedback on how to improve their resumes and problem-solves how to play nicely with the tech-based screening systems businesses use to filter resumes. “I love doing this type of work,” she says.

After graduation, Ambachew seeks job opportunities in marketing analysis, project management, and learning experience design, applying what she’s learned from the business and technology worlds. Technology still appeals, she says, but she’s now focused more on the user and customer experience. And she will continue working on her “passion project” to assist local business owners.

PLU provided Ambachew with opportunities and flexibility as she traveled her college path.

“If you do things out of love instead of fear, you’ll see results and like what you’re doing,” she says.