Spreading creativity through coffee, cooking and dance
March 5, 2020 - Jenni Gough
Elena Olson, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, is using different forms of art and activities, such as coffee tasting, culinary arts and dance classes, in hopes of inspiring her fellow faculty and staff.
Olson, Ph.D., is this year’s School of Business “creativity czar,” which she has changed to “creativity tsaritsa” for her reign.
The school each year designates a faculty member as the creativity czar. The goal is to fuel the creative culture by encouraging faculty and staff to approach the industry in new ways.
“I looked at all the activities that were done previously, and of course I wanted to keep some things the same,” Olson said. “But I also wanted to bring my piece of technology, my piece of dance, and I wanted to bring some culinary experience, because we have not done that before.”
Olson defines her role of creativity tsaritsa as a facilitator of the culture and as someone who brings people together. She has seen firsthand the creativity that abounds in the School of Business and is excited about the diversity that lives in those with whom she works.
“The School of Business has an amazing environment,” Olson said. “There are so many people from different places and lots of people traveling. Every creativity czar brings their own something. I just wanted to share my something.”
For Olson, creativity comes in many forms. Making and thinking about things not directly related to your work is an important piece of the creative process, she said.
“It was fun for me to do something more during my time at VCU,” she said. “When you are in a position and you are working or teaching, you want to do something else. That creativity piece is exactly what I wanted.”
“I also wanted to bring my piece of technology, my piece of dance, and I wanted to bring some culinary experience, because we have not done that before.”
By trade, Olson is an engineer, holding a master's degree in microelectronics and a doctorate in electrical engineering. Through her studies, she became interested in information systems.
“No career is linear,” she said. “I am teaching programming. I never thought I would be teaching programming and web design. I never thought that is where I would end up.”
The idea of teaching was daunting to Olson at one time. It was not something she thought she would enjoy. While teaching a class during her Ph.D. program, it became clear it was a good fit.
“I felt passionate about it,” she said. “Since then, I never thought about going into industry. After my Ph.D., I knew I wanted to [teach].”
Her favorite thing about teaching is the students. She is excited to figure out how to reach each student and make sure they understand the message she has for them.
“Every classroom goes beyond the regular subject,” Olson said. “It’s complex. It is what gives me energy.”
As the creativity tsaritsa, Olson has many ideas on how she can encourage people to think differently than they usually do.
One is bringing in local cafes that feature different roasts of coffee for faculty and staff to sample. Even the taste of new coffee can begin the creative process, she said.
“It brings you out of your comfort zone,” Olson said. “You will notice that ‘yes, there are different ones.’ Maybe that will encourage you to do something different in your classroom and bring it to your students.”
These coffee breaks have been met with enthusiasm by her fellow faculty. During the first coffee break, they ran out of cups. While some might have been upset by this, Olson took it as a sign that people were engaged in the creative process.
Olson has other plans for the coming months, such as teaching a culinary class and hosting a series of classes fusing Latin dances with flamenco.
“This is what the School of Business is all about,” she said. “The creativity is embedded in the culture.”