Jennifer Leemann: Using Insights to Drive Innovation at Starwood

"I was curious about why some good ideas go forward and other good ideas fail," says Jennifer Leemann, vice president of internal communications at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. "A lot of that had to do with how ideas were communicated."

That was the impetus behind Leemann's decision to pursue a master's degree in Strategic Communications at Columbia (now known as the Executive M.S. in Strategic Communication). With a background in business from the University of Virginia and about four years of public relations experience at Starwood under her belt, she wanted not only to build her skills but also to quench her curiosity and to drive innovative ideas forward.

But how did she apply what she learned in the program to her role at Starwood? It all started with a surprising finding from her team's consumer research: "What we heard from conference organizers was, 'If you can make your chairs more comfortable, we'd do more business with you.'"

However, improving conference-goers' Starwood experience was easier said than done. "At first, it was dismissed with statements like, 'We could never tackle that; it's too expensive,'" she says. "I pitched the concept of revamping the meeting chair and then proposed the fresh approach of a student design competition. Once the idea was approved, our amazing design and convention planning team worked through the logistics of bringing it all to life."

Starwood partnered with Pratt Institute for the Starwood Meeting Chair Re-imagined design competition. Ashley Thorfinnson created the winning design, the Isthmus meeting chair, which offered comfort and durability within Starwood's weight, size, and stackability constraints. The chair concept also featured an extra shelf for laptop or conference material storage and a reclining back.

Sheraton meeting chair

Says Leeman, "When we had a final design and physical samples of the chair, we needed a way to communicate with our B2B customers to position Starwood as an innovator and design-led company – but also to drive new business. We used storytelling to get our message across in a sticky way. We had a great video that told the story of the entire process and then let customers try out the chairs firsthand."

Says Leemann of her team's innovation, "Last week, I was at an event at one of our hotels – and they were rolling out the chairs! It was incredible to see it go all the way from concept to launch."

As a result of Leemann and her team's strategic thinking and business results, she has been promoted twice since she enrolled in the strategic communications program. Initially an associate director of corporate public relations, she became director of global brand management and in 2013 became vice president of internal communications.

She thanks some of her favorite professors from the strategic communications program for not only sharing their knowledge while she was completing her master's but for continuing to provide their insight once she finished her studies: "Frank Oswald, Mark Truss, and Jane Praeger – all three professors continue to shape my thinking and serve as go-to resources even after the program."

Career advancement and mentorship weren't the only reasons she found the program valuable. "It was really enriching to be around smart people all the time and to challenge yourself," she says. Based on what she learned at Columbia, she says that she approaches new challenges at her company with a newfound clarity.

"I always ask myself, 'How can we think about things differently?'"