Susan LaBelle wasn’t seeking a job when she heard about the opening for a new head of the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations. But the more she thought about it, the more the post intrigued her.
LaBelle, who was running her own consulting business, was ultimately chosen for the position and started this month, succeeding Charles Hoslet who’s full-time in Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s Bascom Hill office.
LaBelle said she’s looking forward to broadening the outreach of her University Research Park office, wanting it be be both a “front door and a road map to UW-Madison” for the business community in Wisconsin and beyond.
LaBelle said it was through her work with the eight-county Madison Regional Economic Partnership (formerly known as Thrive) starting in 2011 that she became more aware of what a major competitive advantage UW-Madison is for the area.
“We were undertaking a new strategic plan called ‘Advance Now,'” she recalled in a recent WisBusiness.com interview. “In the course of those meetings, UW-Madison kept coming up. And while we were focused on the benefits of the eight-county region, the benefits extend well beyond that. It was interesting that we could look at the university as an economic competitive advantage.
“All of the sudden, the pieces fell into place for me about the relationship between such a well-known university — particularly one with such a research emphasis and the ability to drive company growth — and economic development.”
That impression stayed in the back of her mind, even as she served a nine-month stint as interim leader at Thrive in 2012. She mused that it would be “very intriguing to be more deeply involved to facilitate the transfer of the benefits and the assets of the university into economic development for both large and small companies.”
So when the opening came up to replace Hoslet — now the university’s associate vice chancellor for government and corporate affairs — she jumped at the chance.
“I really felt it would be a great fit, and I was very excited, especially when you add on to that Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s emphasis on corporate partnerships as a way to strengthen the economy.”
LaBelle, a native of Chicago, moved to Wisconsin 11 years ago to work at Covance in Madison as the company’s global vice president of marketing. Before that, she worked in executive roles for nearly 20 years at other firms.
“What I do bring to the table is that corporate perspective. In any organization, you get a little internally focused at times, so it always helps to have someone around the table who can say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, let’s look at this other perspective.'”
On the flip side, she acknowledges that she has a lot to learn about UW-Madison and how all the pieces fit together.
She said she plans to do a lot of explaining — and boasting — about what the university can do for companies of all sizes, including start-ups that may have only one part-time employee.
“Most of my career has been spent in corporate marketing strategy,” she explained. “So I’m used to telling stories to potential partners both inside and outside an organization. I think we could do a much better job.
“Within the university, we just assume that everyone knows what we do. But that’s not true outside. I even think that within the eight-county region which is most closely connected to the university, there are varying degrees of understanding about what the university really does.
“The statistics that people throw around is that it’s one of the top five research universities in the country, but I’m not sure people really understand what that means.”
She said the role of the OCR won’t change under her leadership.
“I think the core mission really stays pretty much the same: to make sure that we are creating value by creating mutually beneficial relationships between the business community and the university,” she said.
“What I do expect, though, is that there probably will be a refinement of our focus with a goal of establishing stronger and more partnerships with additional companies across the state and the region outside Wisconsin. … Our role at OCR is a bit of a matchmaker, to understand the company needs and match them up with the right resources.”
While the university can be confusing for big firms, that may be especially so for someone launching a start-up.
“For entrepreneurs, the university can be even more overwhelming than for larger companies,” she said. “I think being able to point them to the right resources … introduce them to the right people (will) help them develop their business plans.”
— By Brian E. Clark