Kyleigh WawakFaculty Spotlight: Drawing on her expertise as a designer for food companies and software providers alike, Kyleigh Wawak teaches students in CIA’s master’s in Food Business program the creative problem-solving skills they need to succeed.

Mastering Design Thinking with Kyleigh Wawak

When Kyleigh Wawak went to culinary school in Chicago, there were pretty much only two food industry jobs anyone ever talked about: restaurant owner and executive chef at a hotel. “That’s obviously not the world we live in,” she reflected. “In order to be a successful food entrepreneur, just being able to make a good product is not enough.”

Success in the fast-paced, rapidly evolving food industry takes a well-rounded grasp of complex, overlapping systems, not to mention a wide range of critical thinking skills. As an instructor in the Culinary Institute of America’s prestigious master’s in Food Business program, Wawak introduces students to the design thinking concepts she’s honed over the course of her career, including creative problem-solving techniques they’ll need to understand and serve their future customers.

These are tools she developed as a culinary designer at the agency gravitytank, where she worked on food and beverage product innovation for clients like PepsiCo, Conagra, and Hormel. “I had a commercial kitchen where I would develop all the prototypes,” she recalled. “It was connected to a shop where we had industrial designers who would make packaging, and we had communications designers who would make the packing and create the branding.”

In 2016 gravitytank was acquired by Salesforce, where Wawak now serves a much broader clientele as a leader in the innovation team Ignite. “The people that I lead are the designers, researchers, and strategists who do the same kinds of things that I teach in the course,” she said. “We do it every single day.”

She acknowledged that a massive tech company might seem like an “unusual” workplace for a faculty member at CIA. But it’s precisely this unusual background that makes her course, Design Thinking for Food, such a valuable part of the program’s curriculum.

A Human-Centered Approach

As Wawak explained, her course teaches a human-centered approach to problem-solving. Students learn to put themselves in the user’s shoes, identifying needs that need to be met or challenges that need to be solved. “We learn how to do research to figure out what that is,” she said. “We learn how to scope problems, because design thinking is a tool to use to solve very large, ambiguous problems that don’t have a clear solution. You can’t Google it and find a manual for it. So we learn a bunch of different techniques and methods to work through that ambiguity in a way that is always keeping the users’ needs—and what we’re trying to solve for—in mind.”

Crucially, the course is not a space for students to work on their own business ideas. Although this can be frustrating, Wawak stressed that it’s an important part of the process. “What I’ve learned from doing this—with corporate clients too—is that if you’re focused on trying to solve a real problem, you’re also not as focused on learning how to solve problems in a different way,” she said. “That’s why we try to separate those things.”

Building Versatility and Adaptability

Having taught in CIA’s master’s in Food Business program since 2018, Wawak believes it promises a number of benefits to food industry professionals. On the one hand, it offers them the training, mentorship, and professional resources they need to develop their own business ideas. On the other, it prepares them for success beyond that one idea, and even beyond the food industry.

“Food businesses already have such a small success margin that I feel like having a well-rounded toolkit and skillset is to people’s advantage,” she said. “Not just when it comes to your immediate entrepreneurial idea that you might have now, but to serve you better in the course of your career. Because the way that things are changing, we’re all going to be having multiple careers, having multiple jobs, and we have to be as versatile as possible.”

She drew special attention to the program’s focus on sustainable food practices. “Students learn about ethics and supply chains and some really important aspects of the food industry that I didn’t learn about in regular culinary school,” she said. “It’s about the toolkit to be able to adapt to an ever-changing world. Sustainability, that’s affecting every single thing that we do, including food.”

Students also benefit from extensive institutional support as they develop their own capstone project, a complete business plan for a food product or venture that some turn into reality after they leave the program. “You don’t often get a chance to prototype those kinds of things in real life and benefit from all those different experts,” she said.

The Importance of a Beginner’s Mind

Asked what advice she’d offer people interested in CIA’s master’s in Food Business program, Wawak encouraged prospective students to approach the program with curiosity and an open mind. “Not just in the culinary world but in general, we get very kind of stuck into what we know,” she said. “When I see people struggling in my course, it’s because they’re too entrenched in what they know day-to-day. So be able to have more of an open mind, a beginner’s mind, to think more freely.”

Acknowledging that students come to the program at varying stages of their lives, she encouraged them all to embrace the opportunity to be a learner again. “I encourage people to learn for the sake of learning,” she said. “Don’t try to be learning to get an A. Learn to really learn the material, to really let yourself get lost and absorbed in it.”

Finally, she urged students to make the most of the CIA’s resources, from its expert faculty to its vast network of 50,000 influential food industry professionals. “The Culinary Institute of America has so many resources,” she concluded. “Take advantage of them.”

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