Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second, so one ray of sunshine takes just 500 seconds to reach Earth. Impressive? Yes. But as Graybar Chairman, President and CEO Kathy Mazzarella reminds us, there’s also a team “moving at the speed of light” at the Innovation Lab (iLab) at Research Park on the campus of the University of Illinois. “The team of graduate and undergraduate students at the iLab is quickly exploring new ways to accelerate Graybar’s digital transformation,” she said, “challenging the status quo and working to improve the supply chain.”

The iLab is located at Research Park on the campus of the University of Illinois.

At iLab, students receive problem sets—potential business challenges they can research and solve to produce a formal recommendation for Graybar. Each problem set has an executive sponsor and a business liaison to provide guidance and support.

“As you might expect, we steer clear of phrases like, ‘That’s how it’s always been done,’ as it tends to stifle the creative process,” said iLab Director Todd Hart. “Failure is also accepted, even celebrated, in this arena—as long as we fail quickly and learn from it.”

Why is that so important? Because innovation and disruption have been hallmarks of Graybar’s success for 150 years, a trait perhaps even more pertinent today than at any time in our past. “Our world is being disrupted like never before, driven by globalization, demographics and technology innovation,” said Mazzarella.

Students develop new ideas at the iLab at Research Park on the campus of the University of Illinois.

Founders Elisha Gray and Enos Barton took a back seat to no one when it came to innovation. Today, all employees can help foster innovation. “While the iLab serves as a vehicle to research, test and develop our ideas, it is up to everyone to come up with ideas for new solutions and ways to improve our business,” said Vice President and CIO Dave Meyer. “Each Graybar location has the potential to be an incubator of ideas to improve the way we work and serve our customers. The more we can simplify and streamline our business, the more we can separate ourselves from the competition.”

Taking a cue from the iLab experience, the new Graybar Innovation Program encourages employees to share their own innovative ideas about improving the business through an interactive crowdsourcing platform. On the website, employees can engage with teammates, read success stories, and learn more about innovation and design thinking. Ideas that are submitted go through a selection process determined by a cross-function innovation council that chooses and funds early-stage idea development.

“We all have the ability to effect change,” Mazzarella said. And quickly shine the light on new ideas.

Learn more about these and other initiatives here and here.