Following the Threads

USC Upstate students help Milliken & Co. identify potential products to pursue.

As a leader and innovator in textiles, flooring and health care products, Spartanburg-based Milliken & Co. is always exploring new ideas. This past fall, some USC Upstate students had the opportunity to help the company with that process.

Six business majors and one computer science major were selected to be part of a student consulting group. Brian Brady, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and associate professor Yin-Chi Liao worked with the team in class, while the innovation scout team at Milliken, led by Allice Ballenger, director of strategy in the textile division, provided outside guidance.

The students were tasked with pre-qualifying and assessing a list of potential ideas for innovative products and market opportunities for the textile division. Their work included analyzing data and consulting with executives on the Milliken team. At the end of the project, the students presented their findings and recommendations to members of executive management.

“It reinforced the importance of interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration, which are essential skills in today's dynamic business environment,” says Svetlana Semenuk, a marketing and communications major.

Students also learned important soft skills, such as observing dress codes, developing resiliency, and approaching challenges with a fresh perspective. Not every industry expert wanted to talk to the team, so getting used to rejection was part of the process “You will hear ‘no,’ or absolutely nothing, a lot,” says accounting major Eleazar Morales.

Sometimes the team’s research showed an idea wasn’t feasible. That not only meant explaining the reasons why, but also offering Milliken executives some alternatives. “For a company, being told that something isn't viable before starting can save millions of dollars of R&D, and they appreciate that,” says Morales. “A ‘no’ is just as useful as a ‘yes.’”

Ballenger agrees, and says the Milliken team valued the students’ thorough assessments. “They delivered high-quality work that exceeded our expectations,” she says. “They were not afraid to question our assumptions and propose new solutions.”

For their part, the students appreciated the chance to grow professionally. Says Semenuk, “My time with Milliken taught me the importance of approaching things differently, embracing new experiences, and continuously seeking opportunities for growth and innovation.”

Susan Grotenhuis