Melissa Kennedy of 48 Innovate

{{ story.headline }}

{{ story.subheading }}

{{ story.timestamp }}

48 Innovate isn’t a typical consulting or tech company. And its founder, Melissa Kennedy, is neither a typical CEO nor entrepreneur. Instead she and her company are something entirely new.

On one hand, Kennedy fits right in with the Triangle’s community of passionate and innovative entrepreneurs. Sporting bright red hair, she’s gregarious and the consummate cheerleader at startup events—hers is the cheer you hear rising above all the others. While perhaps more extroverted than some techies, her passion and dedication to discovering and supporting innovation in all business sizes help her blend into the Triangle startup community.

Conversely, Kennedy’s demeanor and the way she presents her new company, 48 Innovate, is more polished than any entrepreneur I’ve yet encountered. Her carefully crafted (yet witty and personable) responses to interview questions remind me of an established CEO rather than someone whose company is just a year old.

Her recent launch party at American Underground’s rooftop patio exemplified the graceful nature in which her company navigates both the startup and big business worlds. The 85 attendees weren’t the typical faces seen at American Underground—70 percent were directors or leaders of large companies. A wide range of hor d'oeuvres were offered, and the featured cocktail was aptly named, “Innovation Fizz.” But in true startup fashion, Kennedy, event partners, customers, and guests gave a series of 60 second pitches. And the night was topped off with an awards ceremony of sorts for the winner of the “clever captions” contest Kennedy conducted over social media in the hours leading up to the event. The winner’s “crazy innovative prize”? A pound of bacon. 

Innovate 48 Clever Caption Contest
The winning Clever Caption for Innovate 48's Clever Captions Contest

There’s a reason Kennedy boasts the qualities of someone who has perfected the mix of CEO and entrepreneur—she’s worked for both types of organizations. And now, she’s turned that experience into a company that uses startup methodology to innovate within big businesses.

Thus far, Kennedy has used 48 Innovate’s unique process in mostly local and regional businesses. But she believes the process would benefit large companies across the globe and intends to scale and serve them through a forthcoming proprietary software and a licensing and certification process for others interested in leading the workshops. But more on that after we take a step back to get the back story of 48 Innovate.


Kennedy has worked for Triangle heavyweights like ChannelAdvisor and Cisco. She was the first social media strategist at Cisco and a self-described intrapreneur at the company for five years. Being the entrepreneur within a large bureaucratic organization was difficult for Kennedy because she often found herself frustrated by the roadblocks she encountered when she pitched her ideas to leadership.

After leaving Cisco in 2011, she founded her marketing consulting company, Ester Mae Marketing (which would eventually pivot into 48 Innovate) where she advised startups like Durham-based PRSONAS and Albright Digital on various marketing strategies.

Kennedy also became a fixture at Startup Weekends. To date, she’s attended 12 Startup Weekends around the world as participant, organizer or facilitator.

48 Innovate was conceived over a lunch with her former colleague, Annette Blum, the director of business strategy for Cisco’s commercial south sales team. Blum had described the company’s upcoming corporate planning session, and conveyed her worry that it would not be productive or useful in creating innovative solutions to their problems. A metaphorical light bulb went off in Kennedy’s head, and she convinced Blum to let her try something new and different with the team.

Combining tactics from Startup Weekends with her marketing consulting experience and knowledge of Cisco’s management and corporate structure, Kennedy created the 48 Innovate experience.

48 Innovate—The Experience

Although built in response to Cisco’s plea for help, the 48 Innovate experience is designed to be replicated by any organization that seeks to tap into its labor force to devise innovative solutions to the company’s biggest challenges. Kennedy believes companies have the expertise they need within themselves, but sometimes rely too much on outside consultants to identify and construct solutions for their challenges. This can have negative consequences such as low buy-in among staff, wasted resources and the inhibition of staff development.

The structured 48 hour (hence the 48 in 48 Innovate) experience merges the urgency and on-the-fly collaboration found in Startup Weekends with the knowledge and expertise found within companies’ walls.

Five weeks prior to any event, 48 Innovate begins working with the client to identify and solidify a measurable and achievable goal. For example, the Cisco team’s goal was to grow business by 20%. A group of employees from different levels of the company are then selected and invited to participate in a 48-hour planning session. Each participant is provided with the identified challenge, market research, and instructions for the session—including the charge to come prepared with a 60-second pitch for a solution to the identified challenge.

The two-day session begins with ice breakers then moves into the pitches. All attendees—regardless of tenure or title—are expected to pitch within the 60 second time frame and will be clapped off stage after 60 seconds—finished or not. The crowd forms up to six teams around their favorite ideas then has the rest of the day to flesh out their chosen solution.

The second day begins with 20-minute meetings with coaches. Coaches can be external or internal experts, but Kennedy says that coaches from other divisions within the company are preferable because of their subject matter and company expertise.  

After the coaching sessions, the teams regroup to incorporate the coaches’ feedback. The remainder of the day is spent preparing 10 minute presentations, which are followed by five minute Q&A sessions.

Come presentation time, the contest looks like a typical startup pitch contest, but with one small tweak—the judging panel is comprised of executives with the power to implement, fund and fast-track the winning solution. After winners are announced, the second day wraps up with a celebration party.

Post-event, 48 Innovate creates mini-project plans for the winning solution and checks in with the company at 30, 60, 90 and 365-day intervals.

So far, Kennedy’s clients have all implemented the winning solution in some fashion, which has led to a combined $200 million in additional revenue for the companies she’s served. Cisco even implemented the second-place proposal in addition to the winning solution.

But perhaps as important as the additional revenue are the intangible byproducts the companies reaped from the experience. The process differs from traditional strategic planning processes in that it facilitates and encourages collaboration among team members, leadership growth, and skill development. One client described the experience to Kennedy as, “talent review, meets corporate training, meets strategic planning and a lot of fun all in one.”

48 Innovate—The Company

48 Innovate Logo

Kennedy and her team of eight part-time employees have used the past year to streamline and polish the 48 Innovate experience. With $500,000 worth of upcoming 48 Innovate sessions in the pipeline here locally, she believes she’s poised to scale the business and the process beyond the Triangle. While contacts made at her launch party will help add scale, her vision for the company is bigger than incrementally adding customers to her portfolio.

Kennedy realizes she and her team can’t be everywhere at one time. She also knows from her own experience with working, then consulting, for Cisco that other consultants might have better, already established relationships with companies that could benefit from the 48 Innovate process. Thus, she envisions developing a licensing and certification process through which consultants can become certified to conduct 48 Innovate sessions in businesses throughout the country and world. She’s also currently developing and testing proprietary software that will further streamline the 48 Innovate process.

And with those plans, a seemingly innocuous consulting company becomes a full-fledged tech startup company. 

With a tested process, an energetic and polished leader, and a slew of clients under its belt, you can expect Kennedy to continue to be a fixture in the Triangle startup community. In the near future you might even have the opportunity to cheer for her and 48 Innovate as she’s cheered for you.