The biggest obstacle to innovation isn’t failure – that’s essential to solving difficult problems – but rather being paralyzed simply by the fear of failure, Virginia Tech alumna and Facebook executive Regina Dugan told an audience of hundreds at the Moss Arts Center in Blacksburg Wednesday.

If you are working on a project you care about and you fail, it feels terrible, Dugan said. That scary feeling holds us back.

“I believe that we have to choose, actively choose, to be terrified,” she said. “I’m a little terrified pretty much every day. When we choose to be terrified, we share a vulnerability. And that vulnerability becomes our bond.

“It is the bond that people who are associated with building the future of this university feel. It is not even ‘when’ it’s a little terrifying. It’s rather precisely ‘because’ it is a little terrifying. Because it is authentic and human and scary to dare and dream and do.”

Dugan, the leader of Facebook’s new advanced research group, known as “Building 8,” earned her bachelor's and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech and went on to receive a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology.

She returned to Blacksburg to talk about rapid innovation as part of the university’s inaugural Beyond Boundaries Presidential Lecture series. Her expertise on the topic is well documented in her vast professional experience and success.

“She’s a scientist, a businesswoman, an inventor, and a leader in disruptive innovation. She knows Virginia Tech well because she’s also a Hokie,” President Tim Sands said in his introduction of Dugan.

Before joining Facebook earlier this year, Dugan ran Google’s Advanced Technology and Products Team. She is also the former head of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  In 2013, CNN named Dugan to its top 10 list of thinkers in science and technology who are “changing the world with their insights and innovations.”

Beyond Boundaries is President Sands’ visioning initiative in which he challenged the university community to imagine Virginia Tech a generation into the future, and consider how to advance as a global land-grant university, navigating the challenges and opportunities facing higher education.

Dugan stressed the importance for companies – and universities – to be forward thinking.

“I’ve been fortunate to be part of many great organizations," Dugan said. "I know that the best of them challenge the very notion that their past is what makes them great. Instead they use their history of accomplishment to give the confidence to change and look forward to the future. They seem to focus, always, on a future that can be even greater than their past.”

Dugan, a member of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Academy of Engineering Excellence, said innovation is a discipline that requires speed, agility, and the ability to change and adapt.

“It’s a way of life,” she said. “It is something you can learn. It is something you can get better at. It is something you test, adapt and change with the time. You treat it as a discipline and you get better.”

Building a culture of innovation requires organizing work differently,  Dugan told the audience of students, faculty, staff and community members. In the case of DARPA, for instance, that meant challenging a traditional linear scientific model that called for a progression from basic science to applied science to product.

Dugan said she often hears concerns that large organizations like Virginia Tech are too bureaucratic to create an architecture and culture of innovation. She doesn’t believe that’s true.

She encouraged those in attendance not to be limited by what they think they can do but what they believe they can do. "What we choose to endeavor to do becomes the future."

Regina Dugan talks with students
Regina Dugan talks with students after her lecture on innovation at the Moss Arts Center.
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