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MSU Music alumnus seeks “passion and flexibility” when hiring to create shared experiences

MSU Today
Joe Zenas

The Michigan State University College of Music welcomed alumnus Joe Zenas as the keynote speaker at its 2019 spring commencement exercises. Zenas is the chief executive officer of Thinkwell, a design and production agency headquartered in Los Angeles with offices and studios in Beijing, Abu Dhabi, Montre?al, and Riyadh. 

Music is what brought Zenas to MSU.

“I bounced around majors a little bit at the beginning finding myself from, I think it was pre-med, and then computer science. But I was always involved in the school of music. That really kind of became my heartbeat. I found a tribe within this big university and found the small school vibe in that and had a lot of opportunities. So, that always spoke to me.

“My mother was a church organist. Like all kinds of kids, we started out with piano and fought it when we wanted to go do sports and stuff. But then I found trumpet. That kind of stuck for me and I followed that all the way through. It was always a great outlet for me.

“What people don't realize is all these transferable skills and disciplines you gain from accountability that’s required of musicians. Being disciplined in the hours of practice leads to discipline in other areas of one’s life like business.

“Knowing that you have to own your own mistakes leads you to go into the corner and work on them. Knowing when to lead and when to follow. Being a supporting musician is as important as being a soloist. I think all those skills transfer into project teams and group dynamics that you see in the work environment.

“I like to say I have a career from music as opposed to a career in music. I was fortunate, I won an audition after college to be part of something in Disneyland called The All American College Band. They do a national tour and put together a big band of college hot shots for the summer, but it's an internship program. You spend half your day performing in the park and half your day in workshops learning about the business of music with studio musicians.

“When I was at Michigan State, we didn't really have the arts management and business management classes that you can take now to understand there's a career there. So when I was at Disney, I started meeting these people. The light bulb went off and I realized there's this whole other business behind art that you can do that supports it. That's where I really got bitten by the bug.”

Thinkwell specializes in the creation and master planning of theme parks, resorts, major branded and intellectual property attractions, events, museums, exhibits, expos, and live shows. As CEO, Zenas is responsible for leading the direction of the company and establishing new growth opportunities, corporate strategies, strategic alliances, and intellectual property partnerships.

“Thinkwell is an experience design company. We design things that people do and shared experiences in the real world. So that's everything from theme parks, to museums, presidential libraries, urban retail, and dining districts. Anywhere you have a guest who's connecting with a brand in something in the physical world we design. If you're familiar with Disney Imagineering, we're kind of like Imagineering for everybody else.

“One of the most transformative projects I had was working on the 1993 Super Bowl halftime show, which was the Michael Jackson halftime show. It was the first rock and roll show where a stage had to come on the field in five minutes and get set up. A friend of mine was designing that set and brought me in to help figure out how to get it on the field. For me, it's marching band, right? How do you get 300 people to work together to get something done. That turned into a career for 10 Super Bowls and Olympics and things like that.”

Credit MSU Today
Russ White, Joe Zenas

In much of his work, Zenas says he feels like the conductor of an orchestra.

“At least for me, whenever you get a new challenge, you have to go back to something you're familiar with to get started. I use the conductor analogy in my brain a lot as to what an executive, or producer, or leader does. A conductor doesn't play every instrument, but his or her goal is to get the best players and get the best out of everybody.

“I'm fortunate enough to do the same thing. I'm not a designer. I'm not technical or a magician, but we get the best people. We have to understand what the intent is and get to the finish and deliver that together. That's my job.

“I think a big difference between Thinkwell and our competition is, one, our global footprint. We have offices and studios in Los Angeles, Montreal, Beijing, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We have a really good understanding of what's going on globally. Also, we work in so many different sectors.

“We really only do one thing, though, it's connecting guests with a brand and building these experiences. But it takes us to everything from the theme parks and museums to now we're starting to get into healthcare and the patient journey in hospitals. So it's how do we apply what we do into as many industries as we can? An experience economy.”

Zenas loves the variety of projects he engages with at Thinkwell.

“The best thing about it is it's so diverse. You can be working on a 3D movie one moment. The next minute you're working on a presidential library. The next minute you're brainstorming about how to bring entertainment into a new region like Saudi Arabia. So, that diversity is what really makes it a lot of fun.”

Zenas is a member of the General Entertainment Authority in Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudi Arabia of nine years ago is very different from the one right now. Under the current leadership, there is an opening up in liberalization that's going on for the people. About 70 percent of their population is under the age of 34. They have a global view.

“One of the five pillars they're using is bringing in entertainment. Where things were banned five years ago, now it's wide open. They've gone from no public performance of music and events to, this year, I think there have been 6,000 shows, concerts, and festivals. It's really exciting to be a part of that and watch the change of the country.”

What does Zenas look for when hiring for Thinkwell?

“Passion, first, and flexibility. I think  that that's really, really important because we're not necessarily experts on a topic when we start, but we will be by the end. Hiring people then who are willing to dive in deep, roll up their sleeves, and understand everything about a topic is really important.

“What's also been really important to us always is that as owners of the company, we're not business majors. We're not here to flip a company. We all are doers and producers and creators. That has always been in our culture and I don't think that would ever change. So even though we've gone from four people in a garage to 220 people, it's still that ethos of creation that is incredibly important and that good ideas come from anywhere.”

What message did Zenas hope to leave with the College of Music graduates?

“The main message is that you can do what you love and you can go on a curvy path and those experiences can lead to opportunities you would never know were there. Also, that you have innate skills, especially as a musician, that you don't always give credit to that are very applicable in a business environment. We talked a little bit about them before and the level of discipline and accountability and your understanding of how to listen and read a room. And showing up on time. Just that alone is an incredibly important skill.”

What's next for Joe Zenas and Thinkwell? What should we be looking for down the road?

“Our newest initiative that I'm very excited about is, if you look at the base of what we're doing, is that we create guest journeys. We guide guests, either through a museum or an urban environment. So, we looked at what other guests journeys are challenged and where can we help. We're now focusing on health care. We just launched Thinkwell Health. We're looking at the patient journey and how can we make that better and partner with hospitals and healthcare providers.”

Zenas is proud of his work with Ukulele Kids Club.

“They provide ukuleles and music therapy directly for kids in hospitals and help them, whether they're terminally sick or chronic, and use music therapy as this amazing journey for healing. We donated 7,000 ukuleles. I think we're in 400 to 500 hospitals around the world right now. We have chapters that are opening up internationally. It's a fantastic organization.

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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