Innovation in Action: MBA Grad Brings Haas@Work to Life at Wells Fargo

When Amir Zelazny, MBA 09, applied to the Haas@Work Program for spring 2009, he was a second-year full-time Berkeley MBA student uncertain of his future in the thick of the recession. Little did he know that after graduation he would go on to work for his Haas@Work client, devoting the next three-and-a-half years to building the kernel of an idea from the program into a major new strategy for one of the nation’s biggest banks.

Zelazny, now an assistant vice president and product manager for Wells Fargo’s Retirement Solutions group, became a driving force behind the bank’s proprietary new retirement tool. The "My Retirement Plan" tool launched Dec. 14 as the first part of a new program to help Wells Fargo customers prepare and save for retirement. The tool aims to guide consumers with realistic plans for saving for their sunset years.

“This really underscores how the innovation process works, and how it can be used to make big changes in a big organization,” says Zelazny. “Our Haas@Work team of students brought fresh ideas to Wells Fargo. After graduation, I worked on a team at Wells Fargo that did additional research to enhance the calculator idea, and then we put in the work to develop and launch it—with lots of twists and turns along the way.”

Haas@Work has evolved from an extracurricular program to a semester-long course that satisfies MBA students' experiential learning requirement.   Each semester, the course is built around specific innovation opportunities and challenges faced by prominent partner companies. Teams of Haas students—along with faculty and advisers—then spend 16 weeks working with the companies, uncovering new insights about customers and the market, and developing, modeling, validating, and advancing new ideas and novel solutions. 

Zelazny was part of a student team asked to wrestle with multi-layered challenge for Wells Fargo: how could the bank help customers do a better job saving for retirement? After the initial program ended, he and economics PhD student Reza Shabani continued on with Wells Fargo as contractors, developing and testing an algorithm for a new retirement calculator that incorporates government data and takes customers' day-to-day situations into account. The calculator proved unique enough to take out a patent.

Zelazny was hired on by Jeff Street, Wells Fargo’s senior vice president for Retail Retirement, to shepherd it through a complex user-experience design process, which incorporated behavioral economics and development of multiple channels: online, phone, and bank branches.

“In the end, this innovation came about through a combination of tearing apart an initial idea to come up with the core math behind "My Retirement Plan," followed by literally thousands of decisions about how every element of the customer experience, channel integration, and technology would work,” Street says. “All to deliver an easy-to-use but highly powerful tool to help our customers better succeed in saving for retirement.”

Executive Director Dave Rochlin says the goal of Haas@Work is two-fold: Students hone their innovation skill set while partner companies get solid recommendations and fresh perspectives.

“In this case, Wells Fargo not only picked up some deep insight and thoughtful new approaches related to encouraging retirement planning, they also hired a talented Haas graduate to bring our processes inside their organization,” he says. “It's a big win for everyone."

Zelazny said the project “feels like the fruition of all the principles I learned at Haas, such as questioning the status quo and going beyond yourself.”

Amir Zelazny, MBA 09