Name: Ali Cook
Hometown: New York, New York
Education: B.A. in Economics from Smith College; M.A. in Art History from UMass Amherst; M.B.A. from Boston University (May 2020)
Work Experience: Consultant at PA Consulting; Partnership Manager at Innovate @BU; Program Manager at Valley Venture Mentors
Current Team: Innovation Strategy


You were working for PA Consulting when Essential joined PA last year. This year, you brought your expertise to Essential. What was behind this decision?

“With practices spanning innovation and transformation, PA brings a lot of breadth to their client work. I’m lucky to say I’ve worked across both sides of the business, on projects ranging from a global finance transformation, to pricing strategy for new products, to corporate innovation programming. My years working at PA and with (prior) startups helped me realize that I’m most passionate about helping businesses move into uncharted territory. I started to follow those interests more deliberately, and mentors within PA guided me towards Essential as a possible next step in my career. As I got to know the team and their work, joining the Innovation Strategy team was a natural fit!”

How are you able to draw on your experiences with early-stage companies in the work you do at Essential?

“Essential is fast-moving and has retained its startup spirit even as the team grows. It’s likely the reason we work so well with many companies who have recently secured funding and are preparing to enter the market. In working with our more established clients, I challenge them to be nimbler and more connected to their users -- an approach that startups must live by.”

What type of projects do you love to get your hands on?

“I love corporate innovation programs, from accelerator to venture. These programs are often inspired by startup models. As a result, there can be a mismatch between the program format and the organizational end goal, given the very different prerogatives of corporations versus startup companies. I love redesigning those initiatives-- catering corporate innovation strategy programs to provide a plan that better positions them for scalable growth. This has been a passion project of mine for years. I’ve been researching with faculty at Boston University to support the launch of a new course on this very topic for their MBA program.”

What might people not know about you?

“I started as an artist! I was a metalsmith and photographer; I spent my teenage years in the studio. I looked predominately at combined BFA/BA programs when I was applying to college. Although I decided to go to undergrad at Smith, I did a postbac at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. It was amazing to be immersed in a word of creation. It was the most valuable part of my education. My time at MassArt taught me that you can build anything you can imagine. I’ve applied that lesson in a lot of other contexts moving forward.”

This idea of having the freedom to "build anything you imagine", is an important mindset when it comes to innovation and creative problem-solving. Have you applied this mindset to any unusual design challenges?

“I took a class during my postbac at MassArt called, “Toys for Elephants,” where we built toys for two elephants at the Buttonwood Zoo. Our interdisciplinary design team worked to solve a problem for the zoo: find a way to keep their fiercely intelligent and powerful inhabitants engaged. Our team’s challenge was to create durable, intricate toys that the elephants would want to play with. It was amazing to work with welders, textile and 2-D artists to imagine and build prototypes.”

ali cook elephant
An elephant pictured next to her trainer. Ali designed toys for the elephant during a course at MassArt.

What are you reading right now?

“Adam Grant’s Originals, which looks at why people who think differently will change the world. I love his podcast series, “Work Life.” Adam is a gifted storyteller, so he presents his research with compelling case studies. Given that he’s an organizational psychologist, it’s an effective way to present the work. Our Innovation Strategy team does so much work around users, and it’s interesting to have a look at whatever work he’s putting out as it’s tangentially related to some of our projects.”

Where do you turn for inspiration?

“I try to keep my creativity firing by giving myself the space to get outside, explore museums, and travel. Memories from my travels help me trigger inspiration. One of my favorite memories from this summer was a camping trip to Telluride with friends, where we hiked all over the Rockies then enjoyed lazy evenings in our hammocks watching the day end. Another key piece for me is making sure I’m always learning and exploring ideas from other disciplines.”

ali cook hiking
Ali during an early summit on a daytime hike through Telluride, Colorado.


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