Professor Richard Rho, left, works with student Brackeen Prendergast in a 3D printing class at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)

A lot of companies say they want to hire innovators, but creating a culture where ideas filter up from the rank and file can be really difficult. Sometimes, employees fear that their ideas will be tossed aside in favor of established modes of operation. And the time and financial resources it takes to put new ideas into practice isn’t always available. Nevertheless, some organizations have found success. Here’s how they did it.

Putting course design in the hands of teachers

At Alexandria-based St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School, the administration lets teachers design their own curriculum whenever possible. The school spends thousands of dollars to send teachers on summer research trips and consistently green-lights the most un­or­tho­dox ideas emerging from the teachers’ lounge.

One innovation is a set of courses in “3-D printing and entre­pre­neur­ship” run by technology education director Richard Rho. Rho says many teachers get ideas for classes by talking to their students.

“I was building a 3-D printer and a student said, ‘Oh, that’s really cool,’ ” Rho recalled.

That conversation ultimately spurred an initiative to acquire several 3-D printers and fashion a curriculum. Now, students can sign up for a course that teaches them the mechanics of using the technology as well as the creative process of solving problems with it.

Friendly competition, with real rewards

As the government-facing arm of the former AT&T product center Bell Labs, LGS Innovations has always looked to employees for new ideas. A regular 18-to-20 month “Shark Tank”-styled competition formerly called the Bell Labs Summit turns the company’s size into an advantage.

“I’ve got 650 scientists and engineers, each of which could probably go be a chief technology officer somewhere, but they don’t,” said LGS Innovations chief executive Kevin Kelly.

The competition begins with a call for proposals that anyone around the company can submit. That’s followed by a rigorous 18-to-20-month process in which hundreds of proposals are narrowed down to a handful.The best of the best are given funds to pursue a patent.

One finalists last year invented a hand-held device to detect airborne flu pathogens, Kelly said. The technology ended up being put to use by the Air Force.

Building diversity into the hiring process

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in specialized technology fields, but they are particularly absent in the cybersecurity sector. Industry surveys suggest as few as 8 percent of cyber professionals are women.

Leaders at Endgame, an Arlington-based cybersecurity company, are working to address that imbalance.

“It’s the right thing to do, it helps the bottom line, and helps us build a better product,” said Andrea Limbago, who has a PhD in international relations and serves as “principal social scientist” for Endgame.

Part of Limbago’s role is to rethink how the company improves diversity.

Limbago said it starts with signaling that the company cares. At her urging, the company does this through little gestures such as offering company T-shirts in women’s sizes or staffing recruiting tables with women.

“When I go out to [cybersecurity] conferences, it’s almost like going to a hostile environment,” Limbago said, recounting stories of being pestered and followed by men. “Women will often wait in line if they get to talk to a woman.”

Limbago also hands out “camera blockers,” little stickers that block the camera lens on a laptop, in case someone might be cyber stalking.

“Women are more likely to be a victim of someone hacking into your computer and using your camera to watch you,” Limbago said.

Such initiatives might seem piecemeal, but the company seems to be getting results. According to internal hiring statistics, a whopping 42 percent of recent hires have been women. For the company as a whole, about 20 percent of employees are women — still far from equal, but double the industry average.

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