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The Wow Factor: Inside the Garage, Capital One Plano’s center of innovation

Capital One’s Financial Services headquarters swallows a corner of West Plano.
The Garage | Courtesy of Capital One

Capital One’s Financial Services headquarters swallows a corner of West Plano. Over 5,000 employees—better known here as associates—fill the offices, clustering on benches with lunch from one of the six on-campus cafes, whizzing between buildings using the bike share program, or even exercising with BOSU balls in the sun. But something more stirs in the air, an energy as fresh as new-car smell. Innovation can happen anywhere, but at Capital One’s Plano campus, it happens in the Garage.

Garages have a revered status in Silicon Valley as centers of invention and incubators for bright ideas; Apple, for example, started in a garage. Capital One’s is simply much more literal: a 36,000 square-feet office staffed with approximately 200 people, a physical makerspace built for free expression, collaborative work and, if at first you don’t succeed, try-trying again until you strike gold. “It’s meant to be a place where we foster creativity,” explains Karen Stroup, Senior Vice President of the Garage and my tour guide for the day. She describes the Garage as not just a place, “but a mindset,” encouraging making and learning through failure. Running on the gasoline of good ideas, the Garage attracts digital talent prepared not just to learn the business of finance, but to reinvent it with strategic products and capabilities that harness better technology and better customer service. “We have to create a culture for that,” Karen says. “Our goal isn’t to slightly tweak or improve. It’s to re-imagine.” This is innovation at the bleeding-edge.

The Garage entrance at Capital One in Plano, Texas.

The Garage opens with the Wow Space, where the businesses which Capital One Plano oversees, home loans and auto finance, are represented. “The Garage is where the home and the car meet,” Karen explains. The Wow Space has a huge screen on one end, always on, before a huge U-shaped couch. And—because no garage is complete without a car—a cherry-red Chevy dominates the other side. Beyond it is a house façade with a picket fence and picnic table, and an industrial makerspace with heavy-duty tools hanging on the walls; physical embodiments of the businesses of Capital One. The Garage sports its maker-culture with pride, stocked full with toys and tools to tinker with, in addition to a colorful table of LEGOs and a red and black toy machine which someone has built and left there. “This, I’ve never seen before today.” Karen curiously examines it; I hope it’s a catapult. It turns out to be a crane on wheels.

Another makerspace is equipped with a 3D printer. “Someone was in here making Mickey Mouse the other day.” It sits amid Christmas stockings and glue-on felt shapes leftover from a stocking decorating event for patients at Children’s Medical Center Plano who were hospitalized over the holiday season.

Beyond the Wow Space waits a collage of informal workspaces, clusters of long tables, couches and the occasional glassed-off meeting room. Walls are few and far between; if they aren’t glass, recycled/reclaimed wood or covered in local art, they’re doodled floor-to-ceiling with cartoons, questions, graphs, lists like “What went wrong” and “Good eats in Dallas!” A “Good Reads” list encompasses everything from Harry Potter to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Many of these walls slide on rods in the ceiling, reshaping the space like a block of wet clay.

A makerspace at Capital One in Plano, Texas.

“The financial industry is ripe for disruption,” Karen explains, “and we want to take the lead in that. We’re reading the tea leaves and banking is changing.” More startups are entering the banking space. The world grows more and more digitized every day, with a distinct ripple effect. There are new powers at play, catalysts for—and responses to—a change in the way people spend and save money. The Garage’s job is staying ahead of the curve by finding a different way to be successful, whether that’s refining the American office or re-defining our relationships with our money.

Karen describes herself not as a boss but as a facilitator, a coach coming alongside each associate. As she says, “Coming up with the best idea starts with the belief that not one person has all the answers, but that the power of the team is much greater.” She explains how the Garage has been designed, with few walls and lots of erasers, to dismantle those roadblocks that stop people from free collaboration: hierarchy and the stigma of being wrong. “If you’re wrong, just erase it. It’s okay,” she says. “We’re about learning, not being right every time. It’s a team sport. We all win or lose together. Having all this out there unleashes the conversation in a way that traditional cubes don’t.” Cubicles physically and psychologically throw up barriers and you’ll never see one in the Garage—most likely because they’ve already been tested.

“They say breaks encourage creativity.” Karen shows off a game-room with air hockey and foosball tables; there’s even an enclosed TV room for individual work or a quick video game break. “That’s another way to suppress hierarchy: me getting beat at air hockey!”

One of the meeting spaces we pass, named Picasso, “is a great example of our experimental mentality,” Karen explains and we sit down to try it out. Picasso is soft with shades of blue and green with a L-couch along the walls, strangely stiff and too tall; it’s loveable but about as awkward as a piece of furniture can be. The glass coffee table stands just a few inches off the ground. “This is actually demonstrative of the way we build products: mock it up, let people use it and see if they like it before you invest lots of money and time in it,” Karen says of the quirky little space. It will be reborn with a new design soon. In contrast, the Austen room has darker colors, warmer light and armchairs under breathtaking walls papered with strips of newsprint from around the world. “People have been asking for more casual settings for informal conversations and collaborations that aren’t their desks. We have a lot of unused space, so we’re going to make some more.” These rooms are like museum exhibits, each showcasing such different intentions and styles, such different ideas brought to life side-by-side.

The Garage’s home facade at Capital One in Plano, Texas.

At the Garage, every success is celebrated. A collection of license plates emblazoned with project names stands right by the front door of the Wow Space. Every time one of the Garage’s inventions becomes one of Capital One’s mainstream products, the associates have a little graduation ceremony and a new license plate proudly joins the wall. There are more all the time as the projects, tech and customer experience gets better.

“The Garage was set out to be a makerspace and to embrace a mindset of experimentation,” Karen summarizes. “With that comes an expectation for change. We are going to try something and it may or may not work.”

An experiment itself, the Garage is working. Discoveries made in the Garage and other Capital One innovation centers across the country are implemented at Capital One, influencing how they conduct business and banking in a new age: the digital age. The Garage is a lifestyle.

As an example, Karen points to Capital One’s Auto Navigator, a digital tool developed in the Garage. “We’re driving towards a world where [finance] is both more personalized and more proactive. If you’re at a car dealership and you’re looking at two cars, you want to know what the monthly payment is for those two cars right then; you don’t want to go back home and figure it out. People want information at their fingertips just in time.” Auto Navigator helps the consumer find the information they need and pre-qualify for auto-financing before visiting a dealership, with no risk to their credit score. “We’re looking for situations that are wins for the consumer, to help them make better financial decisions, but are also wins for the dealers who are also our customers.”

The Garage asks their associates for a hefty portion of heart, soul and hard work. And yet, there’s a focus on always turning it around to provide a better product, a better working environment and a better life for their on-campus community. Like the stockings left over from their gift to Children’s Medical Center Plano, there are signs of an outward, community focus. The goal is not just to improve Capital One, but to pull the rest of the community up around them. The Garage connects with local businesses and nonprofits to aid in their digital development for the health of the metroplex as a whole. Frequently, the flexible, unstructured Wow Space is utilized to host external events such as Design Meet Ups, a Women Product Makers day and a Women in Tech Demo Day with Girls Inc. as a partner.

Karen makes a point of saying: “What attracted me to Capital One was their commitment to the mission…this idea that Capital One sees themselves not just as employees but as part of the community. We obviously employ people in the community but we’re also your friend, your neighbor; we are a part of the city’s infrastructure.”

In January 2017, Capital One and The Institute for the Future (IFTF) released a report titled “DFW 2026: Igniting Economic and Cultural Prosperity in North Texas” which highlighted trends that may shape the DFW metroplex over the next decade. The signs of urban innovation and growth are already showing and occurring at an ever-faster rate. The report stated that the North Texas region will soon experience some of the fastest growth in middle-skill jobs requiring more postsecondary education than ever before. Nearly eight in 10 of these jobs will require digital skills, the exact skills which are fostered in the Garage. By 2030, the report predicts the rise of: new and emerging AI technologies, continuous learning across all platforms to help people master in-demand skills easily and a creative economy driven by artists, gamers, entertainers, reporters and innovators. The snags in the road will be digital security breaches and job displacement by automations.

The bleeding-edge strategies which are fostered so passionately in the Garage are being widely embraced as the way forward. There are new ways to work, new ways to play, new ways to create and new ways to collaborate. As Karen says, “It’s a team sport. We all win or lose together.” We all want to add more license plates to the wall.

Originally published in Plano Profile‘s March 2017 issue.