"It's so Cute You're Doing a Startup!"

Photo Credit: Hank Randall, Brown University; L to R: Me, Sadie Kurzban, Morra Aarons-Mele, Vibha Pinglé, Sarah Carson

Is it hard being a woman entrepreneur? Is it hard getting funding? Is your venture really a ‘business’ or is it ‘just’ a lifestyle business? Given the stories finally coming out from the VC and tech worlds on what women have had to put up with, we know the answers to these questions.  So, when asked to moderate a panel of women entrepreneurs, I thought it was time to change the conversation.

The panel ranged from age 27 to 55, manufacturing to services, for and not-for-profit, and diverse backgrounds.  The discussion was lively, as one would expect from us women, with 3 main insights (yes, they’re based on a small self-selecting sample and are generalizations, but…):

1.  Women are agile entrepreneurs.

Putting issues of funding & access aside, do women approach entrepreneurship differently than men?  Yes! We are more willing to ask questions, which accelerates learning, which accelerates experimentation, testing, prototyping, which gets to answers faster, which results in faster adjustments and pivots based on customer needs.  Our egos are tied to the business’s success, not to being ‘right’, so we let go of assumptions when the data shows otherwise.  And, we marveled at how we get so much more ‘free advice’ (from men) then do our male peers.

2.     Balance is a variety of excesses.

Photo Credit: Hank Randall, Brown University; R to L - Morra Aarons-Mele, Vibha Pinglé, Sarah Carson

A member of the audience shared this insight – what a great summation! We had a wide range in views on this topic.  Sarah Carson feels, “Striving for balance is striving for mediocrity.” Both she and Sadie Kurzban try to do a handful of things very well, forget the rest and manage the guilt (does that ring true!). Vibha Pinglé encourages integrating work and life to reduce the frequency of choosing.  On one occasion she had to take her young son with her to a meeting in South Africa and found him in a tree with the village children showing them his video game.  Not many kids get that kind of experience! Morra Aarons-Mele feels that the definition of balance is up to us, not to society. It’s our decision on how/when/why to scale our business and how to support and raise our family.

3.     It’s not the degree; it’s learning to learn. 

The world tells us the degree matters.  None of us have an MBA and yes, amazingly, we are all successful!  Our undergraduate degrees ranged from STEM to STEAM and while many of us didn’t or hadn’t directly used our area of concentration a lot since college, the process of architecting our own education and learning how to ask great questions, which was key to our undergraduate success, led to our success after college. 

Morra closed out the Q&A with a great piece of advice ~ live with a spirit of abundance.  We women, in general, tend to worry about not having enough – time, money, energy, etc.   But hey, it’s not about re-slicing an existing pie – it’s about making new and bigger pies and being proud of it!

 


Many thanks to the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women and the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship for sponsoring this panel and a personal special thank you to Danny Warshay for such an incredible introduction!

Photo Credit: Hank Randall, Brown University; L to R: Me, Sadie Kurzban, Morra Aarons-Mele, Vibha Pinglé, Sarah Carson

How I Found Myself in Berlin

Lessons for all ages at all times - from a 21 year old taking an 'experience' year (I'm trying to stop use of the word gap!!).  Samanee Mahbub shares with honesty, vulnerability and truth - read, think, apply. 

Gap Year: How I Found Myself in Berlin (And everything I learned along the way) Part of the gap year was writing about how it’s not impossible to do if you’re open to adventure and serendipity. So this post is about how I got my current job, the wonders of connections (and why you should keep everyone in touch), the bigger wonders of amazing friends (and friends of friends of friends), my first 48 hours in Berlin, and how I think I may have found a job that’s an actual fit! TLDR; just check the takeaways (particularly my close friends) :) It’s a long post. How I got my job: the wonders of old connections Sometime in October, I decided to leave my first job but didn’t have much of a plan of what to do next. Lucky for me, the universe did! Kidding. Sort of. See, about a month before I decided to leave my job, I met up with a good friend of mine in Venice Beach. He could see I wasn’t the happiest. He planted the idea that maybe I should start exploring some of my contacts. I messaged another friend who had taken his own gap year. His words were the push I needed: “Don’t stay in a place during your time off that you know isn’t right” Two days later, I messaged an old friend I had met two years ago in Bangladesh. He was working at a company that had a strong startup alumni at the time, and he was from Germany. “I could move to Germany,” I thought to myself. I asked if he would be willing to pass my resume to some German startups. He was more than happy to help. Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to ask people for help. Don’t sell yourself short either. Seriously, no-one is 100% qualified for the job. Takeaway: Try to keep in touch with people. You never know who can help you down the road. I’ve had lots of examples of this in my life. I hadn’t heard back though for a month so I forgot about it. Then suddenly on “The Day” (aka the 24 hours where I decided to leave LA, cried most of the afternoon cause I didn’t have much of a plan, didn’t think I was cut out for this crazy ass adventure…ya it wasn’t great), my friend replied back apologizing for not getting to passing my resume, did it, and 12 hours later, the place where I’m currently working reached out to me. Takeaway: What’s that quote? “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Guess it works for not having plans either haha. I think the point is things can happen when you least expect it. But you can also make an effort to make it happen.

The bigger wonders of amazing friends (and friends of friends of friends) I have the BEST friends in the world. Seriously, I challenge someone to say they have better ones. At 12pm, I told my best friend at Brown that I was showing up at his apartment the next morning at 10am. I gave him less than 24 hours to prepare for me. And he welcomed me with open arms (and a very comfy futon). I was supposed to stay for 1 week tops. I ended up staying almost 3 weeks.Apartment hunting in Berlin was harder than I expected. But in those 3 weeks, I found so much love, support and comfort amongst my friends.From 5 minute hugs to 5 hour conversations, my friends were the boost I needed to prepare for my next adventure. Takeaway: Tell your friends you love them. So Anthony, Blake, Spencer, Sophie (and Adam sort of), thanks for letting me bum around the apartment in my pjays all day and reminding me I’m trash. Alex for always knowing what to say. Caroline, Ian, Derek, Max, Matt, Bas for being the best OG squad and making me almost puke at six flags and sleep on your couch. Ali and Julia for being two badass women. Emma, Isabel and Lacy for being unicorns. Minoshka and Anna for being so damn brilliant and being my mothers. Shivam for being crazy but somehow making it work. Taylor for being so wonderful. Manny for making me laugh with your life (it’ll be just fine). Adi for your own self discovery stories and keeping salon going. Priyankar for that little bit of home and big brother love. Ali for doing all the things you wanted to do. Valentin for letting me believe that I can dream big. Lauren for your warmth. Miki for really being one of the best people I know. Abel for the words of wisdom. Cherry and Rosa for the dose of love and adventure. Rohan for your inquisitiveness. Aaron for being one of the greatest spirits I’ve ever met. Xiao for being a dreamer. Timmy for being such a bundle of joy. Nathan for letting me be “international”. And so so many more that just said hi, gave me a hug, laughed at my life and said keep at it. You’re all loved ❤ The friends of friends of friends Apartment hunting in Berlin is HARD. I’ve learned I’m really naive. I’m scammer’s ideal prey. Luckily my friends aren’t as stupid and stop me from booking an apartment when the person doesn’t live in Germany and wants a wire transfer. I was very fortunate that one of my friends at Brown connected me with a friend of his in Germany (also a Brown alum. #Brunonia) who then connected me with her friend who’s apartment I’m currently living in. Yay friends! I’ve already hung out with one friend of a friend, and another friend of a friend tonight. And I’ve only been here for 48 hours. Yay friends! Takeaway: If you like your friends, you’ll probably like their friends too. And when you’re new to a city, reach out. Chances are somebody will know someone in the city you’re going to.

My first 48 hours in Berlin My first impressions are gorgeous city, cobble stone is pretty to look at, not to walk on, the public transport here is AMUZING, everything is so CHEAP (€1 falafel people), nobody believes in debit/credit cards (cash is imperative), my German pronunciation is abysmal, I love the people I work with, there’s so much to discover, the rain sucks, Uber sucks here, mytaxi is better (but that public transport tho. I got a monthly pass for €30), can’t wait to travel elsewhere and explore Europe, cats aren’t so bad (as a dog person), still a dog person, I’ll take a small room if I get a big bed over a big room with a small bed, EVERYONE SHOULD VISIT ME IN BERLIN. And that’s it. Takeaway: Travel. Explore. Observe. Experience. VISIT ME IN BERLIN. I think I may like product management? I won’t go into explaining what product management is. This article does a great job if you’re curious to learn more though. I’m more concerned with addressing the fact that it’s often a tech job that has the assumption that you need to be a computer science or related major to be one (heck, even Google’s Associate Product Management internship has “Minimum qualification: Pursuing a Bachelor’s, Master’s or PhD in Computer Science or a related field”). As a liberal arts major but a pretty firm lover of the tech industry, I’ve been finding it difficult to find a function within this world. I had heard of product management before but because of the CS requirement I was used to seeing, I didn’t think I was fit. UNTIL I read Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Product Managers written by a CS major, HBS lecturer, former product manager, and entrepreneur turned VC. Please please please read that article if like me, you’re not a coder but are interested in tech performing a cross-functional role that leverages multiple skill sets (sorry for the buzzwords). I’m still in the early stages of my product management internship. However, just looking at how my other product managers work, what type of work they do, and seeing how other non-tech roles function (Sales, Marketing, Ops, Biz Dev, Finance, Legal), I think I may have actually found a job that feels right. Takeaway: Keep trying things even if you’re not qualified, have the minimum requirements, or whatever arbitrary barrier someone else has put in your way. It’s the only way you’ll know if something is truly a fit for you.

Published by permission from the author

3 Simple Words to Revolutionize the World

2.5 weeks til the magic of BIF2015.  I am blessed with the gift of my network and can't wait to see my students and clients and friends and friends-to-be. Thank you Nicha Ratana-Apiromyakij & Saul Kaplan for this honor from TIME magazine. 

"How many people end business meetings with an “I love you” and a hug? Venture capitalist and former AT&T Labs scientist Deb Mills-Scofield does.  To Mills-Scofield, to do business is to negotiate diverse personalities to get things done — and she has the gift for it. “The broader, deeper, and more diverse your network, the bigger the impact you can make on the world,” she says." Read on...

I Don't Know

Mike Cohea / Brown University

The freedom to ask questions and admit when you don't know is one we take for granted and our society tends to shun as a sign of weakness, yet it is how we learn, grow, create and have impact.  Michelle Bailhe's commencement address is one we need to read, re-read and live.  Please read this and be grateful for her generation that will help make this world better.  Thank you, Michelle.
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Our first week at Brown, 500 of us packed Salomon lecture hall for Introduction to Neuroscience. As the professors concluded their opening lecture, a student asked what seemed like a simple question: “Is it true we only use 10 percent of our brains?” Without hesitation, Professor Paradiso answered, “I don’t know.” Our professor, renowned neuroscientist, didn’t know. He said, “New research suggests we don’t really know what Salomon Hallpercent of our brains we use for neural processes like thinking. The field doesn’t know yet so I don’t know.”

The room went quiet. Students sat up straighter. Ears perked up. The only sound was of the mental gears in 500 Brown student minds — churning. I heard whispers of: “How could you measure that on a cellular level? Could you stain brain tissue or create a computer program?” Our collective curiosity galvanized us. Unimpressed by knowledge alone, by facts already discovered, we were ignited by what we didn’t know.

For the next four years, seeking out these “I don’t know” moments became our daily challenge, our intellectual regimen. Brown made our attraction to the unknown, the undiscovered, the unresolved — magnetic. Even before we arrived on campus, Brown dared us in our admissions essays to answer the question: What don’t you know? And our open curriculum is the University trusting in us saying “we don’t know every course you’ll need to make your impact on the world. Only you can discover that.” A Brown education is being challenged to discern exactly what you don’t know. This is Brown’s most distinguishing strength and its greatest adventure.

We probe visiting dignitaries, testing resolutions to global conflicts as if they could be solved Right There in the lecture hall. We cherish controversies yet unsettled, problems yet unresolved, doctrines long unchallenged. We don’t just embrace the unknown, we ask it out to fair-trade coffee with its enthusiastic consent. If author John Fowles is right that an answer is a form of death, saying “I don’t know” breathes life into our restless minds.

When we asked “whose stories are missing from the history of the civil rights movement?” Our “I don’t know” sent members of our class and faculty to Tougaloo Mississippi searching for silenced voices. When we asked “What was Brown’s relationship to slavery?” Our “I don’t know” launched investigations that rewrote our university’s history. “Does the Higgs Boson exist?” The curiosity of Brown physicists hurls them into experiments at CERN’s particle accelerator week after week after week. Apparently, people at CERN say “I don’t know” a lot.

But beyond the Brown bubble, it can be hard to say “I don’t know.” In our Information Age, we’re rewarded for absorbing knowledge, for being excellent sponges. We’re conditioned to fear moments when we don’t know, moments of vulnerability. Last summer, I worked for a non-profit law firm. One client was facing deportation back to Ghana but required thrice weekly dialysis for kidney failure. Dialysis in Ghana is scarce and expensive, but we needed proof that deporting her was tantamount to a death sentence. I suggested a Ghanaian doctor’s testimony to the lack of access. “Great,” said my boss, “how can we get that?” “I don’t know, but I will find out.” I started by contacting Brown professors who had done field work in Ghana. They directed me to the largest hospital. And then a friend in the Class of 2015, Yao Lui, was visiting Ghana with a Brown-founded medical nonprofit. He directed me to another member of our class, Nia Campinha-Bacote, who was conducting research at that main hospital. She then tracked down the chief dialysis physician, got her testimony and sent it back to us — across the Atlantic — for our client’s case. I was in awe of the power of the Brown community operating not just beyond these gates, but half-way around the world. “I don’t know” wasn’t a dead end in the conversation. It was a beginning.

But “I don’t know” is not only the first step on the path to discovery. It’s also a critical step on the path to human connection. Researchers have demonstrated the power of unconscious bias. When we meet someone new, we’re conditioned to think we already know them. To borrow Nietzsche’s term, there is no “immaculate perception.” Socially-constructed stereotypes seep into our subconscious. They sow assumptions about our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. Preconceptions and misconceptions about race, class, gender, language, religion, sexuality, nationality and ability profoundly shape our world. They structure our institutions and delimit our possibilities. Their reverberations are felt from France to Ferguson, from Birmingham to Baghdad, from Baltimore to Brown.

Bias is dangerous precisely because it is false knowledge. Because the truth is we don’tknow. We cannot know how someone thinks from a weak data set of appearances and social constructions. We as Humans are too Complex, too Dynamic, too Surprising, and too Magnificent. To know what someone thinks, we have to ask them what they think. This is the first step toward what President Paxson calls “transformative conversation.” Throughout our time at Brown, we’ve thrown ourselves into transformative conversations that have been both uncomfortable and powerful. We’ve used what we’ve learned from each other to strengthen our academic and personal lives. “I don’t know” is thus not only an intellectual mantra, it’s also a project of humanization.

Anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston wrote “there are years that ask questions, and there are years that answer them.” Even though she went to Columbia, she’s right. This is a year that asks questions. Some of them personal: Where will we take our lives after graduation? How will we stay connected to the life-long friends and mentors that we’ve made here? Some questions are vast: How will we combat climate change and end mass incarceration? How will we alleviate income inequality and improve education? And some of our questions are deeply reflective: Am I enough? Am I brave enough to confront my own biases? Am I driven enough to persevere in solving the issues I care about?

These questions push us into uncomfortable places. To many of them, our answer may be — today and often — “I don’t know.” But Brown has given us every tool and every reason to Venture Boldly into our discomfort. This is how we’ve grown. Every day, we’ve challenged each other to take no observation, no dominant narrative, no established truth at face value. Every day, we’ve challenged each other to hold self-evident only that nothing is self-evident. Brown has shown us that the very engine of discovery and insight, of progress and justice, of our future and the world's is our fearless, relentless questioning. This is our greatest power. Brown has taught us that in this community, within these gates and far beyond, “I don’t know” merely means “I don’t know yet.

Michelle Bailhe recently graduated from Brown University with honors as a Human Biology concentrator focusing on health disparities in the US prison system and criminal justice-involved populations. She is a recipient of the Arthur H. Joslin Award for service to the Brown University community and the Gaspee Prize for top scholarship in American history in her class. Bailhe is an Arthur Liman Public Interest Fellow through the Liman program at Yale Law School and worked with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest on health justice legal issues and community organizing. She is also an avid dancer and activist, having organized a March for Marriage Equality in Rhode Island. A California native, she will move to New York to work for McKinsey & Company and plans to pursue a career in public service.

The Upside of Impracticality: Or Why I Left Congress for Brooklyn

Caitie Whelan recently gave up the prestigious job of a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress to move to Brooklyn, NJ and write. Ayup! (Yes, she hails from the great state of Maine).  Why? She wanted to make a dent in the universe (something she's done before). Read on.  Be inspired. Think, ponder... and go make a dent.
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This is not a practical story.

Three months ago, I had a great job as a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress. I had a great boss, a great dental plan, and a great city to call home. But something wasn’t great. And it came down to three words:

Doubt. Fear. Convention.

I saw too many people deflated by doubt, fear, and convention. Qualitative data was everywhere: deferring dreams for safe jobs, working for the weekend, resisting risk and reinvention. In short, too many of us felt too stuck, too small to  - as Steve Jobs said - “put a dent in the universe.” It was as present in DC as it was in Delhi or Detroit.

I know what it’s like to feel trapped and tiny. I also know that with the big challenges our world holds, we can't afford for people to play it small.  

I believe in many things: public libraries, underdogs, finding blue lobsters. Above all, I believe in the power of one person to make a dent. I’d seen that power undercut; I couldn’t respect my beliefs and not do something about it.

Policy’s one way to effect change, but I knew it wasn’t where I could be most effective. I liked writing and storytelling. I hadn’t done much of either. But I figured raw passion was a pretty good foundation to build from

I also figured since I had a lot to learn, I should surround myself with masterclass writers and creators. So, in March, I left my great job, my great dental plan, and my great city and I moved to Brooklyn to write, build a website, and make my dent in the universe.

In April, I launched The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features striking stories and great ideas from all over to remind us that we matter and that improving the world is our matter. All in a two-minute read.

I’m 30. I’ve never written for a living, managed a website, or lived in Brooklyn. Noah Webster would have good reason to put this under the definition of ‘impractical.’

Why ditch practicality? Three reasons.

1.  I believe in it.

Our world is shot through with pain.

Chad is short on food. The Middle East is short on stability. California is short on water. We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation. But we don’t have all hands

Many of our hands are tied up, doubting that we matter, fearing that we’ll fall short, or convention telling us to stay on script. It’s deflating enough to make us forget what we’re capable of.

The Lightning Notes is my reminder that doubt, fear, and convention may be big, but we are bigger. And we are made of tougher, more impactful stuff.

I believe in that.

2. Respect.

I’m a white belt again.

I could fall on my face, which would hurt. But not as much as never going in the ring. My gut was hollering, “Go for it.” When our gut hollers, that deserves respect.

And so do the people we serve

As Deb says, put yourself in your customer’s shoes. The Lightning Notes has no ads or paywalls. I wouldn’t want that as a reader; it doesn’t feel respectful for me to force it on another reader. Instead, I ask people to donate.

There’s plenty of free content out there. Why should people donate

They don’t have to. Yet, some already have. If 1,000 people give $8 a month, after Paypal fees and taxes, The Lightning Notes is financially viable. I’m giving myself one year to make it happen; I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Is there a faster way to make money? Yup. But I’m not doing this to be fast.

I’m doing this to respect that untamed part of myself that - despite doubt, fear, and convention -  hollered, “Go for it.”

And I’m doing this out of respect for the untamed part in each of us that’s hungry to contribute, to be a part of something bigger than we are, to put a dent in the universe.

3. Risk.

When I watched the Kentucky Derby, there was a moment where American Pharoah and Firing Line were neck and neck. And I thought to myself, “I know that feeling: it’s exactly where my excitement and fear are.” Such is the experience of risk.

But life’s inherently risky. Why not fill it with the risks, as Deb says, we believe in? I don’t want to take a bunch of dreams to my grave. So, I’m taking this one to the streets.

This is not a practical story. But neither is a world where doubt, fear, and convention are writing the narrative.

Let’s rewrite the narrative. Let’s live all the life we have in us to live. Let’s make our dent.

Caitie Whelan is the Founder/Noter-in-Chief of The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. Prior to the Lightning Notes, she was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress, co-founded a school in India for lower caste musicians, and raised pigs in Italy. She is a graduate of Brown University, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and is co-founder/chair of the Salt Alumni Board. She is a 2007 Truman Scholar from the Great State of Maine. Follow The Lightening Notes on twitter.

A Biologist, Computer Scientist & Historian walk into a....

It is through eclectic, diverse, and seemingly random relationships, interactions and friendships that we learn and then change the world.  Andrew Kaplan eloquently sums this up in his post below he wrote right before graduation.  So much of our learning is from each other and I have learned so much from him over the past 3 years. Thank you, Andrew.
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To an old house on Angell Street*

As I sit writing this at my kitchen table, a housemate walks into the room and sits down next to me.

“How do you define religion?” he asks as he combs his unruly left sideburn with bunched fingers.

“What?” I respond.

“Just answer the question.”

I live in an old Rhode Island house on Angell Street with five other seniors. Our floors are sinking and our walls are thin; an open floor plan helps a whisper from the basement be heard in the third-floor attic. The house smelled of fresh paint the day I moved in.

Among my housemates are a neuroscientist, a biologist, a philosopher, a computer scientist and a historian. Or, looking at them another way, they are a dancer, a drummer, a basketball player, a teacher and a founder. And they are the blood pumping through the veins of this house, imbuing it with life.

Because I am about to graduate, people often ask me to describe my time at Brown. They expect tales of hallowed professors pronouncing truths in packed lecture halls. They expect memories of heartfelt conversations about the meaning of life on the quiet greens where foliage helps you spin nascent life philosophies into the early mornings. They expect stories of finding romance in the dining hall and losing it into the wild night. And I’ve had my fair share of those experiences.

But the old house on Angell and the people who live in it symbolize what has made my Brown experience unique. One of the greatest pleasures of the past four years has been discovering things I never thought I would simply by being around people who are so infectiously enthusiastic about topics I never thought I’d learn about.

When I think about my time at Brown, I think about one of my housemates working on a computer science project, describing the mystery of the deep web and the power of torrent — and blowing my mind in the process. Or when another inspired me to take NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience” by sketching out an action potential’s effect on the nervous system. Or when yet another sat down next to me and asked me to define religion, prompted by a class project on religious law.

This is for them and for what they represent. And this is to thank the countless Brown students with deep-set passions who have passed in and out of my life, many of whom I consider my friends. Watching a fellow Brunonian’s eyes dance with excitement when discussing a subject they love is a truly special experience, one that makes this place so exceptional.

So here’s to a group of housemates brought together by a university that cultivates passions ranging from the microscopic to the universal to form a microcosm of my Brown experience as a whole. Here’s to falling down an intellectual rabbit hole and emerging hours later with a better understanding of what drives my fellow classmates. And here’s to acknowledging one of the reasons why Brown is so special: Each member of the Brown community has the ability to awaken that same curiosity and passion in you.

Lastly, thank you to the place I associate with that type of enthusiastic learning: an old house on Angell Street with an open floor plan and sinking floors.

Andrew just graduated from Brown University with a Bachelors Degree in Political Science. He was a 2013 C.V. Starr Social Innovation Fellow for Common Sense Action, which he co-founded with Sam Gilman. Andrew is moving back to NYC joining the Urban Fellows Program to pursue his passion for public service, especially for the homeless.

*Originally published in the Brown Daily Herald, May 21, 2015 and republished with permission by the author.

Light the Fire and Clear the Path


In Jon Mertz’s new book, Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders, Jon talks about Soul Sparks:

“Soul sparks are those small ignitions of inspiration that fan into big changes, new directions, or fresh works. They come from deep down inside. Make your body and mind shake with excitement. These are soul sparks.” 

I am blessed to have had bosses who saw soul sparks in me and gave me opportunities to develop and spread them. These bosses mentored and supported my soul sparks up to the highest levels of the company and made sure I succeeded.  They viewed their job as lighting the fire and clearing the path for me.  Because that was how I was managed and led from the start of my career, because that was really all I personally and gratefully knew, that was how I managed and led others; how could I know otherwise?

Just as one candle lights another and can light thousands of other candles, so one heart illuminates another heart and can illuminate thousands of other hearts. ~ Leo Tolstoy

In my career, I’ve helped clients ignite soul sparks and surpass goals we thought were long shots.  I’ve had C-suiters give air cover to employees with soul sparks that when implemented changed industries, delivered value propositions for their customers’ customers and created opportunities for new hires and employee growth.   Needless to say, this is fun, rewarding and keeps sparks spreading.

Perhaps most joyful has been fueling soul sparks with Millennials I’m privileged to mentor who also mentor me.  Serendipitously, many of their stories are posted on Swearer Sparks! I love “my” Millennials sense of entitlement.  Yes! Entitlement –of being entitled to pursue their soul sparks to change the world and ignite soul sparks in others.  

Soul Sparks challenge orthodoxy

Sidney Kusher founded CCChampions as a junior in college to match kids going through the horrors of cancer treatment with pro athletes and heroes, to help them feel like champions.   Sidney’s soul spark changes the lives of these kids, their families, their doctors and nurses and their “champions” in ways he never could have anticipated.  And it changes the lives of those of us who have been a part of this journey.   I’ve been privileged to help Sidney keep the spark going when the daily frustrations of managing a staff, fundraising, and emotional drain of cancer’s reality take a toll. But soul sparks cannot be contained.  Soul sparks are contagious.  I don’t know who benefits more – Sidney when I help him be the leader at 24 I wasn’t at 30 or me from his wisdom, honestly and authenticity.  Despite the rapid growth of kids in need without the rapid growth in staff to support it, CCChampions March Madness March to Friendship surpassed all expectations and broke records – raising enough funds to support 40 new kids with cancer! 

Soul Sparks ignite when the focus is on others, not on oneself.

Jayson Marwaha and Han Sheng Chia started MED-International as sophomores in college providing medical equipment and tools for maintenance in emerging markets.  They started in Zanzibar with incubators and X-ray machines that were too ‘old’ for us in America.  Computer science and engineering students caught the spark, developing tools to track and repair equipment so it could be up and running to save and heal lives.  MED tried to grow into other emerging markets, but no viable business model emerged. After a summer of research in Tanzania and Ghana, they realized that to scale and impact patient care, they needed to be on the ground most of the time.  As a board member, I should have pushed shutting the business down earlier, since there was no viable path to profitability.  As a mentor, I knew they needed to come to that conclusion on their own, having tried all possibilities.  In the end, they created an elegant, gracious and compassionate solution – they open-sourced the software so it can be used in any hospital anywhere in the world.  In the four years MED was running, it saved lives.  Not many of us can claim that.

Soul Sparks are real.  They drive us to innovate and to make an impact.  So what will you do to ignite the Soul Spark in others? Find a way, because it will ignite a spark within you!

 

This post is part of a community-wide initiative on Soul Sparks celebrating the launch of Jon Mertz’s book, Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders.  Please read it and visit his site, Thin Difference

“Goodbye Mr. Jones”: The End of the Dow as an American Index

Is the concept of national corporations and financial indices outdated? Perhaps! Charles Hensley's perspective about tax inversion challenges us to think about 'national' status, incentives, and the constraints of 20th C thinking. This is taken from The Intercollegiate Finance Journal (IFJ) is an undergraduate student-run journal about how current finance, economics, business and technology issues affect students' lives.  Please consider supporting the IFJ to ensure that our youth's voices are heard and heeded. 
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Pfizer, America’s largest pharmaceutical company and a member of the Dow Jones Index, made a bid to acquire its British competitor AstraZeneca this past May. The acquisition would have allowed Pfizer to perform a tax inversion by moving its headquarters from the United States, which has the highest corporate tax rate of any rich nation, to Great Britain, which has one of the lowest.

American and British lawmakers alike were up in arms over the deal, which AstraZeneca eventually rejected. American lawmakers denounced the potential loss of corporate tax revenue and of Pfizer as an American company – even though none of its assets held in America would invert. It would simply have been unpatriotic. The Dow has long been considered the showcase of American corporate power and the loss of one of its 30 members to the British would have been a huge blow to America’s corporate hegemony. The British similarly decried the potential loss of one of their most prestigious corporations to foreigners.

The corporations themselves do not take patriotic pride into consideration, however, and see tax inversion simply as a sound business plan.
Corporate Mythology

Decrying tax inversion as unpatriotic misses the point. The idea of an “American” corporation is increasingly becoming a myth.

Pfizer’s CEO, for example, is British. According to The Economist, Pfizer’s domestic density index, which measures a company’s domestic business compared to its international side, is 49 percent. AstraZeneca’s CEO is French and it has a domestic density rating of only 12 percent. Even Coca-Cola has less than half of its sales and staff in the United States, though, like Pfizer, a majority of its shareholders are American. America’s corporations are not really as “American” as we might like to think.

This is the case for much of the Dow and corporate America in general. Medtronic, one of the world’s largest medical device makers, is currently in the process of inverting from Minnesota to Ireland; Burger King plans to send the King himself to Canada; and Chiquita – the only Banana company anyone has heard of – is moving to Ireland. This is all bad news for American corporate tax lawyers because, with their official headquarters overseas, companies will no longer be subject to American’s convoluted corporate tax code.

Officially, the US corporate tax rate is 35 percent, but it is so fraught with loopholes and tax breaks that companies rarely foot the whole bill. Moreover, corporations headquartered in the United States are supposed to pay taxes on revenue generated all over the world but are only required to pay taxes on the money that they actually bring home. Consequently, companies have stopped bringing foreign revenue home: U.S. corporations have around $2 trillion on foreign balance sheets.
 

The Trials of Tax Reform

Tax inversion is not unpatriotic, but it is nonetheless a problem. The United States loses more than half of total corporate tax income to loopholes. Inversions will only compound this problem and siphon off more tax income. Congress is moving to change the laws governing inversion, which currently allows inversions as long as stockholders who were not holders of the U.S. company hold at least 20 percent of the merged company. The Stop Corporate Inversions Act of 2014 introduced by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) aims to raise the level of ownership to 50 percent among other stipulations. Congressional Democrats claim that their legislation will keep $19.5 billion per year in the United States.

The Treasury Department has also stepped up regulation in the face of the spate of recent inversions. New regulations proposed by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew would cut down on “spinversions,” which are a form of inversion where a company splits off one of its parts and turns it into a separate corporate entity backed by the original company and governed by the original company’s shareholders. Secretary Lew also aims to regulate “hopscotch,” which allows companies to access their foreign cash reserves without paying taxes. However, new regulations will not affect the Burger King deal or many others in their final stages of inversion.

Tax inversions are a symptom of a larger problem: America’s bloated corporate tax code. Substantive tax reform is one of the most politically poisonous issues to grapple with in Washington D.C. and corporate tax debates arouse great rancor from politicians and interest groups. In light of these hurdles, these new measures are stopgap at best. Tax inversions themselves do not need to be legislated away, if that is even possible in the face of an army of corporate tax lawyers. Instead, the corporate tax code needs to be streamlined and the tax rate lowered to be on par with that of other developed nations.

Economics is the study of incentives, so a good economist knows that to change the corporate system, you have to change corporate incentives.

Incremental regulation has failed in the past and will continue to fail as long as other nations have comparatively advantageous tax codes in the eyes of corporations. The idea of corporate patriotism is not enough to keep corporations in the United States. Politicians and regulators must accept this fact and work to alter the incentives so that corporate taxes for work done in the United States go to the United States.

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Charles Hensley is a junior at Brown University concentrating in Philosophy and Economics.  IFJ is a rapidly expanding student-run publication that seeks to educate the undergraduate community about topics in finance, economics, business and technology. The IFJ blends sophistication and accessibility to provide relevant, informative and entertaining financial content. We pride ourselves on having “an article for everyone”. Comprised of students from Brown, University of Chicago, Columbia, NYU and MIT and is expanding to other schools. Please support this organization to let our youth's voices be heard!  The IFJ can be found on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Life by Design

I had the privilege to share a panel with New Yorker Staff Cartoonist Liza Donnelly and Social Entrepreneur Superstar Susan McPherson on October 8th at the Granoff Center's Martinos Auditorium, Brown University, discussing our professional paths.  This was the first Creative Mind Lecture of the 2014-2015 series.  Many thanks to Ian Gonsher for using his iPhone as a video camera and to Nicha Ratana who made the video as 'followable' as possible and has made the Creative Mind Lecture series a reality. 


Why Do We Teach Math So Badly?

Why are we so lousy at teaching math? Why can't it be taught so kids love it? Lukas WinklerPrins thinks there is a better way.  As a 21 year-old mathematician studying metrics, dynamic systems, involved in STEAM and a major Lego lover, his advice is first-hand, based on recent experience and worthy of experimentation. 
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When you think of math, where does your mind go? Tiresome sets of problems and difficult-to-understand literature? If so, you are not uncommon—there are not many who stay curious in math past grade school.

Sentiments of sadness at the public state of mathematics are well articulated in Paul Lockhart’s A Mathematician’s Lament and P.R. HalmosMathematics as a Creative Art. Both authors espouse mathematics as a creative, thriving field, but bemoan its opaqueness and terrible methods of teaching, with the former being largely a result of the latter. The articles articulate how American math curricula virtually prohibit the viewing of beauty in mathematical ideas, while simultaneously failing to provide meaningful everyday examples. The first point has to do with the chronology of math education.

When educators shield students from the terrors of “higher mathematics” (proof writing and analysis), they are inculcating a fear of it. A beginning violinist can gain much from hearing a masterpiece performed, just as a budding painter can learn by observing and emulating the masters in art museums—even if neither of them can fully comprehend the thoughts and meaning that went into creating the pieces. The deep understanding comes through material practice, knowledge of context, and an ability to self-discover. Almost all three of these steps are scrapped in math education (only bits of the first, through rote memorization, remain).

To be fair, this might be a problem at multiple levels. Students can be complacent or passive, teachers not well-trained in their field, and university professors doing arcane research instead of bringing their knowledge to the public sphere. But we have to start somewhere.

I propose a three-pronged approach to tackle this at the K-8 teaching level.

Tactility

Many approaches to early-age math education start with physical play. The most famous set of math toys, perhaps, are Cuisenaire rods* (used for ratios in Montessori-style schools). This teaching method comes out of necessity: it is the most directly relevant to children of a young age. Tangible objects are immediate and visual, giving students spatial and relational understanding of numbers as objects with weight, color, and shape—attributes the human body is adept at measuring and understanding. Alan Kay referenced a letter Einstein wrote to the French Mathematician Jacques Hadamard: "'I have sensations of a kinesthetic or muscular type.' Einstein could feel the abstract spaces he was dealing with, in the muscles of his arms and his fingers…”. Hands-on projects in math education give students the opportunity to form this sensibility through experience and introduction to some high-level concepts early on. The scope of tactile representation is limited, however, and ultimately students must learn to work with symbols.

Symbols & Language

Among the most difficult things in the study of mathematics for me personally is notation. Mathematics notation is capricious and context-sensitive, and as such the language is difficult to read and unintuitive. I again implore math educators to focus on the feel, or intuitive understanding of an idea. Language is important: it allows mathematicians to find unintuitive conclusions through intuitive use of syntax. How can we merge these©The Museum of Mathematics (MOMATH) two lines of thought?

As a transitional period of mathematics study, we can still use sensory means of explanation alongside the corresponding equations and symbols. In this sense Math can learn much from Language instruction—the idea of a thing must be known before the word can be learned. Groundwork on concepts can be made through intuitive means, but the notation can come as a simultaneous layer on top; thus, notation will be taught while accommodating for its arbitrariness. As students progress, they will carry their intuition into further symbolic manipulation.

Play

Beyond the issues of understanding and semantics, students must _care_ about what they study. Common rhetoric encourages focusing on “applications” of mathematics—word problems. I warn against this. Teaching by problems is constraining; elegant theories and patterns get squeezed into templates of problems, and the student will find it difficult to pull ideas from diverse fields to solve new and unseen challenges. Modern NBA MathHoopsstudents need to know how to navigate ambiguous and unknown problems.

Instead, I advocate for “play”. Play should be a bit messy, aimless, and bored, because these are ripe environments for creative action. But the classroom can be a gently guiding force. A community of students studying what they enjoy (through self-directed play) is a more effective learning environment than forced classroom material. Allow the student to guide herself through issues and questions that arise naturally. The key component is making sure the student can justify their choices and explain their thinking, pushing the student to become meta-cognitive and envision alternative possibilities.

All together, this means that a lesson should:

  • Introduce concepts through visual & tactile means for a more direct connection to the student.
  • Focus on use, meaning, and relations of an idea before enforcing a certain terminology or symbolism.
  • Allow for students to play with ideas themselves, nudging them towards correct use through communal experimentation.

Starting here, I hope we can help set the foundations for a generation of students who feel more comfortable, creative, and insightful in the field of mathematics.

To see some of these principles lived out in a college-level mathematics classroom, follow along with Studio Applied Math, a project by Lukas through Brown STEAM.

BIO: Lukas WinklerPrins is a mathematician and apprentice at Atelier Boris Bally. His work on metrics and dynamic systems has taken him to Thicket, a social design lab, Community Systems Foundation, and NSF grant work at Brown. He helped start Brown STEAM, a diverse team dedicated to innovation between the disciplines at Brown University, and serves as a STEAM advisor for three independent schools throughout the country. Lukas has also served as an organizer for Brickworld Chicago, the largest LEGO fan convention in North America. Contact him through LTWP.NET.

*Personal Note: I had Cuisinaire rods as a kid and loved them!! Math was fun and playful...so I used them with my kids! I don't know if it's related but they both love math!

Why Wednesday October 8th Could Change Your Thinking

What if you gathered with creative minds from all disciplines and talked about how you got to where you were and how you were going forward? Join me, New Yorker Staff Cartoonist Liza Donnelly and Social Entrepreneur Superstar Susan McPherson on October 8th at 6:00pm in the Granoff Center's Englander Studio at Brown University for a discussion of what kinds of paths, careers, serendipity Creative Minds create!  

Designed by Nicha Ratana

How To Disrupt the Tech World

What is your image of an inventor or innovator? A man alone in a lab?  Increasing evidence shows most innovation comes from two or more people…one of whom might even be a woman! We stereotype innovators as men and mainly in STEM* products.  

A quick quiz – who invented the following: the circular saw, COBOL and the compiler, the windshield wiper, Kevlar and a radial keyboard for the paralyzed? [Answers at the end of the post]

Three years ago, Whitney Johnson asked me how I felt as the only female partner in my VC firm. I’d never thought about it before. I never felt any discrimination or lack of respect from my partners. From how I was raised through my education and my career at Bell Labs and AT&T, I never felt any gender bias. Maybe it was there and I was just insensitive.  I investigated – looked, listened and learned…and realized it was still an issue in the 21st century!

In June 2013, Vivek Wadhwa and Farai Chideya invited women to crowd-create a book on women innovators by sharing their own stories. I submitted one (Chpt 3, Disrupting My Way Through Life). Fast-forward ~ Innovating Women launches today! Vivek and Farai have curated a collection of personal, powerful, inspiring, encouraging, disruptive, and challenging stories of women who grabbed the status quo by the horns. The stories are from and about women from all over the world, in STEM, investing, non-profits and STEAM.   

The stories, including one by America’s new CTO and former VP at Google[X] Megan Smith, are the authentic voices of women who have persevered, overcome, created, and innovated their careers and accomplishments. This book is full with lessons for women, men, girls, boys, teachers, leaders, managers, even politicians on how to overcome stereotypes, stigmas, and artificial distinctions.  These lessons are being applied today and barriers are breaking down.

Freshman Engineers designing radial keyboard for the communication impaired (e.g., ALS)I am privileged to see changes first-hand.  Last April, I helped at the Assistive Tech Makeathon for students to create communication solutions for people who can’t communicate (like ALS). The rapid design-prototyping-iterating process resulted in several potential hardware and software products. Three freshman women engineers won the software award for an easy, attractive and quick radial keyboard!

Get Innovating Women. Read it, share it, discover, encourage and empower women and girls to create more stories so we can unleash the talent needed to solve the wicked problems facing our world.  Keep the stories coming!

 

 

 *STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; STEAM = STEM + [Art + Design]

Inventors:

 

The Power of Your Network is the "Ask"

Originally published in Harvard Business Review, this post needs to be reread since my friend Vala Afshar will be a storyteller at BIF10 and Sidney Kushner will be attending - in just two weeks!  
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One of the biggest assets in anyone’s life is a generous network. It is a gift that grows simply by sharing it. Think of it as the Law of Accelerating Returns — the more you share your network, the more people share it in return and the more the rate of sharing accelerates. For me, my network has literally and figuratively been a source of survival. For most of us, networks have played a critical role in our lives, whether we realize it or not.

I asked executive and super-networker Vala Afshar if he thought there were any common traits or patterns that could be ‘taught’ or encouraged for networking.  We came up with a few unsubstantiated traits based on the people we know who are great connectors: 1) hard working (it does take work to network); 2) humble (now that’s pretty arrogant of me to say!); 3) quietly confident that connecting the people they introduce will result in something great even if it’s not yet clear; and, perhaps most importantly 4) who understand the power of the ask. For instance, Vala remembers arriving in America at age 10, escaping the 1979 Iranian Revolution not knowing any English, not blond and blue-eyed, and not stylishly clad. He also remembers the very few kids who overcame their shyness to ask him to play kickball — and how happy he was to be asked.

Too many of us worry that asking will appear self-serving, even if it’s not. We fear rejection. We fear looking stupid. Perhaps some of us actually fear hearing a “yes” — what would we do then? It’s tempting to say that asking takes courage. But really, think about it — what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll hear a “no.” No one’s going to throw you in jail. Let me share a brief story about a couple of normal (well, in their eyes) people and a kid to illustrate the Power of the Ask.

I first met Vala, CMO and CXO at New Hampshire-based Enterasys, now Extreme Networks, on twitter and reached out to him, since his tweets seemed so spot-on to me. We conversed over email and twitter, sharing stories of our jobs and of eating lobster, which we both love. We met last September on my way up to Maine for my annual vacation. I was greeted at Enterasys’s headquarters like a long-lost relative — even including an epicurean delight of lobster salad*. Needless to say, we really hit it off. I also learned that Enterasys provides network services to companies like the New England Patriots and the Boston Celtics.

Meanwhile, one of my mentees, Sidney Kushner**, has been creating CCChampions, an organization that creates connections between professional athletes and children with cancer to provide a source of inspiration and excitement during a very trying time in children’s lives. To date, CCChampions is working with over 6,000 professional athletes plus health care professionals, child psychologists, local students and community partners. Sidney’s compassion, drive and entrepreneurial savvy are contagious.

But let’s face it — Providence, RI, where Sidney lives, is not exactly a professional sports powerhouse. Yet Boston is nearby! So, sucking up courage, I ask Vala if he’d talk to Sidney and, if willing, then introduce Sidney to the Celtics. What’s the worst Vala could say? No. And I’d perhaps look like a fool… but I’m very used to that. But Vala said that after about 5 minutes of talking to Sidney, he wanted help. Still, since the Celtics were a fairly new client, Vala was a bit nervous about making the ask. Nevertheless, he did, and a 30-minute discussion ensued in which the Celtics offered to honor Sidney as part of their Heroes Among Us program at their January 9th game in a special in-game presentation. Vala said he had goosebumps and when he told me, I certainly did. When the Celtics called Sidney, he was speechless — all he could do was text me, not even talk.

On January 9, 2013, because Sidney will be honored on the famous parquet floor of TD Garden, more kids suffering with cancer will have an opportunity for joy, inspiration and valuable distraction from their pain. As parents, both Vala and I can only imagine what this would mean to our children.

And let’s face it, Vala and I have gotten great great joy from bringing Sidney and the Celtics together — beyondSidney and KJ (an 11 kid with cancer) are high-fiving on center court as CCChampions got honored as a "Hero Among Us" by the Boston Celtics! expression, so perhaps it’s very selfish of us. And in the end, despite feeling awkward at certain moments, we really risked very little to help make this happen.

When we don’t use the “Power of the Ask” we are in essence saying “no” before the question has even been asked — saying no to opportunities that change our businesses, our organizations, ourselves…and actual lives. So even if it feels uncomfortable, look for even just a small way can you use the “Power of the Ask” in your network — for someone you work for, with or manage. Make this your year of the Law of Accelerating Returns.

*This feast has become an annual tradition and on Sept. 15, we will be celebrating our third year dining upon the epicurian delights of Chef Brian Townsend (aka Director of Global Technology Services & Operations at Extreme Networks)

**Sidney graduated from Brown in 2013 and CCChampions is having an impact beyond his dreams. I am also very honored to be on his board. 

3 Simple Words to Revolutionize the World

Wow! TIME magazine (online)!! Thank you Nicha Ratana-Apiromyakij & Saul Kaplan for this honor and story  about BIF10.  I am so privileged and blessed to be a part of BIF.

"How many people end business meetings with an “I love you” and a hug? Venture capitalist and former AT&T Labs scientist Deb Mills-Scofield does.  To Mills-Scofield, to do business is to negotiate diverse personalities to get things done — and she has the gift for it. “The broader, deeper, and more diverse your network, the bigger the impact you can make on the world,” she says." Read on...

Sign up ASAP for BIF10!!!

It's Not A Gap Year! It's An Education.

Education is learning languages: the languages of words, music, math, art, chemistry, biology, etc.  Education is learning paradoxes … and oxymorons.  So let me highlight an oxymoron that is damaging our kids’ education:  Lifelong Learning and Gap Year. If we truly believe in Lifelong Learning, then we have to believe that Gap Years are not Gaps…and we have to use a different word.

Gap means: 1) a break or opening; breach; or 2) an empty space or interval, interruption in continuity.  That seems a bit inconsistent with the notion of Lifelong Learning, doesn’t it? Especially since most of our learning in life is experiential, not classroom-based.   What if we didn’t call it a “Gap Year” but called it an “Applied Discovery Year”? 

What if this was a year students saw worlds they only read about or hadn’t even imagined.  This could be a year of learning by doing, one of the best ways we humans learn - a year that challenges students at many levels.  Let’s face it, most of the kids who go right from high school to college haven’t had to be responsible for themselves or had the chance to explore areas of interest instead of what has been prescribed. 

The move from home’s safety net to the world is a major transition in a late teen’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual formation.  It’s a time of learning more from peers (and professors); evolving the values and morals of parents into one’s own; learning to handle emotions; and developing deeper systems-level thinking. This may be the first time we encounter different types of people, ideas, experiences, and cultures and can’t retreat into the world of familiarity in which we were raised.

The concept of an Applied Discovery Year is gaining momentum.  Thinking Beyond Borders provides students with opportunities to learn, work hard and improve the lives of others through robust curricular programs around the globe.  The Experience Institute provides an apprenticeship-based learning environment with innovative companies in business, technology, design and social innovation.  The Applied Discovery Year concept is becoming part of the college experience so students learn how, why and if the theory taught in the classroom applies in the real world.

The Applied Discovery Year gives students a much-needed chance to step back, gain perspective, and recharge their batteries after the non-stop treadmill and stress of the college-prep trajectory, focusing on something other than just themselves.  It’s also one of the first times in their lives they need to create their own plan instead of being told what to do.  Life, unlike K-12, isn’t a clear path with detailed instructions.  The Applied Discovery Year helps students transition from prescription to discovery.  I bet these kids will be able to deal the next transition from college to career better than most as well.

Just as our educational system is in need of transformation, K-16+, our language to describe education, its forms, types, curriculum, need to change as well.  It’s not a Gap Year; it’s an Applied Discovery Year – as is almost all of Lifelong Learning.  It’s Education, plain and simple… Education by doing and living.  So let’s stop calling it a Gap Year.  Will you join me? 

Creative Education? Feel free to Steal Ideas

How can you make school more creative? It's not that hard and doesn't take a lot of money... but it does takecommitment and the impact is huge.  Here's how one small school went about doing it.  They made

  • A commitment
  • Space
  • Time
  • Funds (not a lot) available
  • Teachers free to try

Feel free to take any and all of these ideas! And contact them with questions.

Thank you Creative Scholars for sharing this!

15 Hours: A Common Sense Action Blueprint for Congress

What if our youth started to take government back? Well, it's happening. SamGilman and Andrew Kaplan, college juniors started Common Sense Action in 2012 with one chapter.  Now they have over 20 chapters in 15 states with AGE, The Agenda for Generational Equity to get their voice impacting policy.  Read on, be proud of our next generation and get on board! See why I love learning from these guys? 
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15 Hours: A Common Sense Action Blueprint for Congress

Don’t you wish that we sometimes forced Republicans and Democrats in Congress to sit in a room until they agreed on how to move the country forward? Unless you’re one of the 9% of people who view Congress favorably, you probably do. 

A generation ago, politicians saw eye to eye – literally.  Our Democratic and Republican members of Congress lived side-by-side in the nation’s capital, linking their professional lives with their personal ones.  They ate and drank together; their families were friendly; they stood on the sidelines of their children’s baseball games together.  So when it came time to negotiate and make a deal, they trusted each other, knowing they would have to see each other the next day. Today, most members live in their home states and travel to Washington for three days for a whirlwind of legislating, interest-group meetings, and fundraisers – quickly returning to their home states on Thursdays whether business is finished or not.

At one event last summer, we spent half-an-hour listening to a Representative professing to make an enormous effort to get to know members of the opposite party. Seconds after the Representative finished talking, the former chair of the member’s committee walked in.  This former chair was from the opposite party.  They introduced themselves to each other for the first time. They had never met.  This kind of disconnect is unacceptable, especially when the political gridlock we face can only be broken by the power of relationships. Without time to get to know each other, how can we expect the Senator from Michigan to trust her counterpart from Georgia?

But what if Congress followed the old model today?  What if Congress used a Common Sense Action blueprint?

On Sunday, January 6, delegates from Common Sense Action (@CSAction) chapters across the nation gathered at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington to finalize the Agenda for Generational Equity, CSA’s foundational policy agenda.  The setting?  A single conference room.  The goal? Don’t leave until it’s finished.

At 9:00am, we came to that table, all 40 of us, strong in our own beliefs and ready to fight for them – principled partisans in short.  Before beginning debate, we set community norms that allowed us to create a safe space. In particular, our discussion was guided by three principles:

  • “Trust intent, name impact.”
  • “Safe space, honest space.”
  • “Make space take space.”

In other words, we trusted that people have good intentions, but were not afraid to call out hurtful or wrong speech; we created an honest space; and we established a structure for everyone to participate in discussion.  How else could leaders from rural Mississippi, inner-city Baltimore, and suburban Iowa all feel comfortable sharing their experiences?

At first, our debates were cautious.  We did not know each other very well and we were not familiar with each other’s policy beliefs and political ideologies.  It took awhile to get comfortable. We spent two hours discussing the first of 12 potential policy areas – Social Security reform proposals. After finally settling on a policy position for Social Security, we were exhausted.  The discourse, which had started cautious, had turned contentious. Having accomplished little by 11:00am, it was time for a short break.

When we returned to the table, the mood shifted.  During the break, we had hung out with each other, got coffee, and ate breakfast together, sharing a little bit of ourselves with our neighbors.  As the day went on, the conversation grew more and more productive.  At times, we disagreed passionately on ideological grounds. And we honor that disagreement as a necessary part of a responsibly partisan process. However, we were able to build trust through discussion. We tried to live the example that we wished Congress followed: we had made a commitment to ourselves, to each other, and to our chapters to craft an agenda by working together across difference. Of course, the norms helped, as our chapter leaders would consistently bring the group back to the norms before making a critical point or if debate began to get disrespectful.

Ultimately what emerged from this process was an Agenda for Generational Equity that plays between the 40 yard-lines. No Democrats or Republicans got everything they wanted in the Agenda, but everyone proudly endorsed the Agenda as a whole.

15 hours, 3 meals, 3 pillars, and 53 policies later, we had finished.  We finalized the Agenda for Generational Equity as the midnight bell tolled and Monday arrived.

The Agenda for Generational Equity will only have as much life as Common Sense Action members breathe into it.  CSA is building a movement across the country to organize around it. We invite you to endorse AGE to begin building political pressure on Congress to solve our nation’s problems.

Hey Congress – take a page out of Common Sense Action’s book. We have the humility to know when we are not the policy experts, to know that negotiating policy on a federal level requires time, patience, and courage.  But spend some time together.  Get to know each other.  Maybe stay in a room for 15 hours.  It isn’t too much to ask.  By starting with the basics, Congress can get back to good governance, do away with the political football, and start solving the nation’s problems.

Sam Gilman - Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Sam is a junior at Brown University, pursuing a Bachelors degree in public policy. He is a C.V. Starr Social Innovation Fellow for his work on Common Sense Action. Sam is currently student body Vice President at Brown and previously served as Treasurer and Communications Director. In the summer of 2012, he interned at the Bipartisan Policy Center where he did research for a book on the causes and implications of gridlock in American politics. When he's not working at CSA, Sam is an avid runner, New York Yankees fan, and Civil War buff.  Sam can be reached at Sam@commonsenseaction.org.  

Andrew Kaplan - Co-Founder and Chief Action Officer (CAO) Andrew is a junior at Brown University where he is pursuing a Bachelors Degree in Political Science and Literary Arts. He was selected as a 2013 C.V. Starr Social Innovation Fellow for Common Sense Action. In the past, Andrew worked at the Port Authority of NY/NJ and the Queens Long Island Medical Group. When he isn't working on CSA, Andrew likes to read historical fiction, play baseball and soccer, and occasionally strum the guitar. He is a proud member of the Brown Taekwondo club, the two-time defending national collegiate champions, and he also welcomes anyone to challenge him in Lord of the Rings trivia and/or a cook-off.

Let Them Fail

This guest post is by fellow mentor/advisor to the Social Innovation Fellowship (formerly C.V. Starr Fellowship) Robin Pendoley, Founder/CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders.  This is a must read for innovators and entrepreneurs of any type.  Please read on! 
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“I have failed.”

This phrase opened Natasha Blackadar’s summer blog post about her first social venture. Warning: This is not an inspiring story about how resilience and perseverance created a dramatic recovery.

Nope. Natasha’s venture failed. Spectacularly. And that’s a good thing. Perhaps the most important part of this is that Natasha has recognized, accepted, and courageously made it plain to the world. Fortunately, this young social innovator lives on to fight another day, stronger for the experience.

As a Social Innovation Fellow at Brown, Natasha spent this past school year (her sophomore year of college) building a social venture that would bring college student volunteers to support a local development agency in a small South African community. As part of the fellowship, she received funding, coursework in theory, and mentorship. This process consumed her life, shifting the focus of her learning from theory to practice. Being a social entrepreneur and leader of her venture became her identity.

When she arrived in South Africa, she quickly realized that, despite months of communication and planning, the community partner did not want her or her team of student volunteers there. Within just a few days of the start of a 10-week project, she became concerned for the safety of her team. Natasha came to the conclusion that the relationship with the partner organization could not be salvaged. To try to continue would be disruptive to the community and put undue strain on local relationships.

Natasha pulled the plug.

As any resourceful project manager would, she utilized her network to create new opportunities for her team elsewhere in the country. They completed service, had a cross-cultural experience, and learned about international development. But, Natasha’s vision of a sustainable venture that would provide assistance to the community and learning opportunities for students has died.

Reading her blog posts makes it clear that Natasha was heavily invested in this venture. Yet, she did what so few social entrepreneurs are able to do – recognize a failed project and move on.

There has been a lot said recently about the importance of recognizing and accepting failure in social entrepreneurship (Jonathan Lewis in Huffpo, Failing Fast by Anna Ebbessen, Harvard Business Review). Not only can it result in better ventures, but accepting failure is crucial to ensuring we don’t create negative impact. “Resilience” seems to be the new golden ticket to social entrepreneurship. To succeed, social entrepreneurs must try, fail, and repeat until they succeed.

Outside of college programs, accepting failure is not easy to do. The social innovation sector is filled with perverse incentives. Ventures are rewarded with funding and exposure for visions of delivering grand scale and fundamental system change, all with a business plan achieving sustainability within 18-24 months. These aren’t perverse because they aren’t great aspirations. They are perverse because they reward early stage ventures for taking enormous risks.

There are risks for every stakeholder. The entrepreneur invests not just their time and energy, but often their whole identity in their venture. The funders invest resources in vetting, funding, and supporting the venture. Partners commit their time and energy to collaborative efforts. These stakeholders risk losing both their resources and their clout if the venture fails.

But, it is often the most vulnerable stakeholder group that carries the most risk – the community to be impacted. Social ventures target populations with a fundamental need like nutrition, health care, or education. Ventures that fail to deliver positive and productive impact risk squandering the efforts and resources of the community.

That, however, is not the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that, despite good intentions, the venture negatively impacts the community. And, because the rest of the stakeholders are not incentivized to recognize and accept failure, the venture continues delivering this damage unabated.  

What no one tells you in this sector is that the venture is not truly failed until the social entrepreneur deems it so. As support dries up, the social entrepreneur can continue to iterate, try new approaches, and keep the venture alive – even if it should be scrapped.

There are two conclusions to draw from this story:

  1. For the sector to be viable and maintain its focus on creating meaningful and positive social impact, the incentive structures must change to support entrepreneurs to recognize and accept failure.
  2. Programs like the Social Innovation Fellowship are crucial to preparing future social entrepreneurs to be effective. While the funding, studies, and mentorship are key components of that learning, providing a safe space to fail is crucial.

 

Robin Pendoley is the Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, a nonprofit that designs and leads

 international gap year programs for students to prepare for a lifetime of commitment to creating meaningful social impact. Robin also serves as a mentor for the Social Innovation Fellowship (formerly known as the C.V. Starr Fellowship) with over a decade of experience in international development theory, education, comprehensive internationalization, and nonprofit management.