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.
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.
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.
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.
Our value proposition is really all we have - it's based on who we are and what we offer. Instead of all the words we put together that sound cliche and trite, what if we could distill it down to a cartoon? What if?? Try! My latest with Liza Donnelly (Staff Cartoonist for the New Yorker!) in Harvard Business Review.
We humans love to divide the world: yes, no; either, or; black, white; true, false; winners, losers; successes, failures. Yet little in life is really that nice and tidy, despite how much we want it to be. And our world is not going in that direction anymore.
Many of us know that new discoveries, the disruptions, the innovations are found in the grey – in between the extremes, by recombining what is out there through And and Both instead of Either and Or. As someone with a head of black, white and grey hairs, believe me, I live it!
Perhaps one of the most dangerous of these artificial constructs is that of successes or failures. This has insidiously permeated so many of our systems – especially the language of entrepreneurship and innovation. We don’t allow a middle or blended path. When we look at the successful entrepreneurs, how many of them were successful the very first time? How many had overnight successes that truly were overnight, instead of years? Very few.
What if we start talking about Tryers (which obviously means people will go to the opposite extreme of Non-Tryers) instead of just winners or successes?
What if we started encouraging and supporting those who try, over and over, be it the same or a different venture.
What if we helped the Non-Tryers to understand why they didn’t try? Perhaps it is fear, time, who knows… but perhaps we could develop a support structure to allow them to become Tryers, in their own time?
What if we started to infiltrate our education system with tools, lessons, examples, opportunities to Try so that our children could become Tryers at earlier and earlier ages. And What If we rewarded them for it? And What if we rewarded our teachers for teaching smart Trying?
While a full societal adoption of the Trying construct certainly will take time, you can start now! There are many ways you can start embedding Tryers into your organization’s lexicon. So What If you, tomorrow, asked one of your people to Try and What if you back her or him up when she/he raises objections for why something couldn’t be done? What if you just started with that?
Thank you to @mattmurrie for helping me more fully embed “What If” in my lexicon.
- Thank You for Your Service by Lt. Col. Matthew Fritz ~ read, reread, be grateful!
- The Slippery Slope of Not Asking Why (me)
- Let Them Fail by Robin Pendoley ~ we need to accept & learn from failure in all sectors, including non-profits -- Yes!
- For Whom Do We Innovate? by Anish Sarma ~ Technology & Innovation for true "Good"
- Integrating Design Theory & The Scientific Process by Hanna McPhee (Brown '14) ~ Hanna also hosted an Innochat, She's one of the leaders on Techstyle Haus, She's co-president of Brown's STEAM & on & on...
I met Ilan Saks through my education entrepreneur guru Aron Solomon who has never steered me wrong. Ilan, Founder of The Founder Project, is no exception and I can't wait for The Founder Project to come stateside! This is the type of engagement we need to get economies growing, build trust and a sense of ownership for our Millennials as they grow into leadership positions.
Time is a scarce commodity. There isn’t enough time on this planet, and unfortunately we can’t create more of it. But, to truly understand this concept, time must be taken from you.
On August 21, 2012 I suddenly lost the ability to walk. I was exercising. I lost all strength in my fingers, arms, body and legs to the point that I could not take my contacts out of my eyes. I also lost the ability to feel the difference between hot and cold. This lasted for about 6 weeks. The cause of the incident was a complete mystery. Not one doctor, and I saw many, could figure out the cause.
At the time, I was 23 years old, and I thought my future had been greatly compromised. But, by some miracle, I have fully recovered. Physically, I am essentially the same as I was before August 21, 2012. It’s as if nothing happened..
Well, not really... The experience led to a spark of thought: ‘The only certainty is that tomorrow is uncertain’. The time was now to pursue my passion: To empower students to solve problems and become entrepreneurs.
Consequently, last year I founded TheFounderProject - a new type of venture fund run almost entirely by students that invests in student startups.
My quest to change student entrepreneurship on a global scale seeks to solve these challenges: how to engage students and the younger generation in entrepreneurship, and how to get them to build companies.
Startups are the main drivers of economic growth. Unfortunately, less people are starting companies and most early startup dreams die at the vine. Even more ironic is the fact that students are the best positioned to start companies; they have less obligations to barriers like family and mortgages. Instead, many opt for the corporate route to pay back loans or pad their resume, playing it safe.
TheFounderProject exists to turn students on to entrepreneurship by providing access to capital, resources, and mentorship while encouraging students to remain in school. TheFounderProject is making entrepreneurship not only cool, but attainable and a viable option as a path forward
Our growth has been organic. We are now a team of 30 ‘student venture capitalists’ from all universities in Montreal, Toronto and Halifax. Our goal is to raise enough money so we can begin investing $10,000-$15,000 into student companies.
How does it work? The students are the eyes, ears, and feet on the ground in the universities, dorm rooms, classrooms, and frat parties. The students are the ones scoping out high growth student startups for potential investment. Once identified, they’re brought to the table where the students actually vote on what deserves an investment.
But, why are students making investment decisions in fellow students? Well, Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook from his dorm room, Sergei Brin and Larry Page built Google as a grad project, and Bill Gates founded Microsoft while studying at Harvard. I believe students are capable, and will build the next game changing, global tech companies. And I also believe students are capable of making great investment decisions. They’ve been born into the world of computers and the internet. The tech startup space is a student’s playground.
But, at the heart of TheFounderProject is much more than just high growth investments. Since it’s inception, TheFounderProject has contributed to the creation of over 100 student-run companies (check out these impressive student startups: Outpost, NeedleHR, Plotly) by throwing university-wide competitions, linking students with mentors, and engaging students in the startup space.
Some student startups have even received seed and series A term sheet offers from Canadian venture funds, and a couple have been accepted into Canadian accelerator programs. Companies, and jobs are literally being created out of thin air. TheFounderProject is disrupting the startup ecosystem by engaging young students in startups. And, it’s resulting in innovation and economic growth.
In the next few months we plan to expand to Vancouver and then the U.S. We have amassed corporate sponsors including Google, Microsoft, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Softlayer, Fasken Martineau, Real Ventures, and FounderFuel. And, we intend to partner with many more sponsors in the future.
I have learned that life can change on a dime, and the importance of appreciating all that I have. Everything - your health, job, etc. - can change in a split second. Seize the moments while you still have them.
The time is now to become an entrepreneur.
More wisdom, insight and learning from Gen-Y. I'm honored to have worked with Wyatt, Jack and Shahab since last November as they prepared, won and established their company. Wyatt won Oberlin College's Creativity & Leadership Fellowship of $30,000 to start the business after graduation. Below, the three share their lessons learned so far. Optimism for this generation rules!
Wyatt Hayman: After winning $30,000 from the Oberlin College Creativity and Leadership Fellowship our startup team set up in Lake Tahoe, California to build a business. The idea was to live in relative isolation while developing a platform for businesses to engage customers and collect their feedback. Here are three lessons that my two partners and I have learned while trying to create a growth-oriented startup straight out of college.
Jack Kearney: When you've got the skills and team to start building a product, it's really easy to get carried away and just 'go'. Unfortunately, that sort of mentality can lead to a lot of wasted lines of code. We learned a hard lesson this summer: make sure the product that you're trying to build is really needed BEFORE you start building it.
Sometimes, we'd sit down and talk about how the product would be used -- the subtle emotional connections a user would have with a particular UI element or the exact feeling they would have when they pulled their phone out of their pocket. After these discussions we'd spend time coding and let these phantom users guide the development. The problem with this sort of thinking is that you aren't your user. You can't know how someone will use your product (or even if they'd use it at all) until you put it in their hands. But building is tough, and often expensive. Learning to test your ideas as cheaply and efficiently as possible is a skill that we have only recently begun to develop.
Looking back, we should have spent the first several weeks of the summer focused on validating our initial assumptions. We should have really profiled who our product was targeting, and talked to as many people who fit that description as possible. If they responded negatively, we could understand why. If they loved the idea, they would likely give great feedback on how to make it better.
At this point I think the worst mistake we could make is to view this summer as lost time. We've built a product that we can now use to validate these assumptions -- maybe it took us longer than it could have to start doing this, maybe what we've built now is a perfect tool for the job. More importantly though, we grew so much as entrepreneurs, coders, and friends. We'll hit whatever comes next with the same enthusiasm as before, but let caution and experience guide our development.
Wyatt Hayman: Everyone told us how important it is to have well defined roles. This summer I learned how important it is to know when to forget these.
During the summer I noticed that I was clinging to my role as our leader. In the middle of the summer we decided to rethink our strategy. I showed up to the brainstorm wearing my captain’s hat and it was surprisingly difficult to take it off.
While I may have been our leader, the reasons I had this role were not relevant to the discussion. The attitudes of the group reflected my inability to shed this role. My partners resented me for acting like their superior when it wasn't appropriate. Through interactions like this, I learned that if a role doesn’t apply to the task at hand, it needs to be put aside.
To start a company you have to wear many different hats. I think there needs to be more emphasis on the surprisingly difficult task of taking them off.
Shahab Raza: I wouldn’t have expected that the subject of my one take-away from immersing in a startup project would be about collaboration. But it takes some collective skill to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Working in a startup means working with the people you’re living with, and consequently seeing every waking hour of the day. Decisions must be made under the stress of uncertainty, and the pressure of every decision being critical to the prospective success of the project. Yes, you must communicate effectively. But how do you deftly and skillfully manage to persevere in the face of a stalemate? Why, mathematically of course! A disagreement is a pair of conflicting conclusions. In your respective belief structures, there must be some sequence of successively inferential statements that lead to your conclusion. You find some common premise, and then make your respective arguments. Soon you’ll get to a point of divergence. THAT pair of statements, as opposed to the pair of conclusions, is what you need to contest. Of course rising tensions and resentment don’t factor into this game of deductive logic. That’s where it’s worth actively being able to detach your person from your belief. So that an attack on your belief is less hurtful, and you’re less defensive. In general, there’s much to be gained from losing the ego and the self, in the wake of a greater cause, quite apart from the functionality of it all. It’s one of the most exhilarating things I’ve experienced. And that’s from a summer where I went on my first ever hike and learnt how to swim!
Wyatt Hayman: We are thrilled to have been given the opportunity to pursue our dream while learning incredibly valuable lessons along the way. These lessons are just the tip of an iceberg that is constantly growing. We continue to put ourselves in positions to learn and, as the Second City team taught us at the Business Innovation Factory conference, we continue to say, “yes, and” to the possibilities. So far we have traveled from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco, to Oberlin, Ohio, to New York City, to Providence, to NYC, to PVD, and we still have a trips to Madison, Wisconsin, and Oberlin before heading back to San Francisco. There is no doubt we will have seen a lot and learned even more before settling in the City by the Bay. Whether or not we have started a successful business by the time we arrive is another question. But I can promise you we will be searching for the answer.
Last March, Whitney Johnson and I were dining on exquisite sushi in Boston celebrating the upcoming launch of her powerful book, Dare, Dream, Do. We also discussed the lack of women in Venture Capital (VC) because I had never noticed I was the only female partner in mine! While this subject is a blog post I been asked to, but not yet written, two things happened today, 1 in Cleveland, 1 in California, that made me write this from Maine:
- Neuros Medical, a company my VC firm, Glengary, invested in at its very early stage, closed a second round of $3.5M led by Glengary and Boston Scientific.
- My friend, Adrian Ott, responded to my tweet about Neuros thanking me for supporting neuro-medicine.
So what’s the big deal (no pun intended)? I felt overwhelmingly privileged and honored to be able to invest in a company like Neuros Medical! Wow! I have the ability, albeit insignificant, to make a powerful difference in someone’s life – to give a quality of life he or she didn’t have or dream of having (ah! Back to Whitney’s book!).
Neuros’s device is designed to reduce amputees’ pain when a neuroma (a bundle of the cut nerve endings that form a ‘tumor’) develops at the end of the amputated limb continually firing intense pain signals to the brain (not phantom limb pain). This is usually treated with narcotics – obviously not a great option that also isn’t very effective. In clinical trials, Neuros’ device greatly relieved, even eliminated, pain beyond our expectations, allowing people regain their lives. It’s not every VC whose deals bring tears of joy and amazement to their eyes.
Another one of our investments, Cleveland HeartLab, was at TEDMed 2012 demonstrating their blood marker test for MPO (Myeloperoxidase) that predicts the odds of a cardio event based on atherosclerotic plaque. Talk about having an impact – this test has tremendous implications for improving and saving lives.
For me, being a VC is not just about profits and money, it’s about purpose and meaning. In my own small way, with the help of so many others (my partners, our investments, the ‘network’ that supports all this), I can improve, even save, lives and the families around them.
If that doesn’t get someone jazzed, I don’t know what will.
Side Note: Neuros Medical and Cleveland Heartlab’s successes are two of many successful and impacting startups in Northeast Ohio and Cleveland. The city of 19th & 20th century startups – from oil to steel to automotive to polymers to coatings is undergoing a renaissance on many levels and let me tell you, it’s one exciting place to be a VC – there is no shortage of quality deal flow and the excitement is palpable – economically, socially, culturally, recreationally, you name it.
Seriously! You know when you have an idea for a new business, product, service or process and you tell someone and they pick it apart? They tell you all the reasons it won’t work. You get really really peeved and annoyed and say to yourself, “They just don’t ‘get it’.”? Frustrating isn’t it?
Last week, I was privileged to tag along with the Oberlin College Enterpreneurship Scholars on their trip to NYC visiting “Obie” alumni. These kids were at different stages of developing or executing their businesses. The alumni gave their own stories and then critiqued the kids’ plans. It was interesting to see what the kids listened to and what irritated them.
It’s so easy to turn someone off when they disagree with you; “They just understand the real needs; they don’t know that market; they don’t see it on the ground like I do.” Sound familiar?
One of the alumni told the kids to stop and think about what is really irritating them about the advice or suggestions. Great advice! So, when you are getting feedback (which may be criticism) on your idea, instead of turning that person off, stop and think about what it is that really bugs you about their feedback. By analyzing what is really bugging you, you can hone your passion and purpose behind the idea.
This week, find people who are great irritants (shouldn’t be too hard for some of us!). Share some of your ideas. While they may view your cup as half empty, they just filled it up half full for you! Give it a try and tell us how it goes!