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]



America's Future is #RCUS

After every BIF, we always wonder if it can get any better and each year is as unique and powerful as the one before. This is a testimony to the human spirit. The media tells us everything that's wrong in the world but it's Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS) that show us otherwise.  This year, I had the honor of being a story-teller and can attest to the optimism and realistic hope.

Our hope for the future is based in #RCUS.  The more #RCUS, the more we meet people with whom we create powerful positive solutions to our world's wicked problems. #RCUS inspires and transforms our world in ways we may know now, later or may not ever realize.  Here are a few BIF9 Storytellers who inspired me.











ODE to Innovation

One of the most amazing leaders I’ve ever met, Mike Waite, President of Menasha Packaging Corporation, believes his job is making sure his people get to live their dreams.  While profit, revenue, shareholder value etc. are critical, without his people’s ability to turn dreams into reality – for customers and for themselves – there is no revenue, profit or anything else…simple…and too rare.  Mike is Menasha’s ODE, Official Dream Enabler. 

Dreams allow us to think of what could be, of what is possible - maybe not probable, but possible.  That’s why dreams are innovation’s fuel.  We know what happens to organizations that don’t innovate - look at the 1990 Fortune 100 list. 

We are innately creators and dreamers.  Somewhere along the way, for most of us, we are taught, encouraged, required to push those inherent capabilities to the back and obey the status quo (e.g., public education).  So how do we become an ODE to innovation?

My friend Whitney Johnson’s book, Dare, Dream, Do, provides a framework for becoming an ODE to our people and ourselves.  It provides a roadmap for risking to and realizing dreams – both for individuals and more broadly organizations.  If individuals aren’t allowed to dream, how can teams and organizations?

Three quotes in the book stick in my mind:

  • “The only safe harbor is our convictions…because it ensures we are honest to our core values.” For dreaming - innovation to have a positive impact, it must be based on values and integrity.  As we are finally recognizing from the financial crises and our youth’s response to ‘Corporate America”, without providing meaning and purpose, there is no sustainable money and profit;
  • “Sometimes we set out to be competent.  At other times our competence is simply the unintended consequence of doing what needs to be done…” We’ve been hiring for skills first and maybe culture and passion.  It’s time to turn that around.  Skills can be taught – enhancing a culture and bringing passion to work? Not so much; 
  • “Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing.” T. S. Eliot commenting on Dante’s “Inferno”: As many of you know, connecting, networking is in my DNA.   Dreams and innovation are not solo events; they are team sports.  How you encourage, support, reward teams around common passions will determine how well you delight your customers…and your people.

Do you define your role, your success, by the ability of your people, let alone yourself, to dream? 

Do you allow your people, yourself, the freedom and autonomy to turn dreams into reality?

Can you become an ODE to Innovation? Start reading Whitney’s book – for your people, yourself, even your family.  And then you can start turning dreams into reality.  So, go – Dare, Dream, Do.

Why am I a VC?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


Last month, my friend Whitney Johnson wrote a great post about entitlement being an innovation-killer.  Please read it if you haven’t.  I’m sure we all know examples of this in many aspects of our lives.  In some corporate cultures, Innocide is brazen and in others incredibly polite and subtle.  Perhaps the subtlest of all is Suinnocide – killing innovation within us.  Most of us are masters at that!

Some organizations have an innovation process that includes assessment of successes and failures – but they measure what’s already gotten into the innovation pipeline, not what didn’t even make it in!  Innocide is pre-process murder.  It’s subtle, pervasive, socially acceptable and pernicious…which makes it hard to measure and harder to fix. 

Since this is difficult, how can we start to reduce our organization’s (and our own) Innocide rate?  Start identifying Innocide when you see it!  You could create a cadre of Innocide Detectives!  I bet you already have some – the ones you tend to dismiss or view as radical, rebellious, heretical or ‘out there’.   Give it a try.  This week, start listening for key phrases like But, Ought.  Try asking “What if” or “Why not” or say “Yes, and” – see what happens.  Perhaps you can reduce your Innocide rate before you even know what it is!   Please let me know how it goes!

Mentoring Paradox

I believe mentoring is a gift for the mentee and the mentor.  Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed with incredible mentors who, perhaps unknowingly, taught me how to mentor.   It’s something I take seriously and joyfully. It is a paradox - an incredibly selfless thing that is also very selfish.

Recently, my mentoring has increased.  In addition to mentoring Brown seniors and startups, I’m mentoring Oberlin College students applying for a fellowship to start their business after graduation in May.  Many of these kids were in my recent Business Model Innovation class. They are eager for advice and guidance.  They really listen! For some reason, the stakes seem higher to me than in mentoring 'adults'. For these kids' their first entrepreneur experience will shape their view of entrepreneurship, innovation, success and failure.  That's part of why they are making me a better mentor.  How? They make me challenge my own ‘status quo’ views and improve my ability to ask dumb questions.  Here’s what I have (re)learned from them:

  • Status Quo is a powerful Siren Song: It’s so easy to succumb to the status quo; though I fight it, it’s the boiled frog syndrome – and it’s so very human.  When you’ve been doing, investing in and supporting startups and consulting with businesses for a long time, it’s easy to get lulled into thinking you know a lot; and you do, but not everything and not forever.  In our dynamic world, the lifespan of knowledge is increasingly decreasing. I have to challenge my own reasoning and ideas;
  • Paradox of Inexperience and Experience:  The blank slate, the fresh naïve perspective these kids have creates innovative solutions to real needs with non-traditional business models for non-traditional customers and markets.  I learn so much about different perspectives, shifting my lens so I see the ‘usual’ in unusual ways. And my clients will benefit from lessons I’ve experienced from the inexperienced.
  • Mentor Mentors: Through the network of alumni mentoring women at Brown and my friend Whitney Johnson’s insightful, must read posts about mentoring, I’ve learned how to be a good mentor: what does/doesn’t work, when, why, in which circumstances.  This has also broadened the network I can share with my mentees – teaching them the importance of The Network.

So, take some advice from these kids – start mentoring.  It will stretch you in ways you can’t imagine, let you to share your learnings with others for their success, and provide life-long experiences to be shared, imparted and enjoyed.

Lessons From BIF-7

I’m tired of all the “Woe is America” stuff – we’ve lost our innovation edge, we’re stagnating, etc.  What I see is the opposite – incredible innovation in products, services, processes and business models.  It’s just not in the mainstream media.  That’s what makes the annual BIF conference so important:  30 plus stories of amazing, cool, disruptive, transformative innovation models.  I thought I’d share a glimpse of the many “business” lessons I learned from some ‘non-traditional business’ stories at BIF-7.

BIF-6’s theme was summed up by Carmen Medina, “Optimism is the greatest form of rebellion”.  Angela Blanchard iterated that at BIF-7 saying, “You can’t build on broken”.  So let’s start with her story.

Angela Blanchard @CajunAngela of @NeighborhoodCtr  BIF-7 Story & Video 

Despite growing up in poverty in Texas, Angela thought she was one of the luckiest people. Hurricanes were a part of life and Angela knew the systems didn’t work and smart brains couldn’t figure it out.  When people came to help, they focused on what was broken, what wasn’t working.  But after these disasters, the community was always more caring, patient, generous and collaborative.  As President/CEO of Neighborhood Centers in Houston, Angela has created a powerful model for community redevelopment with national, global application. 

Lesson: You can’t build on broken.  

Experiment: In performance management, process, quality, workflow, customer satisfaction, etc., we focus on what’s broken, what we need to ‘fix’.  What if we put the same amount of rigour into looking at what’s working, what’s strong, what’s right? Bright Spots?  What if we identified an issue and looked at what’s working instead of what’s broken.  How does that make a difference? If you got a few people to this regularly, could your culture change!

Some of the many cool things Jon Cropper has done includes helping MTV move into Asia, Latin America and South Africa, working with (the) Quincy Jones, and heading up Nissan North America’s youth and multicultural marketing (know the “Shift_expectations” ads?).  Jon defined “Simplexity”: make it simple on the outside, hide the complexity inside.  His theme was Generosity feeds the Soul.  He urged us to focus on projects, products, services that can inject optimism into the world.  Its not how many eyeballs you reach, its how many hearts you touch.  And, you need to out-educate your competition. (BIF-7 Story & Video)

Lesson: Generosity feeds the Soul

Experiment: How can we look at What/Who/When/Why/Where/How we bring offerings to market in a way that touches hearts and minds? That truly makes things better, not ‘more’, than before? What if we took 1 product or service and asked ‘5 W’s 1 H’ for injecting optimism.  What could you do?

Whitney Johnson @johnsonwhitney  BIF-7 Story & Video 

Whitney Johnson is an elegant, wise, caring and courageous woman.  Whitney rose from a secretary to a top-ranked analyst at Merrill Lynch.  Her honesty and authenticity built trusting relationships between investors and CEOs.  But after rising to the top, Whitney felt the need to build and create something more meaningful.  She walked away from a 7-figure salary and prestige.  After some introspection, she agreed to head up Clayton Christensen’s venture fund, Rose Park Advisors, to help companies grow.  Whitney says, “If it feels scary and lonely, you’re probably on the right track.” Embracing uncertainty is a must, because there is no assurance of what comes next, but that leads to innovation and growth.  No matter what, though, be authentic.

Lesson: If it feels scary and lonely, you’re probably on the right track.

Experiment: Find something you’ve been yearning to do, at work, or try at home if it’s safer for you.  Give it a try – even just a small try.  Ask yourself what the risks/benefits really are, muster up your courage, and just try it. 

Alex Jadad @ajadad  BIF-7 Story   

Dr. Alex Jadad has a contagious joy through his healing eyes and smile.  He is a physician, educator, researcher, public advocate, innovator and very human.  There is a tool to assess clinical trial quality named after him – “the Jadad Scale”.  His list of accomplishments, but more so, the lives impacted, is astounding.  Despite the fame, Alex is a physician who wants to heal the soul, not just the body.  He is frustrated with medicine’s almost sole focus on diagnosis and fixes instead of dealing with chronic disease and pain.  Alex wants to “put more life into our years, not just years into our life”.  To him, health is the capacity of an individual and a community to adapt and direct their own lives.  Alex asked us to teach our tongue to say, “I don’t know” and we will progress.  His grandfather, also a physician, said his mission was, “to remember, remember, remember, cure sometimes, alleviate often, console always.”  Nary a dry eye.

Lesson 1: Put more life into our years, not just years into our life

Lesson 2: Teach your tongue to say “I don’t know” and we will progress

Experiment:  More is not always better.  Can you find some products or services that are over-engineered, over-complicated where high quality and ease of use could trump features? Where you could provide real benefit for your customers?  As for “I don’t know” – it takes confidence, courage and humility to say those words and listen, understand, and care.

Rebecca Onie  @rebeccaonie  @HealthLeadsNatl   BIF-7 Story & Video 

While volunteering in the Housing Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services as a Harvard sophomore, Rebecca realized many of illness’s underlying causes couldn’t be solved by a prescription; they were poverty-related.  They were obvious, but the healthcare system didn’t have a way to solve them.  She co-founded Health Leads using college kids to connect patients with the resources they needed most: food, shelter, heat, transportation, etc.  Today, Health Leads is a national non-profit serving 7000 families in 5 urban clinics.  Rebecca’s keys to transforming our healthcare system? Tenacity, not taking “No” for an answer, always asking more questions and tackling ‘bite-size’ pieces instead of the whole.  Since the odds of failing are so great, it’s important to take big risks because every success is more impactful.  As Rebecca said, vision doesn’t change the world, execution does!

Lesson: If failure is inevitable, every success is more significant

Experiment:  Is there a project that could have a significant impact on your customers, your employees, and your shareholders? Does it seem overwhelming? What if you make it into small achievable steps? What if you step back and look for obvious, simple (perhaps not easy) solutions?

Dan Pink @danielpink  BIF-7 Video 

Dan Pink, known for his fabulous books A Whole New Mind and Drive, talked about 2010’s two Physics Nobel Prize winners, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, breakthrough in extremely thin graphene.  This wasn’t their ‘day-job’ though.  Their discovery came from their “Friday Evening Experiment” time, what Dan calls “non-commissioned work”.  Most work today is commissioned – work we’re paid, told, reviewed to do.  A 1990’s study of commissioned vs. non-commissioned art showed that while both types were technically equivalent, the non-commissioned art was judged as more creative.  It’s usually the non-commissioned work that creates the path to breakthroughs.  In 2000, Andre Geim won the Ig Nobel Prize for using magnets to levitate a frog.  So, if you want to really change the world, you need to levitate some frogs.

Lesson: Non-commissioned work is powerful

Experiment: Every company has someone somewhere doing non-commissioned work.  Why don’t you try to find a few of those people in your company and give them some time to focus on that work? See what happens, but have patience.

I must conclude on a personal note. First semester freshman year at Brown, I took Intro to Computer Science by Prof. Andy Van Dam.  Many of us still have nightmares about one homework assignment – write a program (C+) to run the elevators in the SciLi (Science Library).   Andy was a formidable figure to us kids…a god.  If you like the Internet, thank Andy – he invented hypertext and is the father of graphics (and some say the model for Andy in Toy Story). At BIF-7, I was privileged to see Andy and get to know him ‘adult-to-adult’.  What an incredible joy and honor to reconnect with such a brilliant and caring man who positively shaped so many of our lives.  (BIF-7 Story & Video)

Many thanks to Frank Gullo’s posts, Jess Esch’s stunning notes and Amanda Fenton’s mindmaps for helping me create this post!