"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

What is the Root of Knowledge?

Jonaton Pie ~ Stakkholtsgja Canyon, Iceland

I've been thinking a lot about what makes people want to create, invent, innovate, learn.  So many of my colleagues and friends are innately curious and I know that, for me, learning is an addiction.  So, appropriately, I was reading one of my favorite philosophers/theologians and found this:

“Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge. Doubt comes in the wake of knowledge as a state of vacillation between two contrary or contradictory views; ... the business of doubt is one of auditing the mind’s accounts about reality ... “

— Abraham Heschel, "Man is Not Alone," pg 11

We certainly learn through doubting - we gain knowledge and insight by doubting, questioning, and even doubting our doubts.  But at the root of it all, what gets us to doubt in the first place, is our ability to wonder, to ponder, to think.  

How much more would we learn if we could wonder as we did when we were 4 or 5 or 8 years old? What can we try to truly wonder about this week? I'm curious!

How Big is Your Comfort Zone?

Fly NYON #ShoeSelfies - Aerial view over Central Park, NYC

I’ve been thinking about comfort zones.  Most of the discussion makes it seem like comfort zones are static.  They’re not.  We decide if our comfort zones:

  • Grow ~ because we’re curious, eager to learn, expand our worldview and meet new people doing all sorts of different, interesting things;
  • Shrink ~ because we’ve been burned, failed, or circumstances have made us more cautious and fearful;
  • Maintain ~ because we feel we are just fine where we are.

When people say, ‘get out of your comfort zone’, are they telling us to make our comfort zone bigger? Hopefully, we get out of the zone, try something different and get a little, somewhat or very comfortable in that new area so it becomes part of our comfort zone – maybe at the edge of it, but now inside it.  So if we want to keep getting outside our comfort zone, aren’t we growing it? Sure, maybe at times we got out of it and boy, we wanted to run back in, and we did.  That’s ok. It happens.  But overall, our comfort zones should keep expanding. 

That said, one my students * wisely notes that sometimes, we need to be in our comfort zone to rejuvenate, refresh and refill ourselves. Getting outside our comfort zone should be for a reason, have a purpose and not become idolized. It’s not an either/or, but And… as long as we get out. 

So, this week, what one little thing can you try to make your comfort zone bigger?

*Samanee Mahbub, one of my students, has turned her junior year into a Discovery Year - expanding her comfort zone beyond what many of us would dare to do.  Please read her posts - there is such wisdom and insight for any person of any age!

If Not Now, Then...Later!

Most of us have realized, or at least acknowledged, that life and careers are no longer linear, predictable, plan-able. We are told to be opportunistic (in a positive way) because we never know if the moment will be right again, hence the ever used adage, "Timing is everything." Timing is everything AND timing is not fixed!  Sometimes the answer to, "If not now, when?" isn't Now! Sometimes the answer is, "If not now, then... Later!"  

If not now, then... Later!

This hit me in a discussion with a former student, a few years out of college, who had two amazing opportunities to choose from.  One led to a potentially lucrative exit leaving him financially set to pursue his passions and the other was the quintessential embodiment of his passions with serendipitous timing and uncertain financial stability.  After some long, blunt conversations challenging his assumptions and self-construct, we realized this wasn't an Either/Or, an "if not now, when?" but an And/Both, an "if not now, then...later!" decision.  It was, what he called, sequencing (and urged me to make it part of the Life by Design work). He realized he'll have many more opportunities to gain financial security, so it was an "If not now, then...later!" decision and embracing this unique opportunity to pursue his passion was an "If not now, when?" moment.

The Human Connectome Project: White matter fiber architecture of the brain. 

The decisions we make today, while having an impact on our future, do not have to prescribe our future! It is not fixed, immutable... it is not irrevocable! Life is a set of creative acts, branching out in many different directions, in circuitous paths that we consciously and subconsciously design.

What if we are sequencing the doors we open, close and re-open over our lifetime?

If we haven't yet learned that life is And/Both, not Either/Or, we should now.  It's all around us. What if we aren't permanently closing and opening doors? What if we are sequencing the doors we open, close and re-open over our lifetime? Wouldn't that dramatically change our outlook? Wouldn't that make Life by Design more powerful, meaningful and fun?

Many many thanks to my incredibly wise, loving, bold students who teach me so much every day!!

3 Key Questions #LifebyDesign

There's tons of questions we can ask ourselves to assess our lives, careers, goals, etc.  Studies have been done and courses taught on scientifically proven methods to do this assessment.  For me, questions should get us to think, to dig deeper and to look at possibilities - not to lead to quick, "do this and you'll be happy" answers.  So here are the 3 questions I ask to start a Life by Design.

What do you like/love to do and are good/great at doing?

Make a list! These can be hobbies, skills, work, stuff you like learning or doing, anything - don't restrict yourself, take a holistic approach of you - personal, professional, academic, etc. And, if you want, try prioritizing them.  You want to do a lot of these things in your life.

What DON’T you like/love to do and are good/great at doing?

Make another list.  Same guidelines as above -  hobbies, skills, work, learning, etc. and try to prioritize them.  The goal is to minimize these - maybe you can even eliminate doing some of them, but we all have to do things we don't like so at least do less of them.

What do you want to learn, explore, discover, experience in the next 2, 3 or 5 years?

A few years ago, one of my students asked me to help her lay out her 10 year plan.  I told her to write it down, put it in a drawer and then we'd talk about the next 2-5 years. Our world is changing too fast to plan what we will or want to do 10 years out, but we can plan, to a degree, who we want to be, what we will stand for, and what we won't stand for. 

Think about the next 2-3 years, maybe 5. What do you want to learn, explore, discover, and/or experience? Learn how to code, make bookshelves, do graphic design, become a product manager for 3D-printed products, understand the Patagonian ecosystem, discover biomedical uses of Antarctic sea anemones, para-sail?  Here's mine ->

Start thinking about the steps you can take to start! What does it entail? Who do you know who can help or inform you? What 1 or 2 small things can you do tomorrow to start? Go for it!

The Lego Kit of Life (by Design)

What if I said that life was a set of Lego® bricks ~ all sorts of sizes, shapes, colors with a few bricks fixed together, unbreakable, but mot of them easily taken apart and rearranged?  If you're like me, you love (yup, you still do, face it!) playing, building, creating with lego (that's why I hang out with engineers and makers).

Life is a set of legos, all sizes, shapes, and colors. What will you build today?

Our life's lego bricks are made up of family, friends, pets, hobbies, curiosities and interests, experiences, physical-mental-emotional-spiritual health, knowledge, education, street smarts, common sense (or lack thereof), culture, rituals, beliefs, values, skills, talents, accomplishments, places lived and visited and more.

Take a look at your Lego set.  What bricks do you want to toss, just plain get rid of? What bricks do you want to get more of or even create (a new color or shape or size!)?  What bricks do you want less of? How would you like to rearrange your bricks for tomorrow, the next 2 years, or maybe even the next 5 years? I'm serious, think about this.  There is so so much you can do with your bricks and very few of them are permanently connected together!  

What did you learn from pondering and organizing your bricks? What's holding you back from tossing some bricks, adding new bricks, rearranging bricks? Why? What are you afraid of? We're all afraid of something.  What would you do if I took away those bricks and gave you the ones you wanted? What would you do if you weren't held back or scared anymore? 

What would your best friend, significant other, colleague or mentor advise you to do with your bricks? How would they arrange them for you? What if you looked at yourself that way?  

Here's my challenge to you - try thinking of your life as legos.  Decide which ones you want to keep, toss, rearrange for now and the next couple of years.  What does that look like? What could it look like if you had not brick-limitations? And hey, if you need to go buy a set of bricks, this is your excuse! Take it! 

 

 

How to Create an Amazing Life by Design ~ 5 Fundamentals

From the floorboards of Jackson Pollock's studio in the Hamptons, NY. The paint spatterings can be traced to specific pieces of his art.

Two and a half years ago, I was invited to share my story, Life by Design, at Brown University's Creative Mind Lecture series.  Since then, it's taken on a life of its own with my mentees who now use it as a noun.  They've asked me to formalize it in case I get hit by a bus, so here's the start.

After several years of mentoring and advising, I've discovered 5 (at least) fundamentals to creating an amazing Life by Design (through very non-scientific methods).

1. Very little you do in life is irrevocable.

Aside from dying, very few of the choices we make in life are permanent and can't be undone, redone, mitigated or benefited from.  Even losing a limb is no longer necessarily life-altering.  Once we view life that way, opportunities are endless sources of learning and exploration.  We don't need to be afraid that if we do X today, we're stuck doing X for the rest of our life.

2. There are many paths, solutions, answers, right choices - not just 1.

Following #1 above, rarely in life is there just one way to do something - there are many ways.  Many times we feel the path a role model or someone we admire took is the only path to get to the same place. Unfortunately, our education system reinforces the one way - there is THE right answer or way not A right answer or way.  Well, guess what, rarely is that the case.  Life isn't binary.

3. Your major or job isn't destiny.

The world tells us that our college major and even our current job is destiny.  Engineers should only look for engineering jobs, not design, product management, etc.  English majors should only look for writing or PR jobs, not design, product management, etc.  Drop the "should" - it's a horrible word!  Our job or major is not our destiny.  By looking at how that major or job has taught us to think, approach problems, communicate, see connections and patterns, apply to different situations, we can use our experience in so many ways!

Kandinsky - Composition V1, 1913

4. "Man plans, G-d Laughs"

This age old yiddish proverb is so true.  A student came to me a few years ago asking for help laying out her 10yr plan. 10 years!!!! I told her to write something out, put it in a drawer and then come back and we'd discuss the next 2-3 years.  Think about life in 2-3 (maybe up to 5) year chunks - what do we want to learn, experience, explore, discover over the next 2-3 years, why, and what are the best places and ways to do that! Yup, it's that simple... but not easy.

5. Experiment -> Learn -> Apply -> Iterate

At the age 99.5, my grandmother said, "The day you stop learning is the day you die." Life, personal and professional, is a continuous experiment - we try things, we hopefully learn, we apply those learnings and experiment again - til we die.  Learn to be curious, love to learn, try stuff - often, question your assumptions, question your questions, as why, why not, what if, and one of my favorites, where is it written (e.g., is it a rule or guideline?). 

Next week? I'll share my view of Life as lego blocks! Your comments and thoughts are welcome!

How to Interpret Truth From Facts

When is a fact true? This is a major question we’re asking given the pre/post-election. Sometimes, the answer isn’t a simple yes it’s true or no it’s not true. Sometimes the caveat “it depends…” provides critical insight into the context, constraints, veracity and therefore, applicability of the fact.

Let’s take 2 seemingly contradictory facts we’ve heard this past year:

  • Violent crime is up
  • Violent crime is down

According to the FBI and other studies, overall violent crime in the USA is at historic lows over the past 30, 10 and 5 years.  Yet, when you examine the data in the same studies, it becomes clear both statements above are true:

  • There is a 5.5% rise is violent crime from 2015 to 2016 with half of that coming from LA and Chicago and yet, the overall rate is still at the “bottom of the nation’s 30-year downward trend.”
  • Chicago accounts for almost half the increase in murders from 2015 to 2016 with decreasing murder rates in Baltimore and Washington D.C. and New York as one of safest big cities.

Bottom line? Both facts are true.  What you do with those facts depends on the questions you ask about those facts. What you ask with the subsequent iteration of answers and questions, is critical for making wise informed decisions.  So try asking:

  • What is the timeframe?
  • Are there outliers?
  • What did/didn’t these facts (and underlying data) take into account (what’s missing)?
  • What do these facts assume?
  • How long will these facts be true?
  • Who did the study and who paid for it?
  • What other questions arise from this fact?
  • What would it mean if this wasn't true? Who would benefit or be harmed?
  • etc.....

The ability to interpret truth from facts is a critical skill for success - in business and in life.  So starting today, or okay, tomorrow, ask questions when you're presented with facts - sales, recruiting, efficiency, inventory, market trends, anything - just start and see what you learn!

 

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

What's Not There?

What a lovely home, probably somewhere out in the country.  From the crops on left, this must be a farm. From the swing set, they probably have kids (or grandkids).  The house seems to be fairly modern (look at the windows) and well maintained.  The horses look healthy.

What’s the story about this house and family?  Are they ‘weekend’ farmers who commute to jobs during the week?  Does one of them, or both, work from home? Are they full-time farmers, with the land being the main source of income?  Hard to know.

But what’s missing? Look at the photo; what’s missing?

See any cars or trucks?  Maybe the people are not at home – they’re at the store or work or a kid’s soccer game. Look closer.  Do you see any power lines going to the house? Hum… Maybe the power lines are buried.  That could be, but given the size of this house and probable acreage, I kind of doubt it. 

This is an Amish house in Lancaster County, PA.  

What if we look at what’s missing instead of just what’s there?

What if we ask why something we’d normally expect to be there isn’t?

What are we assuming is in the picture because it usually is?

What if folks are just fine with not having what’s missing?

What if they didn’t know they could even have what’s missing?

What will we discover if we start looking at what’s Not There? 

10 Timeless Thoughts on Work & Life

Though she's only 20, Samanee Mahbub's insights into her 10 weeks in NYC are important for all of us at any age.  How many of these thoughts do you identify with? They are timeless, universal and very human.  Please read and reflect.

"On New York, and on life

After ten weeks in this city, I have a lot to reflect and think about on my last day before I embark on my next journey. This post has no clear theme other than what’s been going on my head. Thoughts about New York, about being lost, about feeling useless, about feeling useful, about adventures, about learning, about healing, about loving, about everything and about nothing. Hope you enjoy the thought ramble :) ...."

Who actually told us that feeling lost is bad, and that we actually have to have everything figured out?

Live your life with as much enthusiasm so other people can benefit from it.

Creating Effective Social Impact Leaders (or, Leaders!)

Leadership: is "Social" Leadership really that different? I submit it isn't and this guest post is by Robin Pendoley is Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, should make you think. See Robin's bio below - after you read this great post!  

The social impact sector does a lot of harm. Often, our victims are those who we set out to support -- the people and communities that are already vulnerable in our society. This is not something we like to talk about. As practitioners, funders, and do-gooders we want to believe our good intentions and good technical skills have prepared us to do good. But, examples from history and the present day show this isn’t the case. While there are many things we can do to reduce harm and increase meaningful impact from our collective work, there is one step we can take that represents our most important leverage point: create more effective social impact leaders.

The Core Competencies of Highly Effective Social Impact Leaders

As this question is core to our mission at Thinking Beyond Borders, we examined some historical examples of exceptional social impact leadership: Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Prof. Muhammad Yunus. By reading about the movements and change efforts they led, and reading their personal writings, we noticed two key areas in which they all excelled: critical consciousness of themselves and the world, and building and leading institutions that were truly mission-centered.

Impact through Critical Consciousness

These leaders each pursued critical consciousness of the world and themselves as a fundamental part of their social impact work. To do this, they each developed key capacities: 1) They rooted their purpose and direction in a constant critical examination of their values and beliefs; 2) They were humble but powerful learners who valued questions over answers; 3) They strived for higher order empathy. While I’ve written about these capacities elsewhere (here and here), it’s important to note that on a daily basis, each of these leaders used these skills in working with stakeholders and in maintaining their own personal and professional focus to create a more just society.

It is these capacities that ensured that the Indian Independence movement did not become a violent revolution against the British. These capacities resulted in Black communities of the US Deep South finding love in their hearts and actions in the face of violent and vicious racism during the Civil Rights Movement. It was leadership of this sort that spurred creative protest and a reordering of society, not simply an inversion of power. None of their respective movements were without flaws, nor were they complete. But, their approaches to social impact resulted in that rare and exceptional impact that brought greater equity and justice to society.

Mission-Centered Institution Building

Generating meaningful social impact and building the institutions that will sustain that process are two related but different practices. Knowing how to build an organization effectively is important. What was exceptional about the great leaders we examined was how they combined business and funding models in a manner that allowed the organization to operate and evolve based on the need of the impact work rather than the organization’s bottom line. They established management and leadership structures that encouraged their teams to be responsive the impact work. They developed communications that inspired stakeholders to engage in creating social change rather than simply build brand loyalty.

It was this type of leadership that led to peer to peer ride-sharing to sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott, long before Uber gained a multi-billion dollar valuation. This leadership led Grameen to establish lending circles that created spaces of mutual financial and personal empowerment for women in their home communities, long before the banking industry pursued micro-lending profits in large scale. As these movements evolved, and as equity and justice advanced, the institutions these leaders created fell victim to changing politics. But, the impact they created remained because the communities they worked in solidarity with had not been encouraged to become dependent upon them.

Lessons for Developing New Leaders  

While it’s easy to hold Dr. King, President Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Prof. Yunus up as superheroes of social impact, it’s important to note that they were (are) mortals like the rest of us. If we focus on developing the skills that made them exceptional, we can generate a uniquely qualified cadre of aspiring social impact leaders.

As educators, we’ve identified a set of principles for developing leaders of this calibre:

  • Focus on Impact - Aspiring leaders need support in thinking critically about how to define equity and justice, how an effective and ethical pathway is shaped, and what the impact leader’s role in the process should be. These are dynamic and challenging topics. Unfortunately, the social impact sector rewards those who pursue large scale, brand recognition, and specific business models. Teach aspiring leaders how to handle these tensions and maintain their focus on the impact that will lead to greater equity and justice.
  • Value Questions Over Answers - Asking good questions that illuminate dynamic topics is a crucial skill. Disappointingly, most education systems generate students who believe they are successful learners when they can present a convincing answer rather than a well refined set of questions. Create learning environments that place value in asking questions and pursuing greater understanding that can be translated into even better questions. Require learning to center around identifying and questioning the core assumptions of arguments and one’s self.
  •  Instill Humility - Great leaders are great listeners who reflect constantly on their potential and limitations. They admit their mistakes, provide space for others to lead, and are the first people to applaud the successes of their peers. However, great leaders are often driven and ambitious, determined to achieve their goal and overcome obstacles. Support aspiring leaders with learning environments that provide opportunities to wrestle with this tension as teams and individuals. Provide mentors who can support them in their highest and lowest moments. Identify heroes whose struggle with the tension between ambition and humility is made plain and relatable.

The social impact sector invests countless resources in working toward equity and justice. Our global society and local communities reflect the passion and commitment of so many who have shaped their lives in this pursuit. Yet, our present day and all our days past also reflect efforts wasted, misdirected, and many that inadvertently caused harm. As a sector, we can be more effective. It starts by being more intentional in how we create our leaders.

You can learn more about how Thinking Beyond Borders is working to create highly effective social impact leaders by reviewing our programs. Our high school summer abroad and gap year programs help students begin the pursuit of critical consciousness related to creating social impact. Our college study abroad programs teach the skills to lead mission-centered and mission-effective institutions. 

Robin Pendoley is Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, an educational institution helping students develop the skills and capacities to lead highly effective social impact careers. Born and raised through his early childhood in a working class community in the San Francisco Bay Area, Robin learned that equity and justice are complex but worthy pursuits. Through study, travel, and work in urban and suburban public education, he concluded that meaningful social impact is difficult to create and requires a rare combination of skills and capacities. In 2007, Robin co-founded Thinking Beyond Borders with the vision to create an educational institution that develops highly effective social impact leaders. Robin earned a B.A. in International Development Studies from UCLA and an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His blog posts on education and social change have been featured on Forbes, Ashoka, and Innovation Excellence. 

Can You Be Data-Discerning, Not Data-Driven?

Everyone says we must be data-driven.  I have trouble with that phrase, as discussed before.   Too often, we're making decisions based on the data presented...as is.  We're not asking the hard questions behind the data.

When I was at Bell Labs, we used to ask, "How much did you pay for that data?"  You can get data to say whatever you wanted depending on how it is presented and calculated, on what you show and what you don't.  

Before you start making decisions on the data in front of you, ask why it is the way it is, what's driving those numbers, what was the context, the constraints, the demographics, the sample size, the timeframe and frequency, etc. 

For instance, a company says it promotes more of its people than its competitors,  but perhaps it's 50yrs older? Perhaps its twice as large so the overall numbers are bigger? Perhaps it hasn't  in the past 5 yrs but given the number it had the previous 30, the overall number is still big.  Perhaps, perhaps - if you don't ask, you won't know and you could make decisions that are yes, based on the data in front of you, but not on the story behind that data. 

"Be Data-Discerning, Not Data-Driven"

I propose we start being data-discerning, not data-driven.... you may be surprised at what new insights you discover! 

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...

The Perks of Being an Amateur


Another fabulous post by Caitie Whelan of Lightening Notes
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I like knowing stuff

I like knowing the ropes, talking shop, having the answers.

I like being right.

I also like Ray Bradbury.

Mr. Bradbury didn’t go to college. He never got an MFA in writing. Never lived in the literary metropolis of New York City

He went to Los Angeles High School. And he went to the library. He loved libraries. Loved reading: L. Frank Baum. Edgar Allen Poe.

“The library,” he told The Paris Review, “has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”

And it was through his interpretations, his discoveries that he brought Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Something Wicked This Way Comes into the world.

On paper, Mr. Bradbury didn’t do the right things to be a writer: He didn’t have the pedigree, didn’t know the ropes, didn’t talk shop.

But off paper and in person - the dimension that matters most - he had conviction unconstrained by convention.

It’s one of the perks of being an amateur. And it’s easy to forget when we’re thinking about plunging into something new.

We can sit on the diving board, looking at all the swimmers. And we can think, “No way can I stay afloat in this pool. I don’t have their know-how, their credentials.”

That may be true. But it’s not the only truth at the pool yard.

Because what got us to the diving board, what got us peeking out into the unknown are a curiosity and a desire to know more of the world than we know now. It’s the same thing that got Mr. Bradbury to the library.

And that curiosity, that desire is just as true as all the swimmers and all their know-how.

So, when we find ourselves on the diving board, we must choose the truth we answer to: The conventional narrative saying, “No way. No how. You have no clue how to do this.” Or that still, small voice in us saying, “Go. Do it.”

That voice will upend and unsettle our status quo (which Deb encourages us to question anyway). It will hurl us beyond the world that we know. Hurl us out where we don’t know the ropes or the answers. Out where we’ll be wrong more than we’ll be right.

But if we listen to that voice, we will have chosen to take the shape of our lives into our own hands. Rather than let society shape it for us

We will fumble. And we will fail. Such is the amateur’s territory. But we will earn our fumbles and our failures knowing, as Joan Didion knew, that “people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes.” And self-respect is one of the finest perks of  being an amatuer.

I carry Mr. Bradbury’s story close. To remind me of the person I want to be.

I know what it’s like to walk away from the diving board. To walk away from that still, small voice. To disqualify myself because I’m inexperienced and uncredentialed.rush to discover it all.

Which brings me to the last - though by no means final - perk of being an amateur.

It forces us to grow.

When we don’t know the waters, we can get torn open by vulnerability, the rawness of being out of our nest.

And growth, that uncomfortable, incredible force where we rebuild our torn selves anew, is how we move ourselves and how we move our world forward.

Life’s a whole lot bigger than having answers and being right.

Life - real big life - is about living with conviction unconstrained by convention. It’s about self-respect. And kindness. It’s about growing every bit of our brains and our heart that we can grow. And life is about being an amateur again and again and again.

On this subject, Mr. Bradbury gets the final word:

“Jump off the cliff and learn how to make wings on the way down.”

Twitter  ~  Facebook  ~  Get Flashy

 

Caitie Whelan is the Founder/Noter-in-Chief of The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features striking ideas and great stories to remind us that we matter and improving the world is our matter.  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 and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Caitie is a 2007 Truman Scholar from the Great State of Maine. 

An Animated Look at Scientific Illustration

No matter what your profession or passion, design is a part of it, even the most STEM'y ones. Allison Chen, RISD '15, believes that scientific illustration is a definition of STEAM... and she's right! It's Science, Technology, Engineering (how the body works in the case of biological systems) and Math ... and Art! This great post, from her STEAM Stories project (please follow it!) shows us how art and design are so embedded in our daily lives and our work.  Enjoy! And follow her and read these great stories.
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Before modern film and computers, scientific phenomena were recorded with meticulous drawings and paintings for centuries. These illustrations illuminated the unobservable or unclear, often answering, “Will that plant kill me?” or “What’s going on inside my body?”

Of course, we still ask these questions, and can now use new media to answer. Based in Seattle, Washington, Eleanor is a designer that puts a modern spin on scientific illustration. Having received her bachelor’s in molecular biology and done visual art since high school, she combines both passions to create stunning animated infographics.

“I think visuals really help explain science to the general public,” Eleanor said. “If you haven’t gotten a degree in it, it’s really hard to understand topics like global warming or GMOs. It’s important for actual experts to explain everything.”

When she isn’t working for clients such as Huffington Post and the Gates Foundation, Eleanor has the freedom to design whatever subjects strike her interest. These interests manifest in both animated and static diagrams that she documents on her blog tabletopwhale.com, where you can also find a tutorial that shows how she works with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.

One animation, 3 Different Ways to Breathe, compares human lungs with those of birds and grasshoppers. Watching the animation, you can see how birds can take in oxygen even while exhaling, and how air is transported directly into the grasshopper’s tissue cells.

“I had no idea that things breathed differently,” Eleanor said, “or that the way humans breathe isn’t even the most efficient.”

Another animation, How to Build a Human, depicts the growth of a human fetus from fertilization to birth.

“I really wanted everything to be visible at the same time,” Eleanor said, explaining why she chose the spiral format. “When I was reading about it in college, I had some trouble figuring it out in my head. It was described in the text but I wanted everything on one page.”

And perhaps one of the most visually interesting, Flight Videos Deconstructed compares the flight patterns of five flying species and depicts the curves their wings make in space.

As noted on the infographic, the project was an observational exercise and doesn’t represent any scientifically accepted information.

“You definitely can’t draw conclusions from these videos alone,” Eleanor said, “you have no idea if the animals were injured, how old they are, if they’re even flying normally. In an actual study they would’ve taken 30-40 animals in the same room in the same conditions, done in a lab so that a computer can map it.”

This serves as an important reminder that imagery can always be misinterpreted or contrived, no matter how beautiful. Eleanor has noticed a fair amount of science-related art out there that isn’t accurate, and encourages more communication between artists and scientists.

This Fall, Eleanor is returning to school to get her PhD thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. Best of luck Eleanor, let’s hope your research will inspire more infographics in the future!

Eleanor Lutz: Blog, Twitter, Dribbble

Allison is a designer and writer (soon to be) based in Chicago as a DFA (Design for America) Fellow. She seeks to design for learning and play to help us better understand each other and the world around us. While earning her BFA in industrial design at RISD she co-led the DFA RISD|Brown studio 2014-2015, worked on STEAM learning tools, interned at various organizations, and helped build a solar-powered house for Solar Decathlon Europe 2014. Children are her favorite users, and she enjoys designing for the inner child in all of us. Through her STEAM Stories blog series, she hopes to bring together a community of passionate STEAM do-ers to inspire future interdisciplinary work in hobby, education, and industry.

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.