Last week, I was at Providence’s Trinity Rep covering BIF2015, the Business Innovation Factory's summit of innovators. It was BIF’s 11th summit, my fifth as a guest. I was attending under a quasi-media category called RCUS, standing for the BIF mantra of “Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects.”
BIF founder and "chief catalyst" Saul Kaplan opened the talks by noting that earlier in the week was the Jewish New Year, based on the Book of Life. That book is not closed. We can keep writing it by how we treat each other. A perfect opening for what was to come ...
Parked in front of the historic Trinity Rep was a food truck. It was Julius Searight’s Food4Good truck. A so-called “crack baby,” it is actually unrelated cerebral palsy that has left him with deficiencies in fine motor skills and slow speech. He told of living in foster care, getting adopted and reading far below grade level as a youngster. But that can’t hide the passion. He eventually went to Johnson and Wales University and got a degree in food service and, after spending time with AmeriCorps, started the nonprofit Food4Good. His idea was to bring food to poor neighborhoods, so residents there don’t have to trudge to soup kitchens. Food4Good sells comfort food to those who can afford it, but also donates thousands of free meals to the needy.
Searight got a standing O. But other BIF speakers got heartfelt applause too.
Steven Keating is a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT, who works out of MIT’s Media Lab. In 2007, Keating, a self-described nerd, volunteered for an MRI mostly out of curiosity. The MRI revealed an abnormality, but doctors thought it was just something to keep an eye on. By 2014, he complained of a vinegary smell … interesting since the abnormality was near the part of the brain that controls olfactory senses. Another MRI showed that the tumor had grown to the size of a baseball. It was removed during “awake brain surgery.” Keating asked the doctors to videotape it. Three days later, he was back on campus and more determined than before to help patients collect and understand their health data.
At BIF, Keating showed videos of the brain surgery as well as a detailed map of his genome sequence, including the problem in the code. In the future, he wondered, could med students dissect themselves? Could they share images with researchers and others via medical selfies and crowdsource solutions? Why is it so hard for patients to get their own medical data, including genome maps? Why don’t hospitals have “share” buttons, to help patients determine the best course of treatment?
As a child, Matthew Zachary dreamed of being a concert pianist. At age 21 as a college senior and composer, he noticed his hand wasn’t working. He was diagnosed with pediatric brain cancer and told he'd probably not survive six months and would never perform again. After his surgery, he wrote two CDs worth of music as if to defy those who told him he’d never be able to write music again. Zachary’s Stupid Cancer organization focuses on challenge facing 15- to 30-year-olds who have been diagnosed with cancer. It’s an age group that tends to be overlooked by cancer organizations focused on people at the two ends of the life spectrum. It’s a group that has age-appropriate challenges in terms of relationships, fertility and careers, And most of all isolation. Stupid Cancer brings them together. Incidentally, Zachary became the concert pianist he dreamed of being before the cancer.
Share and tell
Zipcar founder Robin Chase explained that in the past, when you bought a car or rented one, you were paying for a lot of time that the car was not actually being used. This “excess capacity” is what fuels the so-called sharing economy, which ascended with brands like Chase’s Zipcar and Airbnb. Chase asserted that peer collaborators are not consumers as much as co-creators. Her new book Peers Inc: How People and Platforms Are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism flies in the face of the old advice to get a good job with benefits. Chase’s premise combines the best of people power with the best of corporate power. More networked minds are better than fewer proprietary minds. The benefits of sharing via open assets outweigh problems with sharing. (Nonetheless, the sharing economy has faced criticisms of late.)
Joshua Davis was working as a data-entry clerk when he noticed that if he keyed in something wrong, the machine beeped. As if it knew. So what was he doing there? Seeking something different, he went off to the U.S. arm wrestling championship in Laughlin, Nev. He came in 4th in the lightweight division. Fourth out of four. Good enough to make the U.S. team and travel to the world championship in Poland. Someone suggested that he write about the experience for a magazine, noting that the field has a fairly low barrier to entry. Suddenly Davis became a journalist just as suddenly as he’d become an arm wrestler. During run-up to the Iraq war, he offered to go to Iraq for Wired magazine as a war correspondent.
He also covered a group of undocumented Latino students from a high-poverty school in Phoenix as they designed an underwater robot out of scavenged parts that ended up beating the ExxonMobil-sponsored entry from MIT in the robot finals. His book about it called Spare Parts has been made into a movie with Jamie Lee Curtis, George Lopez and Marisa Tomei. And Davis has started a new publishing venture called EPIC True Stories and is a co-founder of Epic Magazine, publishing long-form true stories.
Crime and redemption
Moore’s Law suggests that computer power doubles every two or so years. The counterpart is Moore’s Outlaws, says security expert Marc Goodman. Criminals had cellphones before cops did, said Goodman, who has worked with the UN and Interpol. One challenge for the criminals was how to (in BIF parlance) scale up. Now drug cartels in Mexico have entire cellphone networks. Crime is fully automated. Criminal algorithms can carry out crimes. We have crimebots, but not copbots. The Target retail hack robbed 100 million people of personal info. An estimated 50 billion new devices will be on the Internet by 2030. Goodman warns that the so-called Internet of Things will just mean more to hack.
To illustrate his point, Goodman showed a 60 Minutes clip of a car’s operations being hijacked by a hacker via remote control. Moreover, he said, drones have been used to drop materials into prison yards and even spy on rival drug dealers. He showed one drone photo of a London apartment window lit up where tenants were growing pot. There is opportunity for one person to commit exponential good or exponential harm, concluded Goodman.
Catherine Hoke asked the BIF audience: “What would it be like if I was only known for the worst thing I’ve done?”
America, she said, is often not the land of second chances. Hoke pointed out that 30% of 23-year-olds already have a criminal record and 70% of children with incarcerated parents follow in their footsteps.
While earning about $200,000 at a New York City venture-capital firm, Hoke had the chance to visit a prison in Texas. She learned that a lot of incarcerated people had similar profiles as people in the BIF audience, including experience with sophisticated governance, bookkeeping and marketing (but were perhaps not so good at risk management, she joked, insofar as they got arrested). Hoke wondered what would happen if inmates applied those talents to entrepreneurship.
She started the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) to help them do it. Under 5% of ex-offenders in PEP returned to prison within three years of release, compared with more than 40% nationally. Hundreds of PEP alumni started businesses.
Hoke returned to the theme of being haunted by the worst thing you’ve ever done. For her, it was relationships she had with some PEP graduates after a difficult divorce. She wrote to PEP people telling them about the poor choices she had made. She tried to kill herself. But in response to her confession, Hoke got thousands of emails of support. She realized people could love her as a human being, not just a machine that produces results. The venture capital firm offered her job back. She turned it down and created Defy Ventures to help people with criminal histories use their innate entrepreneurial skills to create sustainable, legal enterprises.
The recidivism rate for Defy’s entrepreneurs in training is 3%. They’re transforming their hustle into startups. Two Defy grads joined Hoke on stage, the man is CEO of ConBodym which employs formerly incarcerated people as trainers who teach the toughest prison style boot camp classes; the woman is CEO of a soul food truck. Hoke left behind a T-shirt that says “Hustle Harder.”
Dennis Whittle quipped that he was an ex-offender too: He spent 14 years at the World Bank. When told by his assistant that he was booked to speak at BIF, Whittle groused about what to speak on. Someone suggested that he prep by reading his bio. He did, and was struck by how good it was, including certainly his stint leading GlobalGiving, the largest global crowdfunding community for nonprofits, which was launched by the World Bank. But when Whittle realized he’d be in a lineup with cancer survival and other deep personal stories, he realized his resume is not how his life has actually felt. He explained that despite trips to exotic places such as Burma, his best time in the past year was touring coalmines and hills with his old friends from West Virginia. They wouldn’t know anything about subjects like BIF or crowdfunding.
But that connection says more about his life than his resume could. Saul Kaplan noted how different our resumes are from our lives. It’s a perennial BIF theme recently labeled by columnist David Brooks as resume virtues vs. eulogy virtues.
Jeff Sparr was ecstatic when his son hit a home run in a big Little League game. But Jeff couldn’t celebrate. He was having a panic attack. A manifestation of the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that creates attacks based on thoughts of his failure. Failure as a husband, as a father, you name it. It robs him of great memories like that round-tripper. Twenty years ago, someone told him painting might help. He painted and painted and painted. And he realized he felt better. He started giving his art away, when a friend told him it was not a good business model. When he sold $15,000 worth of art a few weeks later, he went to a children’s psych unit where he served on the board and had been a patient and delivered paints, brushes and canvasses ... and told his story. Sparr is another who’s scaling up. He created PeaceLove Studios in Rhode Island to train people to bring peace of mind to thousands of people.
Sophie Houser is a freshman at Brown University. She was involved in an organization called Girls Who Code, whose mission is address the gender gap in the tech and engineering sectors. Women make up half of the U.S. workforce, but just 25% of tech and computing jobs. Houser invented a videogame that addresses this and another crisis: self-consciousness among girls about menstruation. In the game called Tampon Run, girls throw tampons—which, Houser reasoned, should not be any more objectionable than the blood of shoot-them-up games. Back to coding, Houser told of how difficult it was to make the girl in the game jump up for a new box of tampons—the clichéd videogame gimmick to reload. Ultimately, she found 10 lines of code to make the girl jump.
Media outlets around the world picked up the story and, Houser and her co-inventor went to Silicon Valley and began working on a biopic. More importantly, said Houser, users said the game made periods feel normal … and some said they were inspired to code.
Tanisha Robinson calls herself an ultra-minority: gay, black, Mormon. She went to Brigham Young University, then joined the U.S. Army because she thought it was more tolerant. She became an Arabic linguist, but was kicked out under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, when she told. Then she went to Ohio State. Then Damascus to teach English. Then she returned to Columbus, Ohio, to form an organization called Print Syndicate. Her outfit sells T-shirts and other goods on the Internet branded with offbeat expressions for introverts to express social identity. Robinson says she watches out for marginalized groups. “We believe in equal pay so we pay all men 70 cents on the dollar,” she joked.
BIF likes to add some music to liven up the proceedings. Singer-songwriter and guitarist Dani Shay sang “Girl Or Boy” … a question many people were asking about Dani online. Why do they care? she asked. Shay jokes about how Justin Bieber emerged around the same time and looked a lot like Dani. Then she sang an upbeat too-happy tune mocking “all I want to be is on the radio,” following by one that she really does want to be on radio to help change the world. It’s poppy. Got the audience clapping.
Art of innovation
When Barnaby Evans came to Providence, he was stunned by how negative the people were about the city. He showed the BIF crowd slides of Mohawked hipsters on the one hand and an aging white crowd at an art forum on the other. The art world is siloed. Evans attacked both problems with his invention of Providence’s WaterFire art installation 21 years ago. All are invited. No tickets needed, Barnaby noted that a group of nuns from New Hampshire and a group of Hell’s Angels both came to a recent WaterFire, That’s a symbol of two different types of art audiences. He concluded fittingly with video of a funeral procession plying the river at WaterFire.
So much at BIF celebrates the new and spontaneous. Chris Emdin, associate prof at Teachers College at Columbia University and co-creator of #HipHop Ed, reminded the audience of the importance of things we’ve been doing a long time. For example, there’s a reason Serena Williams can be seen practicing tennis as a 5-year-old in Compton. In his work to get more young people interested in STEM, Emdin thinks back to growing up in the Bronx and seeing Black America in Stevie Wonder’s Innervision andSongs of the Key of Life. The morning of the BIF talk, news broke of a 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed of Texas being arrested because he brought a homemade clock into school and it was mistaken as a bomb. As a kid, Emdin worshiped Wu-Tang Clan and its disruption of the Grammy awards 10 years before Kanye West stormed the stage on Taylor Swift. Emdin was fascinated when a Wu-Tang Clan member GZA came to campus as a scientist. The two collaborated on a program mixing hiphop and science education for middle and high school students.
Mezzo-soprano Carla Dirlikov grew up in Michigan, the daughter of a Bulgarian father and Mexican mother. The parents never spoke a common language, so Carla learned both of their native languages and translated for them, And boy, can she sing? She delivers a beautiful opera with an accompanying pianist. Says she’s in search of duende like Lorca. (Or like George Frazier?) Opera, she reminded the BIF audience, allows the voice to focus on peaks and abysses.
Barry Svigals is an architect. Among designs by Svigals was a school in New Haven, Conn., which became the prototype for schools everywhere from 1996 forward. At BIF, he segued to a sign “We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.” He cited a friend, a former New Yorker editor who died and had stipulated that his memorial service include ponies and ice cream—a sensibility he worked into the Sandy Hook site.
Kimberly Kleiman-Lee is responsible for leadership development at GE, a company of 310,000, including 6,000 who Kleiman-Lee works with who are “responsible for shaping GE’s future.” Before she arrived, GE ran leadership meetings from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in a room with no windows called the Pit. Kleiman-Lee created a massive sign in the style of a ransom note inviting leaders to go to a different room where their advice would be heard. She changed the vibe. The staff began serving meals family style among leaders. They brought them to Normandy and connected the daunting battle in front of the GIs with those they face at GE (and all with a straight face presumably). The No. 1 rule for corporate innovators, said Kleiman-Lee, is to give yourself permission to be fired.
Carlos Moreno, a former teacher at the Met School in Providence, is now director of Big Picture Learning. He grew up in the Bronx about five blocks from Fordham University, but had never stepped foot on the campus. He was a typical student athlete, he said, doing just well enough to remain eligible. Then one day, he was pistol-whipped and robbed for an $89 Cincinnati Bengals jersey. He knew that he should’ve gone onto the Fordham campus for help, but that felt like trespassing. His law-abiding parents from the Caribbean went and filed a report with police, but he knew there’d be no justice. His teachers and coaches were supportive, but none of them came from where he did, so could only offer limited help. There was no intervention before being thrown back into class.
At BIF, Moreno proposed addressing inequality with innovation. Schools are offering a politically correct but destructive approach that offers only one path to success. Big Picture Learning helps students find their niche and says it’s OK if they have different results. It’s OK for students to become “self-directed” and assess their own work. His advice: 1) pay attention to the whole child (including challenges and community issues); 2) pay attention to student strengths, not weaknesses; 3) be innovative in authentic assessments, so students demonstrate what they know; and 4) let students apply what they learn outside the school.
Big Picture Learning has launched a “relentlessly student-centered” Deeper Learning Equity Fellows for every student.
Alexander Osterwalder is a management guy and co-founder of Strategyzer.com. He noted that people spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime, But surveys show 70% are disengaged. Osterwalder spoke on “My Profession: Business Toolsmith.” He showed a slide of a rough, almost pixilated image of Pluto from 1997, juxtaposed with a highly detailed 2015 image of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft. If those tools have become so much better in that short time, said Osterwalder, you would think we could create tools to make companies better: not only to spit out profits, but also to get customers and employees excited and to make the world better. He shared his firm’s Business Model Canvas and Value Proposition Canvas and Organizational Culture—lots of diagrams and management buzz-phrases because the user interface is so important.
Saul Kaplan held a short conversation with John Abele, founder of Boston Scientific, which advanced less-invasive surgery such as stents to widen blocked arteries. Abele believes you can best help the patient by doing the least damage, so the patient can heal himself.
Self-healing, with a dose of innovation. That's BIF.
John O. Harney is executive editor of the New England Board of Higher Education's (nebhe.org) media outlets.