The range of risk explored, for the sake of self-discovery and innovation was quite extraordinary at BIF-9. It was humbling to see the extent to which people placed themselves, and their sense of self, at risk in the pursuit of revealing new truths.
Combat photographer, Stacy Pearsall opened with a story about joining the military and the elite combat photography troop and through her work received a traumatic brain injury in Iraq. The acceptance of death as a possibility was necessary to do her job and led to her project documenting, “America’s unsung heroes.”
Pearsall described her camera as one of the most powerful weapons possible. That said, after her traumatic brain injury, she discovered that there was a gap in what it meant to be a veteran and how veterans are perceived. She began to photograph veterans to be able to help broaden the definition of what it means to be a veteran and what their needs are in society today. The Veterans Portrait Project was created and she is self-funding the effort.
She wants no other veteran to experience what she experienced in her journey to recovery.
Through her Charleston Center for Photography, Pearsall teaches disabled veterans by giving them the tools they need to feel better about themselves. She finds inspiration in others and the ability to help and exhorted us to do something today—and together.
The concept of a bias for action was very much in play over the two days. Scott Heimendinger, started out as a passionate food blogger and fell into the traps of scrambling for SEO and page views, etc. It wasn’t great, but as Scott noted, doing work is good.
Doing work is important, even if you are not sure what you are doing.
In 2009 if you wanted to cook sous vide at home it cost $1200 to buy a lab device. It shouldn’t have cost that much. Make magazine published his slow food DIY project and he unlocked the Maker merit badge as a result. Heimendinger found the “right pond” to swim in through a process of taking more and more small risks on over time.
As someone who is very risk averse, I have come a long way.
Over time he created a molecular gastronomy cooking club and is establishing Culinary Jam Sessions. Jet City Gastro Physics, just filed its first patent on the way to making better French fries. Along the way he took a Modernist Cuisine course and snagged an internship during which he met Nathan Myhrvold former Microsoft CTO and molecular gastronomist, who created a guide. Now, after directly telling Myhrvold that he should hire him, Heimendinger is working there are as Director of Applied Research and recently had an amazing launch on Kickstarter for his $199 sous vide cooker.
For more on this topic listen to my post session interview with Scott.
His efforts were rewarded by taking a series of risks that were manageable over time. All it took was bold passion and being unafraid to be passionate.
That kind of dedication and passion is something that Angela Maiers sought to tap into during her story. For Maiers, the act of contribution changes us. She sees that the moment we realize we have what someone else needs, in that moment our humanity is cemented.
To frame her story she noted that somewhere between preschool and grad school we have learned to hide our genius. And we need to change that. Then she launched into sharing the tale of a great project she conducted with some high school seniors on the last day of school before Summer. Maiers actively asked them to tap into their own genius, to risk a little by committing to something bigger than them selves. What occurred was nothing less than astounding. The students stayed for two days even though school was well and truly out for the year!
Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just changing the world.
The students felt that they were needed and were going to do something about it. Fifteen social enterprises launched and they all believed in themselves and in each other. By taking a risk they became invested in their own genius. And some of the participants joined Angela on stage at BIF-9 to share their own takeaways from the event and share their own stories, “These two days were really important to me…” which was great to see. Another risk taken…
If Angela Maiers exemplified the process of leading others to recognize and take ownership of their own genius, Andrew Mangino illustrated the results of that journey of discovery from the student’s perspective. Arising from his work as a student journalist Mangino shared his path to eventually founding The Future Project,
High schools aren’t living up to what we all know they can be. Too many students drop out. Even more are disengaged daily. And the current thinking–to blame more teachers, impose more rules, and inject more money–just isn’t working.
At The Future Project, we see the problem simply: Our students aren’t pursuing their dreams. We’re out to turn high schools into Future Schools, where students develop the skills to do just that.
Here are the nine lessons he learned on the way:
- When we discover a passion, we discover we can do anything.
- Young people learn most when they are changing the world
- Schools are not really broken. They are working just as they were designed to work. And so they must be re-invented. [The performance system. Duh]
- A nation build on infinite possibility doesn’t feel like it.
- The most unjust gap in modern America is the inspiration gap. (seen as a luxury)
- The most solvable gap in modern America is the inspiration gap.*
*But it is going to take a movement to do it.
- We don’t have to wait for permission to start.
- Nothing happens without a great team.
- It’s time for a new kind of leader in America—someone who stands for you.
The Future Project asked, what if there were dream directors? Now they have 16 dream directors across 4 cities in schools. Standing up for the infinite possibility of young people exemplified by Marielle, a student who stood up and began to transform her own school,
I have been a dreamer on stand-by for a long time. And that ends today.
Another way of looking at risk was presented by JoAnn Stonier, Chief Privacy Officer with MasterCard Worldwide. For Stonier, risk is not an immovable concept—it is highly fluid. One of the great challenges she sees for us as we innovate in an age of big data is that the risks to our privacy are not fully known and are not being considered widely enough to influence public policy and private behavior.
“The right to be let alone” arising out of the Gilded Age, is the early precursor to the right to privacy and at the time it was needed to create a retreat from the world due to the encroachments of the Industrial Age. That right to holding private some aspects of our identity and the data that is the manifestation of it is even more important now. Last year Stonier had spent the Summer months addressing the encroachment into private data by the NSA.
We are having these conversations because of the nature of the changes in our society today. Law lags innovation—they are never the solution.
If we look to law we are going to be waiting a very long time for a corresponding support. We need to be wrestling with what is at risk now. Privacy matters and it needs to be a part of the conversation for all who are innovating so that we can ensure that our own risk tolerance can be managed.
Perhaps Steve Blank captured the reframing of business risk best. As the author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany and The Startup Owner’s Manual, Blank has been uncovering the ways in which those who take risks to begin new enterprises go about their work. He noted that Joseph Campbell identified the hero myth in multiple cultures as essentially the same story. Campbell recognized the pattern in the data.
Blank did 8 start-ups in 21 years. At no time was he looking for patterns, as he had his head down the entire time. Yet he did identify patterns.
After retirement Blankbegan sitting on boards and had one a series of private investments over the course of time he began to write his memoirs. While writing he identified a pattern emerging that no-one else had ever called out.
For the last century everyone had been striving for success is by treating start-ups as smaller versions of larger enterprises.
He offered a countervailing view. He noted that no business plan survives first contact with customers and that the only people who use 5 year plans are VC’s (venture capitalists) and Soviet-era countries.
The best start-ups went from failure to failure learning as rapidly as they could. Blank observed the “pivot”—times during which companies changed strategy by changing the people (firing the VP of Sales) and recognized that there needed to be a different way of handling the failure as a result of risk taking.
What we should have been doing instead of firing the person we should have been changing the plan.
On their first day, Blank said, every start-up is a faith-based enterprise based on guesses and no processes to test those guesses. There is no way you are smarter than the collective intelligence of your customers, so experiment with them. Make the risk to the enterprise manageable by learning as fast as you possibly can.