Sustainable Livelihoods, Spices and India

Posted on November 15, 2011 by Comments Off

India is known for many things: its people, culture, history and … spices. During the past week in India I visited many entrepreneurial projects, and of course also headed to the markets to see the tremendous array of products. I sought out the spice merchants because I am interested in spice farming after talking to women entrepreneurs in Ethiopia selling their spices in the marketplace.

I’ve been honored to personally support Mercy Corp’s efforts in Darjeeling and Nepal to revitalize the spice farming trade and find sustainable, innovative ways to increase crop production and help farmers get the best prices for their spices, including ginger, chilies and cardamom. I wasn’t able to travel to either of these places on this trip, so I just snapped a quick photo in a Mumbai market of the same spices. The owner spent a fair amount of time pouring the spices into little bowls, and they were incredibly fragrant and mouthwatering.

I Love My Job — Reason #7

Posted on June 30, 2011 by Comments Off

In the past month I met with a number of agency people, including a group of our Senior Account Executives, and the topic of entrepreneurship within the agency came up every time.  This got me thinking that we should figure out how to motivate more people to try out their new ideas.  So off I go to ideate with colleagues (guess I should include our CFO) about how we can make this more actionable. 

Last night, as I was going through trip photos, I found this one of a woman entrepreneur in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Granted her venture is very different from some of what our people want to experiment around — but the qualities are the same:  CREATE, MEET A NEED, DESIGN A DELIVERY SYSTEM, TELL THE STORY.   

This is a subject near and dear to my heart.  In fact, I look forward to sharing about it more during the TED University portion of TED Global 2011 in Scotland the week of July 11.

Creating Ideas That Stick

Posted on June 8, 2011 by Comments Off

New ideas and inventions come from those who see “a different and better way” nearly everywhere they look. These entrepreneurs see a need, and believe fervently that they can make a difference; they take risks, embrace failure, mix it up and find a way to bring their idea to life. As I mentioned in my last post, I was recently in Beijing, speaking to the American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China. We discussed: Can an entrepreneurial culture of innovation be CREATED?

Being a 27-year-old firm means that we have had our fair share of reinvention cycles; in fact, I would say we are ALWAYS moving through many changes to embrace new ideas and improve. In the past six years, though, we have significantly increased our rate of change, not only to stay on the edge of integrated communications, technologies and social networks but because we are pushing ourselves to create broader, deeper and more highly relevant impact and value for our clients. Here is what we’ve learned so far about how to create a culture of entrepreneurs: 

  • Break down the silos between groups. With 900 employees, it could get easy to stay within your own team. But often the best ideas come from a diverse set of people working to solve a problem or design an opportunity.
  • Find your risk-taking muscle and train it, so that taking smart risks is embraced across the entire organization. Learn from your failures; and share broadly. This starts at the top – leaders need to model risk-taking, admit mistakes, and embrace new ideas vigorously outside of hierarchies.
  • Challenge your teams to redesign the way they come up with ideas. Invest in the time to learn new methods of ideating – mix up people (tech can help bridge miles) and even ideate with your clients in new ways.
  • Maximize the use of technology for your own collaborative use. Your tech team needs to be a strategic part of your leadership team with the ability to design to a vision that can be inherently global, but intrinsically local.
  • Give your people free time, and give them incentives to use it as they want. Daniel H. Pink does a good job of linking this to what motivates people in his book Drive.  Ask your people to share, and be truly interested in what they’ve learned. Build peer-to-peer networks within the organization where like-minded people can compare, contrast and ideate.
  • Find ways to recognize new ideas that have resulted in powerful impact for clients, or for your organization. And remember having this be peer-to-peer and grassroots, in addition to senior recognition of great work, is extremely significant to your people.

While I was in China, I asked the teams to share what they are working on with their clients (thank you to Carolyn Chen, Rosemary Xu and team) and was impressed with their ingenuity, and their nimble approach to getting things done. My own team can learn from this, and so can our other offices.

In March, I was also with our team in Boston and I heard a fantastic idea from one of our account leads, Brian Bogie, about how his team won a new client. I loved his story and approach, which was based so strongly on building the relationship the right way over time. I asked him to write it all down, knowing I was asking for unplanned workload; he did this energetically, it was shared out, and within minutes people were sharing their own stories and collaborating – and we further honed our best practice within a 24-hour period.

Find those ideas. Embrace them. Share them. Develop them. And teach them.

A Lonely Petri Dish

Posted on June 1, 2011 by 1 Comment

Is the word innovation overused or even abused? This has been debated numerous times and it is the question with which I began my remarks to the American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China (AmCham-China) recently. We cannot become jaded with the term innovation, but we do need to turn our attention more to the IMPACT OF INNOVATION.

I remember all too well the earlier days of the PR industry when press tours, press releases, white papers and press conferences were among the chief ways of communicating innovation. I also remember countless times we spoke with great engineers, scientists or inventors, working to convince them that the right way to communicate had little to do with features, and everything to do with benefits to users, the ultimate consumers of new products or ideas.

We have improved in communicating the benefits of innovation. The industry has advanced in how it presents innovation to the world, and most significantly we are increasing the integration of multiple forms of communications — all with the goal of telling the story of IMPACT, not just INNOVATION. Otherwise a scientific advancement might simply stay in a lonely petri dish.

Years ago I remember telling one engineer that the incredible speed improvement he had gained in his product was indeed amazing to ME, but we were going to have to elaborate on the outcome of positive impact for the customers. It’s fair to say that for the most part the communications industry has matured well beyond this basic concept, but I still think we need to focus further on who benefits — and WHY — especially in the case of an evolving set of technologies like mobile computing that is moving into all corners of the earth.

Multinational companies are continuously increasing or decreasing their investment in R&D around the world, and before going to China I looked into the stats of what many of the multinationals were investing in China. My fellow AmCham panelists were Helen Chui, SVP and GM of Public Affairs, HP China, and Bill Valentino, VP of CSR, Bayer China, two companies which, along with Microsoft (our client), Cisco and Intel, make significant R&D investments in China. The Chinese government has laid out ambitious plans for putting its stake in the ground for innovation in healthcare, biotechnology, alternative energies and high-tech machinery.

The topic of how to move from awareness to adoption of technology and science advancements was a good one for this AmCham group. We enjoyed an engaged discussion around how communications can help play a transformative role, which adds to my optimism about the future of our industry. Many communications firms have established themselves in China, and we have a great deal of opportunity YET to be seized to expand and advance our industry in this vitally important market.

My view is that the most exciting opportunity is to effectively engage, measure and analyze our work to show the greatest ROI and drive integrated influence. We have a vast opportunity that is virtually untapped.

AmCham Panel

I Love My Job – Reason #6

Posted on May 31, 2011 by 1 Comment

YouTube Preview Image

I’m certainly glad my colleagues in APAC know I am allergic to certain seafood, because when I went to China several weeks ago, I was NOT MADE to eat live octopus. My COO, Michael Bigelow, who celebrates his 18th anniversary with the agency this week, was not so lucky. And to think this was a man who was told by a doctor he had an allergy to all seafood — then discovered he doesn’t really. He is now making up for lost time. Or something.

The Girl Effect in Tech

Posted on February 24, 2011 by 3 Comments

Recently I was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, talking to young girls about their ambitions, educations and lives. Every single one of them faced an uphill struggle to become educated, but the good news is that all but one had been able to convince their families that the whole family would be better off if the girls were allowed to go to school. This is also true of women in Konso and Derashe in southern Ethiopia: When they are able to receive an education, they marry later, produce incomes as entrepreneurs and are much stronger participants in their communities.

 Last month I was in Israel/Palestine West Bank meeting with a startup IT company, and a young woman was leading the presentation. She was outstanding — whip-smart technically, articulate and in command. Afterward at dinner I asked her what her parents thought of her ambition and being a co-founder of a startup. She told me, “My Dad supports me and is so happy for me to be starting in business, he wants me to fly. But none of my uncles agree, and my family doesn’t really want to talk to me … so I just … don’t go home.”

The next day I visited a technical university where I met with a large group of students, half men and half women. But the women are not even allowed to live on their own, so if they go to university they have to find a relative to take them into their house, or live in a communal setting with other women – and even then they are probably not allowed to live freely. So it is not easy for them to pursue a technical field, let alone become entrepreneurs who start their own businesses.

Contrast that with my own daughter, who this weekend was working on organic chemistry problems such as oxidizing alcohols. Like all kids, she has changed her dream job choice a few times, but has always been aiming for a career in science or technology. Around the dinner table we often discuss metabolic cycles of the body (such as Krebs), or trigonometry, or the time when she “taught” biology to other 9th graders at a school outside of Accra, Ghana, on a high school program. This is not some declaration of coolness about our family; this is to point out that it is 100 percent natural in our home for us to encourage our daughter to excel in a scientific or technical field.

I realize that I was lucky, too, to have a father who is a geologist and who supported me in every science fair I ever entered. Who read everything I ever wrote and was quite challenging to me — and who was the first to lend me $7,000 (U.S.) to start The Waggener Group (Waggener Edstrom Worldwide now), which I conceived as a firm that would tackle communicating technology and scientific innovation to the world. This is NOT to say I pursued a tech field, but I DID launch out as an entrepreneur precisely because I never dreamed I could not.

Girls must be encouraged to pursue technical fields, and they must be encouraged to become entrepreneurs. Take a look at this Lemelson-MIT survey that just came out. I love its conclusions. My favorite is that young women have the qualities needed for becoming inventors. This means we need to get more of them pursuing careers in science and technology fields.

But the hard part isn’t in recognizing the problem, but in determining what we as individuals and as an industry can do to help encourage more involvement by girls in tech and entrepreneurialism. I’ll share more of my thoughts on this in future blogs.

You Can’t Use a Cell Phone if You Can’t Read Numbers

Posted on January 31, 2011 by 3 Comments

Why do I get so bummed out when I can’t get a connection on either my phone or laptop?  Is this self-importance — everyone needs to hear from me now?  Is it anxiety that whatever I am thinking or experiencing at that moment will be LOST FOREVER to other people?  My Alaska Airlines flight to New York proclaimed in-flight Wi-Fi, which oddly made me jubilant getting on the plane, even with an earache. When it didn’t pan out after trying with three devices, I sort of got bummed out. Hey, I’m not the only one here: I remember a colleague of mine tweeting from another Alaska Airlines flight saying how thrilled she was to be tweeting from 35,000 feet.  By the way, did you know that Emirates lets you use your phone in the air, too?

There are times when connectivity truly betters lives although being connected on a plane may not be one.  I’ve just been in Ethiopia visiting @MercyCorps about projects I am involved in and spent a few days meeting with Tsigie Haile, the director of WISE, in Addis Ababa.  She talked of the differences cell phones have made for many of the women she is helping to start their own businesses marketing products from grains and spices to eucalyptus poles used for scaffolding and vegetables from small garden patches. 

Many people have written very well about the growing use of cell phones in impoverished countries: Nick Kristof on payment systems in Haiti, Bill Gates on application for healthcare, and I have seen it myself through my work with Mercy Corps.  This innovative and productive usage continues to multiply exponentially — the number of mobile subscriptions in the world passed 5 billion in 2010, with a 76 percent penetration rate globally, and the developing world has a disproportionate number, up from 53 percent of all subscriptions to 73 percent at the end of 2010 (according to the International Telecommunication Union).  There is real reason for us to be optimistic about the increase in social impact as well. 

One of the biggest obstacles in cell phone adoption is illiteracy.  If you can’t read the numbers, you can’t dial the phone.  And if you are using the phone for checking prices, you have to be able to read.  So for some of our programs in southern Ethiopia, we first must teach people to read. 

In addition to the livelihood and health aspects of this trend, there is an emerging social benefit for people of all ages who are now able to connect more.  Facebook is not at all prevalent yet in poor rural areas, as very few people have computers.  The computers they do have are old, and the Internet availability is not as ubiquitous. 

Last year when I was in Ethiopia, I spent time with Rebecca G. who at the time did not have Facebook, but six months ago she friended me.  I saw her again on this trip, and she told me that when she got Facebook it was the coolest thing in the world.  She made a list of people and started searching for them, including me.  She reads my Facebook for “news and knowledge” (her words) and she commented that she especially loves it when I link my tweets to Facebook (which I do about 10 percent of the time) because she gets news and ideas of what to read and follow.  We talked about what Facebook means to her.  It is a Big Deal — for instance, she has a friend who writes/sings beautiful music, and now it can be shared on Facebook.  (For the record, I very much enjoyed his music.)

I was visiting a school one woman had started with a loan from WISE.  I had been very impressed with the school on my last visit to Addis and wanted to see the school’s continued progress.  I wasn’t disappointed:  the school is flourishing, and there are now 140 students ages 3–12.  I saw many of the same children — their faces now a year older, but the smiles indelibly the same. They all had prepared songs for me, and then we talked about their favorite subjects — which, by the way, for the second graders is environmental science.

As I was leaving a young teacher walked out with me and said shyly, but with total certainty, “I’ll friend you on Facebook, and you’ll accept, right?”

She’s right; I will.

Unfettered Optimist

Posted on January 11, 2011 by 8 Comments

My New Year’s resolution is to Connect More. On a professional level this means not letting the size of Waggener Edstrom get in the way of truly connecting with our people around the world. First off, this implies an even greater logging of air miles because Face to Face is a key goal. By spending time in our offices around the world, as well as places where we don’t (yet) have an official presence, it enables me to share our vision for the future of communications most directly and effectively and, even more importantly, to hear from the variety of personalities, cultures and perspectives that you simply cannot fully appreciate if you remain stuck behind a desk.  In short, it helps make me a better CEO by providing a real, in-person means to learn, clarify, invent and unite with WE employees so they can do their best work with a clear understanding of what their efforts are building towards. Second, it implies a mastery of every tech tool that helps connect people from videoconferencing to the full range of social media. Last year I upped my use of Twitter; this year I’m starting my blog, which will reflect what I truly am, an Unfettered Optimist.

Unfettered: In September, I started a deliberate experiment as a full-time mobile worker and gave up my permanent office. The pictures of family and world travels, years’ worth of memorabilia and my comfy purple chair are all safely stored. By habit, when I go into my old space I stride quickly into the same location and promptly disturb the new tenants, who happen to be colleagues in our Social Innovation Practice. Because we are about to reinvent our Seattle-area office space AND expansion has put a real premium on space, my experiment is pragmatically well-timed.

At WE, we continue to build out our company globally. It is not easy, as any CEO will tell you, and while we are making good progress, there is much more we need to do. This global expansion combined with several new initiatives on top of the changing influence model and the growth in digital communications all add up to an age of continued evolution — no, transformation — for Waggener Edstrom.

All around me, inside our industry and broadly within business, governments and the social sectors, transformations are also occurring. I firmly believe that the key to successful transformation of any kind is Communications — that is, creating authentic, transparent, two-way engagement with colleagues, communities, even competitors, and of course friends and family. And there is simply NO WAY to do this by staying in one place; thus I am Unfettered.

Optimist: My dad says I can find inspiration under every rock; and over 100 people, both solicited and unsolicited used optimist to describe me. I just am. Specific to this time, though: I have never been more excited about the possibilities we all have to truly address world problems, with measurable success. People have never collectively been more focused. Everywhere you turn there is Social Innovation: innovation being applied to huge, intractable world problems in global health, global development and sustainability. Innovation in so many forms; innovative high-tech and low-tech products; new ideas; unconventional approaches; and innovative partnerships between groups that NEVER would have partnered before.

Most notably, individuals are stepping up and inventing what THEY can do, because everyone can make a difference. Last year, during the introduction of Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, I had dinner with Nick and he said certainly there is a role for those who have the resources to take innovation to SCALE, but another huge force in Social Innovation will be simply what individuals step up to do. I love that the stories of those individuals are being told with more frequency, by Nick and journalists, by organizations, and by the individuals themselves.

Five years ago if I had remarked that we are all connected, people might possibly have whispered how somewhat disconnected from business this concept of Global Interconnection might be. Nobody denies anymore that we are all interconnected and the big problems are Everyone’s Problems. So twice a month I will use my travels, and the time I get to spend with innovators, to share my own Unfettered Optimism, knowing full well that I must also remain rooted in realism.

And please take a look at my new blog’s archives; we have moved my previous posts on WE’s various blogs over here as well.

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