Design thinking will make your team more democratic

Originally posted on Medium 


We often talk about design thinking in terms of generating creative and user-centered insights and solutions. Less often do we talk about design thinking as a way to align and empower teams and individual contributors. Despite best intentions, teams can revert to hierarchies and groupthink, instead of enabling equal participation and representation of people and ideas around the table. Avoiding these traps is possible through thoughtful facilitation and setting of expectations.

Here’s three ways you can use design thinking to make your team more democratic. (more…)

Why the Human Factor Matters for Technology and Development



In April, I was invited to speak on a panel for the Digital Technologies and Development event at Columbia SIPA. Below is an edited version of my remarks. 

Since this panel is on “making digital technologies work for people and businesses,” I want to briefly discuss why we need to keep the human factor in mind when we think about making digital technologies work for everyone. To do this, I’ll share three examples focused on human-centered design in technology and civic innovation. (more…)

Why Millennials and Governments Must Prepare for the Industries of the Future Today (Forbes)


A few years ago, as a member of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, I had the opportunity to meet Alec Ross, a senior advisor on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A few days ago, he came out with a new book on the industries that will shape and drive the next economy. I interviewed Ross about the book, the challenges and opportunities individuals will face in gaining jobs in these new industries, and how governments can help us prepare for the future. You can read the interview and review of the book over on Forbes. 

Innovation is not Sexy


Innovation is hard work–much harder than the headlines will admit, and much more complicated than the colored post-its let on. While researching government innovation, I’ve had the opportunity to interview several leaders of innovation teams in cities across the country–and the conclusion from all their stories is clear: innovation is not sexy work. 

Innovation is at its best when it’s supported by data, research, and lots of outputs. It doesn’t happen overnight–it takes patience. While many exciting new start-ups disappoint, the companies and cities doing real innovation that leave us pleased as consumers and citizens are putting in the time and effort to build lasting innovations, sometimes in unnoticeable incremental changes. Sometimes the output is a great new app; other times, it’s changes to a boring process that makes a big difference.   

That’s not to say that innovation is not also exhilarating. But I’d argue that the best innovation isn’t sexy–it’s not a fun and quick creative brainstorming session followed by a perfect product that solves a problem. (more…)

We are the problem, and we create the change

What follows are very incomplete thoughts and reflections on some recent readings. I would love to hear your ideas and feedback. 

The world is a system made of systems, all inherently living–what Donella Meadows defines as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.”

As I’ve come to better understand systems thinking and social change at a cursory level, I’m realizing that change starts within each of us. As we are part of systems, we are part of the problem, and therefore we are also part of the change. That change begins when each of us realize that we create both sides of the equation.  (more…)

Inspired by letting go

We’re so often “inspired” by the latest social enterprise start-up, flashy idea, and rising stars, but I’m inspired by my friend and StartingBloc Fellow Jessica. Yesterday, I received a touching letter from Jessica letting me know that she is closing her non-profit of four years, Cheti. I’ve known about Jessica’s recent struggles with running Cheti and her incredibly difficult decision to close and let go of something she is so deeply passionate about.

Even more courageous than starting a venture like Cheti, it’s a brave and egoless decision to move on when it’s no longer having the intended impact or sustainability. And it’s thoughtful and important to share the difficult decision, successes, and failures, as Jessica has done with Cheti, and as others have for the Celebrating Failure series in SocialStory.

Being an entrepreneur is difficult. Failure is painful. Letting go is brave. 

Jessica allowed me to share her beautiful note about saying goodbye to Cheti below:


Why We Need to Fund and Build Leadership Capacity for Start-up Social Entrepreneurs (Huffington Post)

An article I wrote for the Huffington Post. Be sure to check out and contribute to the crowdfunding campaign for UnLtd USA

After spending a year voluntarily living in transitional housing for homeless and day laborers in Charleston, South Carolina, Derek Snook had an idea that could guide the homeless in his community towards self-sufficiency by creating a better model of a temporary employment agency. The only problem was that he didn’t have the resources or network to help him launch his idea. Working with a friend, they weren’t sure where to start. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We literally Googled how to start a non-profit temporary employment agency and nothing came up,” Derek explained. “We were two 23-year-old guys with an idea and a dream, and it was about not giving up.”

The challenges of social entrepreneurship were not lost on Derek, who started working on IES Labor Services in 2009. Four years later, he’s raised money, employed staff, hired over 50 workers daily, and added more than $100,000 to workers’ wages through the IES Hope Fund. While Derek was able to successfully build his non-profit, many aspiring social entrepreneurs fail to move beyond the critical initial idea phase.

Until recently, there has been a noticeable lack of support for start-up social entrepreneurs at the earliest stages. Now, several new initiatives, including Social Good Startup and UnLtd USA, are aiming to fill this gap by providing funding and mentorship while building leadership and business skills for aspiring social entrepreneurs.


Why do you give?

Tibetan Buddhist monk in red robes handing out...

At a recent potluck, the conversation turned to the issue of homelessness and how we can address it, as individuals and as a society. Someone remarked that they feel good if they give a homeless woman a dollar, and then they continue on with their day. THEY feel good.

The issue of homelessness and giving to homeless and beggars is complex, and I struggle constantly with deciding how to view and approach the issue–especially after growing up in Santa Cruz, which has always had a large homeless population, and being approached by beggars nearly daily in India. As I thought more about this issue, it seemed that everywhere I looked and read there were articles and videos discussing generosity and homelessness. I think it boils down to two concepts: why do we give and how do we treat others?  (more…)

Failure Fireside Potluck

Photo via Kevin Adler from a Fireside Potluck

A few weeks ago I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a Fireside Potluck, hosted by my StartingBloc friend and founder of inthis, Kevin Adler. The topic was one familiar to this blog–failure. (You may remember that Kevin participated in SocialStory’s Celebrating Failure series.)

With nearly 40 strangers cramped into a lovely San Francisco living room, we had a two-hour, open, honest, and insightful discussion on what failure means personally, professionally, and in society. Here are some highlights from our discussion:


Leverage The Failures Of The Past For Greatness In The Future – Steve Hardgrave (SocialStory)

Leverage The Failures Of The Past For Greatness In The Future – Steve Hardgrave (SocialStory)

The latest in my Celebrating Failure series for SocialStory

For this installment of SocialStory’s Celebrate Failure series, we spoke with Steve Hardgrave, a social entrepreneur who has worked in Mexico, the United States, and India.

Steve—who is now based in Bangalore, India—was previously the Founder and CEO of a microfinance organization that worked in a slum outside of Mexico City, Mexico.


Why You Should Go Out of Your Way to Find an Awesome Peer Mentor (Brazen Life)

An article I wrote about peer mentorship for Brazen Life

Imagine…You just had an invaluable meeting with one of your mentors. You feel really stuck at work, unsure whether to take that great promotion or follow your passion with the startup that asked you to join their team. Your mentor went through a similar dilemma, and their advice was fresh and honest.

Now, what if we told you that your mentor was not a senior leader in your field, a professor or your boss? Rather, your mentor was your peer—someone at the same level as you in their career. But, you ask, how can a peer be a mentor, and why would I even want a peer mentor?

Here are four reasons why you should have a peer mentor and some key steps to building a peer mentoring relationship that will last a lifetime:


Let’s Celebrate Failure (SocialStory)

Over at SocialStory, we’ve launched a series to discover social enterprise failures and lessons learned. Email us at failures@yourstory.in to participate. 

Every organization experiences failure. It’s inevitable.

Failure means something different to everyone, and it can be as small as a mismanaged project or as a large as shutting down your organization.

The goal is not to hide the failures, but to learn from them. What lessons can be drawn from the mistakes or circumstances that led to the failure? What preventive measures or changes can be implemented to avoid similar future failures? Learning from failures upon reflection and investigation is how organizations improve and innovate. As this article points out, we can even learn a lot from near-misses. It’s important to not only learn from your own failure, but to also learn from the failures of others. As Jean Case argues, “if everyone commits to sharing lessons from failure, the society as a whole will be stronger and more prepared to attack the next challenge.”


Lessons from SOCAP: It’s Time to Get Serious

I really appreciate the honesty in this post about the unspoken but prevalent issues in social enterprise today. 

One issue that is not explored enough is how to find the local entrepreneurs that nobody knows that are doing gamechanging work, without support or fancy titles.

“This results in seeking entrepreneurs within existing networks and therefore only exposing a very limited opportunity base. Investment deal flow will therefore be consistently limited, as we continually attract self-recognizable social entrepreneurs and individuals who fit a certain cultural box. Or, we will white wash it with a sub-standard entrepreneur to ensure the enterprise is racially or gender diverse. Meanwhile, no one has actively pulled up their sleeves and deeply penetrated new networks, associations, and cultures to truly source local winners.

We need to start finding real businesses, which might not be found through a business plan competition or pitch session, they might not culturally fit our educated, yet sophisticated backgrounds. But their potential for investment readiness, scale and impact are large.”

Another issue is that of impact accelerators and how to make them accountable and useful for social enterprises and deal flow. Daniel Epstein wrote a fantastic post on accelerators here that raises other important points that could apply to accelerators in the social space. 

“Unlike tech accelerators in Silicon Valley, impact accelerators are mostly non-profits. Most of them raise third party grants from donors, they are not necessarily incentivized to the success of the business, they are under capitalized and forced to rely on interns and under-qualified human capital to drive these businesses. It also seems that many impact investors are unwilling to have serious conversations with them and form long-term partnerships. 

Impact investors also raise grants for technical assistance, which often goes to expensive consultant resources incentivized to their day rate or short-term business development projects. 

Given the success of accelerators in Silicon Valley, there are some principles that could apply in the impact investing universe. Impact accelerators need to be incentivized to the success of the business and align their services to the needs of the entrepreneur. There is a potentially important role for impact accelerators to combine local in country deal sourcing services, intense investment readiness incubation, small amounts of catalytic capital and provide “qualified” deal flow downstream to impact investors. There might even be a space for accelerators to take on early stage deals and exit into impact investors.”

Lessons from SOCAP: It’s Time to Get Serious

Blinded by Expertise

I’m really interested in identifying the skills leaders of the future will need. This great SSIR article points to qualities that social change leaders need in the aggregation age we now live in. 

Our current leadership models are outdated. Today, we are living in the aggregation age. We have long since left the industrial age and have even moved through the information age. But our leadership models have not caught up.

The industrial age broke us into separate social systems—education, health, judicial, etc. The information age created experts who often had multiple degrees to prove it. Together, we’ve created sector specialists who argue that if only the social sector got more funding, it could change the world.

The challenge of treating social problems as distinct areas that require distinct expertise is that our world does not operate like a machine—it is an ecosystem in which everything is connected.

Facebook and iTunes are good metaphors for leadership in the aggregation age: They facilitate access to the kind of information we need when we need it.

Successful social change leaders in the aggregation age require six qualities:

  1. Translation—the ability to translate across sectors
  2. Jack-of-all-trades expertise—cross-sector knowledge
  3. Respect—an understanding that all sectors have a role to play in change
  4. Empathy—the ability to sit in the mindset of each sector
  5. Facilitation—the ability to create collaborative solutions
  6. Big picture thinking—the ability to see and describe “the elephant”

Blinded by Expertise