September 19, 2013
TEDxUNPlaza: 3 Women on Empowerment & Trusting In Yourself
I was involved in the first ever TEDxUNPlaza event this week in New York City, a full day TEDx event focused on the theme BRAVE with 24 speakers who inspired over 300 people at the United Nations Building.
Considering how many conferences and events I've been to over the years where there have been so few women on the main stage or on panel discussions, it was refreshing to see the very first session of the day focus on women empowerment.
While two fabulous men were also in this session: Steven Rogers, a professor at Harvard Business School and Dr. James Doty, the founder and director of the Center for Compasion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, this post focuses on the three awe-inspiring women who moved me with their passion, commitment and perserverance this week.
New age yogini Deepika Mehta, writer and animator Brenda Chapman and healthy living educator Sarah Hillware rocked the TEDxUNPlaza stage Monday morning.
Deepika Mehta faced a severe emotional challenge when she was told she may never walk again. Today, she speaks from a place of gratitude now that she is not only walking again, but entertains people with her dancing and yoga movements.
She has also trained with some of the top Indian film stars and is one of the youngest instructors to teach at one of the most celebrated Yoga festivals in the world, The International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram.
Brenda Chapman is another great model for resilience who credits her mother for giving her the courage to be where she is today. She says that young girls are trained to be passive and reactive whereas young boys are trained to be proactive. While that may be less the case today than it was twenty or more years ago, old habits are still engrained.
Role models can teach resilience she asserts. And, she says, "they can be family members, teachers, role models...they can be women, they can be men, they can be you."
Brenda has always had a passion for storytelling and movie making and ever since she was a little girl, her dream was to work at Disney. Not only did she achieve her dream, but she became the first woman to direct an animated feature for DreamWorlds Animation's The Prince of Egypt and more recently directed the Pixar film, Brave, the very theme of this TEDx event.
Like Sarah Hillware would echo later on in the session, Brenda talked about the importance of girls having role models, even if they're distant ones. She also reminded us that it's not just about the successes that result from what we learn from those role models, but failures as well. "Failures are just as important as our successes," she says.
"Inspiring by example is a key way you can pass along your inspiration," she adds. "If you can look into a little girl's eyes and let her know that you believe in her, you might just transform her life."
So true, I reflected as I thought about a few people who did that for me when I was 5, 10 and later as a teenager. Was there someone who inspired and encouraged you along the way?
My Take Away: maybe the nieces, daughters and cousins in our lives won't have to fight some of the same battles we had to fight, but there will be battles and stepping up to be a mentor can make all the difference.
Sarah Hillware started her talk with the same tone, as if she was picking up the thread from Brenda's important messages but extending the importance of mentorship to education and health awareness, which is both her strength and her passion.
Says Sarah, "when you educate a boy, you educate a person. When you educate a girl, you educate a family and a community."
Her background in health and educational systems and as founder of Girls Health Ed, she asserts that health education isn't just about physical health, its about inside out wellness. She asks: how do we translate these ideas and the energy that we have into concrete action?
Perhaps having a community base in adolescent health in schools is a key ingredient to getting things moving.
Some of her stats back this up, including the direct correlation between health, particularly mental health and school attendance. Based on her work's outcome, she focuses on three core goals: Positive Development, Individual Goal Setting and Community Inclusion.
In order for these goals to be achieveable, she believes that all interventions need to be relevant to the individual and the community depending on the challenges they face every day. For example, in the western world, standardizing a course on body image in our schools would greatly benefit women. In the developing world, a course on menstruation and menstruation management would be more relevant and therefore more beneficial.
Sarah ends with encouraging people to get behind programs and behind girls we can help in our own lives, thinking from a proactive not a reactive place. She also strongly believes we need to redirect research towards prevention. Hear hear Sarah. We couldn't agree more!
All photo credits: Renee Blodgett.
May 26, 2013
Embracing & Owning Your Imperfections Opens More Doors, Not Less...
People who know me well know that I'm a sucker for a new read. As long as there's not six other books in queue or the recommended book is so uncompelling I can't get through it, it's mine for the taking. When I was beating up on myself recently, a friend recommended I look into the work of Brene Brown.
I started with her TED talk and then moved to her book: The Gifts of Imperfection -- oh such a compelling title in a country that deems itself more perfect than any other. Some may call it a personal self help book, and while aspects of that may be true, the category has gotten such a bad rap lately that I'd prefer to call content what it is designed to do: help you get from A to B through whatever wisdom the author shares through their vantage point and skillset. If that's self help, fine.
Is it self help when you need to learn a specific management skill and an expert who has the wisdom shares it through a book to get you unstuck? We look down upon wisdom that might help elevate ourselves and our sense of humanity but praise things that help our skills and ability to accomplish and succeed. You get my point.
Frankly if you dive deep enough into most things we do of "external value," there's always an underlining emotional issue that gets in the way. Take money. While clearly there's a skillset in trading, investing and allotting the right money to the right buckets, selling too quickly or making the wrong decision often comes from a place of emotional fear rather than following a code of what works and what doesn't. The best guys on Wall Street keep their emotions out of it but not all of us can. The same applies to raising kids, keeping a marriage together, staying healthy or running a company.
While most of Brown's references are personal ones, the gift that this "read" gave me was largely professional. Here's why. While clearly we all have moments where we're afraid to be honest with ourselves and others, throwing our vulnerabilities out there with a friend or group of friends tends to be easier, at least for me. I'm more likely to lift the shield in a personal environment than in a professional one. The former can expel me from their group while the latter can fire me, impact my revenue, reputation and most importantly, self esteem.
When I read that Brown was a "shame researcher," my immediate reaction was: how much is there to research about shame? Really? It's so specific that I couldn't imagine a professor dedicating her entire career to something that specific and yet, there are professors who dedicate themselves to ants and write lengthy scientific papers on the latest Melanesian ant fauna which end up as a TED talk, so why not?
Little did I know. Shame is not as specific as you might think. Through reading her book and doing some additional digging on my own, I can see how prolific it is in our lives, weaving its way into all aspects, from how we interact with family, peers, and loved ones to the person who hands us our double latte in the morning.
To deny that "shame" shows up in my personal life would be to deny being human, for we've all experienced it, however the piece which most resonated with me is how it awkwardly plays into professional relationships and dynamics, a place that doesn't use the word "shame."
Getting beyond it requires courage and compassion daily in order to live what she refers to as a wholehearted life. It requires practice. Malcolm Gladwell said it best in his 10,000 rule analogy. How can you ever ace something you don't spend time practicing over and over and over again? The same applies to our personal lives. In other words, proactively practicing courage, compassion, connection and empathy is how we ultimately cultivate worthiness.
Time and time again, I have witnessed people not asking for what they're worth and "owning it" while they're at it. I've been there - we all have. Given that PR in general is often perceived as being useless, provides little or no value and can't be measured, I find that many practitioners and consultants undersell themselves or charge on a transaction basis to bring the cost down in order to get the business. It's an act of desperation when you do this - it not only commoditizes our business and our value but delivers an "action" rather than the "value of that action."
Women often have a harder time feeling worthiness and the moment we attempt to prove our worthiness is the moment we've lost the game. Often, we feel as if we have to prove ourselves particularly when a CEO or worse, a COO suggests that what we do didn't move the needle today. The problem at least in my industry, is that branding, communications and marketing doesn't move a needle in a day, or a week or even a month, although sometimes it can. It's a process, just like building relationships is a process. We cannot and must not ever measure our worthiness based on that formula and model.
Because of the nature of my industry, it's even easier to undercut our worthiness than say a doctor, who performs a surgery and suddenly a limb is working again. At the heart of what we do as communications pros is storytelling. Aren't the best stories the ones which are authentic, intimate and vulnerable at their core?
I often feel that when I begin to go there with a client, fear gets in the way...not just on my side but on the client's side as well. The more I rely on emotion, intuition and creativity which is the essence of what makes me thrive at what I do, the more the client throws up roadblocks or devalues the deed because it's so untangible. Beauty, art and yes, even moving the needle often comes from untangible.
Is a brand that you buy again and again always tangible? Sometimes it is (it's faster, more durable) but more often, it's a feeling you have about the brand that brings you back again and again. This feeling is the result of years of storytelling and messaging, not six month's worth. And, consistency is key.
One of our inherent gifts as professionals is that we excel at not just creating that story, but delivering it consistently again and again. It's an art and our clients need to understand that it's an art, not a science. Own that art and you own your worthiness. We shouldn't have to 'sell or prove our worthiness' again and again as if somehow showing a stat suddenly proves that our "art" is worthy.
Brown talks about owning our story and I'd ask you to think about how what she says here shows up or doesn't show up in the workplace. Where she refers to love, belonging and joy, replace the words with self respect, connection and courage.
She writes: "Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging and joy -- the experiences that makes us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light."
She also quotes Pema Chodron, a Buddhist writer who is one of my favorite authors. "In cultivating compassion, we draw from the wholeness of our experience: our suffering, our empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be this way. Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounder - it's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."
Hear hear Pema.
Here's another little bit of wisdom for those who have a hard time with imperfection and asking for help. Depending on what circles you travel in, some have a tight network (let's not forget the old school boy network, which yes, does still exist, especially in Washington), they rely on and often, they don't even have to 'ask' for help. It shows up just because they're part of that network. Others have different networks who help them out from time-to-time and others try to do it themselves...all the time: parenting, managing, creating, producing and running with very little delegating along the way.
Asking for help is hard when we are conditioned to strive for perfection, even if its something we disguise as perfect. From that place, we often feel that if we ask for help, we're indebted to someone and that lays over us like a negative card. Within the confines of that negative card, it's as if we're always trying to figure out how to repay for that help, even if the help wasn't a financial one.
This is how it shows up in many of our lives. While the following statement may sound counter-intuitive, it's true and she's right. Brown writes, "until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."
This is also true: "Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us....because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance."
While I know many a narcissist in my business circles and on the flip side, others who have gone through the hard journey to get to self-acceptance, many of us still struggle with pieces of it from time-to-time. When that piece shows up in our professional lives, we second guess our decisions when our intuition tells us its the right one or we don't ask for what we're worth because a client widdles us down or leads us to believe our value isn't worth a specific amount.
Suddenly we're in a place of proving that we matter when we matter for just showing up and sharing the gifts we can deliver better than that client or possibly anyone else. Bottom line, we should be paid well for it: the value of it, not the task of it even if some of that value can't be measured right away. I know people who have gone to psychologists for ten years - does the value of their work show up after a visit or does it take time to get results? What about a tennis coach? Does the value of a dentist's work show up after one time or let's put it another way, how would your teeth look and feel if you didn't have those bi-annual check ups and cleans?
Value shows up over time and if you believe in yourself, your client needs to believe in your value too or don't work with them. Walk away. I mean it - walk away. It's the biggest gift you can give yourself. When one door closes, another one opens. And if you're feeling fearful about that statement, think about Helen Keller's fabulous quote: "when one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we don't see the one opening before us."
Live from a place of true worthiness, self-respect and authentic living and as Brown puts it, a wholehearted life and things will blow open for you. While it may not happen overnight, it will happen as long as you trust in the process. As an old wise monk said to me on a hike in Nepal many years ago, Patience, grasshopper, patience.
Photo Credits: Original Impulse. Andrew S. Gibson. Tiny Buddha. Jenny's Endeavors.
May 26, 2013 in America The Free, Books, On People & Life, On Poems, Literature & Stuff, On Spirituality, On Women, PR & Marketing, Reflections, Social Media, WBTW | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
May 17, 2013
5 Important Issues From 5 TEDxBerkeley Speakers: Help Us Pave the Way
As a co-curator of a TEDx event, you have a joyful honor of bringing important issues you want to see brought to the table...to the table, or in this case, a TEDx stage. Having been involved in the curation process at TEDxBerkeley for a few years now, there are speakers and writers I've met along the way who have haunted me -- positively and negatively -- the latter often provacative enough that regardless of whether it's a pretty story, you know the story must be told.
Personal issues that keep me awake at night include the ugly embrace of processed food, climate change & the implications for wildlife and the world, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, our sad state of healthcare and education, and women's inequalities. There are countless others, but there's only so much that can absorb my already noisy back channel at any given time.
At TEDxBerkeley this year, we were able to bring some of those conversations to attendees.
I have always wanted Robert Neuwirth to speak at TEDxBerkeley ever since I first heard him speak at PopTech a few years ago. He is best known for his work with squatter communities and poverty. He wrote Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, a book describing his experiences living in squatter communities in Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul and Mumbai.
He brings us on a journey to West Africa and how locals came up with a creative way to source their own energy when the government couldn't.
Lagos residents use energy conservation. In his time in Lagos, he saw people get their water in large canisters not from fresh water sources or private wells. The Lagos government claims that it provides safe drinking water in sufficient quantities to its people, according to a newspaper he read on his way out of the country and yet, its far from reality. There is no real functioning water system in Lagos and other things are not efficient either. Apparently they waste N1.5 billion by leaving their computers on standby.
Kim Polese was the opening speaker for this year's theme of Catalyzing Change. In alignment with the theme, she addressed the communications gap between education providers and students. Students don't know what courses to take so they can succeed in the 21st century.
Our challenge is to preserve the excellence and transform old curriculum she says. "We face a new crisis, the skills gap, which is a crisis which is affecting everyone so we need a revolution in the teaching model, a few of which are MOOC (massive online open courses) and passive versus active participants in online open courses (small online classes) in SPOCS, Small Private Online Classes.
The revolution is not about cutting costs, it's about this new transformational learning model that is more engaged and also it allows for mass distribution to more people. Only 50% of undergraduates receive a degree in six years. Moreso than that, 55% of students need remediation.
The typical student attends multiple universities, which equates to lost dollars and time because so much of the credits don't transfer over. Often, a student takes "on average" over a year of credits they wouldn't need to take.
One idea: What if we offered and made those transfer of those credits seamless? Think about what Visa did to revolutionize the credit business, by swiping a card and it just works. If we standardize undergraduate classes so the credits can be applied as seamlessly as a Visa card is used today to pay for products and services.
The STEM gap (science, technology, engineering and math) aka rouhgly 33% of students who just felt that they weren't prepared enough is widening......in the U.S., we lag behind most developed countries.
Five out of every new jobs will be in STEM related jobs in the next decade and yet we're lagging behind countries like Singapore, France and other developing countries. If we just focused on increasing the number of STEM graduates by 10% can produce 75,000 more STEM graduates by the end of the decade, which is close to what Obama's goal is for higher education.
Women are turning away from computing, the percentage at its all time high was 34% and now its down to below 15%. The first programmers were women. During World War II, the army recruited a group of women out of the University of Pennsylvania to calculate bolistic trojectories and they called these computers women. She refers to the work of TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra.
Known for his work in education research, Sugata Mitra won $1 million TED Prize to build his School in the Cloud.
Many who keeps tabs on education will know him for his project called “Hole in the Wall”, an experiment he conducted in 1999, where Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall near an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected PC and walked away.
Over time, while a hidden camera filmed the area, the video showed children from the slum playing around with the computer and in the process, teaching themselves now only how to use it themselves, but sharing that knowledge with their friends.
His goal is lofty – he invited the world to embrace child-driven learning by setting up something he refers to as Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs). He asked for help designing a learning lab in India, where children can “embark on intellectual adventures.”
Second in the session was Eden Full who is the Founder of Roseicollis Technologies Inc. She studied for two years at Princeton University and is currently taking gap years to work on her start-up full time after being selected for the inaugural class of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship. Named one of the 30 under 30 in Forbes’ Energy category two years in a row and Ashoka’s Youth Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Eden founded Roseicollis Technologies Inc. to take her solar panel tracking invention called the SunSaluter to developing communities and established markets that need them.
The SunSaluter won the Mashable/UN Foundation Startups for Social Good Challenge and was awarded the runner-up prize at the 2011 Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. While at Princeton, Eden initiated and curated TEDxPrincetonU. Proudly Canadian, she was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. After coxing for the Princeton lightweight women’s team, Eden was selected to be the coxswain for the 2012 Rowing Canada’s senior women’s development team, where they won a gold medal at Holland Beker and the Remenham Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta, beating the German Olympic boat.
She shared her story about her patent-pending solar invention called SunSaluter which she has been using in East Africa. Provided extra electricity every day for one 60W panel to charge, plus not just the benefit of getting extra water but clean to people every day. She tested it out in a polit in Nyakasimbi Tanzania and thereafter with a partner in Kirindi Uganda. The goal is deploy 200+ units to 15,000+ villagers.
Curt L. Tofteland is the founder of the internationally acclaimed Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) program. During his 18 years of work with Shakespeare in corrections, he facilitated the SBB/KY program at the Luther Lucket Correctional Complex, producing and directing 14 Shakespeare Productions.
"It is within the silence that we discover the absence of self," he said to TEDxBerkeley audience, as he opened with lines from Shakespeare. "We arrive in this world, naked and alone and we leave this world, naked and alone; we take with us our memories and we leave behind our deeds," he says reading a story that addressed life issues such as dealing with truth and ego.
May 17, 2013 in America The Free, Client Announcements, Conference Highlights, Events, On Education, On Health, On Innovation, On Politics, On Science, On Technology, On the Future, On Women, TravelingGeeks | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
April 03, 2013
Kundera's Immortality: A Person is Nothing But His Image, But a Woman is Nothing But Her Truth
I just finished yet another Milan Kundera novel: Immortality. He is, as always intense. I happen to be one of his fans, one who patiently understands the flow of his meandering style, knowing the poetic philosopher in him who needs us to read each and every line.
It's as if I'm in his head when I really listen to his meanders, and can even sense where and how he is sitting as he writes a passage, can feel the women he has known and not known and all the intricate details which make up his life, or least the bit which give it meaning.
The first meander centered around image and the premise was that a person is nothing but his image. "Philosophers can tell us that it doesn't matter what they world thinks of us, that nothing matters but what we really are. But philosophers don't understand anything. As long as we live with other people, we are only what other people consider us to be. Thinking about how others see us and trying to make our image as attractive as possible is considered a kind of dissembling or cheating." (I'd add, dying).But does there exist another kind of direct contact between my self and their selves except through the mediation of the eyes? Can we possibly imagine love without anxiously following our image in the mind of the beloved? When we are no longer interested in how we are seen by the person we love, it means we no longer love."
I thought about a kind of love which isn't whole, one which leaves behind fragments...mere fragments, as if flashes in time like two ships passing in the night, a long weary night. Or the kind of love that leaves behind the violent yet exciting sound of a thunderbolt on a stormy night, one which will never be repeated in precisely the same way again.
These are loves we never fully understand just as Kundera's characters never fully understand theirs. As humans, we ache to understand love and what went wrong in love. We grasp for that understanding and repeat the story in our heads as if its a mathmatical equation we must analyze, even if only in our mind's eye. In that analysis, which we continue to play over and over again like a broken record, we must have an answer, a truth of some kind, for surely it can't possibly just be about an image, of an image...hers, his, your own.
We look for the truth amidst that analysis as a way to better understand ourselves and perhaps to better understand humanity; in that understanding, we think we will find a love which is whole, the kind that is rich in color and texture and full of so much vitality and connection, there is no space for fragments.
If we speak of image and of love, we must of course speak of and to the feminine voice, which brings me to my second favorite meander. It couldn't be a Kundera novel without women, who are brought in as almost subcategories into bigger themes of existence, like Chance, the Dial of Life, Image and of course Immortality itself.
From painters Rubens and Goethe to author Hemingway and a radio host, lawyer and professor in Paris, we hear about their desire of women, their inability to escape from women and their adventures with women.
He asks, isn't the story of Ruben's life nothing but a story of physical love? For the artist who looked at women as "life itself?" We hear from Rubens as Kundera's character, an acute observation when one day he can't remember anything substantial about any of the women he bedded. The details, their names, their parents, their childhood, any anecdote other than a flash of an instance.
Rather than continue to conquer a future of a string of women, he decides to revert to the past, as told to him by the hand on the dial (of life), of which Kundera dedicates an entire chapter to.
Rubens reflects, "but how is one to be obsessed with the past when one sees it only a desert over which the wind blows a few fragments of memories?" He decides that yes, one can in fact be obsessed even with a few fragments.
But then, Rubens discovered a peculiar thing. In those fragments, they are not moving. In other words, memory does not make films, it makes photographs. What he recalled at most were a few mental photographs. He didn't recall their coherent motions, but only short gestures, but only in the rigidy of a single second."
One day, a lover he saw over many years decides not to see him again, an incident he he becomes fixated on trying to understand, certain that something must be wrong, something he could somehow resolve. Then, he thinks of an Australian woman he decided never to see again and she too, was rejected for reasons she couldn't understand. He wonders if he can understand them himself.
Throughout our lives, don't we all have stories or chapters of stories which have ended yet we didn't understand the reasons why? Maybe later, at some future time, we begin to understand those reasons and other times, we don't and perhaps never will. Time marches forward, each of us never understanding why her or his story ended with yet another person, another association, another encounter.
He quotes Aragon's "Woman is the future of man." One of the main male characters in the book explains what he thinks Aragon must have meant.
"This means," he says, "that the world that was once formed in man's image will now be transformed into the image of woman. The more technical and mechanical, cold and metallic it becomes, the more it will need the kind of warmth that only a woman can give it. If we want to save the world, we must adapt to the woman, let ourselves be led by the woman, let ourselves be penetrated by the Ewigweibliche, the eternally feminine!"
Later he goes on to say: "Either woman will become man's future or mankind will perish, because only woman is capable of nourishing within her an unsubstantiated hope and inviting us to a doubtful future, which we would have long ceased to believe in were it not for women. All my life, I've been willing to follow their voice, even though that voice is mad. But nothing is more beautiful than when someone who isn't mad goes into the unknown, led by a mad voice....The eternal feminine draws us in."
It reminded me of how important it is for us as women to go to our source of strength through that eternal feminine, each and every time we need an answer...the real truth.
It is that source that will guide us out of muddy complicated waters which are led by masculine ego, give us the power to say no when the world forces us to say yes, provide us with the clarity when it is being fogged up by mindless chatter aimed at sinking the very core of who we are and most importantly, ensuring we return to a place of authenticity, love and purpose so we won't look back years from now as we pass along meaning to a child and not be able to say: I embraced and lived a true life.
Yes. To be able to say I lived a true life, one which I painted on a bright white clean canvas, one which was virgin before I myself lay down the paint brush.
To be able to say I decided what was me and what wasn't me and along the way, returned to that eternal feminine strength for the truth. In this truth, I'd be my own character and not a facade of another in a novel I didn't write, nor would I dance to another's drums I didn't subscribe to or respect.
Oh, such a noble way to live, I can hear my great grandmother saying. And yet, it has less to do with noble, and more to do with truth. Men have this instinct too, even if it shows up with a different voice, a louder thunder and in an external embrace.
When we become lost, which will happen often on this long life journey, we mustn't forget our truth, that for which we will accept and not accept as a definition of who we are. We must never ever forget that.
It's ironic that Kundera weaves Goethe in and out of his chapters because just then, at the moment I had turned the corner of the final page of the book, I thought about a quote that I return to often for a source of strength, one which rests on the front page of this blog and has since the very beginning. As I thought of the source of the quote, my heart began to race....it is nothing shy of a quote by Goethe himself...Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It may be only ten words of Johann's wisdom, but they are ten very powerful words: Just trust yourself, then you will know how to live.
Photo credits: hplusmagazine.com, templeton.org & artmarketblog.
March 04, 2013
TedActive Write-Up in Upstart Business Journal
What can an entrepreneur get out of TED or TEDActive, where today the lineup includes everyone from a yo-yo champion to a punk, burlesque singer to SpaceX and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk?
I was interviewed by Upstart Business Journal's Teresa Novellino over lunch one day about my experience at TEDActive last week, my first 'Active' event after attending many TED's over the years and a growing number of TEDx events around the globe. Here's a link to her story. Below, I am hanging with TEDx Bordeaux organizer Emmanuelle Roques. Yes, Bordeaux France, the place where fabulous wine comes from and let's just say I'm a fan.
BTW, I spoke to a number of French entrepreneurs, academics and geeks at the event, as well as people from nearly every continent. It's one of the things I really loved about the TEDActive experience: it was incredibly international with over 72 countries represented this year.
Photo credit: Teresa Novellino.
September 30, 2012
MIT's Jodie Wu, an Inspiration & Force Behind Change in Tanzania
Enough people know I love Africa and the fact that I have spent time there and lived there.
Combine these known facts with her entrepreneur and technology work and it makes sense that we'd have a lot to talk about.
I also love meeting women CEOs who are an inspiration to be around and in the midst of all this background, did I mention that she's only 25?
She was a speaker this September at the event, the second year I made my way across country to Louisville Kentucky to meet interesting people who are help shaping the world.
Her company Global Cycle Solutions is a social enterprise developing bicycle attachments that improve the lives of smallholder farmers. In May 2009, as an undergraduate in mechanical engineering at MIT, she led her team to win the MIT 100K Business Plan Competition, and in August 2009, she moved to Arusha, Tanzania, to launch her company.
Her vision is to end "cycled poverty." I had an opportunity to spend time with her before and after her talk. She says, "so much money is going into foreign aid and it's not being spent effectively. The typical person just needs tools and investment in their education. If they buy it, they need it, if they don’t buy it, then it isn’t good enough.
Fair enough. Even if the technology is advanced and might work in the U.S. or Europe, if Africans don't buy the product, then it means its not solving real needs they have every day.
In Tanzania, Bernard their inventor, is creating water pumps, grinders and pedals and working on designing a better bike for Africa.
Her favorite product they're working on right now is the solar lantern. She says with a smile, "it actually bounces like a ball but it doesn’t break. The most significant thing about the light right away is that when people use it, their productivity goes up right away. People can charge their phones at their houses rather than them having to walk five kilometers just to charge their phone, which is what people are doing today."
When she was asked by someone from the audience about how they decided on price, she said that narrowing down the "right price" was difficult, because it depends on their harvest and the timing of it. In other words, $50 is not a lot but they may not have the money to buy it until their harvest comes in. They are testing the pay per use model and when they have all the money, they can opt to buy their own.
Not a boat load of MIT graduates take off for Africa to start a company. Why Tanzania? She says she asked herself after graduation, “is it really going to make me happy working to make a larger corporation richer? What I love about working in Africa, you can see the impact of your engineering immediately – there’s an immediate satisfaction."
Having lived in Africa myself, I resonate with her sense of satisfaction and the immediate reward. I also remembered such a stronger sense of gratitude and appreciation than we have in the west.
On lessons learned? The best advice she received from one of her MIT mentors was “Just do it.” She also learned that change doesn’t happen instantaneously. She thought she’d be in Tanzania for two years and then move onto other countries, but she learned that two years wasn’t realistic at all. Jodie thought that they'd break even in two years, but they’ve been there for four years and she thinks she probably has another two years before she can move her projects into other African markets.
Other great advice she received along the way is one that everyone can learn from: “if any one task is taking more than 20% of your time, delegate and outsource it.” I laughed out loud when she talked about experiences hiring: “if I don’t love you during the interview process and want to go to lunch with you next week, then I won’t love working with you.” It's so true and yet sometimes we are blinded in the interviewing process because we think of skills more than we think of synergy, at least right away.
Jodie apparently pays all of her employees through her phone. She sees so many opportunities in that area and countries like Tanzania are miles ahead. “LEDs are becoming so efficient and that could change things dramatically for Tanzania and other parts of Africa. Remember that 90% of the population is off the grid,” says Jodie.
They’ve set up a group of village ambassadors who have become their evangelists. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of a virtual sales force but it’s organic...the way it should be.
Jodie is an inspiration and it's great to see her MIT education and knowledge pouring into an eastern African country that needs it so much.
September 01, 2012
Support "Founders Less Than Three:" Funny, Sexy Novel About Startups
The author? Boston-based Halley Suitt Tucker who doesn't think that there are enough entrepreneurs starting companies and creating jobs. Especially women entrepreneurs.
The novel is a funny, sexy story about a Boston-based accelerator where female and male founders and their teams fight it out to make their start-up company the next big thing.
It's a book with solid entrepreneurial advice, adventures, laughs, love and all the twists and turns starting a business involves, as they race towards their demo day, when the teams show off their start-up ideas and see who gets the best deal.
Halley says, "I especially want more women to become entrepreneurs because I think they are well suited to the unpredictable path a new business usually takes and I want people to learn the lessons of entrepreneuring via a novel, not a business book, and not a textbook."
Her book aims to inspire female and male entrepreneurs alike and make them all say, "I can do that!"
Help make her book a reality through Kickstarter. Any pledge that you make will contribute towards an editor, a proofreader, a book cover designer and as well as create a small budget for book promotion when the book is launched. $15,000 is her goal however even a pledge of $1.00 will get you a preview copy of the book in digital format as soon as it's done.
How cool is this? Some of the pledge levels let YOU write part of her book whereby you can create a fictional start-up, write their elevator pitch and give birth to an imaginary CEO. A pledge level above the imaginary company level is all about REAL start-ups, meaning, she'll mention your actual start-up company in her book and your CEO. As she says with humor, "My character will drink your soda."
August 06, 2012
The Geek 'Fashion' Culture of Silicon Valley Hurts My Eyes
When I first moved to Silicon Valley, I found myself overdressed most of the time, and my New England meets Europe and New York style of dressing just didn't float well with the very youthful techies who showed up to parties in torn jeans, t-shirts and sneakers.
While I fought it at first, I have always taken a 'become your target audience' approach to marketing and PR and since that's my biz, I turned geek for awhile.
After a year or so, I found myself dressing down nearly all the time, even at industry events. I'd wear sleeveless shirts, jeans and sweater wraps which was probably a tad too young for me but then again I was surrounded by engineers who were barely out of puberty. It was about as 'down' as I could dress and still look at myself in the mirror.
Dressing 'down' may have made me assimilate a bit better into geek culture, which was a culture I needed to wrap my head around, but it never made me 'feel good.' I always felt that 'dressing down' was 'dumbing down' who I was even though we only have to look at how many of the geek powerhouses dress who are running fat multi-million companies to know that they don't go hand-in-hand.
That said, dressing 'up' makes me feel 'up', behave 'up' and think 'up,' most of the time. It doesn't mean that I don't get brilliant ideas at 3 in the morning when I'm at my computer in shorts and a t-shirt, because that happens often. Or in the shower, like it does for most of us, when our brain has a few moments to get away from the always-on overcharged place it has been operating for hours at a time.
Those who are close to me know that the fashion sense or lack thereof in Silicon Valley makes me crazy and is one of the things I hate about living here. I miss the fashion sense and energy of New York and most of Europe. And, even though Boston was far too conservative for my taste, at least women wore dresses, jackets and jewelry that you marveled at from time-to-time or wanted to touch. New England men may not win any top prizes for fashion, but they know how to throw on a well-cut jacket and the right shoes for an occasion when they need to.
Many women are tactile, we love touching and that doesn't just mean our significant other, it means materials too. The first thing I do when I'm in a shop and see something I like is walk up to it to 'feel' the material so I'd know immediately whether I'd 'feel' great wearing it.
I remember being at an opera once with my ex and we were in the second row. He was an opera guru and could never understand why I had to sit so close to the front of the stage. When the lead opera star came out wearing a vibrant eggplant Asian silk dress with a mustard and turquoise sash that was so decadently beautiful I nearly cried, I informed him that I was close enough to nearly feel what it was must have felt like on. You don't get that from the balcony or even from the 20th row.
When I first started blogging and was part of the early blogging trendsetters, there weren't many women in the scene, so the fashion culture of those RSS-education days was sadly lacking. In the early BlogHer years, when it was all bloggers and no brands, the style was eclectic and all over the map, but one thing that was consistent was the use of vibrant colors. See my photo blog post from 2005 that showed some of the styles of women bloggers at the time and my 2007 post when Project Runway designer Chloe Dao inspired female bloggers to cut up materials and create their own designer t-shirt in a variety of bright, fun colors.
That 'offering' couldn't have been more enticing for someone like me who craves a whole lotta art, fashion, style, craft and creativity in my life. I don't get enough of great art, design and fashion in the start-up world although frankly if there were more women founders, then perhaps we'd have more creative 'offerings' for the world to play with and the UIs would look like a mixture of Vogue and Apple rather than Evernote and Delicious.
The New York Times just ran a piece entitled "Techies Break a Fashion Taboo" and with a title like that, how can you not be drawn in? As they rightfully point out, "Silicon Valley has long been known for semiconductors and social networks, not stilettos and socialites. But in a place where the most highly prized style is to appear to ignore style altogether and the hottest accessory is the newest phone, a growing group of women is bucking convention not only by being women in a male-dominated industry, but also by unabashedly embracing fashion."
Ahhh, beautiful MUSIC TO MY EARS. I'm thinking, breathing and saying all at the same time: GO GIRLS! How can I help?
I had an idea awhile back about throwing a Geek Fashion Show, a bit in 'New York runway' format in someone's home. The idea is that geeks would be forced into fabulous designer clothes, women would whistle and ooh and ahh, and perhaps a little female attention might turn things around.
Somehow I think that if the woman didn't have a device dangling from her body he could play with, she may not be that interesting to him. Okay, I'm being harsh here, but as someone who has been in the Bay Area for 7 years now, I feel less feminine in San Francisco and Silicon Valley than I've felt anywhere else I've lived (and that's 10 countries and 5 states folks).
This energy comes from increased polarity between sexes (or masculine and feminine energies if the same sex). The stronger the polarity, the stronger the chemistry. Polarity is when a woman assumes her femininity in a relationship and a man assumes his masculinity. Since I moved west, I feel as if everyone and everything is equal, everyone and everything is a community, everything and everyone are partners and there's no difference in energy when I'm talking to a man or a woman. There are plenty of people who will disagree with me but I wonder if those who will have ever lived in South America, Italy, the South, Paris or the Caribbean. And god no, I'm not advocating for a return to a 1940s housewife culture, and if you think I am, then you're missing the point.
Polarity plays into dress and fashion too. What I find attractive in a man (clothing, walk, voice) is not necessarily what three of my closest girlfriends will find attractive, but when we dig into attraction at its deepest level in our conversations, what rises to the surface is that "Je ne sais quoi" that creates that feeling of 'want and desire' -- a polar opposite reaction if you like, the trigger that makes a woman feel like a woman around him. When that reaction is the strongest, it is when he's tapped into his (or her) masculine side, whatever that happens to be.
So I guess its no secret by now that I find a man who knows how to dress attractive. And, while I'm heterosexual, I'm drawn to women who know how to dress well too. Sure, dressing well is a matter of personal taste, but regardless of what your taste is, one thing is certain: when a woman dresses well, there's 'care and thought' into matching clothes, shoes, accessories and colors into a creation of sorts she feels best represents her personality. To me, that's powerful, confident and sexy. The same applies to men, at least for this East Coast-born chica who has spent many years living in Europe.
This photo from geeksdreamgirl.com in a post called Geek Fashion Does it Matter reminded me of how I often feel in Silicon Valley.
She writes: "geeks are made up of all kinds, but a frat-looking dude in an Abercrombie or Ed Hardy shirt is going to look more out of place at a con than a chick dressed as Hermoine after she drank the cat Polyjuice Potion."
Outside of Silicon Valley, it all looks out of place, yet geek 'fashion' has hit parts of Europe and just when I was about to guess they were from Silicon Valley, a Dutch, Irish, German or Israeli accent came out of his mouth. Frightening.
Take this photo found on Laughing Squid, where Bill Nye the Science Guy Teaches Chris Hardwick How To Tie a Bowtie. They both look like the whole process is just a tad too painful.
Even if nerdy checked shirts aren't to your liking, it's a helluva lot better than this:
Photo credit: Randy Stewart
The above shot of Ben Huh is more along the lines of the every day fashion I deal with everyday living in Silicon Valley and it hurts. I've been so reluctant of saying so this publicly for so many years because of the backlash that I've kept my moans to close circles. But for crying out loud, it hurts all of my senses and I can no longer not say so.
Says GQ of the the Ben shot: "we can tell you just rolled out of your 1,000-thread count bed sheets and picked out the nearest T-shirt in or around the laundry basket." What's really sad is that most of these guys are actually proud of a statement like that.
Then there's this eyesore. An invitation to the White House and this is the best that Faceook's Mark Zuckerberg can pull together?
Something tells me this was a PR decision or a defiance "this is who I am so f-you" attitude decision. Above photo taken from Hollywood Reporter in an article entitled Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg Named Worst Dressed in Silicon Valley. Just attend any of the countless events on the geek events list and you'll definitely find worst nearly any night of the week.
Or dare I suggest crossing the bridge and hanging out in Berkeley for awhile. (Apologies to all of my Berkeley friends who will never speak to me after that comment, but c'mon aready - can't we just call a spade a spade? Just because you're not great at fashion, it doesn't mean you don't ace a million other things in life).
Foursquare's Dennis Crowley just made #5th worst dressed men of Silicon Valley by GQ (although he actually lives in New York, but just dresses like he lives on the other coast).
Photo credit: Getty Images
They're a little harsh in their write-up especially since I personally adore Dennis, but I have to admit, its incredibly accurate: "Unless Crowley is making a social statement about the threat of student loan debt, it's time to graduate past the junior section."
I feel that way about 90% of the men who can't make an effort to graduate past high school.
Remember the way Bill Gates used to dress? Even if you think this shot looks like he's graduated to the Connecticut suburbs and the colors so don't work with his skin tone, you have to admit, he's at least graduated past high school. Enfin!!
Photo credit: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg
I'm surprised that GQ put Craig Newmark on the list, who I also personally adore. Here's the thing: Craig makes an effort whether you think its fashion perfect or not. He's not in a t-shirt he grabbed from his laundry basket, he gets the 'shoe' thing (the man is never seen wearing tacky neon sneakers that don't match anything else), he wears great scarves and the hat just suits him. Of all the men they could have chosen in Silicon Valley, really? I can give you 50 other men who should have made the GQ list. Personally, I think "it" works for him, wrinkled shirt and all. How many men do you know who have wrinkled shirts who aren't geeks?
Photo credit: Getty Images.
From a post in Blog.stylert.com, they ask: "Are you a real geek? Are you proud of being a geek? You can be cute (or sexy), yet embrace your geeky style. Geek fashion refers to the embracing of stereotypically unpopular “geek” characteristics such as glasses. They dress almost identical to hipsters but verge more towards being into comic books, pop culture, technology, etc. rather than hipsters who are more into poetry, brooding, and generally being pretentious.
The definition: Well, basically, you take key pieces of a typically geeky wardrobe and wear them with purpose and aplomb, to make a point. Not because you’re clueless and out of the fashion loop, not because you can’t afford Ralph Lauren — because you want to. Think thick black glasses, pinstriped suits with skinny ties, sweater vests, and pocket protectors — a hipster vibe with a nerdy edge."
This doesn't mean a TechCrunch t-shirt with jeans and sneakers. They write: "many elements that arguably define “geekiness”, such as varying degrees of social awkwardness, mathematical ability, strong interest in science and/or science fiction and fantasy, and varying degrees of disinterest in one’s personal appearance, remain unfashionable."
The point? Get creative. Care at least a little. Mix geek with other styles. For example:
Photo credit: Blog.stylert.com
Says the NY Times piece, "despite the geek stereotypes of hoodie sweatshirts, flip-flops and thick glasses, it makes perfect sense, these women say, for people interested in technology to be intrigued by fashion. They quote Marissa Mayer pictured above left, who said in February: “Like components of software,” she said, “fashion designers learned how to do this shoulder, put pleats on the skirt that way.” Apparently she once paid $60,000 at an auction for lunch with Oscar de la Renta. I wonder if she'll use her elevated salary at Yahoo for luxury wanna-haves like this one?
Thinking like 'software components,' she asked Naeem Khan to make the dress for her wedding to Zachary Bogue, a financier, in 2009. "She gave the designer a spec (a set of requirements that engineers write for new products) for the gown, including scalloped trim, an A-line skirt and lace, preferably with snowflakes." Too funny, but if its the way her brain works, it's the way her brain works.
Compare the above set of four men to the below set of three women. What draws you in more regardless of your sex? Great style is great style is it not?
From left: Theresia Gouw Ranzetta, an investor at Accel Partners in Palo Alto, Calif., Sukhinder Singh Cassidy runs the video shopping site Joyus in San Francisco; Ruzwana Bashir is a founder of Peek, a Web travel start-up in San Francisco.
Well done ladies and don't ever stop wearing great color and great design regardless of how much push back you get.
Keep the trend going so we can add just a little bit of sex appeal to the Bay Area. Silicon Valley is starving for and in need of a whole lot more sex (appeal :-) and while the geeks may not admit it, if they go there, and get the benefits and rewards that it might bring, they may just never look back.
Photo Credits: above triage photo: Heidi Schumann for NY Times, Marissa Mayer, left, head of Yahoo, with the jewelry designer Monique Pean in 2010): Jemel Countless Getty Images and photo upper right: Peter DaSilva for The New York Times.
July 30, 2012
Singularity University, Women@TheFrontier & 10 Incredible Women Design the Future
The program: "Designing the Future 2012", brought together some of today's female game-changers who are designing the future and disrupting the status quo.
Women@TheFrontier's Susan Fonseca and KristinaMaria T-Gutierrez introduced inspirational women who had one heart warming story after another to share.
NASA's Yvonne Cagle also paid a sentimental tribute to astronaut Sally Ride who passed away on July 23.
Ray Kurzweil kicked things off and also closed the event in a unique appearance with his daughter Amy Kurzweil who interviewed him in fireside chat style.
Ray's son was also in attendance with a beaming smile throughout the interview as he watched father and sister chat informally in front of a few hundred people on everything from inspiration and life lessons to technology, health and the future.
Below is Women@TheFrontier founder and CEO Susan Fonseca.
A poised and graceful Kay Koplovitz took the stage with confidence, something certainly not new to her as the first woman to head a television network; she founded USANetworks under the banner of Madison Square Garden Sports in the seventies.
She is also known for founding the Sci-Fi Channel which has become a top ten rated cable network and USANetworks, which runs in 60 countries worldwide.
President Clinton also appointed Kay to chair the bipartisan National Women’s Business Council. With a success record that keeps going, she is a great reminder that persistence and tenacity pays off.
She reminded the audience that 57% of women have masters degrees and 52% of women have doctorate degrees as she threw a quote from Coca Cola CEO onto the screen who said in 2010: "The drivers of the post American world won't be led by China but led by women."
She added a quote from Hilary Clinton who had encouraged companies and individuals to "unlock potential of women by investing in girls and women" at the Global Impact Economy Forum this year.
Lakshmi Pratury, who I first met in the early days of TED, then stepped onto the stage to share her magic as a natural storyteller, using humor, authenticity and life examples in her tales on India and inspiration.
Lakshmi is the Founder of INKTalks, the INK Conference and Ixoraa Media, whose mission is to strengthen the ties between United States and India through sponsored corporate, cultural, and media events.
She says of her time spent in America, "the one thing I learned from my time in America is how to tell a story." And let's be honest, all great stories ignite emotion through shared resonance and reflection, which is something Lakshmi does so well.
She says: "what we are is who we focus on feeding and the community we build around us - it's never about us individually." Hear Hear.
Lakshmi talked on the early days of India before the economy took off, which frankly is the only India I know. My first and only visit was in 1989 and rest assured, it is a very different country today.
Says Lakshmi of the perception of India, then and now, which is one of the things that led her to start the INK Conference: "the way people describe India from inside out has always been one dimensional, so I felt we needed to bring the depth and complexity of Indian culture to the world."
The notion of diving in even if you don't have the experience, is not only a great message to all girls and women, but to every and anyone who has an idea. "Every time I say I'm going to do something without really knowing how to do it, it just happens," she says. "You always have to remember that whatever you do or embrace, you don't have to do it alone."
Like me, she is a collector of people, and says that "collecting people IS HER passion." How wonderful is that? Connecting those human dots isn't a bad way to spend your life. Extraordinary things always happen as a result, like the work she is doing in India.
Wearing bright pink/red shoes and a necklace made from a 3D printer, she connected with the audience with her own great storytelling.
Ping describes herself as an artist and a scientist whose chosen expression is business. It's in her bio and it's something she says often in her presentations.
She co-founded Geomagic, a leading US software company which pioneers 3D technologies that fundamentally change the way products are designed and manufactured around the world...from repairing vintage cars at Jay Leno's garage to preserving US treasures and digitally recreating the Statue of Liberty.
Another woman who has faced challenges and adversity, she has shown that staying close to your passion and not giving up works if you believe in what you're doing. She is known for her work with geometry processing, and computer graphics as well as her time as a writer for The China Times.
Inspirational on and off the stage, she has spent many years lecturing on such subjects as feminism, cultural criticism, and was news commentary at National Taiwan University and Taipei National University of the Arts, also serving as ambassador at large for Taiwan for a few years.
While we're on the topic of inspiration and female role models, it doesn't get much better than Amy Purdy who lost both her legs to Neisseria meningitis, a form of bacterial meningitis, at the age of 19.
As a double amputee, competitive snowboarder and spokesperson for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, she talks to people around the globe about her experience and overcoming life obstacles in order to reach your life dreams and goals, regardless of what is thrown your way.
Amy has played a runway model in a music video for Madonna, taken on a role in an independent film and has modeled for a number of photography projects.
She says to the audience, "When you face adversity and rough patches of trying to fit in, ask yourself what defines normalcy, beauty and what defines you? Embracing your uniqueness whatever that is turns your life from ordinary to extraordinary." Hear hear Amy. You were truly an inspiration to watch and meet.
Hannah Chung is the co-founder and force behind Jerry the Bear, a stuffed bear that helps children learn how to manage their diabetes. Inspired to help children, she says she is never looking back and laughs as she shows us a photo of her in a stuffed bear costume.
"I'm happy to wear a bear costume for years to come if it means making an impact on kid's lives," she tells us.
When Jerry’s eyelids close, he is showing that he is low in energy, until he is fed certain foods or given a pretend insulin injection which then boost his glucose levels. The results are shown on a little screen that is implanted into Jerry's belly.
Hannah’s father and grandparents have Type II diabetes and after her grandfather passed away from hypoglycemia, she was inspired to make a difference by helping others manage diabetes as effectively as possible.
Kudos to the Singularity University and Women@TheFrontier teams for pulling off an incredibly inspirational and moving event with a group of remarkable, dynamic women.
I look forward to future events they plan to host in other cities around the U.S.
Below is the video of Amy and Ray Kurzweil in a fireside chat:
Photo credit of Laskshmi taken in Munich: Nadine Rupp/Getty Images Europe. Hannah: From the Mccormick.northwestern.edu site. Amy Purdy and Legs: AmberB Photography. All other photos: Renee Blodgett.
May 01, 2012
Remembering the Strong Female Forces In Our Lives
This week, I couldn't stop thinking about them. Among "them" was not THE woman in my life who guided me, took care of me, shaped me. That was my grandmother and like most grandmothers of women in their forties, they're no longer a phone call away.
The benefits of being raised by your grandmother is that you are surrounded by older, wiser women at a much earlier age, all of which have stories, many of which remind you not to take the world....and everyone in it so seriously.
In my grandmother's circle was an incedible group of women who got together for lunches, martinis, and shopping, even in the 1930s and 40s when they were all healthy, raising children and had husbands that they 'navigated.' (see My Mother's Kitchen -- 2004 blogging days) and a dedication to mothers).
All of them strong, yet sweet...the kind of women who didn't tolerate weak character or housewives without some other mission or job. It wasn't the south, yet a couple of them have moved north for some reason or another. Most of us were "baked" in a small town in upstate New York and with that came things like country fairs, football games, horse farms, 4H, piano lessons, and more sewing and craft afficiandos than wine snobs.
Learning the basics of being a 'woman' of that time was part of living in a small town...you know, the traditional stuff: sewing a button, baking a cake, rolling pie dough the 'right' way, dance lessons, serving tea. Yet, they absolutely tolerated if not encouraged sports for women. While I regularly played many a' sport in school, none of these stronger older women who influenced me in my life played a thing.
In their walled garden, which I used to eavesdrop on from time-to-time, they often talked about navigating their family unit. Many women relied on my grandmother's advice (today, they'd call her a 'coach'), to help them negotiate things at home, whether it was getting their husband to purchase something to make their lives easier, or being able to work and play more while raising a family of 5, and so on. She was also the master peacemaker and networker.
The constant, common thread woven into all of their personalities was spunk and perserverance. I think about them often now more than ever, three gone, four still living. I dreampt about one of them a couple of nights in a row recently and woke up with my heart racing. "How old is she now?" I thought. "Could my dream be a sign that she's sick and in her last days" I thought. "Is she already gone and she visited me at night to say goodbye?" I thought.
The number I had for Bernie was disconnected which is never a good sign. She was with my aunt and uncle in the driveway waiting for me the day my grandmother died. I was too naive to believe my grandmother would actually die despite a long battle with cancer -- remember no one talked about stressful situations then...they just smoked and drank more martinis. They didn't tell me the news in the driveway that day nor did they go with me to the hospital. I drove alone and heard the news alone from some fatigued nurse who didn't know who I was and released the information about my grandmother's passing in a not so gentle manner. I was 16. I had no reaction until I belted in the elevator moments later but without shedding a tear - where was everyone I thought?
Among the faces that came in and out of my mind were all the strong women in my grandmother's life...my life. I imagined their pain learning the news I had just been given, knowing that not all of them had known yet.
My grandfather wasn't in the driveway that day but Bernie had been. Perhaps she wasn't 'authorized' to tell me? I'm highly intuitive and yet something blocked me from connecting the dots after seeing Bernie's red blotchy eyes on that very sad and long summer afternoon when I was "sweet" 16.
I learned a lot about Bernie and these strong female forces in my life, almost all intuitively. When we visited her house, I had to pass time while the 'grown ups' played their cards and drank martinis. It was the 70s - there were no cell phones, online games on TV or computers.
And, no one had a parenting rulebook that said your kids had to be in bed by 8 every night. It was a time loaded with boundaries, an era when adults dicated the agenda, not children.
I used to crawl on my hands and knees through their attic, unpacking boxes and snooping inside. I'd roam through the closets, dressing myself up in her hats and oversized jackets. Downstairs, I'd hear her strong laughter dominating the table and that beautiful and feminine way she egged the men on exuding her confidence and wit. A gift. I even knew it then but didn't have a label for it. My grandmother had it too.
Audrey was a little more refined in public yet exuded the same strength and gift. She's 95 now and lives in Florida, alone. I managed to get her on the phone for a long chat a few years ago. I feared she'd barely be able to hear me or keep up with my pace, but the first thing she did was drill me, like I was still 18. I smiled as I listened to her first question, which may have come before hello: "are you still playing the piano? I hope you're still playing the piano" suggesting that my grandmother would be shedding more than a tear had I not let her gift and now my gift, pour out into other people's silence.
Truth be told, I had stopped playing but a piano remains in the house and I told her, I can't imagine any house without a piano and will always feel that way. She tells me she's trying to order music online now (online in her nineties -- really?) but some of the music she's looking for is hard to find. I imagined Colony Music in mid-town would have it I told her, a place I visit every time I'm in New York just because.
Then we got onto men. She's dating a younger man (mid-eighties) but his eyesight is failing so she often has to drive on longer hauls (1-2 hours). Without complaining, it was clear she did most of the work and I kept wondering, is there ever a time when strong women like us ever get 'taken care of?" Before we hit the grave? She told me that her biggest beef was that he was a fan of George Bush and she couldn't really get him to change his mind. "These are the compromises you make for companionship," she said.
I was reminded to listen to my inner voice...the wonderful intuition that women have, rely on and use regularly for all sorts of things, yet it's a skill and gift that doesn't list well on paper or in the boardroom.
When I was 18, I lived out of my car for awhile, not far from where Audrey and her husband lived in Florida at the time. A workaholic from the beginning of 'life' itself, I had three jobs, two boyfriends and was eager to save as much as I could for travel. Frankly, rent just seemed like a waste of money when I was working 6.5 days anyway. Somehow my highly intuitive grandfather discovered this through his Sherlock-skills over 1,500 miles away and sent Audrey to deal with me. What was and is remarkable for a woman born at the turn of the century is how much she understood my need to do precisely what I was doing.
They had traveled in academic circles, lived in Paris for awhile and let's be clear, did not and would not ever have slept in her car or on a park bench in her life. Yet, it was okay that I did, for then. She believed in the process of life and that everyone's process is different. Her handwritten letters which I receive every year and have since I was ten demonstrate her perserverance, her tolerance and her inner strength - letter after letter, word after word, you could sense her gratitude and faith in the world, and her positive role in it.
Marcie was a long time neighbor who grew up in the south on a farm. She was #8 in a line of 11, her youngest sister from Pittsburg being the only other sibling alive. She has also lost two children of her own and her inlaws husbands and wives are all gone from cancer and heart disease.
When I couldn't reach Bernie, and countless Google searches didn't pull up a thing, I called Marcie considering it a universal sign and nod that it's time to reach out to these strong female forces in my life. It's these quiet nods that we have to not just listen to, but act on, for it is action on these nods (messages if you like, from our inner voice aka the universe), that allow US to DESIGN our lives, not let someone else design them for us. From this place, we proactively live life, not react to it. We become the creator, not the victim. The designer, not the canvas.
Alongside my grandfather, she taught me to drive. Through the neighborhoods we went in a beat up old Chevrolet. She asked, "I was trying to recall how long ago that was again?" Its amusing how much easier it is to come up with a precise number to that question to someone in their mid-eighties than it is to the hot 30 year old man you just met from Argentina.
Three things were on her mind: how much harder it was to do physical things, the climate, remarking how much warmer it was this winter and how odd the weather has been in recent years, and the economy.
I on my iPhone and she on the same square black GT phone she has had in her kitchen since 1966, we talked about my life in the "bubble", the Silicon Valley eco-system that doesn't seem to subscribe to recessionary issues that affect the rest of the country. That said, it is increasingly becoming harder for people around me to keep up with the accidental millionaires and billionaires who are sprouting up overnight as a result of some freak paranoia acquisition play by an industry giant.
This led us to gratitude and reality checks. She told me about a time in the early forties when she put an apple on her father's tab in the country grocer on her way home from school one day and her reaction to the scolding she received when it was "discovered." Given that she has the same strong, resilient streak that all the women in my grandmother's circle had, she decided to take charge of her own decisions and got a job in an ice cream shop. It was 1944 she recalls and she made just under $3 for two days of work.
It's hard to imagine numbers like this today, yet despite what salaries have become, the majority of Americans can't pay their bills on time or if you happen to live in a major metropolitan area, afford the $1M+ that it cost to purchase a home today. And so, people don't or they go bankrupt.
It seems as if everything is inflated around me...last time I walked down Fillmore Street, I don't remember seeing so many unremarkable $500 tops and $800 bags. Shopping culture and consumerism despite the economic situation remains high (read my blog post on Qatar's over-the-top growth) and yet, the happiest people I know have less. Only two days ago, I came across a photo with a quote from Justin Wolfers at the Aspen Ideas event saying "Richer countries are overwhelmingly happier than poorer countries." From a viewpoint that poorer countries are full of people with sicker family members and less ability to save them, I agree.
In my experience traveling to 80 countries and living in nearly a dozen, it feels like the people I've met who have had less and live simpler lives with less stuff, are richer in spirit, and are focused on doing rather than earning, less weighted down by money.
So, I'm not sure if I agree with you Justin, but I do agree that communities where economic and social balance becomes far out of whack, depression and a feeling that the world doesn't make sense can certainly be higher.
People from the old world, Marcie, Audrey, Bernie and my grandparents among them, understood contrasts, balance and gratitude and had so much more resilience, kindness and empathy than what I encounter on a regular basis. It's not that the world has become a harsher place, it's that we may all too busy responding and reacting to things being thrown our way (on and offline), that we may have forgotten to tap into what and who we know best - ourselves.
Returning to and relying on ourselves and trusting our own intution for guidance and our life path may be the best gift we can give ourselves. Refer to my review on Rescue America: the urgent calling to return to what made America great.
How well I know these women or knew my grandmother is not as relevant as the impact they had on me, and the inner strength they have provided and still do, even those who are no longer walking on this physical land.
It's always about our journeys and the joy and yes, even sorrow, we leave behind along the way. Within that joy and sorrow are lessons learned and gifts we share and receive, strength, courage and empathy passed on from our tribes, in my case, a tribe of strong fabulous women I think about often. And, when their smiling faces and emphathetic hearts come into clear view, there's sunshine in the house and my day somehow gets breezier and lighter as I think about them weaving in and out of my life. Never gone, just displaced and forever cherished.
A few blog posts on happiness worth referencing:
- What Motivates People Across Cultures
- We're Happier When We Share
- Bhutan's Gross Happiness Experiment
- On Laughing More
- Money Doesn't Bring You Happiness
- On Death (but one that will bring you comfort)
- Tony Hsieh on Happiness & Profits
- First Image (women/wind): 3D Art
- Path: Wharton Executive Management Site
- Bird with wings: Society 6