Think the interns look young? Meet today’s entrepreneurs

Around this time of year, if you work in a big company and hang around the water cooler long enough, you’re likely to overhear talk about how young the interns look. The halls of corporate America are speckled with the fresh faces of college kids getting a taste of the work world. Brace yourself then, for today’s entrepreneurs, who make the interns (not to mention the rest of us) look like geezers.

Pitching concepts to the judges

Pitching concepts to the judges

A few weeks ago, I talked with a team of high school girls in Aurora who had developed a glove which makes it easier for people with arthritic hands to hold a pen again. They were finalists in the IMSA Power Pitch. They have already begun reaching out to glove manufacturers, and are working to identify local resources for sample creation before going to market. Longer term they intend to seek FDA approval and have their gloves distributed via a prescription via physical therapists.

Then there’s the Chicago Public Schools initiative to teach design entrepreneurship. All semester, I’ve been helping eighth graders at Chicago’s Nettelhorst School learn the product design innovation process, going from ideation to crowdfunding in five months. Students were given the challenge of addressing kitchen clutter with the constraint of using a 12×24 sheet of metal that can be fabricated locally. They came up with a wide range of promising concepts, built prototypes, refined the ideas, developed costs & business plans. One concept has been selected to go forward and the kids are busy pulling together a marketing plan and Kickstarter campaign, which ideally will go live before graduation. Crowdfunding via Kickstarter is enabling them to reach out directly to prospective buyers to generate pre-sales needed to fund production. You can check out last year’s project here— Elephant Hooks, which raised over $10,000.

Teaching design in Chicago Public Schools

Teaching design in Chicago Public Schools

Speaking of Kickstarter, the eleven-year-old Lilly Born just went live with her second Kickstarter campaign. Lilly designed a unique three-legged cup to make it easier for her grandpa, who has Parkinsons, to grip a cup without spilling. Her first ceramic cups were a hit, and now she’s back at it with an unbreakable version of the Kangaroo Cup. You can check out her project here.

Eleven-year-old Lilly Born with the Kangaroo Cup she invented

Eleven-year-old Lilly Born with the Kangaroo Cup she invented

I love so much about what these kids are doing. I love that they are motivated by making people’s lives better in whatever simple way they can. I love that they are not shrinking from making a difference because they are young. I love that they are not stopping at the idea stage but persevering through the development phase to actually get their concepts realized. And I love that they are using crowdfunding for market validation so their new product proposals aren’t laughed off by the gatekeepers at big corporations.

So yes, the interns may look young. But across town, the real disrupters just went out for recess.

Chicago: my kind of *design* town

Milling at Segal Design Institute

Chicago Ideas Week is in full swing, with a wide range of forums and workshops taking place all over the city—sort of like a dispersed TED conference.  Last night, Malcolm Gladwell was here talking about innovation.  This morning, you could choose between workshops at a local glass maker, tour the facilities at crowd-designed t-shirt maker Threadless, or develop social enterprise concepts with The Cara Program.  Tomorrow, IDEO is hosting a design thinking workshop, Table XI is using Legos to show how agile software development works, and Leo Burnett’s Farmhouse is offering the opportunity re-imagine, re-design and re-market an everyday object. There’s an astonishing range of very cool things happening in the design & innovation space, right here in Chicago.

Are we becoming the new product design & innovation capitol?  Or is “all the design talent on the coasts” (as I’ve been told more than once).  A few facts to consider about Chicago’s prowess as a place for design & innovation:

  • Four of the top ten most-funded design projects on Kickstarter were initiated in Chicago, generating $3.4 million.  And that’s not a speculative investment figure—that’s in pre-sales of actual products.
  • Design for America was started here. Assistant Professor Liz Gerber at Northwestern University’s Segal Design Institute initiated the formation of this student-led organization focused on using human-centered design methods to solve local social issues. DFA now has chapters at seventeen campuses across the United States.
  • The international conference of the IDSA (The Industrial Designers Society of America) was held in Chicago this year and led by Chicagoan Paul Hatch of TEAMS Design.
  • Chicago-based product start-up SwipeSense, a hand cleaning device for healthcare providers, is one of five contenders for WSJ Startup of the Year 2013. (The company was founded by two of Design for America’s first student members).

The maker movement is alive and well here too, with Pumping Station One, a Maker Lab at the Chicago Public Library, a FabLab at the Museum of Science and Industry, an active MakerBiz group of product entrepreneurs, and a newly-formed Oak Park chapter of Hacker Scouts.  Chicago is home to Grainger and McMaster Carr and Inventables, which supply materials for makers and designers.  And we still actually produce things here too: one in ten jobs in Illinois is in manufacturing.

Design has been described as the intersection of thinking and doing.  And when design is done well, it is a very boots-on-the-ground exercise in meeting people’s needs through getting out and interacting, prototyping, building, and re-building. That seems to fit Chicago’s reputation to a tee, a town described a century ago by Carl Sandberg as:

“Hog Butcher for the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

 Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

 Stormy, husky, brawling,

 City of the Big Shoulders:

[… ]

Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,


Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.”

What words would the poet use to describe Chicago today?

© October 2013 by Pam Daniels.  All rights reserved.  Full text of Carl Sandberg’s poem “Chicago,” published in 1914 in Poetry magazine, can be found here:

Five Lessons for Leaders from Montessori

Photo courtesy of American Montessori Society

Photo courtesy of American Montessori Society

Employee engagement in the US has just hit a new all-time low.  According to a recent Gallup poll, only 30% of workers are “engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace.”  The other 70% have checked out or are actively disengaged.  The cost of this loss of potential is estimated at $550 billion annually.  What can you do about it?  Here are five lessons for leaders, borrowed from Montessori, a revolutionary method of education which achieves notably higher levels of engagement amongst students.

  1. Make work harder.  The massive underpinning of Montessori is intrinsic motivation.  People are wired to want to solve problems and tackle challenges.  Everyone loses interest if work is too easy.  Are your employees spending a majority of time doing repetitive tasks that could be automated or eliminated altogether?  Challenge your team to find ways to stop the madness and use their time to take on bigger problems.
  2. Ask questions rather than providing answers.  Rich Sheridan, co-founder and CEO of Menlo Innovations, tells a great story about the time his eight-year-old daughter came to work for the day. Her observation?  You tell people what to do all day.  Rich’s revelation was that he was a bottleneck.  Rich changed his approach, and you can too.  Get out of the way.  Challenge your team by asking questions and offering resources rather than giving the answers.
  3. Create an environment where people want to be.  As part of a client engagement to improve workplace culture, I toured a pharmaceutical plant where workers toiled in dingy grey cubes and tiny offices without windows.  Meanwhile, the cafeteria had big glass windows overlooking the scenic surrounding hillsides.  Employees spent seven hours in the dingy part, and one hour in the nice part.  I suggested relocating everyone to the cafeteria.  What shifts could you make to make your space make inviting?
  4. Take time to see.  Montessori teachers are keen observers.  Most of their time in the classroom is spent listening, not talking.  Teachers intervene when necessary, offer new opportunities when appropriate, and remark on progress made.  Are you truly aware of what’s going on with your team?  Do you know who needs a new challenge?  Do you comment on the good things you see?
  5. Be an advocate for resources.  Montessori schools lack textbooks, offering instead a wide range of materials and real-world resources in the community as the tools of learning and growth.  Does your team have what it needs to succeed?  Ask.  Find out what it would take for your team to unleash its potential, and then figure out a way to provide it.

Pam Daniels is an innovator, designer, and writer based in Chicago.  She has held leadership positions at Leo Burnett, Starcom MediaVest Group, and IDEO.  Her upcoming book, Designed to Thrive: How Montessori methods are transforming the workplace tells the story of innovative organizations who are leading the way.

It’s A Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder


I’m reading Sheryl Sandberg’s much-talked-about book, Lean In.  When I was part of a collective of leaders at IDEO grappling with issues related to people & culture, one particular struggle was coming up with an alternate metaphor to replace the notion of a career ladder.   We never quite figured it out, but I’m delighted to report that someone has.  Sheryl credits Pattie Sellers, a senior editor at Fortune, with having conceived of the notion of careers as a jungle gym, not a ladder.  Sounds about right to me.  A few quotes I love discussing this concept:

“Ladders are limiting– people can move up or down, on or off.  Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration.  There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym.”

“Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top.  On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above.”

Which better describes your work life? Has your career been a vertical ladder (perhaps with a great rear view), or more like a playful and challenging jungle gym?

Einstein & Eva


     “I never teach my pupils.  I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”  – Albert Einstein

Eva Niewiadomski, founder of Catalyst Ranch in Chicago, has created a successful business based on the insight that our role as leaders is to create appropriate conditions.  Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Eva for my upcoming book, Designed to Thrive.  Catalyst Ranch is a 15,000 square foot meeting space designed to stimulate and invigorate creativity.  It is furnished with funky retro chairs and tables, brightly colored walls, and plenty of toys.  Food and treats are always on hand too.  With a vibe that has been dubbed “playful on purpose,” Catalyst Ranch provides the conditions which enable effective dialogue and innovation.  The site is an outgrowth of the innovation spaces Eva originally created while working as New Products Marketing Manager at The Quaker Oats Company.  Here are three themes that emerged from our conversation:

Artifacts as connectors.  Cool stuff is everywhere at Catalyst Ranch.  A quick sweep of the room revealed a pink feather boa, Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, a woolen weaving, and a vintage box camera.  The camera prompted me to comment on it and share with Eva a story about my first significant purchase—a Nikon EM that I bought with babysitting money when I was thirteen years old.  She said these kinds of object-inspired conversations happen all the time.  People are attracted to something in the environment and it prompts them to tell a story.  The story creates a human connection.  The connection makes so much more possible.  As Eva said, “There’s nothing harder than being asked to collaborate with someone you really don’t know.  I don’t think you can really be productive that way.  That’s hard.”

Permission to be more fully you. “When you come through the door at work, there’s a certain change that takes place in your mental state.  There are certain parts of yourself– depending on the environment that you work in– that a lot of people shut off and don’t bring to work.  That’s learned behavior.”  So much capacity is lost.  Shifting the environment has the power to change that.  “I want them to feel that when they come here to Catalyst Ranch, they see these parts of themselves acknowledged.  I think it’s to the company’s benefit to access more of that individual.  Most companies don’t know how to do that in their day to day workings and the way people get rewarded for behavior.” Eva believes it’s possible for everyone to innovate and create—that it’s not the remit of a select few.  And she provides the space where it happens every day.

Accessing your inner child.  The Catalyst Ranch furnishings are anything but corporate.  There is color everywhere.  There are vintage Formica tables with chrome legs.  There are armchairs that remind people of their grandparents.  And of course, toys abound.  According to Eva, all of it is designed to invoke nostalgia.  “It starts reminding you what it was like when you were a kid.  When you were a child you had no limits on your creativity and your imagination.  There’s not a child out there at a really young age who says I’m not creative. There’s nothing that they can’t imagine.”

How conducive is your workplace to creativity and innovation?

Ode to Mothering


I arrived home this Mother’s Day evening to find a card and small vase of flowers waiting on my doorstep.  The sight alone was gift enough, but the real treasure was the poem inside.  I share it here with the permission of my dear friend and writer, Saralina Kamholtz.

We are scooping up stars
and giving them back on freshly washed plates,
Spilling them like apples from our hands
into neat constellations, crispy and sweet.
We are clearing a path
for your feet to go racing forward,
Handing you chalk to build your ladders
to some new heaven stretching out on the pavement ahead.
We are sending our voices out,
tucked into pockets,
Stitching flannel lining for your fingers to find
when darkness whispers its cold breath,
and you are standing there, alone,
waiting for the street lamps to turn on.
We are laying heads in our laps
at the end of each last summer day,
where we have been saying “go” and “come back,”
with the rise and fall of waves,
Finger knitting stories into your hair
that will carry you through sleep.
Most of the blooming things I know of
start as seeds,
sheltered by the fierce and loving hearts of women.

© May 2013 by Saralina Kamholtz. All rights reserved.

As the Bells Ring Out

As I write this, bells are ringing across Massachusetts to honor the lives lost and broken as a result of the violence in Boston last week.  I share this native American folktale in the hope that we find ways to nurture the good in ourselves and one another.

Two Wolves

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.

“One is Evil – It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

“The other is Good – It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

two wolves

We can no longer say we did not know

The U.S. continues to wrestle with its collective conscience in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy.  Conversations are becoming more urgent about how to make our cities, schools, and country safer.  The discussions are involving a diverse range of people, from police officers to video game makers, victims of gun violence, and gun advocates.  In all of the dialogue, though, there is one group it seems we are neglecting: young people.  I’d like for us to actively engage children in the national conversation and listen to their views on how to create a world worthy of their futures.  At our dinner table the other night, I asked my two children (ages 12 and 14) what they thought about gun violence.  My kids were unequivocal about their desires: they want a world with less violence and more nature.

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings on gun control.  And perhaps we can make things better by adjusting laws and placing more restrictions on gun ownership.  Yet it seems to me that it’s also about changing social mores.  YMCA summer camps for kids offer riflery as an activity option.  Guns are sold along with toilet paper and shampoo at Wal-Mart.  Children as young as four have received BB guns for Christmas.  So what I wonder is this: how can we make being a “gun enthusiast” as bizarre and socially unacceptable as being a guillotine collector?  Collecting guillotines would be weird and morbid and kind of creepy.  Guillotines are instruments of death.  How are guns different?

Major social shifts and the resulting legal reform are always preceded by a groundswell of citizens who press for an elevated level of consciousness.  In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery.  William Wilberforce and his colleagues (spanning  both liberals and conservative evangelicals) meticulously documented the horrors of slave transport and life.  Wilberforce said “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”  The weight of evidence ultimately made it impossible for men and women of conscience to ignore or dismiss.  We too, can no longer say we did not know:  we have mounting evidence each day of what the implications are of normalizing guns.

Now is the time for a new level of consciousness– for moving beyond mute acceptance of viewing guns, like slavery, as an inevitable but regrettable part of life.  I’ll close with a quote from Half The Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

“Slavery was once widely viewed by many decent Europeans and Americans as a regrettable but ineluctable feature of human life.  It was just one more horror that had existed for thousands of years.  But then in the 1780s a few indignant Britons, led by William Wilberforce, decided that slavery was so offensive that they had to abolish it.  And they did.”

When will we decide that gun violence is so offensive that we must abolish it?  And have the courage to pursue the future that our children long for?

We can no longer say we did not know.

MLK and the Power of Song

Every year, the Music Institute of Chicago pays tribute to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a concert by the Brotherhood Chorale, a 180-member all-male choir from the Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn.  Their voices joined together are pure power—enough to make you believe that song alone might be able to vanquish all evil from the planet.  Who’s to say that it can’t?  Music certainly played a pivotal role in civil right movement, both in its ability to build unity and strength amongst those rising up and to appeal to the conscience of fellow citizens.  I’d like to share a portion of a speech given by Dr. Mark George, President and CEO of the Music Institute of Chicago in January 2011.

“In the past few weeks, I have been asked several times why the Music Institute of Chicago places so much emphasis in its annual tribute to Martin Luther King.  Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired us to be better as a nation, better as a community and better as individuals.  It occurs to me that, in a small way, striving to be a little better each day, each time you try something, is also what musicians do.  Musicians practice and refine their art every day so that they can express through music what is too powerful or too beautiful for words alone.

This is why I find it no accident that Martin Luther King, Jr. married a musician. Coretta Scott King used her musical talents to support the struggle for social justice.  She wrote and performed many “Freedom Concerts” that raised awareness and raised money for the cause.  Mrs. Coretta Scott King understood the power of music – music that praises the glory of God, music that is an integral part of our most solemn and most joyous rituals, music that raises our awareness, music that can be a vehicle to uplift every individual and every community.

Martin Luther King understood this and musicians everywhere are inspired by his accomplishments.  Dr. King only lived to be thirty-nine years old.  But you know, you can do a lot in thirty-nine years.  You can:

Earn a Bachelor Degree in Sociology

Go on to attain a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology

Preach the Word of God

Speak out against injustice

Author six books

Be arrested thirty times

Win the Nobel Prize

Inspire a nation live out its creed

Inspire us today to serve our fellow man.

It is, of course, appropriate that we honor a great American leader, a great humanitarian, and someone who had such a close connection to the City of Chicago.  We are as inspired by this in the world of music as in any other part of society.”

So here’s to Rev. Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy.  Long may it live.  And here is to the musicians, the artists, the children, the leaders, the people from every walk of life in every place and time who inspire us to unite against injustices, to be our better selves, and to accomplish all ends without hatred or violence.

* * *

Special thanks to Dr. Mark George for his gracious permission to publish these words, and to the Brotherhood Chorale for their tremendous gift of song.  You can listen to them here.