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.

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?

What art really teaches

My local school district, like so many others, is struggling with difficult budget choices.  As is typical, the arts become an easy target for financial cuts because we do not understand how or why they matter.  The arts somehow seem superfluous.  I wish that were not so.  Here is a letter I composed and shared with school board members; perhaps others might find it helpful too.

Dear Board of Education member:

As you grapple with budget choices and curriculum trade-offs related to the arts, I’d like to share a quote from Larry Rosenstock who leads High Tech High, a San Diego school started by a group of local tech executives frustrated by a lack of skilled workers.  “There is no test for the future that we can teach to.  What we do know, however, is that being able to make new things is still going to be the way to succeed.  Creativity is a skill that never goes out of style.”   As school environments get ever more rigid and test oriented, arts is the area which advances the traits needed for the future—how to cope with complexity and connect ideas, how to develop grit and determination, how to find your voice and say something– whether with music, words, dance or art.  I can think of nothing more essential for the children of our community.  Please preserve the arts as a critical element of education.

To copy or to iterate?

An article in a recent issue of The Economist argued that being good at copying is at least as important as being innovative.  Here’s my take on it.

Schumpeter’s recent piece on Pretty Profitable Parrots seemed to confuse iteration with copying.  Building on the ideas of others is how the world gets better.  All progress stems from what preceded it.  Sir Isaac Newton captured this concept, saying  “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  It can be both brilliant and noble to seek and reapply ideas from one field to another (as in the case of Victoria’s Secret) or to envision an interface so elegant and simple that it transforms a technology (as with Apple and the MP3 player).  But it is not the same as being a copycat.  Copying is taking what is not yours and claiming it as your own, as illustrated by the image of a student leaning over to view his classmate’s work so he can scribble it down on his own test.  Iteration is listening well and contributing something to the conversation.

What do you think?

© May 2012 by Pam Daniels.  All rights reserved.