Experience, TiE Youth, Writing

16: Shining Light into The Innovation Blindspot

February 4, 2018

On a chilly October weekend a few years back, I saw a startup pitch that took my breath away. A fifteen year old stood on stage in front of 100 other students and pitched a fashion platform for street artists by street artists. They create art, the platform produces apparel and accessories from it. The kicker? He was wearing an example of exactly how it would work.

You may have heard this pitch before. You may even be wondering what is remarkable about something that sounds a lot like Teespring. The remarkable part? Labraye Franklin was a student from Rosemary Anderson, a school for alienated at-risk youth affected by poverty, family instability and homelessness. He pitched this idea at the first Startup Camp at Catlin Gabel, a private school in Portland. He wasn’t far from his home in NE Portland, but he might as well have been from Mars. He looked, talked, and behaved like none of his peers at Startup Camp.

Labraye’s pitch was wildly popular, a clear audience favorite with dozens of student “upvotes.” Ultimately, though, it failed. No one else would join his team, to build his dream.

One of the proudest moments in my life as an educator was what happened next. Three of my TYE students saw that Labraye wasn’t able to connect to the other students, let alone convince them to join him. They surrounded Labraye and asked him how they could help bring his idea to life. They formed a small team that would grow during the weekend.  Team Blue Market worked their hearts out and ended up in the top 5 that weekend, earning them a private tour of Nike campus.  Labraye never made it to that tour. A few days later he got in trouble and we never heard from him again.

Labraye’s story opened my eyes to the way we find and encourage entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. Frankly, we don’t. In this case, it took one person to physically bring students from Rosemary Anderson to Startup Camp (h/t to Mary Hanlin). Without an opportunity to pitch at Startup Camp, Labraye and his ideas might never have been given a stage.

“We do a pretty good job at identifying the kids who are good at throwing a football or playing a trumpet. But we don’t do a particularly good job of identifying the kids who have the potential of creating a phenomenal new product or service or invention.”  –– Steve Case

Labraye taught me that I had a blind spot to the creativity and entrepreneurship from unexpected places in our community. For our part, TYE established programs in Benson, Reynolds and Rosemary Anderson, all high schools lacking resources. What can you do to increase opportunity in your community? I’d start by reading The Innovation Blind Spot by Ross Baird,  a handbook for those dedicated to giving creative, innovative, inventive people a platform to effect change through a new kind of investment model.

I know Ross through an introduction from the Lemelson Foundation, but had no idea he was working on this book. I found it quite by chance at CES 2018- he had just completed a talk about the book onstage and had come to a booth I was leaning on for an author’s signing. Ross’s passion was infectious and I bought a copy on the spot. I inhaled it on the way home and have been thinking about it ever since.  This is an inspiring read about how to structure your goals to give back and invest for profit in one action. It’s replete with examples and concrete actions you can take, no matter your role or position.  Three things stood out for me:

    • One Pocket Investing – Most people implement two-pocket investing, in which they invest for themselves first, then take philanthropic action. Baird provides a case and framework for making good investments that are simultaneously philanthropic or community-oriented. Impact investing is a great example of how to do this. There’s an analogy in retail- if you purchase on Amazon, use Amazon Smile instead, where every purchases automatically support a charity of your choice. One-pocket investing is a similar concept for venture investments.
    • Common Vocabulary on Startup Stages – So many funding discussions are predicated on terms like “product-market fit.” After working in Angel investment, I’ve seen that these terms mean different things to entrepreneurs and investors. Baird suggests the “VIRAL (Venture Investment-Readiness and Awareness Levels) Pathway” a framework of nine levels of startup maturity graded by eight different factors. This framework demystifies the vocabulary used by typical investors in a way that even my students have no trouble understanding what they need to do. If only they taught this in schools. Ross, if you see this, the original VIRAL poster you gave me is hanging on the wall of my office.
  • Topohilia – A brilliantly simple term that means “love of place.” On first blush it’s simply motivation to serve home first, but the book brilliant unpacks the term into several imperatives. We must go where the entrepreneurs are. We must not just blindly copy the silicon valley model. We must look through profit motive, into ecosystem motive. If nothing else, you’ll see the story of Dan Gilbert’s Family of Companies – Detroit’s One Pocket Investment structure, which quite literally transformed the face of Detroit. I was there a few months back and saw the changes with my own eyes.

It’s easy to imagine a Portland community that supports entrepreneurs who’d normally be relegated into blindspots, by adopting One Pocket Investing and simple to understand growth frameworks like VIRAL.   I loved this book so much, I’m inaugurating an Impact category of my Innovator’s Bookshelf with The Innovation Blindspot.  The principles in this book gave me hope that we can build startup ecosystems that identify and promote creatives and innovators like Labraye, no matter where they may be. I know it’ll do the same for you.

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  • Reply swaran Jain February 5, 2018 at 9:37 am

    Excellent insight into bringing young adults out of obscurity and poverty stricken spaces and helping them to participate with young adults, mentors and innovators. It is not you are lighting up the dark spot but lighting up lives with ideas that they too can invent and be somebody. That will uplift their self esteem and confidence to a level where they to dare to be a contributing part of the society. It is a good thing.

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