Category Archives: social entrepreneurship

[R]evolutionary Thinking: LeapFrog Logic


My LAUNCH buddy James Parr of Imaginals recommended Roger L. Martin’s book, “The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win through Integrative Thinking” for my PhD research on Social Intrapreneurship. Martin explores what he calls integrative thinking — a pattern of thinking (cognitive discipline) that relies on cultivating the opposable mind.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”  — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Martin walks through a process of mapping the mind by identifying

  1. stance: who you are and what you’re after,
  2. tools: knocking the world into shape, and
  3. experiences: where stance and tools meet the world (i.e. sensitivities and skills).

Personal knowledge is comprised of these three elements of Martin’s mind map. Breaking down the elements, an integrative thinker’s stance will recognize the gap between reality and possibilities, refusing to accept that the best options are on the table. An integrative thinker imagines a reality that doesn’t exist, and creates the models to bring it into being.

“Integrative thinkers reason about what MIGHT be — about models that don’t yet exist — to generate a creative resolution. — Martin”

I’m intrigued by his discussion of generative reasoning, which he describes in three forms of logic. The first two are best known. The third, less discussed:

  1. deductive logic — the logic of what should be,
  2. inductive logic –the logic of assumption that certain observations can be generally applied, and
  3. abductive logic — leapfrog logic that requires creative thinking.

Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of American Pragmatism, coined the term adductive logic, which seeks the best explanation for misfit data that doesn’t fall nicely under the current models. To take this a bit further, enough misfit data and we’re are often forced into a Thomas Kuhn paradigm shift in thinking. Martin argues that integrative thinkers (entrepreneurs/intrapreneurs) rely on generative reasoning as the only tool that can bring about creative solutions to intractable problems.

The raw material for integrative thinking — via generative reasoning — is “what does not YET exist.”

I’m extremely fortunate to work with an amazing group of integrative thinkers with the LAUNCH team, LAUNCH Council, and LAUNCH Innovators. We wrestle with how best to dislodge intractable sustainability issues that face the 7 billion+ of us who share this planet, as well as the six human living onboard the International Space Station. Stay tuned for our upcoming LAUNCH sustainability challenge focused on the materials system. We’ll convene a conversation with abductive thought leaders from industry, government, and non-profits to create new solutions and new models to bring about global paradigm shifts in the way we make and use the scarce resources — or create new options no one has yet considered.

All you leapfroggers, UNITE! Together, we can create a new reality if we use our opposable minds and abductive brainwaves. 😀

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Message of Hope: Female Micropreneurs of South Africa

Zanele Mbeki: Founder of Women's Development Businesses in South Africa

Zanele Mbeki, Founder of Women’s Development Businesses (and former First Lady of South Africa). Credit: “Velvet Gloves Iron Fists”

For the final paper in my International Development class this semester for the Virginia Tech Planning, Governance and Globalization PhD program, I took on the topic of microfinance in developing countries. I explored the case of South Africa’s Women’s Development Businesses (WDB) Group to determine whether microcredit empowers or exploits the poorest of the poor. I was awed and humbled by the pioneering work of WDB founder Zanele Mbeki and her colleagues, who refused to stand by and watch their young nation leave behind a significant segment of the population — specifically the impoverished women in rural Mpumalanga, South Africa.

I want to pass on a tidbit of what I learned in writing this paper as my gift of hope, encouragement, and inspiration during this Christmas season.

Much may be wrong in this world, but this is a story of what women can do to help one another.

South Africa squatter's villageThe financial landscape for women in South Africa, an emerging economy in development terms, mirrors much of what female entrepreneurs face around the world. Studies sponsored by the International Finance Corporation point to unequal access to finance, defined by race and gender.

  • Black African women remain on the edge of economic activities.
  • Women comprise 52% of the South African population, of which 91% of white women are banked, as opposed to 38% of black women.
  • 42% of black women have no access to financial assets, with the remaining 20% resorting to informal financial products, including savings clubs, retail credit, insurance, or burial societies.
  • Despite the fact that women traditionally repay loans at a higher rate than men, women entrepreneurs face prejudice and barriers to access to abundant private and public sector financial resources.
  • Black women comprise the largest self-employed segment of the population, with the majority of their businesses in the informal sector.
  • Only one of every four banks considered engaging in more women-owned enterprise programs, and only two microenterprise lenders exist to serve 56,000 primarily female microentrepreneurs.
  • Rural areas remain disadvantaged and neglected.

Image credit: Women's Development Bank of South Africa
South Africa’s Women’s Development Businesses fills the gap in microcredit and financial services for impoverished women in rural areas, and promotes social and economic empowerment.

Following the fall of apartheid and encouraged by the Grameen Bank microcredit strategies, Zanele Mbeki started WDB in 1991 to alleviate poverty and empower the marginalized rural poor. Starting with R20,000, which is the equivalent of little more than $2000, Mbeki gathered together female colleagues with business, financial, and banking skills set out to change the world, starting with a pilot program to meet the needs of 50 unschooled rural women in Acornhoek, Mpumalanga. The first WDB clients received R300 or $34 for their initial loans – a huge sum for women who had rarely had access to more than R10 ($1.10). After three months, the woman repaid 100% of their loans, launching WDB into its current operation with three divisions: WDB Microfinance, WDB Trust, and WDB Investment Holdings. Since its inception, WDB disbursed R36 million (over $4 million) to 35,000 women, meaning 150,000 benefitted – assuming an average five-member household.

Women Micropreneurs in South Africa. Credit: "Velvet Gloves Iron Fists"The initial 50  women formed lending groups that were accountable for the collective repayment of the loans. No additional loans would be disbursed until all the initial loans in the group have been repaid. The women worked together to reach success. WDB taught them basic literacy, book-keeping skills and computer training. The women improved their lives as a collective unit rather than as individuals. The Mpumalanga women weren’t content with just one or two loans to get by, they took out larger loans, diversified, pooled their resources, and built business together – recruiting their children, husbands, and neighbors.

WDB gave these women access to microcredit, training, and education, and broke the cycle of poverty. Women who participated in their microcredit programs gained self-esteem, respect and improved status in the family, better access to nutrition and education for their children, improved home life and lower morbidity rates.

Women Micropreneurs in South Africa. Credit: "Velvet Gloves Iron Fists"

Their story speaks of faith, perseverance, and fierce determination NOT to accept the status quo.

Bravo to the women of WDB and their clients who proved microcredit can unlock entrepreneurship, as well as new avenues for confidence, self-worth, and hope for a bright future.

Women Micropreneurs in South Africa. Credit: "Velvet Gloves Iron Fists"

This is the season of giving. If you’re looking for last minute gifts, consider microloan gift cards from Kiva. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. As each loan is paid off, you can lend again and again.

Merry Christmas. Peace on Earth to all mankind.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us — yes, establish the work of our hands. Psalm 90:17

Full text posted on my Virginia Tech blog: “Women Microentrepreneurs: Fuel for Neoliberal Growth Engine.”


International Finance Corporation. 2011. “Woman and Business: Drivers of Development.” Telling Our Story, Vol. 5 (2).

Kiva. 2012. “Womens Development Businesses (WDB) Partner profile.” Fundraising information page.

Naidoo, Sharda, Anne Hilton and Illana Melzer. 2006. “Access to Finance for Women Entrepreneurs in South Africa: Challenges and Opportunities.” Study by Gender Entrepreneurship Markets (GEM) program on behalf of South Africa’s Gender and Women’s Economic Empowerment Unit of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and FinMark Trust.

United Nations. 2011. “Microfinance in Africa: Overview and Suggestions for Action by Stakeholders.” Report by the United Nations Office of Special Advisor on Africa.

Westoll, Hendrina. 2010. Velvet Gloves and Iron Fists. South Africa: Business Century Publishing.

Women’s Development Bank Group of South Africa website. 2012.

World Bank. 2012. “World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development.” Report for World Bank.

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Feast on Good: Tasty Treat

I returned home last night from two days of feasting on good — a smorgasbord of innovative social good projects and conversations with innovators who all seek new ways to make this world a better place. I had the good fortune to attend because the conference organizers asked NASA to present LAUNCH: Collective Genius for a Better World. Jim Adams, Deputy Chief Technologist for NASA, presented LAUNCH to kickoff Day One of the Feast. Several of our LAUNCH team members attended: Diane Powell/NASA, Will Schmitt/USAID, Laura Adams/NIKE, Todd Khozein/Second Muse, and Victor Friedberg/BIG.

Stop Waiting for the World to Change. Change it and the world will follow.

A huge thanks to Jerri Chou, Feast organizer, for throwing such an amazing event. I met so many crazy brilliant people who have such passion to change the world. I love talking to others who care so deeply about creating social good. Two days of non-stop intellectual and emotional engagement is both exhausting and rejuvenating. I’m filled with so many new and intriguing perspectives on how to approach solution-creation.

Here are a few tweets to reflect our experience.

Feast: Tony Chu tweet

@Feast: @NASAJim tweet
Feast: Amy Muller- Arcade Fire tweet

@Feast: @Aijenpoo tweet

Feast: @BethBeck @StoryPirates tweet

@Feast: Invisible Helmet tweet

Feast: @Fluid tweet

On Feast Day Two, we broke into groups to tackle a series of Design Challenges covering Data, Health, Poverty, Eco, and Open Design. I worked on the Open Design challenge team — “to empower a new group of people to make something that improves their physical environment.” We chose to interpret the challenge as a way to help kids know that “things” they interact with are actually made. They live in a world of products that magically appear on shelves in stores. We want them to engage in the “making of things” and be curious about how things are made. We created the concept of the “Breaker Box” where students are given a box with things inside that they can deconstruct and make something out of. We chose to create a Swiss Army Music Box with tools that could be made into musical instruments. What a fun team to work with.
Feast: Danielle Ma tweet

Feast: Richard Demato @rdemato tweet

Feast: @RobinHoodNYC tweet

Feast: @bethbeck open design challenge tweet

@Feast: Open Design Challenge tweet

@Feast: Eco Design Challenge tweet

@Feast: Health Design Challenge tweet

Feast: @Changeorder "Amber Waves" tweet

The only downside to the Feast: wifi overload. With the live stream and the hacking challenge community going on at the same time, I couldn’t tweet fab tidbits of wisdom in most of Day Two and the latter half of Day One. But, that’s a good problem to have. Great demonstration of demand swamping supply.

Feast: Follow the hashtag
All in all, my favorite speaker was the self-titled Evil Genius @Whurley, co-founder of Chaotic Moon Studios. He totally speaks my language. On his card: “We may not have been invited to a lot of parties in high school, but trust us — You don’t want the Prom King in charge of your mobile strategy.” Too funny.  His success formula: Instigation + Collaboration + Innovation. He defined instigation as the heart of innovation. I totally agree. He challenged us to go against the grain. If our ideas are easily accepted, they can’t be all that innovative. Collaboration comes at a cost — a balance of control vs. influence. Controlling an idea can stiffle progress. He recommended we work toward influencing an outcome vs controlling it. Well said! Here is one of my favorite quotes:

Feast: @BethBeck quoting @Whurley tweet

Thanks Feast! I feel recharged and ready to rush out and change the world.

And, BTW, all you feasters, submit your challenge projects to Fragile Oasis. I’m looking forward to seeing you there.

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5th Dimension: Imagination Space

There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone—Rod Serling

Star Trek: Borg spacecraft

Star Trek: Borg Cube

In physics, the fifth dimension exists outside the space-time continuum, which is the three-dimensional space (up-down, backward-forward, right-left) plus the fourth dimension of time. I’ll stick with Rod Serling’s version of the fifth dimension as the space where imagination lives.

Looking at the fifth dimension from a math point of view, five-dimensional geometry features a 5-cube, part of the hypercube family (which makes me think of the Star Trek Borg connection.) Look at the series of geometric figures below, each generated from a 5-cube. What do you see? I see a visual representation of the 5th Dimension Imagination Space — a constellation of ideas and solutions that can be generated from 5 points of reference.


Idea generation (or…31 uniform polytera generated from 5-cube)

So how can we harness the 5th Dimension Imagination Space?

That question drives my PhD dissertation research on the topic of Social Intrapreneurship — individuals from the 5th Dimension who leverage the mission and capabilities of their organizations to provide social good. I’m looking at the characteristics  and skills of change-makers, their idea generation/implementation process, and the organizations capacity to allow entrepreneurial activities to exist and flourish. I’m specifically interested in the disruptive thinking process that can shift the status quo and bring about social change.

Here are a few tidbits of wisdom from three books I’ve read recently.

1. “Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation,” by Tim Brown.

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO offers three dimensions to define the creation space:

  1. inspiration space, where insights are harvested;
  2. ideation space, where insights become ideas; and
  3. implementation space, where action plans are created from the best ideas (p. 64).

He divides the creation process into “four mental states” — divergent and convergent thinking, followed by analysis and synthesis (p. 66-70). Divergent thinking is all about creating choices, where convergent thinking leads to making choices (p. 82). The process of brainstorming is a “structured way of breaking out of structure (p. 78).”

 “Every design process cycles through foggy periods of seemingly unstructured experimentation and bursts of intense clarity, periods of grappling with the Big Idea and long stretches during which all attention focuses on the details.” — Tim Brown

My favorite part of the book was his story about working on a kid’s product for NIKE (our partner). They asked a group of kids, aged eight to ten, to come up with a product ideas — then divided the girls from the boys. The girls came up with over 200 ideas by leap-frogging each other’s ideas. The boys compiled 50 ideas. Hmmm. Why, you may ask. The author explains that the boys were so busy trying to sell their own ideas that they paid little attention to anyone else’s ideas (p. 79).

2. “How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas,” by David Bornstein

Bornstein explores what makes a social entrepreneur and looks for ways to identify them before they become well known. “Social entrepreneurs rarely announce themselves when they walk in the door.” He points out Ashoka’s criteria — vision, determination, and ethics (p. 120-201). He points to the difference between having an idea and being able to implement it (p. 123).

“What fascinates me most about the social entrepreneurs, at a personal level, is the way they hold to an internal vision no matter how many disruptive forces surround them. Somehow they find ways to construct meanings for themselves and hold to those meanings. On a daily basis, they manage to align their interests, abilities, beliefs, while acting to produce changes that accord with their deepest convictions (p. 288).” — David Bornstein

Bornstein identifies six qualities to look for in social entrepreneurs:

  1. willingness to self-correct,
  2. willingness to share credit,
  3. willingness to break free of established structures,
  4. willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries,
  5. willingness to work quietly, and
  6. strong ethical impetus (p. 238-46).

3. “The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World” by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan

“Being unreasonable is not just a state of mind. It is also a process by which older, outdated forms of reasoning are jettisoned and new ones conceived and evolved (p. 1).” — Elkington and Hartigan

The authors investigated the roots of unreason in successful social entrepreneurs to determine how their bring about change. From the outside, these individuals seek “outlandish goals” by attacking intractable problems. They force others to “look beyond the edge of what is possible.” The authors wanted to understand how they approach value creation, as well as common models of leadership and business.

Social entrepreneurs are in demand from global corporations who are looking for “market intelligence” since entrepreneurs serve as “sensitive barometers for detecting market risk and opportunities (p. 2).” What sets social entrepreneurs apart from their business entrepreneur counterparts is their sense of the long-term solutions to problem, rather than short term gain from selling the idea.

How do we populate the 5th Dimension Imagination Space with divergent, disruptive thinkers, who have the freedom to create the maximum number of choices for optimum implementation?

I’ll let you know when I finish my dissertation. And, I hope I don’t find myself somewhere out in the Twilight Zone. 😉

Twilight Zone

Rod Serling: Twilight Zone

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LAUNCH: Innovation Super Bowl

“Your heart, not your knowledge or skill, is your qualification for leadership.”

A guest pastor at DC Metro church last weekend made this statement above. As I listen to the LAUNCH: Beyond Waste innovators share their passion for making the world a better place, I keep thinking the heart is what draws us together for the common goal of solving the intransigent problems facing humanity — like water, health, energy, and now waste.

After our first day of prep session with the innovators, I’m renewed with hope for what we can do collectively, if we join together with single purpose. Each of us on the LAUNCH team speaks the same passion language for a sustainable existence (both on and OFF this planet).

The LAUNCH forum is our Innovation Super Bowl.

We work for months to source and gather the right mix of expertise, experience, and influence for the LAUNCH Council and a balanced set of innovations to tackle complex issues. Once we get to this point in the process, we recharge off the collective genius of the minds gathered together for the forum.

Here are a few snapshots from Pasadena so far.

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LAUNCH: Collective Genius for Better World!


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Stay tuned for LAUNCH: Beyond Waste

It’s finally here — LAUNCH: Beyond Waste! We’ve been working for the last six months to get to this point. We head out to Pasadena, California this week to hear from nine innovators with creative ways to create value from discarded products  — plastic bottles, human and plant waste, unused fabric, and more.

LAUNCH, for those of you who haven’t heard me talk about it before, is a social entrepreneurship enterprise that breaks new ground in public/private partnerships. We created the LAUNCH program three years ago to address large, sustainability-related challenges that no single government or commercial entity can solve alone. Our talented LAUNCH team searches for transformative innovations, which we connect with a collaborative group of thought leaders and experts which we call LAUNCH Council. LAUNCH Innovators are uniquely poised to accelerate their innovations for greater impact and scale by leveraging the advice, networks, and resources of the LAUNCH Council members and the global stage LAUNCH provides.

The ultimate goal of LAUNCH is a sustainable future for planet Earth and her citizens.

The LAUNCH: Beyond Waste forum is the fourth in a series of challenges, following Water, Health, and Energy. The LAUNCH team focused on waste as a challenge topic in order to address increasing strain on the planet’s limited resources. Global citizens, as well as explorers who leave Earth’s protection, share the need for creative solutions to the issue of waste — from designing for zero waste to revaluing existing waste from inefficient production and processes. LAUNCH: Beyond Waste addresses this global challenge.

I love the tagline from Anshu Gupta of Goonj, one of our innovators from India, who wants to transform the cash society into a trash society — meaning trash = revenue stream. Our western version: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Here are the cool movie posters our team (Trish and Lilly) created to represent each innovation we’ll feature at the forum.

Attero: Attero is India’s first low cost, efficient metal extraction technology for e-waste. With an integrated recycling and refurbishing facility and proprietary metallurgical processes (patent pending), Attero is the only end-to-end e-waste recycling company in India.

Goonj: Using urban waste streams as a powerful development resource in rural India, Goonj is dedicated to saving lives, empowering people, and ensuring dignity for the underserved poor in rural India. Through its activities, Goonj helps to create a parallel economy that is not ‘cash based’, but ‘trash based.’

Kiverdi: Kiverdi offers a proprietary bioprocess that recycles waste carbon from a number of waste streams, including syngas (from forestry residue and landfills), stranded natural gas or agricultural residue, to produce drop-in fuels, oils and custom chemicals. Kiverdi’s industrial scale bioreactor allows the company to transform biomass into high value industrial products.

Pylantis: Pylantis is a bioplastics company with a proprietary process that combines organic fillers (waste) with plant plastic resins to create high waste content injection molded products capable of withstanding temperatures up to 140C. Pylantis produces a wide variety of products that provide a commercially viable alternative to environmentally unsustainable traditional petroleum-based plastic products.

re:char: re:char’s technology allows farmers worldwide to convert their waste into biochar, a carbon-negative soil amendment to grow more food and fight climate change.

RecycleMatch: RecycleMatch is the first global on-line marketplace for recycling that connects waste generators, recyclers, and manufacturers. The RecycleMatch platform finds the ‘highest and best use’ for recyclables and ‘waste’ byproducts in the market.

Sanergy: Sanergy provides quality sanitation facilities, efficient and effective waste collection services, and proper waste treatment in the slums of Kenya.

SEaB Energy: SEaB provides companies a turn-key waste to energy product which uses micro anaerobic digestion to convert organic waste into energy on-site at the source of the waste generation where the energy can be utilized continuously.

SIRUM: SIRUM disrupts the pharmaceutical supply chain by redistributing unused, unexpired medicine that would otherwise be destroyed.

You can follow along during the forum at the NASA MindMapr page. Learn more about the forum on the NASA website.

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LAUNCH: Time to Stop Wasting

I’m flying high today. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy website hosted our LAUNCH: Beyond Waste blogpost authored by LAUNCH: Water Innovator and Astronaut Ron Garan: LAUNCHing Ideas for a Waste-less Tomorrow.

We’ve been refining LAUNCH over the last few years. This will be our fourth sustainability innovation forum. We’ve hosted LAUNCH: Water, LAUNCH: Health, and most recently, LAUNCH: Energy — all at the Kennedy Space Center. Now we’re moving from the east coast to the west coast. We’ll gather 35-ish thought leaders to hear and discuss ten game-changing solutions to the problem of waste at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory this July.

Waste is a huge issue for humans living on the planet, as well as those who live beyond the borders of Earth. In the developed world, we live in a throw-away society. We use a product (and sadly people, sometimes) and toss it when the newest model comes along. In the developing world, citizens take discarded objects, and give them new life. My daughter bought this soda can art from a market in South Africa.

South African Art: Plane from Recycled Fanta Can

South African Art: Plane from Recycled Fanta Can

To travel in space long distances, humans must take what they need for the journey. At $10,000/lb, we need to think long and hard about the essentials we send off the planet in our rocket-propelled biospheres.

We need creative minds to help think about designing a future with zero waste, and re-think waste in creative new ways to add redundant value.

LAUNCH: Beyond Waste is accepting proposals until May 15th. Be the change we need for a better tomorrow. Apply now at

Stop wasting time! It’s time to stop wasting.  

Let’s create a future with zero waste. I’ll leave you with a little Steve Miller Band….

Time Keeps on Slipping: Steve Miller Band

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LAUNCH: Culture of Collaboration

My NASA colleague Diane Powell and I spoke to the DC campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology about the collaborative principles of LAUNCH. LAUNCH is a public/private partnership with USAID, State Department, and NIKE. The PhD students, including my daughter Steph, are exploring ways to collaborate with international organizations in culturally sensitive ways. They wanted to learn two things from the LAUNCH experience: how does collaboration work, and how do we address international and cultural differences to get the best results.

Diane gave an overview of LAUNCH as a program. I talked about the culture of collaboration, based on our experiences creating and managing LAUNCH.

Key takeaway: Collaboration is messy. 

But well worth it, in my estimation. Anyone interested in engaging in a collaborative enterprise, of any kind, should assume a bit of craziness. To expect otherwise might lead to disappointment. In other words, we should be realistic in our expectations of fellow collaborators. After all, we humans see the world differently. And that’s ok. That’s what makes the human experience so rich…and complicated. Here are a few observations about why collaboration may require us to step outside our comfort zone.

Barriers to Collaboration:

  • We don’t speak the same language — whether English, Russian, Afrikaans; rules-oriented vs. free-spirited; public sector, private industry, NGO or faith-based.
  • We don’t share the same work ethic — good enough vs. perfection…or somewhere in between.
  • We don’t look the same — clean cut or eclectic; round or square; purple, green, or polkadot.
  • We don’t share the same values or focus — public good or profit; community, state, national interest; childhood or adult issues; male or female-oriented.
  • We prefer different styles of authority — collegial, authoritarian, dictatorial.
  • We often assess motives of others based on our own assumptions or experiences.

You get the picture. We all approach issues, problems, solutions from our own unique perspective. Valuing different perspectives helps foster a collaborative frame of mind.

Western solutions to the world’s problems:

The PhD students are assessing how to appropriately apply western approaches to international professional psychology. From my perspective, the “do no harm” Star Trek Prime Directive may be relevant for the discussion.

Star Trek Enterprise

Star Trek Enterprise

Jean-Luc Picard

Jean-Luc Picard

“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”—Jean-Luc Picard, Symbiosis

At our LAUNCH: Big Think, I was chatting with Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez, CEO, Goodwill Industries San Francisco. We talked about how “helping” organizations are accused of disrupting traditional cultures and communities. Her response:

“We live in an ever-evolving cultural eco-system.”

Her point is that we can’t stop helping less fortunate individuals and communities for fear we might introduce disruption. In fact, we want to interrupt the downward spiral. The good news: new businesses grow up around change. Those who don’t change with the needs of society die off. Just look at Kodak, for example. Digital film left the company in the past.

Any change we introduce into a cultural eco-system will alter the flow. We can’t expect the world to stay the same. LAUNCH is all about disruptive innovation to bring about solutions to the world’s most intractable sustainability problems. But, in order to avoid Sociologist Robert Merton’s Law of Unintended Consequences, we need to look at downstream consequences – not just point-of-disruption solutions — to understand the full impact of any change we introduce.

Here are a few tips on how to affect positive change in a culturally sensitive way.

  1. Askwhat are the issues, needs, barriers; how can we help.
  2. Absorb listen and hear objectively, remove personal filters from what we think the issues are.
  3. Adapt find creative ways to apply “our” solutions to their needs.
  4. Adopt success means the end user takes ownership, internalizes solutions.

End goal: Learn to be culturally relevant so that our innovative solutions take root in society. If we do it right, we can all…

Star Trek: Spock

Star Trek: Spock

…“Live Long and Prosper”


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LAUNCH:Energy Super-Charged!

Sparks fly when innovative thinkers join together to address critical issues — like solving the world’s sustainability problems. LAUNCH gives us a unique opportunity to expand the Fellowship of Innovation with  ten new LAUNCH innovators, several dozen new LAUNCH Council Members, and new members of the LAUNCH team. What a privilege to recharge my creative batteries in this unique creative power source.

LAUNCH: Energy view of Vehicle Assembly Building

LAUNCH: Energy. Space Shuttle Endeavour waits for us over at the VAB.

It was only one week ago when NASA hosted LAUNCH: Energy at the Kennedy Space Center. Quick summary: ten innovators presented TED-like presentations to thought leaders in their various disciplines. Presentations are followed by high impact round table discussions with each innovator to probe, question, and evaluate the potential of each innovation.

LAUNCH: Energy is our third sustainability forum, following LAUNCH: Water and LAUNCH: Health. This was our first without a Space Shuttle launch to plan around. We’ve never hosted an event at the Kennedy Space Center during a holiday weekend. A government facility on a long weekend feels like a ghost town — eerily deserted. On the flip side, we had the place to ourselves. We FINally snagged the Mission Management Team meeting room, which was always our first choice. Planning events during Space Shuttle launches means prime real estate is already spoken for, and rightly so.

Press site

The press site looks so empty without a Space Shuttle launch.

We were fortunate to tour the Vehicle Assembly Building where post-retirement Space Shuttle Endeavour takes shelter. I have to admit, seeing her without her eyes, nose, and engines made me heartsick. How strange to stare in the face of history.

Space Shuttle Endeavour in her twilight years.

Space Shuttle Endeavour in her twilight years.

Many ask us: Why LAUNCH?

LAUNCH is our opportunity to problem-solve for an entire weekend with a group of innovative thinkers who care deeply about saving the world — social entrepreneurship at its best. As a bonus, we hopefully infect participants with our “Yes We Can” space virus that they, in turn, spread to their colleagues, friends and families.

Personally, LAUNCH is an intellectual treat. Brain candy!

LAUNCH is all about three things for NASA:

  1. sharing the sustainability story of how life off this planet mirrors Earth — we have no natural resources in space which forces us to generate, collect, store, conserve, recycle, and manage our resources wisely — just like Earth but more extreme;
  2. offering our problem-solving expertise and convening power of the NASA brand to host a crucial conversation with innovative problem solvers from around the world, and
  3. promoting the emergence of transformative technology to solve problems that we share as global citizens of this planet, which may also address issues of long-duration life in the extremes of space.
Inspirational setting for LAUNCH:Energy

Can you think of a more "problem-solving" setting?

Fellowship of Innovation

The ten innovators, who are now part of our innovation fellowship (and FAMILY) offer a variety of solutions to address energy sustainability challenges. The innovations include an economical fuel cell that can be recharged in a cooking fire, a thin flexible electrochromic film that can be applied to windows or surfaces to manage energy use, a low temperature heat activated fluid motion pump, a hydrokinetic turbine, a 96% efficient wood combustion cookstove process, a thermal energy battery for economical refrigeration in remote locations, a next generation fast-charging, long-lasting ultracapacitor battery, an integrated smart microgrid, a lightweight energy management system, and a solar-powered lantern/charger.

Solantern light, charging station, and solar charger.

Solantern light, charging station, and solar charger.

Social Entrepreneurship

At its essence, LAUNCH is an enterprise grounded in social entrepreneurship — the effort to target large-scale transformational outcomes to make life better for a segment of the underserved populations on our planet.

Side Note: Social entrepreneurship is near and dear to my heart and the topic of my PhD research. Thanks to two separate bus rides from Kennedy Space Center back to our hotel in Orlando, I refined my research proposal — which was due immediately following LAUNCH: Energy. Council members Carrie Freeman of Intel and James Parr, formerly of IDEO and founder of Imaginals, introduced me to new concepts and potential research paths. I came home and rewrote my proposal.

LAUNCH is the innovation soup we create by pulling together just the right ingredients and turning up the heat — like a long bus ride at the end of a long day.

Hatching new ideas on ride to and from Kennedy Space Center

Hatching new ideas on ride to and from Kennedy Space Center.


And now, the real work begins. The Accelerator process, the next phase, is the critical follow-through leg of the LAUNCH journey, where our LAUNCH team 1) walks the Innovators through recommendations and insights shared by the Council, 2) refines and crafts a forward strategy, and 3) helps make connections necessary to solidify future support for each innovation. This process can last from four-six months, depending on the wishes of the innovator and the maturity of the innovation.

Thanks to all the LAUNCH team for all the long hours in planning, preparation, and execution. Thanks to all the Council Members for giving so generously of your time. Thanks especially to all our LAUNCH Innovators for caring enough about the future of our human race to create transformative solutions. You guys ROCKet!!

To borrow from Innovator Frank Wang, “Let’s get super-charged. BOOM!”

LAUNCH Innovator Frank Wang, "Boom! Super-charged!!"

LAUNCH Innovator Frank Wang, "Boom! Super-charged!!"


LAUNCH:Energy Flickr photos by LAUNCH team member Dennis Bonilla.

LAUNCH:Energy photos by LAUNCH Council Member Michael Catalano.

Forum Concludes with LAUNCH of New Ideas to Generage, Store and Distribute Energy by LAUNCH Council and team member Rebecca Taylor

LAUNCH: Energy Forum — An Update from Mission Control  by Department of State team member Vy Manthripragada.

LAUNCH: Energy Forum — Fueling Ideas, Propelling Innovation by Department of State team member Vy Manthripragada.

LAUNCHing an Energized Future by LAUNCH team member Lena Delchad.

Collective Genius for a Better World by NASA’s Open Gov team member Ali Llewellyn.

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Filed under innovation, LAUNCH, NASA, social entrepreneurship, space, technology