Friday, July 24, 2020

Favorite Insights from “Creation in a Time of Disruption”

Our recent virtual panel—“Creation in a Time of Disruption: How COVID-19 is Driving Innovation”--brought together three of the talented entrepreneurs featured in Innovation on Tap. Brenna Berman, Jean Brownhill, and Brent Grinna are each leading their organizations through this difficult period of pandemic and social unrest, and each was gracious enough to carve out time to share experiences and insights.

One of the common challenges mentioned was the adjustment overnight from having mission-based, close-knit, high energy cultures to leading remote workers that ranged from Millennials (suddenly sheltering alone without any real support system) to parents trying to work while taking care of small children or home-schooling. Disruption has reinforced the dual role that work plays in employees’ health and well-being and in the health and well-being of partners, clients, and customers.  All three leaders agree that refocusing on mission helped to re-ground their teams in this unsettled time.

The conversation shifted about half-way through from one about COVID to the George Floyd tragedy and issues of equity and inclusion.  As Brenna Berman said, “The pandemic will be managed and addressed . . . [but] the social justice issue is the one that’s going to take the hard work.” The idea that entrepreneurs can use this moment to arrive at a more just and equitable workplace was a moment of epiphany for me.

The complete video can be found here on the City Tech Collaborative site--and thanks for their sponsorship.  Below, I have chosen just three of my favorite insights (lightly edited for context and clarity) from the 75-minute panel. There is much more, and I encourage you to watch it all. 

Jean Brownhill is the founder and CEO of Sweeten, a company that matches home renovation projects with thoroughly vetted general contractors and then offers expert advice, platform tools, and financial protections at no additional cost to the homeowner. Sweeten launched in New York City and has expanded its services to Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Atlanta. 

(For those of you interested in Jean's backstory, she is featured in chapter 18 of Innovation on Tap.  Favorite line from the chapter: "I was so inspired by Warren Buffett and the example he set that I wrote him a letter.  When I got a response from him, that was the next moment my brain rewired.")

On “fast-forwarding” the future (11:10): “It was important to remind ourselves that the end of the world has been predicted many times—and it has not happened.  [We need to keep] that squarely in our sights. 

We have an online platform that facilitates offline transactions. So, when shelter-in-place went into effect in the majority of the cities we operate in . . . all of our construction projects came to a grinding halt.  Our business, within the course of a week, went from processing thousands of renovations to processing almost none.  And that is, of course, an incredibly scary moment for our staff, for our general contractors, and for our homeowners who might have been in all different stages of their renovation. But we had to hold fast to the idea that . . . this will not be the end of the world.  People will still live in houses. People will still want to renovate those houses. We will get back to business.

And to really take this opportunity to invest in the things that will stabilize us now as a company—and that certainly included some cost-cutting measures and some reallocation of funds . . . But then really look for opportunities to invest now so that we can thrive later. 

Of course, no one wants to think about COVID as having any silver linings, when hundreds of thousands of people are dying and so many people are losing their jobs and sufferings . . . but I did think it was important to look to this moment and the opportunities it presented us.

That meant the fast-forwarding of the future of construction.  I believe—and we see—that our general contractors are now willing and open to using technology solutions that they were not open to using before this happened.  We believe that we’ve probably been fast-forwarded three to five years into the future as it related to construction technology.  And we’re taking advantage of that opportunity.”   

Brenna Berman is the CEO and Executive Director of City Tech Collaborative, an organization based in Chicago with a national footprint.  City Tech is an urban accelerator that brings together large organizations (such as Microsoft), smaller organizations and startups, government and community organizations that work together to solve urban problems too big for any one organization to take on by itself. 

City Tech features a co-innovation process that brings together solutions that are scalable and sustainable—to help break the “tyranny of pilots.”  Programs range from mobility, last mile innovation, and infrastructure to health, homelessness and promoting equity in the digital divide. 

(Brenna's backstory is chapter 17 of Innovation on Tap. Favorite line from the chapter: "There is a 'tyranny of the pilot.' There are thousands of smart city pilots around the US, many of which worked well, that never scaled because there was never any planning about how to scale them. . . .")

On protecting mental health in a “remote” world (28:30): “I was not as protective of my time as Jean was early on . . . Like a lot of people, I’m home with kids who are going to school and trying to balance a number of things beyond just work . . . I’m a Peloton person . . . and I’m maniacal about that half-hour on that bike . . . And [I needed to] encourage my team to take that time away.  We did call a couple of “mental health days” early on: “This Friday is off—there’s nothing we’re doing today that won’t be here on Monday.” And especially now in the summer months, encouraging people to take vacation time, even if they can’t use it to go anywhere . . . to protect their mental sanity and health space and get that time with their family and friends in whatever way is healthy and safe for them to do that.  To make sure that they can continue to bring their value to the table for their family and for their jobs . . .

(50:45): We’re finally seeing some of the studies of the impact that remote work has had, frankly, on the productivity of women as the primary caregivers . . . and there’s been a lack of discussion around the fact that you can’t work from home if you’re taking care of your kids at the same time. The less affluent you are, the bigger problem that is.  It has all sorts of social ramifications.  I think it’s been a very undefined and unsettled conversation . . . The best outcome of this for any company big or small is the ability to rethink what the right hybrid situation is for them.  No longer do you have to make one decision or another--we’re in an office or we work at home . . .

All of these innovations that we’re finding now . . . give us the ability to think more broadly about how we view everything and use that thinking to say: My end goal is a more diverse, more flexible, more enlightened, available workforce . . . How do I get there? What’s the means that help me achieve that? . . . We kind of have a blank slate for that now. 

Brent Grinna is the founder and CEO of EverTrue, a leading provider of software for educational fundraising. Based in Boston, EverTrue is ten years old and works with several hundred colleges and universities around the country. 

(Brent's backstory is chapter 19 of Innovation on Tap. Favorite line from the chapter: "EverTrue is not a real company, but now The Boston Globe thinks it's a real company. So, it's a real company.")

On equity and diversity (47:00):  I’m hopeful that if we can all get through this . . . it's going to be an incredible step forward for families.  It’s going to be a step forward for supporting companies that, like ours, have so much work do to as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion.  Being able to think about the world as a talent pool, about the United States as a talent pool. Not having it be centered around 330 Congress in Boston is refreshing for me.  We’ve already begun exploring more proactive recruitment of diverse networks. 

For me . . . the George Floyd issues and tragedy and everything around that has been way harder to navigate as a leader and with my team than COVID and remote work . . . COVID was thrust upon us totally external force.  But around racial justice, inequity . . . There’s no vaccine that’s going to create equity and inclusion overnight. The only thing that’s going to do that is a ton of hard work, long-term planning, changing our networks. Those of the things that I’m hopeful that, out of two tragedies and this confluence of events--one natural, one societal--that there might be an opportunity to have both remote work and diversity, equity, and inclusion as being some of the legacies of 2020 that are actually quite positive.


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