I am so inspired by organizations and individuals working to solve critical social problems, social entrepreneurs. I read about them, model our CEO WATTAGE efforts on how they quantify data and set smart targets, starting the journey to real change.

Imagine my surprise when I recently found myself in a surreal summer camp setting. Not reading about, but actually surrounded by, real life superheroes. And these amazing people are using their superpowers to help think about and solve critical social problems. IRL, each one striving to make the world a better place.

This was Foo Camp 2016.

Foo, short for Friends of O’Reilly, is an annual curated gathering brought together by legendary community builder Tim O’Reilly, powerhouse lady President Laura Baldwin, and their talented teams. The O’Reilly org provides space, food, limited infrastructure, and step back to watch what happens when the nodes of these superheroes collide.

It’s a 48-hour, ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style gathering, with social entrepreneurs gathered together, as if in the same large brain. The setting was not an urban convention center, rather in the serene wine country of Northern California, on the sprawling campus of the O’Reilly media headquarters, surrounded by an apple orchard.

Each participant is prepped to present and participate. Their presentation topic of choice, hastily scribbled onto a giant sticky note and pasted onto the session board at the opening of camp, may be what they work on full time, or something that they have never thought about or ideated on before.

I’ve had the good luck to have attended many, many conferences over the years. At each, I found myself looking most forward to what my colleagues and I called, “the hallway track”. Those in-between times, where the real work got done, the real conversations had, the deals and decisions made, and the relationships forged.

Foo Camp 2016 was like being in an entire weekend of the most incredible, totally immersive, hallway track.

There was no wrong way to choose ones adventure through the un-conference. There were fourteen sessions at a time, times a lot of sessions, over the two days. Foo Campers would agonize over which session to attend, the content! Name of sessions! Leaders of sessions! Each session looked amazing and it was hard to choose just one at a time.

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Sessions that seemed somewhat simple, like #foocampbooks, provided years of content to consume.

All the individual brains creating new pathways and connections together. The number of options for content created an experience something like a fingerprint for every participant.

Each participant had unique superpowers, and more of us may have superpowers we haven’t decided to use yet. These people had decided to change something with their passions, experiences, visionary-ness. It was humbling and motivating to learn about their talents and experiences.

In addition to the sessions, one evening there was a Foo Camp version of Ignite Talks. Ignite Talks, as their perfect motto ‘enlighten us, but make it quick’ describes, are five minutes long. The speaker slides advance every 15 seconds, automatically. A quick glance at a subset of the #FooCamp2016 Ignite Sessions gives an idea of the depth and breadth of the information presented throughout the event:

  • The importance of labor organizations — today
  • The concept of equal pay for everyone
  • AI, let’s get it right
  • The problem of scientists not sharing data or research
  • How to implement technology to help fix societal problems, for example the difficulty of interacting with the court system
  • How to be a sidekick to a person with a possibly terminal illness
  • How to help empower non-profits with great ideas, ship their ideas
  • Anyone can code! or play with electronics
  • The world needs more fun
  • Crypto is super important

The list of Ignite talks is incomplete and paraphrased, but each delicious mini-morsel of an Ignite talk could have been its own breakout Foo weekend, like the science and education-themed Foo Camps that have emerged out of the original Foo Camp concept.

Those of you with jobs and a side hustle or two, family obligations, and the occasional social interaction: Imagine spending a unique and intellectual weekend as part of a live think tank, cross-pollinating those who amplify what we know, for social change. A weekend of Foo.

I was humbled and honored to be in the presence, even briefly, of some of the great change-makers that I have ever been around. I couldn’t stay awake long enough, or speak with enough people. Bump elbows with someone in the breakfast line? Oh, world-renowned hardware inventor plus woman plus mom. Or, on the cutting edge research team for <insert gigantic global company that I’d never heard of> solving inequality issues. On the front lines of everywhere, there was an incredible caliber of change maker, everywhere I turned.

As a member of CEO WATTAGE, I am inspired monthly by the superwomen running their businesses and lives that come together and contribute to our community of leaders. It was amazing to extend the network to such a warm and smart and curious and world changing group of amazing women (and men).

From my time in the security industry, where the default setting is cynicism, it was nice to glimpse hope, and glimpse the possibility of a more equal and optimistic future for us all.

After Foo Camp 2016, I am even more inspired to have the best answer I can to the question: “What’s your superpower?”, and I wish a little Foo, for each and every one of you.

Here’s to creating places and spaces where we can make this world better together.

This post was originally published on CEO WATTAGE, a platform to help achieve gender equality in leadership. Sarah is the Founder and CEO of RightPatch, a Seattle-based biotech company. She is lucky to be from a long line of inspiring women.

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Patch maker, balance enthusiast, community builder.

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