I was eight years old when I first learned that curious little girls can be intimidating. Even to grownups.
I was sitting at my small desk in an empty classroom after all of my classmates had gone home for the day. At the front of the classroom, Ms. Simpson* was trying to convince my mother that I should repeat the third grade.
My mother, shocked and puzzled, asked if I wasn’t understanding the curriculum.
“No, she understands it.”
Is she failing to turn in her homework?
“No, she isn’t.”
Then, why? Why would I hold her back?
“Because she asks too many questions.”
Ms. Simpson was right. I did ask a lot of questions.
Why was one of the most used words in my vocabulary. I rarely accepted the first answer given to me. And I certainly was never satisfied with the simple answer, even if everyone else thought it was sufficient. For that, Ms. Simpson and adults like her considered me a problem. But my mother knew that I was curious, inquisitive and insatiable…qualities that would serve me well into my adult life.
She rejected the recommendation.
This wouldn’t be the last time that my persistence, curiosity, and drive made others uncomfortable.
Over the years, some told me that I was too ambitious. Some said my ideas were too big, even impossible. And others still told me I was impractical, while stealing the ideas for themselves.
When it comes to being misunderstood — I am in good company.
Walt Disney was told by his boss at the Kansas City Star that he lacked imagination and had no original ideas.
As a child, Thomas Edison’s teacher told him that he was too stupid to learn anything.
Oprah Winfrey was fired by Baltimore’s WJZTV because she was too emotional.
And J.K. Rowling was sacked by Amnesty International for daydreaming too much.
Like my mother taught me to do, they too refused to accept the critiques of the “Ms. Simpsons” in their lives. Instead they said yes when others said no — they made others uncomfortable with their questions, their wonder and their belief in themselves.
So, what happened when this little curious girl grew up to become a curious woman? I pursued a career in which the ability to question, create, and innovate was not only welcomed and celebrated, it was essential to success.
I was intentional in finding leaders and organizations that fostered a learning culture where asking the big questions can lead to transformative programs, partnerships, and change. I’m fortunate to have worked at organizations that got it and me.
At the Center for American Progress, we asked what would happen if the next generation of progressive students on college campuses were armed with the tools they needed to be tomorrow’s leaders?
President Bill Clinton asked what if we take the enthusiasm, optimism, and passion of our global youth and ask them to come together to identify innovative approaches to improve health, climate change, poverty and human rights?
At The Rockefeller Foundation, we wondered how we could bring together some of the world’s greatest leaders — across different fields and backgrounds — to uncover new ideas and solutions, and spark global action?
At the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation, we questioned what the entertainment industry could accomplish if more creators from diverse backgrounds were brought into the fold?
The lessons I learned, leaders I met, the communities I served and ideas I implemented at these extraordinary organizations pushed me to ask myself some of the most important questions of my career: How will you use your position, knowledge and passion to be of service? How will you make a difference?
The answers that surfaced led to one conclusion: to follow my dream and build an agency that focuses on finding creative solutions to our biggest questions and challenges, The Solution Senter.
At The Solution Senter, all questions are welcomed. No idea is too big to test, and no dream is beyond the scope of possibilities. We are relentless in our pursuit of creating a better world. We work with changemakers in the entertainment, philanthropic, political and corporate sectors who share the same vision and belief — that everyone has a responsibility to use their influence, resources and talents to be of service to communities in need.
We work with curious leaders who were once those curious boys and girls. We ask them a single question: What great thing would you attempt, if you knew you couldn’t fail? Then we figure out how — asking more questions along the way and finding the answers together. When no answer exists — we create it. Because at The Solution Senter, we believe that every transformation begins with a single question — and someone with the courage to ask it.
*Names have been changed.