Bringing the humanity back to innovation

Stories of honesty and creativity at BIF 2017

It’s okay to cry at an innovation conference.
Saul Kaplan

And I did.

Ami, Carl, Teny, Courtlandt, Mark and more all brought me to tears sitting in the Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, Rhode Island.

A good story can change the world

These were the words written on the website for the event Business Innovation Factory Summit 2017 (referred to affectionately as “BIF” from here on). What set BIF apart from being another player in buzzword bingo was their commitment to storytelling throughout the event.

There were no speakers or keynotes — there were only storytellers. Each of the sessions featured people from education, government and social entrepreneurship. Some were professional speakers, but all were asked to throw away their canned talks and tell us a story.

Philip Sheppard finishing off his talk with a piece of music

And the storytellers didn’t just use words. They used props, music and most importantly, emotion. Former Patriots lineman Joe Andruzzi told us about a battle with cancer and how it led him to start a charitable foundation. Antoinette Carroll wasn’t afraid to share amazing ideas and how failure encouraged to keep innovating. Carl Stormer taught us how control is for beginners and that we need to accept what world gives us.

Everyone told a story. Though we stayed seated in the theater, we were transported to other places with their words.

A room full of empathy

Mark Brand is a restaurant entrepreneur who started “cool guy restaurants” before he found his purpose. Mark put his ego aside and talked to a homeless man he’d seen on the streets in his Vancouver neighborhood. He learned about the difficulties facing people without a home, the struggles they have in finding employment and living their purpose.

He didn’t step away from food, but he saw problems in the system and decided he could start to make a change.

Mark redesigned the way he hired people in his restaurants. He partnered with ethical farmers. He trained people to work in the kitchen and gave them a place to belong. He even reinvented what it means to donate to someone on the sidewalk by creating special meal tokens. The tokens can be redeemed for a free sandwich at his restaurant, encouraging mutual trust between those giving and those receiving.

Meal tokens (image from

Through initiatives like the token program and other hunger relief efforts, Mark has given over one million meals to those in need. It all started with a little empathy. He took a minute to listen.

A commitment to transformation

Mark Brand took us somewhere new by challenging our preconceptions of poverty, homelessness and hunger. Teny Gross did the same for our notions of inner city violence. Teny doesn’t study non-violence as part of a master’s thesis; he’s just committed to the multi-year process of making a change.

As part of an long-term initiative in Boston, he helped the city reduce the number of homicides in a year from 150 down to 30. Then he moved to Chicago to implement a similar anti-violence program. When he arrived in Chicago he interviewed over 500 city residents to learn about their circumstances. Initially he felt resistance — interviewees didn’t trust his intentions. They asked “Are you going to be at the University doing a two-year study and then leave?”

Teny’s commitment is on a deeper level. He’s dedicated to being a figure people can trust and providing a sustainable solution to a terrible problem.

Commitment to the long-term process of understanding people is at the heart of transformation.

Technology won’t save us

The stories from BIF suggest that technology isn’t going to save civilization. Silicon Valley can’t innovate us out of not caring about public service. A faster micro-processor won’t reduce inequality in the healthcare system. Self-driving cars won’t help increase empathy for people who don’t look like us.

Like Angela Blanchard said, “We may not be at fault, but we are all responsible.” It’s on us to start making the change we need to see in the world. At the end of the day what can save us is our humanity.

We may not be at fault, but we are all responsible.
Angela Blanchard

If we have any hope of changing the world, we need to bring humanity back to innovation. People need to be seen for who they are, not just as consumers and users. For that to happen, we need to take a risk. We need to jump into an empathetic interaction without the protection of a screen. We need to commit to a multi-year process of caring about people. When we can do that, real change starts to happen.

It happened for two days at BIF 2017, but it needs to happen every day. With the person bagging your groceries. With the neighbor you pass on the way to your car. With the people you see each and every moment.

We think of changing the world in a grandiose way. Every single action we take is changing the world — it’s up to us whether it’s for better or for worse.
Antoinette Carroll

Be ready to feel, be ready to challenge your perspectives, be ready to break down and just be.

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