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Female Disruptors: Dr. Amy Brand of The MIT Press On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

…it’s a longer road for most women disruptors to find their own authentic voice and sense of power. My deepest hope for my daughters is that they will waste a lot less precious time than my generation did worrying about how they are perceived by others. My parallel hope for my son is that he’ll do his part as a white male to anti-patriarchal by supporting women and otherwise marginalized voices.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Brand.

Dr. Amy Brand is a publisher, entrepreneur and executive widely recognized for expanding access to knowledge and promoting equity in science. As Director and Publisher of the MIT Press, she takes risks and leads change as she oversees the publication of groundbreaking, meticulously designed books and journals in science, technology, art, and design. Under Dr. Brand’s leadership, the Press has upended traditional business models in publishing and issued numerous works by and about women and people of color in STEAM fields.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’m someone whose entire intellectual and leadership adventure has centered on language, knowledge, and cultural institutions of one form or another. There are definite childhood roots to that fascination. I grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan in the 1960s and 70s, a second generation born-American.

My brother and I attended an open classroom lab school called Bank Street, whose original name was, believe it or not, the Bureau of Educational Experiments. It was a magical place where teachers supported individualized learning plans for each kid, with a focus on critical thinking, creative problem solving, and instilling lifelong curiosity.

One day in the 6th grade or thereabouts, when my passion was reading and writing poetry, Frances Stellof, the owner of the famous midtown bookstore Gotham Book Mart, came to speak to our class about the joys of running a bookstore.

I recall sitting on the carpeted floor of the school library, spellbound. I can distinctly hear Stellof saying, “remember, children, books are your unconditional friends”. That was a lightbulb moment, incredibly affirming for the shy young kids that I was, because I knew then I would find my tribe working in a world of words and books.

About a year later, it was the grammar diagramming exercises that a new English teacher added to the 7th grade lesson plan. Now, the sentences I loved writing had their underlying logic revealed, and my nerdy interior world grew by many dimensions.

Fast forward, you can imagine how I ended up reading Wittgenstein and Chomsky at Barnard, then at MIT researching how children’s brains master syntactic structure, and later, working on standards and systems for communicating knowledge.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

My fascination with how information is structured and understood feels like it is in my DNA, and my professional path has embraced lots of risk-taking and unknowns along the way.

Basically, I am working to disrupt how we communicate science so it can have the most beneficial impact on society. This includes new business models, new technical standards, and new publishing technologies. We prototype these new models for communicating science and scholarship because traditional models are holding back progress.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Fairly early on in my career, I was asked by my boss to propose a solution to a gnarly problem to the board of directors. I love puzzling out complex issues, so I came to the board meeting after days of work on the problem with what I considered to be a brilliant solution.

However, because I was new to working with boards, I stood up and presented my solution as a fait accompli, expecting a round of applause. Instead, I was met with cold, hard stares, and my proposal was voted down. It had nothing to do with the solution — which was solid and eventually implemented. Rather, it had to do with the fact that I had not given the board members the opportunity to weigh in and discuss, and maybe even feel like they had help co-develop the solution.

That was a tremendous lesson in the art of consensus building and listening. When you’re working with a group of people, whether they report to you or you report to them, always give them every opportunity to provide their perspectives and world-view and to co-develop solutions, even if you think you already have the winning solution in your back pocket. You may learn something new and change your mind. Or, if your plan was right all along, you’ll have the consensus you need to move forward.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Mentorship is so important, and people who ask for it have more of it in their professional lives. One mentor who had a big impact on my career was Frank Urbanowski, who was director of the MIT Press when I first worked there as an editor in the 1990s.

Frank was a real pioneer in our world of university press publishing, and set the stage for a culture of ongoing experimentation and innovation at the Press. What struck me most was that he really enjoyed his work. He laughed a lot. He was always approachable and generous with his time and guidance, and helped me see this profession as both highly impactful and lots of fun. So, when the opportunity arose to return to the MIT Press as a director many years later, I felt called to the role in large part because of Frank’s legacy.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Even though everyone I work with in the broader world of academic publishing recognizes that it is ripe for disruption, different people have widely differing views about the change that’s needed. For some researchers and academics, they are so fed up with prevailing systems that they advocate for tearing the whole thing down and starting over grassroots, without the involvement of any publishers.

But not all publishing models or publishers are the problem. If you sweat the details and see the totality of the structural change at hand, you’ll recognize that that kind of wholesale disruption is not only unrealistic but also destined to re-create — at great expense — some of the same systems and entities and, yes, problems.

The point being, an effective disruption strategy builds alternatives that people and markets can move to before you tear down existing edifices. If you’re successful, they’ll crumble on their own over time, and be replaced with more effective structures — whether the goal is equity, efficiency, sustainability, or all of the above.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

There’s a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn called Wherever You Go, There You Are, and I think about the phrase often. It reminds us that we create our own experience, including our thoughts and perceptions. I’m trained as a yoga teacher and have a regular meditation practice, and it still takes work every day to get out of my own head as much as possible, to be present with other people and open to absorbing what’s happening around me.

Then there’s that Rolling Stones song with the lyrics “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, well, you might find, you get what you need.” We all need to leave space for the unexpected in our lives, and we all need to work with what we ultimately get in order to have any chance at happiness. Both my first and third children came from unplanned — but not unwanted! — pregnancies, and embracing those life-changing opportunities when that happened shaped my life in the most wonderful ways.

I have enjoyed the occasional Stephen King novel and especially his wisdom in writing about writing and saying “What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” Both of my parents were workaholics because they had to be, and their parents were as well — the immigrant story. So, I’ve never been very good at work-life balance, and I’m working on that. But when you’re working hard on something that has real meaning to you, it is a very joyful, hedonic thing in and of itself.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Great question, and I love not knowing the answer in advance. In addition to my day job running the MIT Press and disrupting research publishing, I’m serving on the boards of several organizations in the information activism space, doing more of my own writing, and also learning about documentary film by supporting young film-makers. As I’ve always done, I’ll follow my nose in the future towards what’s most compelling and where I feel I can do the most good in the world.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? Inspiring confidence

We still live in a sexist, patriarchal culture, although it’s clearly getting better thanks to the consciousness raising efforts of so many, both older and younger generations of women and activists.

When you’re trying to lead change, you need to be able to inspire confidence and bring others along. Unfortunately, women still have to work harder to earn that confidence. As a woman, when others are listening to you or looking at you, whatever their gender, they are still less likely to see the automatic archetype of leader in you as they would see in a man standing in your shoes, especially a tall white man, sorry to say. Your choice of words as a woman leader, not to mention your tone of voice and choice of clothes, all matter.

In the documentary Picture a Scientist, on which I was executive producer, one of the women scientists we profiled, Raychelle Burks, who is an Associate Professor of analytical chemistry at American University, talks at one point in the film about the added struggle in her academic career of being both non-white and female. She describes always having to think ahead to how her words will be received, devoting loads of time and precious brain-cycles to her emails to colleagues, time that she would much rather be spending on her science.

In short, it’s a longer road for most women disruptors to find their own authentic voice and sense of power. My deepest hope for my daughters is that they will waste a lot less precious time than my generation did worrying about how they are perceived by others. My parallel hope for my son is that he’ll do his part as a white male to anti-patriarchal by supporting women and otherwise marginalized voices.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I love audiobooks and I’m reading or listening to books all the time, often several at once. They all impact me in different ways, and there’s no way I can choose a favorite. But I just finished listening to Patti Smith read her own book Just Kids and was incredibly inspired by both the beauty of her writing and her journey to becoming a successful and very disruptive artist. It’s a story of deep friendship, listening to your inner voice, staying true to what matters.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Some well-established movements are still the most needed. I worked at Planned Parenthood as a lobbyist several years ago. And I feel even more so now that, for the greatest good to the most people, we should all be rallying to keep abortion legal and accessible in the U.S.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The meditator in me loves this quote from Austrian thinking Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” But I’m doing as much hiking as I can these days and recently saw a t-shirt printed with the words “hike more, worry less.” Being out in nature, staying active, being in the moment — that’s a big part of enjoying life these pandemic days. When I’m out walking or hiking, my thoughts have time to marinate and space to evolve, sometimes becoming my most creative and disruptive ideas. But there’s also a deeper life lesson in this attitude, about embracing uncertainty. Because sometimes you get lost, and you never really know what you might encounter around the bend. Stay open to all of it.

How can our readers follow you online?

Please follow the MIT Press on twitter at @mitpress. And you can find me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/amybrand/.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.