Startup Weekend Delivered a Magical Weekend in the Magic City

Florida International University was the site of some incredible magic as Startup Weekend EDU saw one of its most diverse group of people come together to learn and practice critical entrepreneurship skills in order to take ideas from concept to creation in less than 54 hours!  It could not be more fitting that Miami, Florida also known as the Magic City was home to a magical experience for a diverse group of aspiring entrepreneurs that included: students from elementary, middle, and high school; university students; university professors; K-12 teachers; parents; ex-convicts; developers; entrepreneurs; and local professionals.  The youngest participants at this event were 8 years old and they both presented with their respective teams!  

SWmiami2Startup Weekend EDU is a 2.5 day event whereby educators, developers, designers, and entrepreneurs come together to pitch ideas to solve problems in education and form teams around the selected ideas.  Teams then spend the weekend taking these ideas from concept to creation, culminating into a final presentation to a panel of all-star judges from the community.  Judges assess pitches based on clearly defined problem statement, prototype design, validation of problem and prototype, and finally, the business model. This theme was critical for a region that is home to some of the largest school districts going through difficult challenges.  

Having facilitated over 16 events around the country, I thought I had seen it all.  However, nothing could have prepared me for this incredibly diverse group of people and all of the challenges and possibilities that would manifest over the weekend.  To be honest, I was concerned about whether the event could be a success and if everyone would figure out how to work well together quickly enough to deliver a final presentation by Sunday evening to a panel of all-star judges from the Miami community.

SWmiamiOn opening night, participants have the opportunity to pitch ideas that eventually serve as the context for work throughout the weekend.  The youngest person to pitch was a 6th grader from a local school and the oldest was a gentlemen in his 60’s.  After 30+ pitches, rounds of voting and team formation, we had 8 teams.  On one side of the room we had an 8th grader, leading a team of 5 people that included a university professor, on a quest to start a company that could customize, build, and deliver personally designed eyeglass frames to match any outfit or mood.  On the other side we had a team comprised of a middle school student, a high school senior, a local entrepreneur, led by two former convicts who pitched an idea to deliver high quality education into prisons.

On Saturday morning when all of the teams began their work for the weekend, I sat down with a young man from an underserved community and school whose idea was selected Friday night.  His team had not yet arrived so I sat down to have breakfast with him and he told me about his idea.  His goal was to reinvent the grading system to reflect student growth and development instead of simply an average of periodic assessments.  He believed that how a student’s grade changes is a more valuable indicator of learning than an average of test scores.  His passion moved me and as the weekend went on, I had the incredible pleasure of watching this young man open up and become a confident leader on his team.  On Sunday afternoon, my co-facilitator, Paula Celestino, and I listened to his team’s practice presentation; when he spoke, he left us speechless.  He did not speak from notes or slides, he did something more powerful, he spoke from his heart.  

His team would not go on to place, however, the judges were so moved by this young man’s passion and the potential game-changing impact of his idea that they asked to create the Education Impact award for this team.  The team that would go on to place first was the team led by an ex-convict as they effectively built a case for the need to solve this problem and how their solution prototype could begin to address the problem right away.  This weekend was nothing short of magical.  To watch people from all walks of life come together to work on teams, respect each other, listen to each other, work collaboratively, and bond was nothing short of magical.  I could not have had the pleasure of facilitating a better event that weekend and I will always remember Miami as the Magic City.

Children are Awesome. Let’s Keep Them That Way.

Kids are awesome, even when they don’t seem to be.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with them.  What we do and say to them are the only things that can ruin that perfection.  Alternatively, what we do and say to them can also make them even more awesome.

Kids just want to play, have fun, learn, be inspired, be heard, try new things, come up with great ideas, have those great ideas heard, be cared for, care about someone, run around, crash in and out of love, run passionately after crazy ideas, challenge the status quo, be given a chance to succeed, have someone believe in them, have someone find the genius in their ideas and words, have deep and meaningful conversations, be rebellious, be fearless, be vulnerable, and most importantly, be awesome.

Children are awesomeEssentially, kids are everything we want to be and spend lots of money to try to become through self-help books, coaches, psychologists, motivational speakers, conferences, workshops, etc.

As teachers, parents, and citizens, it is our opportunity and responsibility to help them become the awesome adults they can become.  It is our opportunity and responsibility to: listen to their ideas and problems; support them when they try and fail; encourage them to fall madly in love again after heartbreak; support their subsequent events after failure; give them a chance even when we don’t think they stand a chance (they will surprise us); help them believe in something again even after they were let down; not tell them I told you so; inspire and motivate them; redirect their rebellious behavior towards situations that need that kind of behavior; look for and encourage the genius in their words; teach them what they want to learn; help them find something they can be awesome at, even if just for the short-term; be delicate when they are vulnerable; buy them a burger and have conversations with them for hours; and most importantly, believe they can be awesome.

So it’s really up to us as teachers, parents, and citizens.  Children are ours to ruin or make great.  Let’s focus our efforts on the latter.  It’s really that simple.

5 Steps to Planning for Success

I’ve learned something over and over again. It seems no matter how much I plan for success, it never quite happens how I planned. In fact, my success turns out better than I planned.

To be honest, some things went according to plan, however, with reflection I realized that I never planned things quite as well as the situations that simply just happened spontaneously. When I strictly followed the plan, I was focused more on the individual tasks or objectives. And sometimes I would wonder what the purpose of all of this was. I was so focused on “the plan” that I would lose sight of “the goal.”

So, here’s what I learned about how to plan for success.

1. Decide on a goal and make sure it is as clear as can be at that moment. Truth is our goal today will never be as clear as it will be tomorrow. Tomorrow we will know more, we will have experienced more, and we will see things differently. It’s ok if your goal is not incredibly detailed. Just make sure you can share the essence of the idea with someone else. With each day that passes, it will become clearer.

2. Make a plan. This probably sounds contrary to my introduction, however having a plan is essential. A plan maps out the steps that you believe it will take to achieve your goal at that moment in time. You need a plan for things to NOT go according to plan. So make a plan 🙂

3. Be mindful. Be mindful and aware of your growth and development. Each day you learn something new based on the steps you detailed in your plan. With that development comes new ideas and new interpretations. What you know today is not what you knew yesterday, nor what you will know tomorrow. So stop for a minute to be mindful of your development.

4. Pay attention to the distractions. What may seem like a distraction from your plan may be a great opportunity to bring you closer to your evolving goal. When we allow our minds to step away from our goals for a little while we gain more perspective on them and begin to learn new frameworks from which to reflect on them. This is why TED is so successful, it provides people with an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and take a delightful journey into someone else’s comfort zone and broaden their perspective. That distraction also gives your brain a break from your goals and allows you to process your thoughts and ideas in the background.

5. Be flexible. This is perhaps the most important step. As your goal evolves, as your framework expands, as your perspective widens, you will see more and think differently about your own goal and plan. You will have ideas for altering your plan or what will seem like “deviating” from your plan. Be flexible. Allow that to happen. This is your brain and heart’s way of saying “I have a better idea now.” Listen and be flexible enough to “deviate” from the plan because you aren’t deviating from your goal, which may or may not be the same as it was on day 1. And that’s ok. Most of the startup founders I have spoken to say that what they eventually created was quite different from what they originally set out to do. Their advice was to be flexible and let the idea evolve along its journey.

Consider your goals and previous plans you have set.  Often these 5 steps occur naturally, but resisting them may be limiting your potential for success.  Decide on a goal, set a plan, allow some distractions, develop your idea, and readjust your plan.  As long as you are moving toward your evolving goal you will be on the path towards success.

Oh, and please take the time to enjoy your journey.  The journey is where you will spend most of your time, so make it fun.

How to Gain Clarity and See New Opportunities

A couple of weeks ago I had a great conversation with a friend about finding the clarity to see new opportunities.  Thinking back to when I made my decision to leave my corporate career, I really could not have ever imagined the journey that I have been on for the last four years.  Although I had my reasons for leaving and some sort of plan of what I might do, I was not even close to what actually happened.

During that conversation two weeks ago I realized that it is quite hard to see what’s possible when your mind is preoccupied with distractions (i.e. your current circumstance or situation, related stress, etc.).  It’s almost as if when it comes to our mental capacity, we only have so much “screen space.”  It’s like we have a 13″ – there’s only so much you can fit in it.

So let’s look at few aspects of this analogy and how it compares to finding clarity.

When you are in a situation or circumstance that does not inspire you or just doesn’t make you happy, your screen fills up with stress, dissatisfaction, thoughts of getting out, and eventually fear of making a change for the better.  Fear because we are hard-wired to fear change and the unknown.  While some may seem more spontaneous and risky in their behavior, they too experience fear – the difference is they have learned to control, embrace, and convert it to enthusiasm and positive curiosity.

When your 13″ screen is all filled up, you simply cannot see opportunities and possibilities – even the ones right in front of you. It feels as if there may not be anything waiting on the other side if you take the plunge.  By the way, this can go for career, relationship, and/or personal circumstances.  However, what I found after I left my career circumstance was that all of a sudden I had new ideas, I was having different conversations, and I considered new possibilities (some out of necessity so that I could earn a living).  It’s as if leaving my career at the time closed all the open windows on my 13″ screen, rebooted my computer, and left me with a blank slate.  I was open to anything and everything.

Here’s where the second aspect of the analogy comes in.  Once my screen was free to have new windows open in it, it was as if my screen got upgraded to 15, then 16, then 17″.  When the negative stress and feelings of fear went away, I felt like more was possible than I had ever thought before.  All of a sudden I was meeting new like-minded people with their own awesome stories and ideas.  And this is when things got really good.  As I explored my own strengths and interests, now I felt like I was taking on additional screens.  One screen was for my passion in education, another screen for student leadership development, and yet another for neuropsychology.  It’s as if I was now running multiple apps that all interface with each other on multiple screens.  Everything was coming together and connecting in ways I never thought possible.

Clarity on multiple screens!

Operating with more apps and on more screens, my other capacities began to upgrade as well.  I felt happier, stronger, healthier, more intelligent, more passionate, more outgoing, etc.  Today, four years later, I see much clearer than ever before.  Here’s the best part though, I haven’t even reached full clarity and I don’t know if I ever will.  However, every year, every month, every day I feel like I have just a little more clarity than I did before.

More apps!

If you are in a circumstance that isn’t working for you, consider finding some clarity.  It won’t come from staying in the bad situation – even if you know all of this now.  The clarity can only come when close all the negative windows on your screen and start fresh again.

Maybe it’s time for a reboot in your life.

How Close Are You To Success?

In my last few posts, I’ve spent time focusing on learning, mistakes, and failure and how they relate to success.  Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with a young entrepreneur from Penn State University, Kevin Merlini, to discuss his new company Clipboard +.  I came to know Kevin via one of his co-founders, Patrick Ryan, whom I have been advising for over a year now.  Patrick connected us so that we could talk about the new startup and some of the lessons he learned along the way.

According to Kevin, Clipboard + “value(s) simplicity and functionality to help make your life easier. Since technology changes faster than your habits, we help you keep pace.”  Their product is a “personal mobile workstation, and there really isn’t anything else quite like it.  A must have for any smartphone power user.” 

Clipboard + for iPad (backside)

In short, it’s clipboard meets mobile device and you get a sum that is far greater than its parts.

After I learned about the product, I talked to Kevin about the journey he and his team embarked on and asked about the lessons they learned.  I could tell he was ready to

Founders of Clipboard+

answer this question and he explained so clearly and concisely the importance of building a team.  Kevin talked at length about how critical it is to bring the right people together and provide them with clear direction.  There are so many things you cannot do well, but others can and he has learned through this experience that you just have to ask for help.  As Kevin puts it, “I spent plenty of time doing things that would have been much more easily accomplished by anyone who specialized in it. Even if it doesn’t mean getting someone to officially join your team, never hesitate to ask for help.Continue reading

New Experience #5 – Reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

A few weekends ago, I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho for the first time.  I had it on my shelf for a little over three years.  Several friends had read it and raved about the book.   Two weeks ago, one friend suggested that it was a timely read for me given my current path and position in this grand journey we call life.

Taking that most recent advice to read it, I drove to Starbucks one evening and read it.  I could not put it down and even ignored my hunger to finish it.  The story really spoke to me.  The journey that Santiago embarks on in pursuit of his Personal Legend (i.e. happiness and true calling) is one that I can currently relate to.  Almost four years ago, I left my flock of sheep (my corporate career) in pursuit of my true calling.  It was a difficult decision and one that I felt I simply could not actually make.  Just like Santiago, I struggled with the decision and found ways to convince myself that my heart was simply wrong and that all of the signs pointing me in a different direction were misguided.  Continue reading

Seize, Appreciate, and Understand “The Way” of Your Life

I just got home from watching an advanced screening of “The Way” (@theWaytheMovie) by Emilio Estevez, starring Martin Sheen.  The movie, which opens this Friday, October 7, highlights the journey of Martin Sheen’s character through parts of Spain in his attempt to realize his son’s goal.  His son, played by Emilio Estevez, died while beginning the journey to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela known as “The Way of St. James.”  Throughout the journey, Sheen’s character is enriched by a variety of experiences and people he encounters along “The Way.”

This movie made me think about my own journey and the journey we are all on.  Watching this movie might make us think we need a dramatic pilgrimage like this for it to truly deserve the designation of a “journey” but that seriously undermines our own lives.  Even in the movie, it isn’t just about “The Way.”  [subtle spoiler alert] The characters ultimately realize it wasn’t about what they set out to do with their respective journeys.  It was about a way of life.  It is about how we choose to live each day.  Whether and how we appreciate the distinct experiences and people that enter and leave our lives, for better or worse. Continue reading

Journey versus Destination

A little over three years ago I left my corporate career in pursuit of a new path.  At the time I wasn’t sure of the destination and even today I am not quite sure.  Some might argue that is reason for concern and I would partially agree.  At times, I get a little concerned.  Perhaps those are my old preferences for structure and stability making their occasional uprising.  However, during some of the most challenging times of my masters programs I was asked by friends how things are going.  I answered, crazy busy.  So much work with school, consulting, coaching, graduate assistant position, etc.  But it hit me right then that, I’m happy.  I love everything I’m doing.  I’m enjoying every bit of it.

Clearly, at that point, I had not even completed my masters degrees, so at least we can agree I had not yet arrived at that destination.  That’s when I realized, it’s all about the journey.  It felt great when I received both masters degrees, but that was for a moment.  The journey lasted much longer than that moment.  Ultimately, I enjoyed both the journey and the milestone destination.

Now I am embarking on carving out a new career for myself.  Perhaps I should say, a new path.  Career sounds too work related.  I want my path to be about personal and professional aspirations.  A lifestyle business.  When I put it this way, the emphasis isn’t on the destination, as I have not even figured that out, but rather on the journey.  Wherever I end up will be fine with me, so long as I enjoy the journey.

Think about your own life.  What’s the journey like?  Do you know the destination?

Make sure you are making the most of the journey…it will eventually become what you look back on when you reflect on your life.  The milestone destinations will be important and special, but the real stories come from your journey.

Safe travels!