Shiza Shahid, co-founder of the Malala Fund, is back with a new startup — one that’s tackling cookware and kitchen essentials.
Though it may seem far removed from Shahid’s previous work in the philanthropy and social impact, which sought to raise awareness on women’s issues, she’s actually aiming to bring the two together with a mainstream kitchen and homeware brand, Our Place.
“As I started to cook more, I looked at the landscape of existing kitchenware brands, and realized none of them spoke to me, solved my problems, or represented my values,” she says. “So we started Our Place for the modern, multiethnic American kitchen.”
The idea dawned on her in her own kitchen, as she learned to cook and host friends, far from her mother’s kitchen in Pakistan where she had grown up. As an immigrant, she says, she “found her place in America by cooking and sharing food with new communities.” Building a company that brings people together around home-cooked meals is her goal.
Her husband, Amir Tehrani, serves as one of her co-founders; he has significant experience in the cookware and kitchen manufacturing industries, and his grandfather started TableTops Unlimited, a supplier of all things cooking and dining-related in the US. In addition, Zach Rosner is the third co-founder and will serve as the Chief Operating Officer; he previously worked at Everlane and MeUndies. They’ve been funded by Will Smith’s VC fund, Dreamers, as well as FabFitFun(d) amongst others; in total, the startup has raised $2.4 million.
The most notable item in their collection is the Always Pan: an Instagram-ready blush pink that has a non-toxic, non-stick coating (free of Teflon and PFAS) and can be used for everything from sautéing vegetables to making a family serving of pasta to steaming bao buns. “The Always Pan is designed to replace eight traditional pieces of cookware,” she says, “There’s nothing like it in the market, as everyone else is trying to sell you an 8-piece-cookware set that you don’t really need.”
The goal, however, is not just to be another household name in cookware, but to support a variety of social causes — through their supply chain and philanthropy. Just before the holidays, OurPlace debuted their first artisan collection, deviating from the core offering which is manufactured in China and Thailand primarily. This collection, referred to as “Nochebuena,” featured handmade artisan pieces from Mexico — a massive mortar and pestle from volcanic rock, clay bowls, tortilla warmers, and a handwoven table runner. The latest collection celebrates the Chinese New Year; for this, they employed Chinese-American illustrator Sarula Bao to create the designs for the platter and serving dishes.
The artisan sector is allegedly the second largest work-giving industry in the world. But because artisans struggle with marketing and selling their goods, they don’t scale as rapidly. “We spent significant time to prepare them to export to the US market — for most of them, this was their first major export to the US, despite the difficulties involved,” Shahid explains.
But it goes one step further, she adds. “We then published all their names and stories to encourage more businesses to source from them rather than keeping the information proprietary. In everything we do, we prioritize making a social impact.”
Shipping cookware, or heavy volcanic rock artisan products, is not an easy task. But Shahid and her colleagues are going plastic-free. Everything is sent in recyclable paper boxes with the individual pieces snuggly fit into their cut-outs. “Our box is the shipping box,” she explains. Thus, there is no need for added layers of packaging.
For Shahid, who has been working in the social impact sector, building a business, she argues, is the pathway to addressing bigger issues: “We have to evolve the role of business if we are to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. I want to prove that you can build a robust business that is fundamentally ethical and socially impactful. For us, impact is not one thing; it’s everything.”
To boost investments in areas deemed too risky by most traditional financial folks, foundations and other like-minded impact investors have been banding together to goose available capital.
The latest example: The Community Investment Guarantee Pool. With $33.1 million in commitments from nine philanthropic organizations, one large health care system and a nonprofit lender, the pool aims to catalyze community development finance in such areas as small business, climate and affordable housing.
Removing a Layer of Risk
Guarantees are unfunded commitments from an organization’s endowment. According to Joe Evans, portfolio manager, social investment practice for the Kresge Foundation, such guarantees provide risk protection to lenders, like community development financial institutions (CDFIs). The new pool stands to create more than $150 million in new investments, he says.
“The guarantee pool will allow more investors to feel comfortable putting their dollars into community investments,” says Teri Lovelace, president ofLOCUS Impact Investing. “And it will allow those in under-resourced areas to receive investment capital they might not otherwise have been able to get.” A subsidiary of CDFI Virginia Community Capital, LOCUS will be the program manager monitoring and managing the portfolio, as well as working with investors and underwriting the guarantee commitment.
The Kresge Foundation, which has led the effort, committed $10 million to the pool. “Using the guarantee helps us leverage our balance sheet to create impact today without using cash reserves,” says Evans. “We’re removing a layer of risk that will catalyze investment from other sources.”
The effort started in 2017, when Kresge commissioned the Global Impact Investing Network to study the use of guarantees by impact investors and philanthropic groups. The findings zeroed in on an overall appetite for using guarantees, but a lack of expertise to act on that interest. Those conclusions, plus other research, pinpointed a need to find an intermediary able to provide a centralized source of credit enhancement and step up community investments.
An Existing Portfolio
Kresge already has a track record of 30 deals and about $100 million in guarantees. For example, in 2017, it made a $3 million guarantee to BlueHub Capital to back SUN, or Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods. That program aids homeowners facing foreclosure stay in their homes. The Kresge guarantee helped SUN apply for and receive a $100 million loan from the federal CDFI Bond Guarantee Program.
Another example: In 2018, the foundation made a program-related loan and guarantee of $1.4 million to support the Entrepreneurs of Color Fund, which aims to improve minority-owned small business owners in Detroit access to capital.
In addition to Kresge, participants in the pool include Annie E. Casey Foundation, California Endowment, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, CommonSpirit Health, Gary Community Investments, Jessie Ball duPont Fund, PhillipsFoundation, Seattle Foundation, Virginia Community Capitaland Weingart Foundation. Rockefeller Foundation is a grant supporter.
“It’s a unique collaboration in our space,” says Evans.
Whether you’ve been bouncing ideas back and forth regarding the launch of a business, right now may be a good time for you to move forward. However, if it’s not the right time, and you have future plans and dreams, this article may help you decide if you should move from employee to entrepreneur.
Becoming an entrepreneur is not something mythical; it is a massive change in lifestyle. It is also much different than working for a company, and can be more demanding.
If you’ve delayed starting a business because you haven’t figured out how to take a mental leap from employee to entrepreneur—these tips should help you.
Here are a few high-level pointers you should think about before starting your own company.
Learn How To Think Horizontally Rather Than Vertically
This type of change in mindset usually applies to those who come from large companies or the nonprofit world—where employees do one or a couple of different tasks following specific boundaries.
Also, employees are usually trained in a few focus areas—they don’t typically need to know how to run an entire organization from top to bottom.
For example, if you’ve worked as a teacher, you are probably great at working with kids, parents and creating engaging lesson plans. However, if you’re a teacher right now, you might not understand the importance of things such as customer service, paying the bills, creating a legal entity, payroll, taxes, legal processes, human resources, and strategic management. When you become an entrepreneur—especially when you start out on your own, you must be able to learn and function in all of these areas mentioned above.
Many people don’t think of learning and business as an all-encompassed process. However, if you’re going to keep up with the pace of business life, you must be willing to consistently learn and up-skill. You will need to pay attention to what changes in the world because today with technology—it’s moving faster than most can keep up.
If you’re just starting out, LinkedIn Learning andCoursera offer many online business courses so you can keep on learning.
For example, right now, if you type the phrase “entrepreneurship,” in LinkedIn Learning, you’ll find they have 66 courses on the topic of entrepreneurship. For example, a few popular courses include:
“Start a Side Hustle”
“Creating a business plan”
“Entrepreneurship: Raising Startup Capital”
From their site, LinkedIn Learning also has a section called “Small Business and Entrepreneurship.”
They state, “Whether you’re building a company or working as a freelancer, acquire the skills you need to manage your business, sell your products and services, and create a business strategy to help you achieve your goals.” Also, you’ll find specific niche courses that focus on design, music, finance, small business management, and more.
It can be a new challenge to think from the scope of an entire company’s lens. Unless you’ve worked long enough in large corporations and took part in the process of building out a company, you will most likely have a lot to learn. Take advantage of as many tools and resources that are out there to help you.
If you have experience in the startup world, you may find the transition a bit easier due to past experience.
Many people start a business alone or join up with a friend or colleague. Working alone or with someone you can trust is a good way to begin. You’ll also have to learn how to think from an encompassing manner rather than solely as a role-based employee.
Working alone is not always the right choice for everyone. You have to be comfortable working in a quieter environment, and you have to be significantly self-motivated.
When you work in a company, other people surround you every day, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, your workplace can become an integral part of your social life. Going into work every day can be similar to going to school, where you follow a particular pattern, schedule, and create long-lasting relationships. With a life of entrepreneurship, you will definitely find a pattern that can feel all over the place until you’ve established the right routine.
Remember that moving into entrepreneurship can be a lonely place, so try and get out to work in coffee and lunch shops, so you don’t get too stuck in your own head.
Also, you can always join entrepreneurial groups, rent out shared workspace, and continue to network both live and online to alleviate feelings of isolation.
Finally, having access to a successful entrepreneur as a mentor can be extremely helpful for your personal and business success.
Focus Your Energy Within The Right Areas
Focusing your energy on the right audience who needs your service is critical to finding the right clients. However, if your company only places emphasis solely on gaining new customers, and not keeping the ones you already have happy—you may run into some heavy losses.
Also, one major mistake entrepreneurs make is believing everyone will want their product or service. Take your time and do some market research—just because you love something or believe it’s necessary, doesn’t mean your prospective buyers will agree.
When you are an employee, you don’t have to worry so much about clients and customer growth unless that is your sole role. As an entrepreneur, customers and clients come and go, and there is no guarantee that they will stay or come back.
Keep in mind that finding the right time in your life to start a company matters. Someone should have your back financially for some time. You may not be able to take an entrepreneurial risk when you have a family. However, you can start something small, such as a side-gig that might pick up with excellent, unexpected speed.
When you are an employee, receiving your paycheck every two weeks almost moves on autopilot. When you’re not an entrepreneur, all bets are off as you start your new adventure.
Realize that you are the primary source of your new income. Although this can be a challenge, it can also be exciting at the same time.
As an employee, sometimes (not always), your job can feel like you’re just going through the motions to get through the day. The energy you need to have as an owner is vastly different because you are in growth mode. In the beginning, you wear all hats, but once your business starts to take off, you’ll be surprised where you can land.
Whether you’re starting your own business or joining a startup, be prepared to work a bit more, get a lot of exercise, and sleep and eat well.
Most importantly, don’t forget to take care of your mental health because entrepreneurship can be taxing from every angle.
Your customers and employees will look to you for guidance, commitment, and passion. Just like a teacher, you are on most of the day.
Although this can be draining at times, if you feel ready and willing to make these changes in your mindset, you might already be prepared to start the business you’ve always wanted.
There’s a reason why Amazon is one of the most valuable companies in the world: efficiency. There’s not much to fuss about: your address and payment information are stored for seamless purchases. If you want to buy something, you can usually get it with a few clicks and within a few days (sometimes less). If you’re like me, most of the time when you shop on Amazon, you don’t care who the fulfillment partner is—you just want to buy a product.
While Amazon pioneered the fully online retail experience, brands in diverse industries have followed suit. There’s Uber, Auto Trader and Airbnb, the latter of which allows you to rent a house through a simple online portal.
One industry that still hasn’t embraced a fully online experience? Online lending—even though it’s right there in the name.
Business owners crave convenience
Most online lending doesn’t come close to the Amazon experience. With regard to convenience, consumer lending is way ahead of commercial. These lenders use two factors—credit score and income—to assess creditworthiness and speed up the entire process. Much like everything else, the customer experience is critical in business lending. It’s already been established that there’s plenty of demand to apply for business loans online, but commercial lenders shouldn’t be satisfied with stopping there.
For most small business loan applicants, the process still requires getting on the phone and scanning and sending documents. But the process to get a loan online shouldn’t be confined to just the application—everything needs to happen digitally. Lenders should offer a fully online experience, from the application to the approval to actually closing the loan. That means systems need to be in place to sync applicants’ data and for documents to be easily uploaded.
Innovators need to push the industry forward
For an example of a technology that made transactions simpler and led to huge growth, look at Square. The company in 2010 introduced a simple device that connected to smartphones so that vendors and small businesses could easily accept credit card payments, which until then was simply not possible without the use of a terminal or high fees. Last year, Square processed $85 billion worth of payments, much of which was for small businesses. The company pushed the credit card processing industry to provide faster, more convenient options for customers.
There are just a few commercial lenders who offer a convenient online experience, including Kabbage, Headway and OnDeck. Kabbage requires basic business information as well as access to business accounts, which it uses to “analyze a variety of financial performance indicators like revenue consistency, cash flow and the business owner’s consumer credit.” Kabbage assures business owners that one factor won’t necessarily keep them from qualifying, and it lets applicants know whether they qualify on the spot. Headway’s process works similarly, while OnDeck notifies applicants whether they qualify shortly after their application is submitted. The best part about the experience with these three lenders? The borrower has the ability to transact the entire experience online (not just the application).
While these companies are innovating, not all lenders are prepared to follow suit, but disruption will eventually happen whether they’re prepared for it or not. Of course, there are many complicated steps behind the scenes when lenders consider a small business applicant, and these make it more difficult for the process to be fully digital. In many cases, the lender is underwriting the loan from data that isn’t available online (e.g. equipment, real estate, accounts receivable, etc.). In addition, the lender must validate bank routing numbers, provide legal documents that need to be signed and sync other information pertinent to a loan. Loans can be larger or smaller, terms longer or shorter and APR higher or lower. These dials can be hard for lenders to feel out.
It comes down to a question of resources. Financial institutions have to keep regular operations ongoing while fending off potential cyberattacks. And as such, customer-facing system improvements that make the lending process completely digital may not be top-of-mind for these companies. But it is essential, given how much customers prefer online checkout. Think of the potential boost to business these digital transactions can provide: conversion rates will increase dramatically because loans can be closed during nights and weekends, and they’re not dependent on loan officers being in the office.
Developing this technology needs to be a priority for lenders going forward (or at least licensing it from companies such as ODX, Fundation, or others).
Lending needs more tech, but it still needs people
While lenders should adopt a tech-driven approach, it doesn’t mean they should replace loan specialists or experts who can answer questions. The ideal scenario is to allow the customer to transact in the way they want to transact; some may want to complete the entire process online without ever talking to a funding manager, others may want the help from the funding manager, and the rest may prefer to meet in-person.
While the underwriting process should be automated, there should still be regular audits of the system, and individuals who were denied loans should be allowed to appeal. It’s clear we shouldn’t entirely rely on algorithms. A balance needs to be struck between automation and human touch.
Lendio recently received a Trustpilot review from Jesse Lamon, owner of Wanderlust Juicery in Maine, that lays out the importance of the human element:
“We really appreciated the personal touch that our funding manager, Josh, gathered down-to-earth, human information that would help us to increase our chances for good offers. While I know that algorithms drive some of the loan processes, we feel it really helped to have the combination of actually being able to work with a funding manager focused on our application. For example, after speaking we were able to include additional financial information from some of our busiest months, as our business has seasonal fluctuations.”
People are at the heart of loans, both on the giving and receiving ends, but that doesn’t mean the process can’t be improved with technology. If a small business owner could apply for a loan with the same ease as buying a gift on Amazon, there would surely be more business owners giving it a shot. That means more business for lenders, but more importantly, more money in the hands of the people who need it to float or grow their businesses.
Over the last decade, we’ve made great strides toward re-imagining the small business lending landscape. As we enter a new decade and a new era of innovation, business lenders will have no choice but to step up to the plate to provide faster, more convenient options for customers. It’s time for the industry to fully embrace the online experience—it’s time for online lending to truly live up to its name.
Coming up with a winning product idea that fills a specific need for a sizable group of people, is a great way to start your own business. However, it’s very rare to find a business that can achieve lasting success based on the sales of a single product or service.
How do you keep up your momentum and continue growing? While introducing new products or services is a natural next step in any business, the type of products you choose to go to market with next, will make a significant impact on your ability to build a cohesive brand that can amplify your revenue for the years to come.
As I recently gathered from a conversation with Roy Stein, founder and CEO of BabelBark, the key principle is to create a series of complementary products that truly build on each other. Here’s how to do exactly that.
Consider Related Audiences
For Stein and BabelBark, one of their biggest successes has come from targeting new, yet similar audiences to the target audience for their initial product. He explains, “Our first app, BabelBark, was primarily focused on pet parents. But as pet owners ourselves, it was fairly obvious that the owners are far from the only people involved in a pet’s life. Considering who else plays a major role in a pet’s life led us to develop companion apps targeted at veterinarians and pet businesses.”
With these new complementary products, the brand was able to greatly expand its reach with new target audiences who were still relevant to the company’s original vision. Naturally, you’ll need to do a fair amount of market research to determine which groups would be most likely to benefit from the type of products you want to offer.
Surveys, focus groups, third-party data and other tools can help you better identify the needs and interests of your new, yet similar audience. Focus on groups of consumers that share similar interests to your current target audience—or who interact with them in a meaningful way.
Create Products That Enhance Your Original Offering
As you consider potential product opportunities for new audiences, it’ll be very beneficial to consider how a new product could interact with or enhance the existing products you already offer. Video game companies tend to be very successful at this—and not just by regularly releasing new games.
For example, while the Nintendo Switch system comes with its own unique set of controllers known as “Joy-Cons,” the company also offers a more traditional option known as a “Pro Controller” for gamers wanting to spend a little bit extra for more functionality. The additional product serves as an optional enhancement for a particular subset of the console’s main target audience.
As an app developer by trade, Stein and BabelBark found a different way to ensure that new products enhanced their original offerings. “Even though our apps for vets and businesses targeted a different set of users, one of our goals was to streamline communication between all groups who interact with a single pet. We made it so our original BabelBark app could link to the apps for vets and pet businesses. This keeps everyone involved in a pet’s well-being on the same page.”
In this case, original customers don’t even have to buy a new product to enjoy the benefits. By allowing others to connect in the ecosystem of apps, the original product experience is improved, ensuring lasting engagement with the brand.
Find Ways To Improve Your Original Product
Your new product doesn’t always have to be something completely original in order to help drive additional meaningful revenue for your company. One need only look at smartphones to see how simply adding new features to an already-existing product can drive customers to make repeat purchases year after year.
For example, research from Strategy Analytics has found that 70% of smartphone owners plan to make a repeat purchase from their current brand when the time comes to get a new phone.
While smartphone improvements focus on increasing the “wow” factor of their base product, this isn’t the only way you can build off your original product line. “Talking with your customers and getting their feedback is extremely valuable, especially for finding gaps in your services or places where your product falls short of the mark. This can help guide product updates that improve satisfaction and the overall perception of your brand,” Stein adds.
The NFL serves as a great case study for this too. As reported by Ohio University, after surveys found that millennials had significantly lower trust of the league than other demographics, the league began taking several steps to improve one of its primary products—their in-stadium experience.
The NFL asked all stadiums to provide free wi-fi. Many teams also began offering game-day apps for their fans to engage with. Making their product more appealing to a new generation will remain key to keeping the league relevant in the years to come.
A Winning Product Line
By putting these principles into action, you’ll be well on your way to building a lineup of products that blend perfectly into your brand image, while helping to drive longer-lasting revenue from both new and existing customers.
As you continually innovate and find new ways to improve on your offerings, this customer-centric approach will ensure that your business won’t turn into a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of story. Focus on serving the needs of your customers and you’ll be able to create long-term success.
He was one of the greatest visionaries and social entrepreneurs of the 20th century. This week marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of James P. “Jim“ Grant, the father of the Child Survival Revolution and legendary executive director of Unicef. Still way too unknown for the magnitude of his impact, Grant transformed the global health care sector, saving the lives of 25 million children during his lifetime, and preparing the ground for many more afterwards.
Under his leadership, within only a decade (1980-1990), vaccination rates for the six major killer diseases responsible for childhood deaths went from 16- 21% to 80% worldwide, a logistical and cultural masterpiece.
Similarly, Grant fought the number one cause of childhood deaths, diarrhea, thanks to a cheap solution: little sachets filled with glucose and salt, otherwise known as oral rehydration therapy (ORT), and effectively took on the fight against mental impairment in children by promoting iodized salt.
I spoke with Jim Grant’s youngest son William (Bill) about key elements of Grant’s work, his impact and what drove him. Like his father, Bill has a passion for and has been working in development, and thus had the chance to sometimes professionally accompany his dad during the 1980s.
A Bold New Idea
Jim Grant saw an opportunity hidden in plain sight to solve a tremendous problem. At the time, an estimated 14 million children under the age of 5 were dying annually in the developing world — mostly from diarrhea or malnutrition, as well as from polio, tetanus, measles, tuberculosis, or diphtheria. Solutions existed — vaccinations and even remedies like adding 1 teaspoon of salt and 8 of sugar to 1 liter of water to stop dehydration from diarrhea. But they were only used in small pockets of the world, despite being cheap and simple, and for the most part didn’t reach those most affected. Grant set out to change this scenario. “Morality must march with capacity,” he said. He wanted to make these low-cost solutions available to communities everywhere in the world. The proclaimed goal: to cut the childhood deaths in half.
In an extraordinary marketing tour de force, Grant traveled the globe, forging alliances with a wide range of groups, from the World Health Organization to the International Pediatric Organization to religious leaders to grassroots organizations, and convincing governments, dictators, and royals alike to vaccinate their children and promote the fight against diarrhea. “The word impossible did not exist for him,“ says his son. “He was a relentless optimist.“
Unicef gave Grant the platform he needed to act on this bold vision but it required transforming the organization into a major global policy and implementation force — a change that would initially cause a lot of opposition. “Unicef had an impeccable reputation and had won the Nobel Peace Prize, but they had a modest budget and small impact, working with clusters of villages here and there. They delivered school books to some kids and Land Rovers to school inspectors,” remembers Bill. “And then came my dad and said: I want you to not double your impact, but to increase your impact 100 fold, and reach children everywhere.” There was almost a revolt. It took Grant two years to build up his internal team. Under his leadership, Unicef’s budget would eventually grow from $313m to $1 billion.
But over and beyond that, it was the alliances he forged with states and institutions, and the resources these partners put behind his cause, that led to the global breakthrough.
The Power of Marketing, or: Changing Mindsets
Grant had a rare talent for marketing. “Dad’s friends used to say that he could sell anything. But he chose to sell development. And he was brilliant at it. He knew what made people tick.” He won the arguments internally at Unicef. But more importantly, he won them externally. His son saw it up close — for instance, during a lunch with the governor of Casablanca that he attended alongside his dad. Not even halfway through the starter, Jim Grant asked for the salt shaker, pulling out a iodine dropper from his pocket to test the salt. “You could see that the governor was thinking: what is this crazy guy doing,” laughs Bill. “Ha!” he remembers his dad shouting out to the dazzled governor. “You’ve got a problem!” And he started to explain that the salt had no iodine, which was a problem because Iodine deficiency would lead to goiter, the major cause of mental impairment in children. “And on it went from there. By the end of our luncheon, the governor had dictated that all salts sold in the province of Casablanca had to be iodized.”
The story was no outlier. Grant was a showman, and he was obsessed. He would never miss an opportunity to convince and enlist those he regarded as most influential to change people’s habits. He would talk to kings, dictators, presidents, archbishops, imans — about diarrhea, polio or goiter, pulling out iodine testers and ORT sachets, and showing pictures of other heads of states with their grandchildren getting vaccinated.
Making the case that more children got killed by vaccine-preventable diseases than by bullets, he convinced leaders, rebels and religious leaders in El Salvador to halt the civil wars so children could get their immunization shots. These “Days of Tranquility” were later repeated in countries like Lebanon, Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through “Corridors of Peace” he helped get humanitarian supplies to people in Sudan, Uganda and Iraq. He also convinced Islamic leaders in Egypt to issue an edict recommending the education of girls.
What drove it home for the powerful? “If you do good things for the children in your country, parents will support you. They will vote for you, they will like you.” Grant knew it was important that leaders could harvest the praise. “Perhaps one of the reasons my dad is relatively unknown is that he always gave others the credit.”
Focus on Key Data to Stir up Competition
Grant was obsessed with statistics. And measurement. To be able to track success, he narrowed his focus to essential data sets. “At Unicef, he didn’t say let’s do these 60 things,” explains Bill. “He said we’re going to focus on the four that are most important.” These 4 — growth monitoring to fight malnutrition, oral hydration therapy against diarrhea, breastfeeding and immunization —would become known as GOBI, then later just “I” for iodine. Grant developed a flash index to compare countries, and would communicate weekly rankings and set targets. He would produce the State of the World’s Children Report every year.
This made progress powerfully measurable, and he would never miss an opportunity to let the powerful know how they were doing. “He would go to the president of Turkey, and tell him about the latest numbers from Colombia. Oh, did you know… he would start. I always saw him measuring and counting and tracking. It was what helped him get things done.”
In 1990, Grant convened the World Summit for Children, which he had been planning towards over 5 years. It celebrated the 80% global vaccination goal, and saw over 100 countries committing to reach further, specific, time-bound goals on child survival, health, nutrition, education and protection — the first time a U.N. conference had achieved such an agenda.
Grant had tested earlier how effective it could be to stir competition via data. In the late ‘60s, when he was leading the Overseas Development Council, he developed the Physical Quality of Life Index, which eventually friends of his from The World Bank took and turned into the human development indicators. Grant focused on three numbers: infant mortality, life expectancy and education. And then he started calculating and comparing countries and cities. He loved to point out that Sri Lanka got a higher PQLI index than Washington D.C. back then. No one believed him at first, so he would explain: ‘Well, more people are literate, they have a lower infant mortality and life expectancy is longer.’ It stops and wakes you up when you hear statistics like that.”
Entrepreneurship and Creativity Throughout his Life
Grant was born in China in 1922 to American parents and lived there until the age of 15. His grandfather was a medical doctor and built his city’s first major hospital. His father was the first doctor of public health in China. Jim went on to pursue a degree in economics from Stanford, and a law degree from Harvard, and became a public servant early. “He always took on responsibility. And he was always in key places,” remembers Bill. By the age of 25, he became the head of the U.S. foreign assistance to China. Shortly after, he negotiated multilateral agreements between Pakistan, India, Nepal and the U.S. government. And then he just kept going — e.g., senior positions at USAID, and becoming the founder and CEO of ODC. “He always went in and set policy. He hated wasting time.” That would also show in his personal life. He used to wake his children up at 6 a.m. on Sundays to take advantage of the full day to do projects — building a fort, going on a hike, an excursion. He used to show up not 2 hours, but 15 min, before a flight would take off. (“My mother didn’t like that,” remembers Bill.)
And Grant was always hands on. When stationed in China with the military during WWII, he set up a restaurant and started selling food to American soldiers. Why? “He hated the food they were getting at the base,” explains his son. “So he hired some local Chinese cooks, got a restaurant going and fixed the problem.” When moving to New York for Unicef, he was challenged with finding an affordable place to live. “So he got this idea to build a house on top of a building; and then he went about building a house on top of a building.” He got the permits, found a contractor, and set to work. Nobody had ever done this before in Manhattan. “He was careful to never call it penthouse,” remembers his son. “He didn’t want to create wrong impression. And it wasn’t a penthouse. It was his roof house.”
What Would He Say Today?
In 2019, the WHO warned of a record breaking number of measles outbreaks following lower vaccination rates due to misinformation about side-effects. What would Grant say about the growing anti-vaxxer movement? “Oh, naturally, he would be against it,” says his son, “But he would never say these are evil people. He would say: How do we change this? He would figure out who the key decision makers are, the key influencers, and then he would go and talk to them, he would try to understand them. And then he would show them why it would make sense to start vaccinating. He could build bridges with anybody. He would seek and find common ground.”
Sometimes, he would come under criticism. “People didn’t always appreciate at first that he would talk to dictators, for instance. They would say, ‘how can you work with this person?’ And my dad would say: ‘Well, this person has the power to change the lives of the children in his country. And he will, because it is his country.’”
Sources and links:
William Grant. Interview notes. January 2020.
David Bornstein: How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2001)
Adam Fifield: A Mighty Purpose: How Unicef’s James Grant Sold the World on Saving Its Children (Other Press, New York 2015)
Peter Adamson: Postscript and Dedication of The Kennedy Moment. (Myriad, 2018)
Want to Close the Immunization Gap? Summon the Spirit of Jim Grant
U.S. Committee for Unicef, press release (not yet published)
Special Session on Children – UNICEF
Health as a Bridge for Peace – HUMANITARIAN CEASE-FIRES PROJECT (HCFP)
When I’m not consumed with my full-time job of running a technology startup, I enjoy producing a barrel of my own wine every year. For me, wine-making is a great reminder about what it takes to be an effective leader because it moves at its own speed, and it requires a lot of patience and faith. If you have enough persistence to keep at it, and continually make small adjustments as you go, you’ll eventually find yourself with a nice bottle of wine. But if you try to force it too quickly or don’t heed some of the signals along the way, you’ll end up with something no one will enjoy.
There are many parallels between making wine and running a technology startup, including starting out with a vision, working to get it just right, making many pivots and adjustments along the way. But perhaps the most important similarity is that both pursuits require the ability to ask the right questions.
Leading a high-performing, resilient organization in today’s competitive business environment requires a mix of confidence and humility. In a climate marked by constant change and disruption, no single person can pretend to have all the answers. So, in order to be a good leader, you need to acknowledge that you don’t know everything and recognize that you need to constantly draw upon the wisdom and expertise of others to navigate challenges as they arise.
I’ve learned most of what I know about wine-making by asking questions of people who know more about it than I do. Most of the time, I wasn’t sure of the right questions to ask until I was right in the midst of the process. But when I was going through my first fermentation, I asked a lot of questions about fermentation. When I was going through the steps of clarification, aging and bottling, I asked plenty of questions about those processes, too. The answers I received to those questions informed and improved the results of each step I took.
As a founder and CEO, I’ve found that the same dynamic holds true. I do a lot of my own research, but some of the most valuable insights come from peers, colleagues and thought leaders. This is why asking the right questions is critical.
In today’s competitive business environment, successful leadership is based on the ability to ask the right questions at the right time about the specifics that pertain to the business. Although the questions might vary from industry to industry, there are a few key topics that pertain to any organization. You should continually discuss these topics with and ask these questions to your entire team (and yourself) on a regular basis:
1. Vision: Are we clear about where we are going? Do we understand how we will get there? What’s something that inspires you personally about our vision?
2. Execution: Is your team working efficiently as it progresses toward achieving its goals? Do you see how your daily work connects to our vision? What’s one thing your team could do that would increase your confidence in our ability to achieve our goals?
3. Employee experience: Are we creating a great experience for our talent? Are we creating an environment that will attract top talent and make people want to stay? Can you name one thing that would improve your experience here as an employee?
4. Culture and values: Are we working well together? Do people treat one another with respect? Do you feel your work has meaning?
5. Change: Do you understand the change that is occurring? Do you feel we are agile enough to thrive through this change? Can you name one thing you need to be successful with this change?
These are the universal topics that matter to employees and employers across all industries and organizations. In order to sustain long-term success, leaders need to ask questions to their entire organization and tap in more frequently to the voice of employees around these topics. Learning how to ask the right questions is the key step to tapping into the collective wisdom that leaders need to propel their organizations forward.
When designing our onboarding program, we initially researched the processes used by other companies to find out what ideas and programs could work for our team. In the end, we tried (and failed) two common techniques before landing on an onboarding program that worked.
Hypothesis No. 1: New Employees Need To Learn The Company’s History And Culture
Like many tech companies that have been around awhile, we have extensive lore, history, traditions and in-jokes that can be overwhelming for a new hire. Initially, we assumed this was the key problem we needed to solve.
This became basis of our original onboarding process: Tell a really good story about our company and our values. We introduced our benefits, our people, our clients, the ways we work and anything else we could think of. We even came up with a 30-email slow-drip campaign. Once a week, the new employee would get a different story or explanation behind the way we work.
But when we followed up with our employees, they didn’t feel like all that storytelling solved all the onboarding goals they had. There was more work we needed to do to really support people in their introduction to the company.
Hypothesis No. 2: People Need To Feel Included
If being able to understand all the references wasn’t enough, perhaps we also needed to help people feel more like they were included in the culture. So, we made sure that on the first day of work they got their green company hoodie, a welcome gift and, most importantly, a sponsor to help acclimate them. We booked them lunches with coworkers in every department to get to know folks, created a seating chart and took photos of everyone to help with recognition, and introduced them to the various practice groups so they would know more about how we work.
We found all of these improvements helped new hires acclimate to their new organization. People need to feel included and engaged in a company before they’re comfortable taking the kinds of risks that lead to their best work. But when trying to really understand how we could support our new hires, we found these additional steps weren’t enough.
Hypothesis No. 3: People Need To Know What Success Means
If we wanted to really help new employees succeed, they needed to know more than our history and lore. They needed more than inclusion to hit the ground running. They needed to feel supported. As we looked into this, we found that the best way to support our new hires was to explicitly tell them what success looked like, for both them and the company. At our company, everyone is now required to play the “Sticky-Note Game”: a process used to collaboratively define what success and support looks like in the next six months.
In the first two tries, onboarding was all about unloading information onto a new employee. At no part did we make it a two-way conversation. By asking them to share what they valued most and sharing our priorities as well, we both got to see what the other side was really about.
The Quickest Way To Define And Map Success With Only Sticky Notes
The Sticky-Note Game works because it’s simple. You only need three people, and no complex HR tooling. It’s just the employee, their sponsor and a colleague, plus a bunch of sticky notes. Within the first two weeks of someone joining the company, we’ll start mapping out their next six months and focus on some tangible goals with three steps.
• Brainstorm. Three people, all invested in the new employee’s success, work together to lay out professional, personal and company goals for the foreseeable future. Each goal gets a sticky note, and you quickly have a full set of aspirations.
• Map. With the ideas generated, the team works together to organize them into overarching themes. This helps define what’s really important to the employee in broad strokes so they know what they’re ultimately aiming for every day.
• Prioritize. With three people in a room — almost all of them curious and ambitious in our case — you’ll have more goals than you can realistically work toward at once. This is good. A mix of short, medium and long-term goals gives everyone involved a roadmap and helps narrow down to the most important pieces.
After the Sticky-Note Game, new colleagues know what they’re supposed to do, and the business knows what it needs to support them. They’re invested in their success and the success of the company as a whole. Most importantly, they don’t have dead time waiting for an assignment to come in. They have tangible things they will be working on right away. Through the process of the game, they already have an understanding of how to reach their goals and who on the team can help.
Holding Everyone Accountable For Their Own Success, And Their Peers’
Nowadays at our company, the process isn’t just for new hires. We converted this onboarding process to be done every six months for everyone in the company, including the CEO. By making it a normal part of our company culture, we can keep track of how we’re helping to support the success of the company and our colleagues.
It also makes it easy for everyone in the company to see how they can help each other. I can look at everyone’s goals side by side and draw my own conclusions for how to direct and invest the company’s resources to best support everyone’s paths.
This isn’t the end of refining our process. Our onboarding system is changing with each new mind that joins the team. So far, this pattern of storytelling, inclusion and explicit expectation-setting for success has been critical to our process. We are eager to see what the next big step will be.
What it takes to launch a profitable startup in 2020 hasn’t changed for decades and won’t change any time soon. The best advice for entrepreneurs who are looking to launch a startup this year is not to wait until next year.
Remote work is at an all-time high, unprecedented access to global talent, startup investment keeps increasing, paid advertising channels are becoming more effective, and the list goes on. To launch a profitable startup in 2020, you should get started. A lot can happen in twelve months. “When you want something, the whole universe conspires to help you,” Paulo Coelho.
The three steps below can be accomplished in six months even if you work on your startup part-time. They’ll set you on the right path towards profitability this year.
1. Scan Your Idea
If you want to build a profitable business this year, there is no room for easily avoidable mistakes starting with investing resources in a product you could easily know if people need and will pay for. Therefore, the first step is to test your idea before moving forward and committing significant resources.
The least you can do is ask ten potential buyers about their needs and expectations. The goal is to uncover the urgency of a need for a better solution. Products that make things just a little better will make your goal of building a profitable business this year a lot harder. By the end of this phase, you should refine your idea by identifying a problem worth solving.
2. Scan It One More Time
Many ideas look great on paper but fail as real businesses. Furthermore, the excitement of potential users (interviewees) can quickly fade away and should not be taken as a definite YES to, “I really need a solution.” If you want to build a profitable business this year, you need to invest a little more resources in this critical pre-product validation stage. There are many things you can do. Here are two.
Building a product will take time and money but sketching your idea is relatively quick and cheap. Run product designs by those first ten potential users and ten more. This simple test can help you avoid an expected bias from the first group while seeking everyone’s feedback and comments that will help you identify key product features.
The second thing you can do is offer your product for sale while rewarding the first buyers. Perhaps with a discounted yearly offer or even a lifetime offer for the first 50 buyers. This will not only provide you with a strong validation signal but also, help you fund the next stages of the business.
Some products are easier to presell than others. If you find it hard to come up with a compelling presale offer, think how you can quickly start serving the first buyers by introducing a concierge service of your product. This is where you take the role of many features. It’s an effective approach to also learn how the product should work since you will be the product.
3. Build Your Product
The first two stages will provide you with all the insights you need to build a product that converts. Best of all, it’s an inexpensive approach to learn if the product won’t work. Which means you can quickly pivot to focus on what will work.
If you’ve validated your idea through conversations, designs and presales, you’re more than half-way through building a profitable business this year because building a product is the easy part. If you know what to build, the right team will make it happen. In the meantime, your job is to get more of the people you interviewed excited and committed to the solution.
This is a quick roadmap for your path to launching your idea this year. If you don’t do it now, the path won’t change next year. It’s up to you!
In 2010, Michael Landau, Alli Webb and her then husband Cameron mustered together enough capital to open their first Drybar location in Los Angeles. It was a crazy idea: a salon that did just blow-drys for women. No hair color, no cuts, no additional spa features. But the simplicity worked.
A decade later the idea has evolved into a $100 million business with locations across the country and put more than 3,000 stylists to work. Using a franchise model, Drybar spread beyond the coastal cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City to the heartland of the US, suggesting that the founding trio had spotted a gap in the market.
As a woman with curly hair who had struggled to blow dry her own hair, knowing how taxing and time-consuming it could be, Webb knew the concept of Drybar would work. And then she hired Brittany Driscoll to do the marketing who was ready to hustle, helping make Drybar the largest chain in its category in America.
The same team is tackling a different problem: massages.
Before the core market was just women, Webb says. Now, it’s anyone with a body, Driscoll jokes. This is not geared towards one gender but to anyone who has been to a massage studio in a strip mall and had a less than stellar experience, she explains.
Yes, there are national chains selling massages by the hour. But the experience Driscoll, who is now a co-founder of Squeeze with Webb, says is lacking: “The discount chains can be clunky, and it can be hard to make appointments. There was an opportunity to do it better.”
Much like how the team streamlined the process of visiting the salon for a blow-dry, they’re doing the same for massages. The Squeeze locations charge from $29 to $129 depending on the length of the massage; shorter messages can be focused on a specific area of the body.
But what’s unique about the Squeeze model is that it’s all digital: the booking is made online; the therapist is selected at the time of the booking; how one likes the room (temperature, lighting, mood music) can be all preset; and payment is entirely done on your phone, including tip. “The therapist might change but you get the same experience.”
The goal is to get you to “float out,” Driscoll says. “So you’re not standing in line after that relaxing massage, waiting to pay. But on your way to having a better day.”
The flagship location in Studio City, which opened in 2019, reflects their teal blue branding in the physical space; the outside and inside are adorned in this calming but noticeable shade. There’s a spa-like, relaxing feel with the added bonus of a fully digital, automated experience.
Just as Drybar was a franchise model, Squeeze will be too. “We know the demand for a better massage experience is there,” Driscoll says. “The technology that we’ve built on the backend to make this all happen will help us grow this quickly.”
Unlike Drybar, which had its offices in Los Angeles, not far from Webb’s hometown, Irvine, Squeeze will be headquartered out of Nashville, Tennessee. Webb and Driscoll certainly see Squeeze as a national chain. In fact, the learning curve, Webb says, could be simpler with Squeeze.
Whereas they had to explain to new consumers how Drybar worked, Squeeze, she says, is much easier to explain: “It’s simply a better experience of what you’re already doing — going for a massage.”
With wellness becoming an integral part of life for many Millennials, massages fit right into the paradigm, and are unlikely to go out of style.
The duo also wanted to give back like many brands today. “We knew we wanted to have some philanthropic ties from the onset. We are all animal lovers,” says Driscoll.
Inspired by service animals and how they’re essential for everyday life for many Americans, Driscoll said she wanted to bring animals together with messages. But not have it result in goat yoga. Instead, how could the brand give back to a cause they cared for? Each membership sold will result in a donation to Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit that provides service dogs to individuals with disabilities free-of-cost.
Webb started Drybar with no ambitions of building of a national brand a decade ago. Now her success is enabling them to launch another venture. Her wise words to other entrepreneurs? “Just get going. You can hire people smarter than you later, down the road, after you build the foundation.”