Towards a multidisciplinary future

Last week, I attended a workshop on movement building for social change.

One of my breakout groups was discussing “shared purpose”. I used the word “asymptote” to make the point that with the best shared purpose, we need to know we only make dents and some progress, and although we never fully bring about the exact change in the exact format we want, the movement gets closer and closer to our purpose over time. It caused some mirth in my breakout group.

Later in the morning, I caught myself likening the ideal scenario of the broadening of the appeal of our vision, our purpose, our movement to “fractalisation“. Both terms were, in my view, efficient, succinct, and the best explanations for what I was aiming to say.

The giggles caused by both set me thinking about the other terms with very specific meaning normally used in maths, physics, communication theory, political science, economics that I often use in specific discussions in business. Some are from secondary school maths and physics, the others from further education. A non-representative list of such words would include vector, variable, f(X), non-trivial, calculus, parametric, SNR (signal to noise ratio), transmission error, attenuation, but also words such as equity which may need to be understood in context.

I asked some of my friends, accomplished in law, business, design and academia, if they found the use of secondary school maths and physics terms odd in a business setting with educated colleagues.

A few admitted they did not know some of the terms. Some friends said they would use plainer words. Another said as a data scientist, she aims not be misunderstood. Yet another, who is the most well-informed social justice aware person I know, pointed out that oversimplification can run the risk of the person oversimplifying being seen in devalued terms. And finally, one friend encouraged me to “go Gurl!” because she is of the view that these terms can often explain business models, industrial design, UX, customer behaviour and other insights well.

I then ran a poll on Twitter and an encouraging 56% of respondents said they understand those terms, and a full 19% said that they would mock such a person.

What the Twitter survey found

What the Twitter survey found

Interesting discussions followed.

Do we mock out of fear instead of curiosity, or do we mock for broader social acceptance rather than standing out as a nerd?

Do we use specific terms to look impressive, or do we actually know what they mean?

Do we use these terms to establish superiority, or to create a shared understanding in the group, explaining with patience and genuine empathy when asked, to move the discussion forward?

Is such language isolating and credentialist, or broadening and embracing of diversity?

Before you dismiss this as an academic navel-gazing exercise, I should add this thinking was propelled by a digital insights event I attended earlier in the week. A futurist on the panel said multidisciplinarity was the future (she also had other predictions about future careers).

If we are to get to that multidisciplinary future, are we really serving ourselves, building our movement, making the right strides toward it, if we like to keep precise terms in their own disciplinary silos behind tightly drawn boundaries?

Why are we not asking to be explained by — and indeed why are we mocking — those, who let these specialty-confined words loose in other contexts, where they may fit and may indeed enrich the shared understanding of what we are building?

History shows that innovation does not always come from those deeply embedded in the specialist disciplinary networks they belong to. It comes from those who are on the edges of their discipline(s), bumping against the others on the edges of their discipline(s), or looking above the parapet to peek into what others are doing, and forming multidisciplinary teams to have a crack at a problem that one discipline alone cannot solve.

Whether leading a team, building a startup, or growing a business. what are you doing to bring that multidisciplinary thinking on board?

How are you building your movement towards the future?

Never “just business” for female founders

Apparently female entrepreneurship events are “weep fests”, according to this opinion piece published by a media startup. “Why can’t we, for once, stop looking at the whole gender thing whenever we have a roomful of women, stop talking about how tough it is to be women and businesswomen at the same time, and just talk about how tough it is to do business, period?”, the columnist asks.

Why ever not?

There is no point regurgitating data that continually show how women’s startups are funded less often and at lower valuations, with age sometimes a barrier too; how women, regardless of their standing, face sexual harassment and innuendo in the course of every work day; how, regardless of how well-oiled their relationships are or what their qualifications are, women do more work at home and “office housework” at work.

No point, because the screed is a narrow point of view that fails to acknowledge that women entrepreneurs — I prefer the alliterative “female founders” — the world over seem to have many shared experiences and many common themes in their lives. And that many of those experiences and themes have little overlap with problems that male founders face. Even where both bring similar business related competence and capabilities to the table.

I advise a number of female founders from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds — from eastern Europe to Indian to British to any number of hyphenated-identities — in the UK, India and the USA. Here is what I know about women’s entrepreneurship around the world today.

Women are creating startups, because they are ambitious. Most female founders I see are on their second or third careers; their ages range from the 20s to the 50s; some or more have partners; some or more have kids; some or more are also main decision makers for the care of elderly parents. But they share one thing in common — a burning ambition to realise their creative and wealth-generative potential, while juggling everything.

Then something called reality intervenes. Kids fall ill, partners leave, domestic crises arise, elderly parents get sick, funding is hard to find, co-founders are even harder to find and keep, employees need to be paid. In the absence of funding being on tap, many female founders are bootstrapping their businesses. It is at these points I see many female founders review their goals. What I find is not a weep fest. Far from it. I find determination and resolve. I find that these women acknowledge that life is tough but they want it all. Who am I — or someone not in the fray with them — to say what their desires and ambitions should be?

When women discuss issues and challenges — as they do in many closed, some secret, female founder groups that I am privileged to be part of too, aside of my one-to-one discussions with my advisee founders — they find validation. They find they are not alone. They learn that the magnitude of some problems is smaller or bigger than they thought. They get pointed to sources of help and resources. They get support, respite, and encouragement to pursue their ambition with renewed vigour.

That conversation is what these female founder events are for. They are safe spaces for female founders.

These female founder events celebrate the simple fact that many women founders like to live their life in fulsomeness — from heating breakdown at home, to kids teething, to squabbling partners, to communities they live in, to managing the burn rate and knowing how much cash there is in the bank account of the business. Indeed there is research that shows people bring their whole selves to work, not just some thin-sliced, compartment of a person. Hell, people bring their spouses to work with them, whether they like it or not!

These events also provide a place to understand how one can frame one’s tradeoffs, given one’s very specific circumstances. This can be aided by hearing others’ stories. One founder shares details of her divorce settlement to make certain decisions about salary. Another finds a way to balance her childcare needs by working different hours from her co-founders, who sign up willingly to the gig knowing her specific needs for the next few years. Yet another knows she has a roof over her head so she can experiment because her parents won’t throw her out.

If trading both troubles and coping strategies be seen a “weep fest”, I would take that any day over false machismo based on the pretence that it is “just business”.

To dismiss the wholeness of a female founder’s life is to miss the point of entrepreneurship. For entrepreneurs, it never is just business. It is all personal.

And in that “personal” their whole lives are wrapped. They will weep if they want to, but as long as they are forging ahead with their plans, it is all good.

Selling diamonds online

(A version of this article appeared in LiveMint on March the 4th, 2016.)

“You must have done some good deeds to have earned living here,” quipped a friend visiting me in Switzerland many years ago. Switzerland was wonderful but in my city, only two stores sold books in English and the choice was limited. Amazon swiftly became my go-to store way back in the late 1990s. Fast forward to 2016, I have not stepped into a grocery store for over seven years. My grocery comes to me from one of the UK’s largest grocers. Further, it has been years since I went into a clothing store.

In other words, I live off the web.

Except when it comes to jewellery.

This personal quirk became a business challenge, when I co-founded a fine jewellery business in London.

Fine and high jewellery is a tough sell online, for both purveyors and customers.

Like all good businesses, jewellers too put their customer at the centre of the design of the online store. It is challenging to deliver a satisfying customer experience, especially given the differences between the web and physical space. All decisions must be made remembering the high standards of a typical customer of fine and high jewellery.

As a customer, I expect to see a jeweller’s full range of products online. A business has complex choices. Do we put all our jewellery pieces online, or just some of them? The latter was not really an option for us because we did not have a retail presence. If some, do we showcase our bestsellers, new products or classics?

As a customer, I want to be moved and enticed. As a business, do we present products qua products, or do we showcase them on a human model, who can show the product realistically to the customers? How many photographs per product? Do our photographs really pluck at the customer’s heart strings, because that is where the sale is first made? This is the toughest one to crack. The logic is not very different from those who insist on telling me that they cannot buy their fruit without touching and smelling it. The cost implications of these decisions are notable. As a customer, I want the product photographs to dazzle me. As a business, we wonder if our photographs present the real fire and brilliance of our diamonds, and the true colours of our gemstones. Jewellery photography is notoriously hard and not for everyone wielding a digital camera.

Let’s say the business sells a fabulous piece of jewellery online. More decisions follow.

The essential last mile problem in shipping, for instance, is not simple. Few couriers may take on goods worth thousands of pounds, with appropriate insurance. Further, in countries with distance selling regulations, returns must be made easy and safe too. As a customer, I want assurance on both counts.

Further, the business can’t be certain the transaction won’t get called out as fraudulent after the product has been shipped. Jewellery is a new category for e-commerce, and payment processors just don’t have enough transaction data. It is a catch-22 because until more jewellery sells online, actuaries won’t have data to build the risk model. This is why many fine and high jewellers do not let a customer complete a transaction above a certain value online, typically £5000 in the UK, and will instead telephone the customer to verify details. So much for selling jewellery online!

Selling jewellery is much easier in a retail store.

In a store, the jeweller can deliver the right ambience, with champagne and macarons, or a lungo made perfectly, as well as handheld and full length mirrors to enable the customer to see how the jewellery works for her. As a customer, I delight in the sensuality of that experience. Experienced jewellery sales people in a store can assess a customer’s intent, interest and budget; they can then help with information, offer alternative products, and address customer doubts. For the customer, this helps bridge the chasm between the heart and the head, and leads to an actual purchase. The interaction is between two humans which means there is an opportunity to up-sell or cross-sell products by listening to and working with the customer, the first steps in that elusive process of clientelling.

Will techology be a saviour?

Both as a customer and a jeweller, I watch technology closely. Solutions are emerging to
approximate the physical experience online. But not fast enough.

For now, diamonds shine brightest when moving gently under the right lighting. Just like Charlize Theron’s dazzling Harry Winston necklace at the recently concluded Oscars!

Guess what? You can’t buy that online.

Four For Friday (37)

Stanford University announced its new President this week. Marc Tessier-Lavigne is a “pioneering neuroscientist, former Stanford faculty member and outspoken advocate for higher education”. More importantly, in keeping with Stanford’s reputation as a crucible for entrepreneurial creativity, he has been executive vice president for research and chief scientific officer at Genentech, leading work on disease research and drug discovery for cancer, immune disorders, infectious diseases and neurodegenerative diseases.

In a conversation with Ruth Porat, a member of Stanford’s board of trustees, Tessier-Lavigne he talks about how, as a Rhodes Scholar, he chose philosophy and sharpened his critical thinking, and learnt to appreciate the importance of a broad-based education encompassing both liberal arts and the sciences. He talks at length about his research philosophy and interdisciplinarity. “Greatest advances are often made at the interfaces of disciplines,” he says, thus underscoring a crucial aspect of innovation for human betterment.

This week’s links are all about the role of liberal arts in education, research, and scholarship.

India is stereotyped in the west as a country of maths and engineering nerds. Creating a broad base of technocrats was what India needed after it gained independence from British rule. But this has created lopsided development. In a recent essay on the importance — and timeliness — of creating a liberal arts university in India, the founders review the history of higher education in India and ask crucial questions while outlining the form liberal arts education is taking in India under their watchful gaze.

Today, liberal education in India is not just blindly aping the western model. It incorporates the best of content, courses and knowledge that India has to offer and marries it with the best in contemporary pedagogy in terms of experiential learning, use of technology, grass-roots immersion and mentorship. It ensures that the best minds in India are capable of engaging with the toughest challenges we face as a society. This way we ensure that the Indian liberal education aspires to be not just the best in the world but the best for the world. As America worries about its overdependence on liberal education and its rising costs and relevance, India and its Asian neighbours are showing how a rejuvenated model of liberal education is not just an imperative but can be delivered in a high-quality and affordable model at a large scale. As a country we have the opportunity to change the course of higher education not just for India but for the world.

This impassioned essay reproduced in the Washington Post suggests kids need to learn philosophy. The entire essay is worth your time — especially though not only if you have or are in charge of children, in any form. For today’s children are tomorrow’s men and women, and we all have a stake in the matter. An excerpt:

I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” as Frederick Douglass once said in a different context. In that spirit, then, it’s imperative that our kids become philosophers.

As both the founders of Ashoka University in India and Steve Neumann, the author of the essay in WaPo note, liberal arts and philosophy seem to have a poor reputation as something of little “use” to society. To balance that, uh, feeling, here is a utilitarian argument about why digital companies need liberal arts majors. The piece is longer than it needs to be, but it can be skim-read for the main points.

But there will be a limit to how far computers can replace human capabilities, at least in the near long term. What can’t be replaced in any organization imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills, such as creativity, empathy, listening, and vision. These skills, not digital or technological ones, will hold the keys to a company’s future success. And yet companies aren’t hiring for them. This is a problem for today’s digital companies, and it’s only going to get worse.

Vinod Khosla, a leading light in the Silicon Valley, however holds a slightly different opinion. He argues that we need to teach critical thinking and the scientific method first, and humanities later.

To me, the fundamental tools of learning stem (no pun intended) from science, technology, engineering, and math. This updated curriculum should eclipse the archaic view of liberal education still favored by institutions like Harvard and Yale based on a worldview from the 1800s. Critical subject matter should include economics, statistics, mathematics, logic and systems modeling, current (not historical) cultural evolution, psychology, and computer programming. Furthermore, certain humanities disciplines such as literature and history should become optional subjects, in much the same way as physics is today (and, of course, I advocate mandatory physics study).

Finally, English and social studies should be replaced with the scientific process, critical thinking, rhetoric, and analysis of current news—imagine a required course each semester where every student is asked to analyze and debate topics from every issue of a broad publication such as The Economist, Scientific American, orTechnology Review. Such a curriculum would not only provide a platform for understanding in a more relevant context how the physical, political, cultural and technical worlds function, but would also impart instincts for interpreting the world, and prepare students to become active participants in the economy. After all, what is the job of education?

While I don’t fully agree with the “how” of Mr Khosla’s line of thinking, in my own life, I have made choices that have followed a similar path in educating myself as I have written elsewhere.

Studying numerate, “right answer” things followed by studying humanities – Engineering is a good first degree (although I think Physics is better but problem formulation skills acquired in engineering are second to none); but to situate the problem solving in the real world needs an understanding of how resources are allocated and how decisions are made. Studying the “there is no right answer” disciplines helped me become less linear and more able in life in general. It has worked well for my career too (I am now teaching Society & Technology to engineering undergraduates as a choice, and this was a subject I wish we had studied when we were in engineering school).

Four For Friday — 2016 in predictions

Welcome to 2016!

The curated links today are all about predictions for design, luxury, jewellery, and fashion tech in 2016.

“Simplicity will win.. but don’t oversimplify and sacrifice thrill of discovery” is my favourite from these 10 predictions for design in 2016.

Thanks to the digitization of everything, we now have the most hyperreactive markets in history. However, innovation at this speed comes with an unintended consequence—a never-ending glut of options. From more than a million apps in the Apple Store to your grocery’s milk aisle, every aspect of our lives now requires making a choice. It is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to make sense of all the noise. In 2016, brands will help people take things off the “thinking list.”

Companies have already enjoyed some success doing so. Aldi built a successful and disruptive business model while offering significantly fewer choices than traditional supermarkets. When Proctor & Gamble cut its Head & Shoulders line from 26 products to 15, the organization saw a 10% increase in sales.

Services that are able to automate low-maintenance decisions will be an especially important step. We’re already starting to see this with Google Now, while Australian startup Pocketbook prompts users of their upcoming payments and bills to avoid missed payments.

“Conscious consumption” and “owning over becoming” are two that caught my eye in luxury and design.

On conscious consumption:

Perhaps all of the above trends could at some level be attributed to the fact that manufacturing has now become so easy, cheap and ubiquitous. There is so much stuff, there’s room now for the weird, the wonderful and the fun. On the other hand, however, there is so much stuff there’s also an urgent need to zoom out and see the bigger picture. Disillusioned with focusing our lifestyles on the attainment of more material goods, more of us are seeking to achieve balance and enhance life with a greater sense of wholeness: making conscious choices, taking greater responsibility for ourselves, our communities and the wider planet. What does that mean for design? Activist brands, more conscious and considered design methodologies, anti-obsolescence and slow design.

On owning over becoming:

The direct result of brands needing to extend their role and remit as entertainers, educators and also enablers. This will take the form of new collectives, still deeper examples of hybridisation and also concepts attuned to borrowing… The premise is ‘owning over becoming’ which the luxury sector will embrace by connecting their audience with increasingly rarefied experiences and access of a highly topical, often intellectual nature.

The predictions for jewellery however seem to be focused on one key theme — personalisation.

Emin, a woman who, like few others, has captured the essence of our age and the idea of expressing your personal history, has put her finger on it. The biggest trend in jewellery today is in fact all about making it your own, be it how you wear it, or indeed sporting a tattoo.

Joanne Ooi, co-founder and creative director of Plukka – the new online fine jewellery e-tailer – came back to me with her predictions for 2016. “Delicate jewellery that is like a second skin and as easy to wear as a tattoo appears to be here to stay, as women, especially younger ones, eschew the look of large cocktail rings and reject the aesthetic of jewellery as an object.”

Fashion tech is an active area of investment, innovation and possibilities. WT Vox predicts many things about fashion tech but this would be an interesting one to watch.

In Q1 of 2016 we will see Jimmy Choo and Moncler investing in tech startups. More important, just like Amazon that is working hard to launch their digital health online store, we will see the appearance of dedicated online stores/sections for fashion technology.

Keep an eye on Asos, and Net-a-Porter. Not a real surprise as both companies are fashion technology ventures at their nuclei.

I enjoy, sometimes, reading predictions for the arbitrary one-year period that starts on January the 1st. I regret though that ex post assessments of such predictions a year down the line are few and far in between. JP Rangaswamy articulates some of my other ishoos with the predictions gig.

Everything is connected. That phenomenon is accelerating. And everything is affected. The effects are far-reaching and themselves seem to be accelerating in speed and intensity.

What should I do about all this? That’s my predicament.

My instinct is to believe that in that connectedness lies the solution. That we’ve spent far too long steeped in the cult of the individual. That we need to understand more about what it means to be connected rather than to try and reverse the process of connection.

The Janusian nature of the predictions linked above contain the essence of creativity — namely, how to balance the connected and tracked nature of our emergent world with our innate need to stand out, be seen, be counted, be individual? This tension is where all that matters and will matter will emerge. That is what I intend to watch over this year.

John Williams Waterhouse (1902) – The Crystal Ball (Image from Wikimedia)