Why We Innovate!

I would like to share some thoughts as 2017 sweeps in with mighty winds.

Ever since Girls Innovate! began, about four years ago when I was still a relative newcomer to the Bay Area, I have been struck by the question of what it means to innovate.

In my mind, innovation meant leadership and creativity and moving humanity forward – in whatever domain, for one person or a thousand. I remember being excited that people were eager to come together around that purpose. Silicon Valley had a vibrant entrepreneurial atmosphere which I equated with innovation. I also remember being surprised by a Japanese-American friend who said: “When I heard you use the word ‘innovate,’ I thought of the atomic bomb.” In her mind, “innovate” did not have the positive connotation that I imagined – just the opposite.

Our personal experiences give context to our understanding of words that depict big, bold ideas. I grew up with a great sense of purpose and opportunity. My parents placed me in the hands of a distant cousin as she and I escaped from the shores of Vietnam (destination: somewhere else). I was seven, and my purpose was to gather parents and siblings once I’d had the opportunity to re-establish in a safer place. This happened in Massachusetts, where my cousin and I got our start. Fifteen years later I would reunite with my family.

I always thought, growing up, that I was one of the lucky ones. Though I didn’t experience something like my 13-year-old daughter’s existence – family time, sleepovers, music lessons, safe neighborhoods, etc. – I had relationships at school that I cherished and I had my heart, mind, body and will which I could call upon in an instance. I had hope: if I could survive fleeing in the middle of the night and crossing an ocean in the hidden bottom compartment of a fishing boat, I could do anything. And I had optimism: innovation to me was a horizon’s worth of possibilities (the view from the deck of the fishing boat one afternoon while at sea was forever stamped in my memory), and I was captain of my ship.

I got jaded, of course, as I got older. I learned, for example, that innovation was less about resourcefulness, imagination, relationships, and more about networks, financial resources, manipulation and control. In an environment like that, the most free and fullest of hearts, minds and wills would be stifled – unless we turn against ourselves or find a like-minded community.

I’m thankful for the Girls Innovate! community that has followed along on my journey of seeking to innovate by understanding what innovation is – and through lots of experimentation.

I’ve learned that innovation is a creative process that takes courage, curiosity and time. I’ve learned that childhood is naturally filled with creativity; it is the adolescent years when children are on another big wave of creativity laced with rebelliousness (a key ingredient for innovation) that we shut it all down instead of giving them a safe place where they can take risks, try new things, and care about the world. I’ve learned that innovators are almost always driven by compassion for humanity – a desire to make life better in some way – yet somewhere along the way as the idea gets bigger and bigger, the innovator loses touch with the people whose lives he/she sought to impact, and that purpose gets thwarted. (That is perhaps how someone like my friend ended up associating innovation with destruction.) And I learned that to keep innovation on the path of serving humanity requires a sort of innovation itself which involves all sectors of society, including each of us operating within our communities.

Despite making attempts over the years at building community, I think because my search has been for answers and in itself a creative process which is by definition personal, the community feeling is probably quite tenuous.

As such, I would like to try a couple of things: 1) invite you to be part of this search for answers related to the question of what it means to innovate and 2) create a program for teens – possibly as a separate project – to help keep young people’s creativity alive and nurture their innovative capacity.

Regarding #1, below you’ll see some sources I’m reading or will be reading, as well as upcoming talks I will be attending. I call it a playlist. It is what I have in my mind at the moment. There are certainly more and will be more, and I will try to update on a weekly basis, along with my learnings, as I go along. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to send my way. And, of course, I would love some like-minded company (for as little or as much of the journey). Hopefully at some point in a few months, we can organize a get-together where we collectively share what each of us discovers.

Regarding #2, things are still in the works but I’m really excited and will keep you posted.

Uyen

“Take your broken heart, make it into art.” Carrie Fisher by way of Meryl Streep