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PopTech Fellows 2011

I’m back in one of my favorite places in the US: Camden, Maine. Even on a drizzly, rainy day like today you can enjoy the clean air and colorful fall-colored country around you. It’s a week before the PopTech conference kicks off, where we’ll hear from a number of eclectic speakers and have our minds given a true workout once again. (I am speaking at the conference this year during the “Re:think” session.)

PopTech Social Innovation Fellows

With hundreds of applicants from 58 countries, you have to be good to get here. As always, this year of Fellows is impressive and each one has already done something incredible to make it to this stage. We’ve got clean energy entrepreneurs, mini-manufacturing technologists, big data crunchers, girls health innovators and music community engineers. It’s a mess of engaging, driven individuals that remind you why the odd ones in the crowd are the ones that give us hope.

For the Fellows in the program, this is a chance to learn from some of the foremost experts in the field of communication, design, branding, negotiation, strategy and fundraising. The Fellows each get a chance to do a 5-minute talk on the PopTech main stage. Finally, the network that everyone is injected into gives them an amazing opportunity to connect and meet people that can help them realize their projects goals.

PopTech does something very interesting, the conference is the big “annual gathering” of the network. It’s full of great talks, as you’d expect, but you’d be wrong if you thought that was the reason PopTech exists. The organization itself is a catalyst, focused on accelerating ideas that can change the world.

The increased focus of the PopTech leadership on the Social Innovation Fellows, the Science and Policy Fellows and the Accelerator Labs that are put on in cities around the world are proof that their goal is to take all of the energy and resources that a focal point like a conference of their stature brings together, but to then direct that energy like a laser into the people and projects that they think can make a massive impact on the world.

The Fellows program fits into the PopTech organizations focus on finding people creating Innovative tools that impact positive societal change and then bringing them together with communities of stakeholders and other practitioners.

Pictures from Day 1

Inspiring Innovations: Pop!Tech Fellows 2010

This is the third year that I’ve gone to Pop!Tech. I’m part of their Fellows program this year, along with Ken Banks of FrontlineSMS, as a faculty/Senior fellow member helping with the event for the incoming 2010 class. As usual it’s a surprising number of interesting and intelligent people that are in the midst of changing the world.

The Fellows

One of my favorite things about the program is how we’re shuttled off to a beautiful setting in the Maine woods to spend time with experts from a number of different fields. It’s a time for contemplation on the reasons that you do what you do, as well a chance to gain access to experts who will help you build and evolve your organization to fit your vision.

This year, I know a number of the Fellows, making it feel like this is also a meeting of old friends.

Funnily enough, I had to come all the way to Camden, Maine in the US to hear about an innovation in Kenya. One of the Fellows is Rose Goslinga, the founder of Kilimo Salama (meaning “safe agriculture” in Swahili). She has created an innovative micro-insurance program designed for Kenyan farmers. The project is a partnership between Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, UAP Insurance, and telecoms operator Safaricom.

The service has been so wildly successful that Rose is missing the Fellows program due, she’s still in Kenya in the midst of scaling the service nationally.

Brain Food: Pop!Tech Fellows 2009

PopTech Fellows 2009
[More Pop!Tech Fellows 2009 pictures]

There are a lot of reasons to come to Pop!Tech, the conference, but honestly the highlight of my Fall is the Pop!Tech Fellows program that precedes it. It’s one of those seamlessly executed events where every detail is taken care of, which is a tribute to those orchestrating it, that pulls together some of the most amazing minds in the social innovator space into one place for a 5 days of immersion. The faculty is world-class and the innovation Fellows are exceptional in so many ways, not least among them their areas of focus.

This year I’ve met a young man figuring out ways to turn waste products into charcoal soil additives that increase crop yield by up to 200%. I thought I knew a little about the mobile space in Africa – and I did know a little, very little, especially compared to what Nigel Waller knows… Oh, and I sat amazed as a lady from Saudi Arabia shares how she won both the MIT and Harvard prizes for innovative business ideas (as a non-profit!) in one year – which is unheard of.

The first thing you need to understand about this pre-conference Fellows event is that it takes place in an incredible location. It’s Fall in the woods of Maine, where we’re housed in cabins surrounded by trees of varying shades of yellow, orange and red. The bay sits below us, with wooded hills behind the idyllic and well-appointed retreat center. It’s the perfect setting to leave behind your daily life and embrace a few days of learning, discussion, renewal and growth.

I was fortunate enough to be part of last year’s inaugural Fellows class, where fast-friends were made that still stay in contact. This year, I’m here as one of the two returning Fellows from 2008, with my partner Abby Falik, to serve as a bridge between the classes and help maintain a consistent ethos and to lend a helping hand wherever necessary.

PopTech Fellows 2009 - Hayat & Eben

One of the things I’ve been asked to do this year is help photograph the Fellows program. I can’t hold a candle to Kris Krug’s brilliant work from last year. Fortunately, Andrew Zolli (Pop!Tech’s curator) is letting me borrow his much better camera, which I hope will make up for any lack of talent. 🙂

PopTech Fellows 2009

[More Pop!Tech Fellows 2009 pictures]

Beyond the photos, beyond the scenery, beyond the relaxing wood cabins – this event is about feeding my brain. It’s about the chance to meet and share a unique experience with my peers and learn from some of the world-class faculty. It’s about challenging ourselves and not just talking about the successes and “good stuff”, but about ways we can all be better and speak openly of our failures.

“Made in Africa” my talk from Pop!Tech

Here is my 5-minute talk that I did at Pop!Tech this Saturday. It touches on Ushahidi, AfriGadget and why I’m optimistic about Africa.



The best part for me is that in a recording I can make sure I don’t forget any lines and I can add more images into the slideshow. I know I had to cut out a section of the talk in the live event as I was running out of time. Either way, I hope you enjoy it, as it’s a mixture of my history that explains a little of my present occupation.

Highlights from my Morning at PopTech 2008

If the rest of PopTech is anything like the morning of the first day, then I’m not sure my head can handle it. You can follow along live at Poptech.org/live, and track images on Flickr at PopTech08. Finally, follow the PopTech blog, as they liveblog the whole event. Here are my highlights and images from this event so far.

My catapult-driven tinker car

Before I get started on today though, I need to give a quick shout out to Gever Tulley, who helped re-awaken my love of tinkering and creating with my hands. I spent yesterday afternoon bending wire, strapping down chopsticks and creating power with rubber bands. My masterpiece was a catapult-driven car. Best of all, Gever runs the Tinkering School, and he’s a big AfriGadget fan.

Carl Safina and Saul Griffith at PopTech 2008

Saul Griffith started us off with some amazing visuals supporting his studies into energy use by himself over one year. You can join in at his crowdsourcing project of personal energy use at a site called Wattzon. It’s really quite interesting to see the breakdown of energy use by those of us who travel a lot.

Malcom Gladwell at PopTech 2008

Malcolm Gladwell spoke about capital usage by societies – I’ve read both Blink and The Tipping Point, so am also going to buy his new book Outliers when it comes out. Frankly, he’s an amazing speaker and it was just enjoyable listening to him talk. Funnily enough, I got to chat with his mother during the break, which was unexpected.

Language Hotspots

David Harrison is on a mission to save disappearing languages from all over the globe. He’s a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore University, and expressed well the need to save languages as we lose so much human knowledge that cannot simply be translated into a “global language”. Harrison has developed the idea of “language hotspots” – examining where the highest diversity of languages are, where the danger is most and where knowledge that is not widely known exists.

Imogen Heap at PopTech 2008

I actually didn’t know anything about Imogen Heap before I heard her here at PopTech. It was an absolutely fascinating moment for me, as she used technology to start echoing her voice and did a full song with only her voice weaving in and out in a symphony that can only be heard, not explained. Amazing. You can also follow her on Twitter @imogenheap.

It was wonderful to finally meet Rob Katz, who started NextBillion.net – the website that tracks and keeps discussions alive around products and services targeted at the “bottom billion” people in the world. We have big plans of having a good long talk over the next couple days, more after that.

Eric Dawson a PopTech 2008 Fellow

Lastly, a new friend of mine that is also a part of this year’s PopTech 2008 Fellows class, is Eric Dawson. One of the more grounded individuals that I’ve ever met, he exudes peace. This is good, as he runs an organization called Peace Games, focused on ending youth violence. His short talk was well done, asking us to not feed the evil, but the good in ourselves.

Best of all, the bags handed out by PopTech are by Timbuk2, and are excellent bags. However, anyone who wants to can donate their bag to Eric’s Peace Games organization for one of the 40,000 youth taking part in their program.

PopTech 2008 Bag

A Crash Course in Branding from Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller, from Heller Communication Design, is spending the morning with us at the Pop!Tech Fellows program. We’re getting a crash course in branding and, “creating a brand promise”. Branding is more than a pretty logo or a nice website, it’s everything that you say, do or are perceived as. It’s what makes up the organization and it’s what people understand of you.

Cheryl Heller and Heather Fleming talking about "Brand Promises"

I try to pay attention to the Ushahidi brand, but I got a rude awakening as Cheryl asked us to each stand up and give an elevator pitch on our organization. Embarrassingly, I had to stand up and stutter through some half-baked pitch on Ushahidi. Needless to say, I’m already working hard at getting this whole brand a lot tighter – all the more important as we have a growing community that needs to easily speak about the brand as well.

Brand Promise

It’s what you promise to deliver. It’s not your mission, vision and values. It is the commitment that the business makes to each of the people who interact with it. It works two-ways – they first capture what is unique and valuable about an organization, and then inform the actions necessary to make it true. An Example:

“Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”
– Ritz-Carleton Hotels

Erik working on branding at Pop!Tech

Ushahidi’s Elevator Pitch and Brand Promise

I was paired with Heather Fleming, of Catapult Design, to help each other figure out our brand promise. Cheryl came by to help us boil down some of these thoughts and channel them towards what it should really be.

When I boiled down the Ushahidi elevator pitch (and I’m still working on it), I came up with this:

In a crisis or disaster, ordinary people have deeper insight into what’s going on around them than either the government or the news media. When you gather that information in aggregate, you start to see the bigger picture much more clearly.

Ushahidi is a platform that allows you to crowdsource crisis information by SMS, email and the web. We believe that gathering that information is key to saving lives and speeding recovery during an emergency.

It’s free and open source software, which means that anyone, anywhere in the world can use this platform.

After much iteration, and something I’m still working on, is the following for Ushahidi’s brand promise:

“We open a window to the world. Making the invisible visible by providing simple tools, used by ordinary people in extraordinary times so that others can act on it.”

Takeaways

An invaluable exercise is to really learn to listen to others talk about your organization and brand. Hearing Heather and Cheryl talk about what their perceptions of Ushahidi is was more valuable that me endlessly talking about what I think it is.

What is Ushahidi to you? How do you see it, and what’s the promise that you hear/see in us?

WhiteAfrican and Kiwanja at PopTech 2008

Having a tourist picture moment with Ken Banks of Kiwanja in Camden, Maine right before the Pop!Tech conference begins next week. We’re both Pop!Tech Fellows this year, which is turning out to be way more fun than we ever imagined.

(Note Ken Banks goofing off as usual…)

This reflection is in the door to the Camden Opera House, where the event will take place next week.

DSC_0420

Here I am hanging out with Andrew Zolli, the curator of Pop!Tech, at the Zoot coffee shop. We spent way to much time talking camera lenses and then running around the area taking pictures. Fun times!

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