Where I End, He Begins

Kurt and I have been married 15 years. We have worked together that entire time. Here is an analogy of how Kurt and I work together.

Let’s say we were going to do a documentary on migrating birds of North America. First of all, I would be the one who suggests we do a documentary on migrating birds of North America. Kurt would say “OK” because that’s why he loves me.

I would say: this flock goes from Canada down to Mexico. We want to document them at Point X, point Y and point Z.

Based on that Kurt would figure out (a) the most efficient and least expensive route, (b) the best possible equipment we could use (and if we can’t afford it how to make it himself and (c) the itinerary. I would agree and be duly impressed as always by how quickly he can research the best way to do something, *anything* really!

We would get in the car together on the appointed day and start our drive to Point X. On the way, twenty hours into the drive, despite all our plans and risking his getting mad at me, while he is driving en route to Vancouver, Canada, I say: “Keep north, we need to go to Toronto.”

At this point he will get frustrated with me. We have an elaborate plan based on sound research. I however have been voraciously reading and researching the entire time we were driving. I realize that due to global warming, the migration path has changed. If we go to our first destination, there will be no birds.

It takes me a few hours to even be able to explain the new pattern I have seen in the research because I lack the new vocabulary. I show it to him. His powerful intelligence understands what the data mean despite the very many hours he put into the existing plan, he trusts me and drives towards Toronto.

We get there, there are birds, we finish our documentary, and somewhere along the way over a beer and probably next to a campfire I met people who (a) would edit it for us (b) would help us promote it (c) would monetize it (d) would help us figure out the next documentary.

Sometimes this takes months, sometimes years.

The End.

Opportunity + Preparation = Justice

TechStars represents the most social justice I’ve seen in my lifetime on the question of whether the U.S. is a meritocracy. Granted it’s extremely competitive and the bulk of the startup funds are debt terms. However, hear me out.

TechStars is a startup accelerator in Boulder, Colorado (and now other cities around the world). If you’re accepted they give you up to $120,000 in seed capital ($100k of that is convertible debt) to start your business, coach you on how to pitch to other investors by the end, and most importantly rigorously try to prepare you to be successful in your business. They connect you with mentors and an ecosystem of entrepreneurs trying/failing/succeeding just like you.

I feel you cannot get enough lift bootstrapping it alone. My friend who was the largest chocolate distributor in North America until he sold his company said to me once: “When I was a young man I wanted 100% ownership. Now I’d much rather be sitting at the table with very bright minds and own a smaller piece of a bigger pie.”

So last year I explored the Small Business Administration. They offer loans for small businesses. On the surface this seems like great access to capital, except that you have to personally guarantee the loan. That means if your business fails you lose your house. And while they give some lip service to preparation and training, mostly it’s business plan writing courses. It is 1/1000th of the fierce reality TechStars is putting on the table. Mentoring requires so much more than learning to write a business plan: networking, hiring, fiercely guarding cash, working quickly, grooming yourself to be a leader.

The whole point of separating corporate entities from private individuals in the US is that if a corporate entity fails one can close it down. If you then also get wiped out personally you can suffer irreparable harm depending on your age. That’s why the IRS watches closely any commingling of business and personal funds; you pierce the veil of corporate protection by doing so. Given the SBA themselves tells you something like 80% of restaurants fail, for example, one has to question how personally-guaranteed-loans by the middle and lower classes is good for society. It just seems like a transferring of wealth to me, in the wrong direction, from the weak to the strong. It’s an unintended consequence of the harsh reality.

In the Venture Capital world, on the other hand, you sign Term Sheets, that yes, repay the investors first upon a sale of the business. And yes, there are some predatory VCs. However if you choose carefully the investors have some real skin in the game too. If you fail, they fail with you. You close the corporate entity, they lose money. That portion of the portfolio was non-producing and the Fund Managers get paid to make money. Since they don’t want you to fail, a mentor is put on your board. You get mentoring. They beat the heck out of you to consider your shortcomings and risks. They pick carefully and they pick few, sharing the risk with those who can afford some risk. To me this is more just than handing out loans to small businesses that are likely to fail, much like the housing mortgage bubble.

In March of 2014 I went to Cuba with a group from the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. On the plane there I was reading a German book and was moved by this one line:

“In the US the focus is on equality of opportunities while in Cuba the focus is on equality of outcomes.”

I reflected on that so much. Indeed my observation was that the Cuban Revolution has achieved equality of outcomes. The tour guide and the brain surgeon make the same amount of money. However that’s also created a situation that one senior historian there kept calling “absurdo” (absurd) because no one wants to study the difficult careers if they will make the same or less than others. Today, in reality, our tour guide operator was making $2,000 a month compared to my cousin’s friend who is a retired engineer making $12/month. The fact is society needs surgeons and we compensate differently because it’s damn hard work.

As I was there I thought about my high school years. I was in the top few in my class of about 450. I had nearly perfect SAT scores (1560/1600). I had a 4.4 GPA on a scale of 4. I volunteered hundreds of hours around town at a homeless shelter, in a facility for developmentally disabled adults, a single parent childcare facility. I busted my butt. And I remember one of my peers said to me: “you’re so lucky, you’ll definitely get a scholarship because you’re a minority.”

I felt so mad at that statement. If I got a scholarship I wanted it to be based on merit. Indeed I did get merit-based scholarships.

What I understood more profoundly, though, was that OPPORTUNITY without PREPARATION is no opportunity at all. In fact it’s a formula for failure and feeling like a loser the rest of your life. If you get accepted because you’re a minority but aren’t prepared for the situation into which you’re thrust (emotionally, mentally, academically) you will suffer greatly. Perhaps you’ll even suffer twice as much as the person who didn’t have the chance because you feel the burden of being one of the few. I was preparing myself.

TechStars is the first model I’ve seen that actively tries to form you, to PREPARE YOU, for the difficult road ahead. I’ve been going to their “8 Weeks of Awesome” series and it’s been very formative even without applying to the program. It’s the most profoundly “right” model I’ve seen in my lifetime.

In the end, if I had to say what I concluded on my Cuban visit, I would say that neither Equality of Outcomes (Cuba) nor Equality of Opportunity (US) is the right answer.


Yikes! Did she just say that?!: The Best Thing About Our Product Is That When It Fails People Blame Themselves

I waitressed at night, took art history classes at night, interned at MoMA by day…worked 100-hour weeks every week. I saved my money.

I’ll never forget my joy when I was finally sitting there in my first graduate class at Columbia University in the Business School. I used to calculate how many hundreds of dollars I was paying to listen to that class and considered it a great privilege. I savored it.

I was in the second or third marketing class of the semester and the guest lecturer was the Marketing Vice President of a major, national “Diet” company. Yes, that one that just popped into your mind without me saying it.

And she said proudly to us:
“The best part of our product is that when it fails people blame themselves and come back for more. We understand that and so we structure our marketing accordingly: after the holidays, etc.”

I remember a sense of white light surrounding my head. I thought, did I just hear that correctly? My disbelief was lessened only by the fact that the entire remaining hour and a half was spent discussing how to do that effectively.

It was a seminal moment for me. I realized that if we fail to look at things as systems we’re doomed. Those poor people were probably failing at their diets for many reasons: work stress, relationship stress, endocrine problems, bad habits…all kinds of systemic factors that contributed to success or failure. And as much as choice played a role, simply blaming themselves and going back for more was just a vicious cycle.

That was in 1995. My sincere hope is that segment of marketing has improved in some way.

Ever since then, I’ve been a relentless observer of systemic forces.

Action Over Theory

Actions often hold more sway than ideals. As we work to stem extremism around the world, we need to think about what it means to support fragile populations.

I have a friend who belongs to a church that many of my other friends would consider religious fundamentalists. My friend is pretty moderate though very devout. She is a very productive member of society economically.

This friend came from Cuba. She arrived penniless with a few kids. She received help upon arriving from people in this church because that’s part of what the church community did.

30 years later she’s still a part of that church.

I ask my friends who question the fundamentalist church where they were when she landed on these shores? Were they home reading The New York Times thinking about the dangers of communism and fundamentalists?

Because while they engaged in that act, what she needed was food, companionship, clothing and help with her children.

I read The New York Times. I am thankful we have policy debates about political asylum and immigration– the two factors that made it possible for her to be here in the first place. I also try to donate to the African Community Center in Denver, for example, which helps African refugees and actively prune what I own giving it to others I think will pass it down to other immigrants.

I’m not trying to preach; I’m no saint. I’m just saying that we cannot forget the *physical urgency* the bereaved/poor face. If we don’t step up someone else will. We can’t then stand there wondering what happened, how the extreme ideas got so entrenched.

Misconstrued Information Used Against You: Aaron Swartz was a canary in the coal mine

My father-in-law was arrested in East Berlin in the late 1960s and held for 9 months for inadvertently photographing the Stasi headquarters. He was a U.S. Citizen who was a teaching assistant at Columbia University researching the Bauhaus in Germany (one of the most influential architectural movements of the past century). He was studying art history and architecture so he went about the city photographing architectural elements. They misconstrued his photography around the city as spy behavior. He just disappeared one day and it was a ultimately a US ambassador to Italy that got him out. In an effort to get him to confess to being a spy, the Stasi told him they had collected lots of information on him.  It was 30 years later when he was first allowed to view the files that had been collected but only through changes to laws in Germany.

Similarly, my father was arrested in Cuba, also in the late 1960s. He was involved in a youth group at the Catholic Church. His friend owned a printing press and the press had been used to print some brochures for the youth group. They were not anti-revolutionary brochures; they spoke of the importance of the family unit. The next day a false report appeared in the newspaper stating my father was the regional director for distribution of this information. Fortunately, an influential friend of my parents wrote a letter stating that was completely fabricated and he was released, but not before being put on a list for a firing squad and imprisoned.

I can understand why Europeans get so upset with Google about privacy; they have pretty real, pretty recent memories with all this.

The death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz tells us the conditions ahead are too toxic for humans. Our Internet laws and privacy policies are not safe. For those who may not understand my meaning, in the mining of coal in the US, it was a practice to send a bird (canary) ahead before the men. If the bird died, it meant the conditions were too toxic to breathe.

I was thinking about the use of misconstrued information as a legal weapon. In the film, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” there was mention of a manifesto Aaron wrote being used against him in his trial proceedings. He basically wrote that the poor should have access to information and this was deemed radical.

At the recent Silicon Flatirons conference in Boulder two weeks ago, I wanted to ask the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and the broader group, what was being done to protect US citizens from information collected on the Internet being misconstrued and used against them legally. This isn’t a radical idea. We see it already happening with people posting stuff on Facebook and getting arrested as they deplane in other countries. We’d like to think we’re immune to that kind of radical thinking here, but it doesn’t take much to spark fear. There wasn’t enough time to ask my question; I’ll be keeping my eyes on the activities of EFF and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Recently I overheard my 78-year-old mother on the phone yelling at my dad in the background to turn off the Ferguson news. She grumbled: “The last thing anybody needs is pictures of black people looting stores; that is totally twisted. Your dad of all people should know what happens when information is misconstrued.” The mere fact that a black man has a 30% chance of being incarcerated in his lifetime tells you this is a real and present danger, not just online. I’m worried about where we are as a country in the US and how we are using (mis)information against one another.


21c Innovation – Key Takeaways from Experts at Silicon Flatirons Conference

Colorado is on fire if you’re an entrepreneur. This conference February 8-9 at the Silicon Flatirons CU Law School in Boulder was fantastic fuel for thought if you’re trying to develop a vision that will withstand the test of (Internet) time. Below are some important points I took away.

(1) Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, mentioned the importance of the US remaining at the forefront of innovation in the digital (Internet) Economy. I was thinking about our present (startup) assumption that English is the language of the Internet. That’s changing rapidly and the US has an incredibly diverse (multilingual) population that could develop language-rich apps to share with the world. I think there is a real risk that as billions of users come on board with apps, if we focus too much on English we risk falling behind.

(2) For startups, KC mentioned the importance of security by design from the beginning. Internet technology was built for a secure government environment. There are lots of opportunities for security flaws. The National Science Foundation has put $150m into research for building a new Internet core architecture. If we are going to fundamentally fix the core of the network, we must start with security. (KC Claffy, Director and Principal Investigator, Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis; Resident Research Scientist, University of California’s San Diego Supercomputer Center)

(3) Many students are interested in using technology for social good. David Clark mentioned that we don’t yet really know what it means to teach that. Students are putting that topic on the table. (David Clark, Senior Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory)

(4) Jack Waters mentioned that engineers of 20 years ago only thought of efficiency. More recently engineers have been thinking about economics. They are not yet thinking about social good as a factor in development.

(5) Paul Ohm questioned whether engineers are wired properly to ask questions about technology uses for social good. The implication was kind of whether that is too much to ask, meaning perhaps there are other team members that need to be brought to the table.

(6) Donald Gips did work with ICANN. They had a vision of a global multi-stakeholder model of values of openness and transparency. It’s a global architecture we need to develop. We’re at the very beginning of how to do this. It will take very sensitive handling. Not all partners sitting at the table hold the same views of the Internet as driving innovation. (Donald Gips, Venture Partner, Columbia Capital; Former United States Ambassador)

(7) Rebecca Arbogast brought up the interesting discussion on the settlement rate system. That other countries, as they sit at the table to discuss global Internet architecture, look to see what the global dividend looks like. That is how developing countries stand to fare in this new world. Traditionally significant income was associated with long distance calling and other telecommunications tariffs. Internet innovations are diminishing those revenues.

(8) Karen mentioned that access to education and information was a US Government goal. That seems like such a fundamental human right to me; it’s interesting to be reminded that a government sets it as a priority. (Karen Kornbluh, Executive Vice President, External Affairs, Nielsen; Senior Fellow for Digital Policy, Council on Foreign Relations)

(9) The panelists were asked what they see as threats to innovation in the United States. Donald Gips sees immigration laws as a threat to innovation as we make it difficult for brilliant minds from other countries to establish their businesses here.

(10) David Clark mentioned that consumers often figure out behaviors to deal with barriers. He gave the example of users with limited data plans waiting until they are on wifi to download movies. I think it’s important to factor in these hidden behaviors when planning technology projects.

I was also thinking about the people I met in Cuba who used USB sticks to transfer information fluidly. Compiling it at home offline and going into hotel lobbies to upload to Facebook. Movies exchanging hands. When we design communications systems that rely on servers owned by big international companies, we break down some of the Internet’s inherent power to be decentralized and enable human communication.

(11) Mark Cooper mentioned the importance of user-driven innovation as a counterbalance to the power of encumbents (in the conversation about monopolies), pragmatic progressive capitalism, the virtuous cycle in technology evolution, 200 years of history in inclusiveness in communications, and that we haven’t figured out how to spread the progressive revolution to the rest of the world. (Mark Cooper, Research Director, Consumer Federation of America; Senior Adjunct Fellow, Silicon Flatirons Center)

The Digital Broadband Migration: First Principles for a Twenty First Century Innovation Policy, University of Colorado Law School, February 8-9, 2015

Supporting Local Artists

The public was up in arms over the Bruce Naumann exhibition we were opening when I was an intern in Madrid at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (MNCARS). I learned much from the intense public discussion that ensued. There had been so many American exhibitions recently, the public wondered what the museum was doing to raise Spain’s profile on the international stage.

It wasn’t a case of xenophobia. Fads in Spain seem to embrace other countries for periods and then move on. The US was very much the center of love at the time.

The discussion emanated from a deep sense that Spain’s art is part of a citizen’s patrimony, part of your birthright. In fact there is a law that any ordinary citizen can contest the deaccessioning of a work of art from the national collections.

That notion is really unheard of in the United States. We see a wave of public opinion surge when a whole collection is in jeopardy such as recently in Detroit, but by and large we don’t have a personal sense of ownership over our cultural history. Probably because we come from so many different cultural histories and because we vaguely trust boards of trustees will do the right thing, somehow magically immune from real world concerns.

Cultural Policy varies greatly from nation to nation, something we don’t think about so deeply immersed in our own “nonprofit” model. In Spain, for example, museum employees are civil servants. This also has a great effect.

That question had a great impact on me though: If Spain doesn’t lift its local artists onto the international stage then who will?

I approached opening the gallery in Denver with that same question front and center. If we don’t lift up Colorado artists, who will?

We Misunderstand Sensitivity and Emotion

When a person is called “sensitive” very often that person has incredibly high pattern recognition. They can compute many environmental variables faster than their peers. They take that information and process it. If they see a threatening outcome, they express it as angst. It is the LOGICAL result of the computation, not what we commonly refer to as emotional. The expressed emotion is merely shorthand to convey the conclusion.

Similarly, emotions are other expressions of these pattern computations. Anger tells you to stop and see what combination of environmental variables are causing you to feel threatened. Fear is telling you to stop and look at the combination of factors you’re observing and consider what you think is the worst-case-scenario. Attaching a little probability to that will likely reduce the fear.

In entrepreneurship we don’t value these qualities enough. We say you “can’t be too emotional.”

I would argue that we need to be teaching: “Learn to read your emotions and interpret the data” just as much as we might teach our children how to read a statistical graph like a histogram.

I would also postulate that this is what underlies much of the mathematical, incremental benefit to teams that involve women. Women are good at reading patterns (we often refer to this with the soft term interpersonal relations). What they are in fact doing is bring ADDITIONAL DATA to the table. As such, of course the computational outcome is different.

Drop the word nerd

I know. We call ourselves and our friends geeks and nerds. We use it lovingly. The thing is, I think there is a time in a child’s life (and perhaps even an adult male’s life) when that word is actually disempowering and I don’t think that’s so cool. I have decided to start a personal campaign to encourage other mothers to speak out against the word nerd. I was watching the film on Aaron Swartz last night and was really struck by the clip of Jon Stewart saying: “I believe the word you’re searching for is EXPERT” in response to people in Congress calling young computer scientists, hackers, NERDS.

Ironically when these young boys grow older they are the ones speaking up and asking, “Hey why aren’t there more women in technology?!” They have a strong sense of justice despite very likely having been treated with great injustice throughout their lives.

I am looking at making a t-shirt that reads:
“I wouldn’t call your daughter a slut for wearing a short skirt. Calling a little boy a nerd, for any reason, is just as offensive.”

I hope one day we live in a world where the extent of what our children associate with this word is the candy and that they give it to eachother in love.

If you haven’t seen “The Internet’s Own Boy”, go see it. If you’re not moved to tears, you might want to question your own sense of justice. I cannot imagine this mother’s agony to lose a beautiful, sensitive boy like Aaron. The Internet echoed her primordial scream.

Why it’s better to be a rule follower

With the gallery, it got to the point where I knew many city and building officials by sight and by name. They knew me. I was down there so often requesting permits and submitting paperwork I joked that I should have a desk.

Away from the City, I can’t tell you how many people said to me the following because we were small: “Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.”

I would always respond, “If you don’t take your business seriously then how do you expect others to?”

This poor business owner is living the nightmare of what it means when your business use falls outside the bounds of your Zoning permitted uses:


I shuddered at the thought that I’d host some event or promote some big art exhibition only to have the city come shut me down. Just. Not. Worth. It. You get sued. When it comes to the law, better to take your time and meet all the various city & state regulations.

Plus, because they knew I was really trying hard for the past two years, when it came time to ask for crazy stuff like “how can I temporarily occupy a 9,000 square foot space (popup gallery) across from the Museum of Contemporary Art in a $100 million building?” they sat down and tried to help me figure it out. I was in the space legit, with permits, within two weeks. The City wants to help if you let them and help them meet the requirements of their jobs as inspectors. They don’t make all those laws, they just enforce ’em.