Sunday, October 7, 2012

An Inspiring Panel on Women and Innovation at GHC

I was really looking forward to this panel, as I struggle to see myself as an innovator... and I wanted to be inspired. I was. The panel was moderated by  Dr. Francine Gordon, who is one of my colleagues in the TechWomen mentoring program, but far beyond that, she has a  Yale PhD,.... runs  TED Women Bay Area... and has many more honors I cannot even count. I knew she would run a truly useful panel. The panelists included Rahima Mohammed of Intel, who was also a TechWomen 2011  mentor, Nina Bhatti, product development engineer at Hewlett Packard, Judy Priest, Cisco office of the CTO, and Kathleen McKeown, director of a new institute for Data Sciences and Engineering at Columbia and Winner of the ABI Women of Vision award for Innovation in 2010.

This panel helped so much with realizing where and how I already innovate. Rahima challenged us that  one thing women can do as innovators is to "think of the problem in a slightly different way"

Nina Bhatti pointed out that innovation is only that when it actually gets into a user's hands, and that the implementation and user focus of an idea is something many women excel at.

Judy Priest, Cisco office of the CTO pointed out that  innovation means targeting things "in the right time and place" - not pushing too much on the envelope and telling competitiors what you're doing.

Moderator Francine Gordon suggested that many women don't think of ourselves as innovators... but as problem solvers. Girls have as many characteristics as innovators as boys... but they (like women) see themselves as problem solving when they innovate.

Francine also ran through an amazing list of great women innovators such as Helen Greiner, inventor of the Roomba, Judy Estrin - co-founder of Cisco who wrote The Innovation Gap... about private/public/university collaboration for innovation, and Margaret Knight - holder of 26 patents - invented a machine that allowed paper bags to have square bottoms and several patents arond the combustion engine... called by some the "female Edison".

Questions for panelists:

What does innovation mean to you?

Rahima: It needs to be new, and be solving a problem that has a real need base, someone has to *use* it. Its not enough to have an idea, it has to be brought to someone who uses it.

Nina: when you get irritated by something, this should move to a problem solving point and then looking for innovation. Another place to look is a greenfield area, at the front of technology, because other people aren't there yet. You can get to the problems first, and the first solutions, wrong or right, set the trend. A key part of innovation is figuring out where to put your energy, that serves you organization's needs and a perceived market need or desire.

Judy: You also can innovate in integration, and in business models, not just technology. You need to expand your definition on innovation and find new ways to apply it. There was a famous story of a woman who invented the rotor thats in vacuum cleaners, because she was tired of sweeping the floor. Alas she didn't patent it. And the same mechanism is now used in amusement park rides.

Kathleen: what is the difference between innovation and invention? Being at a university, my first reaction was "I don't know", and I looked it up on wikipedia, and the definition there was that innovation is something new that has a *use* as a product, while invention is something novel, a new process or technology, and it doesn't have to have a use necessarily. So as a university person, the line blends. So for me, innovation is building a new system that does something cool. I don't think as much about the customer or user, though I do think about needs.

Francine: What attributes help you to be an innovator?

Kathleen: I like going into an area where I can be first, where no one has gone before. I often feel very afressive about that, wanting to push for it. Usually in the beginning I get a lot of "no"s, and my reaction is determination and almost anger. These people are wrong, and I know they're wrong, and Im going to show them.

Rahima: I like to figure out the most critical problems, and where will I get the biggest return on investment with the resources I have. Also really questioning and experimenting, and connecting the dots, associating the problem with another problem, after that also to build a network, try the idea with different kinds of people. To be successful doing something new you need a strong passion, the first time it doesnt work, second time doesn't work, but maybe the third time. Don;t give up when you hear a "no".

Francine: you can't take no as a no. It means try again another way.

Judy: One of the biggest questions I get is "where do the ideas come from" - most ideas are not siloed, problems are more complex than that. Talk to your friends. A good idea will solve a *significant* problem.

Nina: I pitch my ideas to people who I trust and who I know will listen to me, and see how their reaction is, I look for them to light up. If they don't, I go back and rethink. Then I go to experts in the area.

Francine: Failures?

Kathleen: in the academic world this is about not getting a grant or losing the grant once you had it. I sometimes wrote 5 or 6 proposals and didn't get funding before I finally did get it.

Nina: If you're trying to do something you havent done before, there is always a possibility of failure. Go for the risk area first, not last. You should not have a failure of execution. That's just a planning failure. There are failures of fit or agenda within organization. There is also a failure *To take the risk at all*. Are you failing to live up to your potential?

Judy: Failures are like bad relationships, not a black and white thing, good parts and bad parts, but a good innovator knows when to pull the plug and when to course correct. There's always something that can be gleaned or leveraged for the next thing, too.

Rahima: in many companies there is an employee review process, and people worry if they fail it will affect their review. So we fear it. But there can be failures even when all the risks are calculated. So you need a system that helps you tolerate failures. You really should have a strong handshaking agreement with your management system about your innovation. If you're not updating them about the risk, this is where you can fall flat. Get people excited, and communicate, and then even if it fails, its okay, you move on, and you are ok with management.

Judy: you also have to assign a timeline and not let things run on forever, and negotiate that up front.

Francine: remember that what some people call a failure another person calls a success. Many inventions we use today were "failures", penicillin is the most famous, but saccharine is another example, someone was trying to find new uses for coal tar, and he didn't wash his hands, and then tried to eat, and it tasted sweet, and they discovered saccharine (ew?) but...

Francine to panel: wht are the differences between your male and female team members?

Kathleen: I do always watch the women in my group. Right now I have a team and we are building a large system with a huge amount of data, and getting it done on the grant timeline is a challenge. I notice that the men on the team are very strong in stating what they think should be done, and why, and they state it in a tone of authority. They're often right, but watching the people, the women on the team, they are working extremely hard and very knowledgeable but much more soft spoken about it. I've had this experience a lot and seeing who speaks the loudest and who speaks more quietly, the quirt spoken people often know quite a bit. One of my roles is to manage communication and make sure the quiet ones get heard.

Rahima: I am very blessed in my team, I'm always looking for women, so almost half my team are women, and yes, the men are strong communicators, and women are strong collaborators, they want everyone to agree... the women want a nod from all four people on the team to proceed in an idea.

Nina: I have a no jerks policy. Innovation is a risk and I want everyone to feel safe. I had a boss, once, who was a problem and I called him on it, he was harassing one of my team members, and he didn't even know he was crossing the line, but it was really important. A culture of safety is critical. People have to be safe saying half formed ideas and know they wont be jumped on. So for me its not a man or a woman, I had quiet guys and balanced women, maybe because I auditioned people for fit with the team.... that is the key.

Judy: if someone on the team says "that's the stupidest idea I've ever heard" about aything, that person is a dream thief and they need to be off the team. Its hard for women to feel comfortable with 30% definition, women seem to want 75% definition. As an innovator, though, your job is to find the constraints and risks and then proceed boldly.

Question from the audience: Who do you define success as an inivator?

Rahima: It could be solving a problem you're working on. We think it has to have a patent, a trade secret, whatever, to be a success. Even solving a small problem can be innovation and save a lot of time or resources or otherwise be very important to your organization. Its not useful if nobody adopts your idea, it remains a discovery or an invention, does not become an innovation.

Kathlee: in the University setting, there are successes along the path, but when you see people pick up on it, thats huge success. When people download your software, that's success. Another way is it gets picked up by the TechVenture office, or people from outside the University come to you and say they think your software will solve their problem.... it takes time and you see it in stages, but the feedback is where you see it.

Francine: lets move along to patents for now. First question: what's the value of patents?

Nina: there are some things you *don't* patent because you want it to stay a trade secret. Sometimes women controbute to the ideas (not just women) and then they dont get their name on the patent, and, if you came up with any idea, you need to be on it or it invalidates the patent. Really. Also writing a patent is like publishing a paper. You can then discuss it publicly. There is a value in patenting because then when you leave th company you can still discuss it.

Francine: how do you know when you have a patentable idea?

Judy: we have a committee at Cisco, patents are very expensive, so we have to assess carefully. It costs us 30-50 thousand dollars for one US patent. The patent committee looks for the business case, the business value, is it detectable? Is it novel? If we patent it are we just telling someone else how to test a new product? This is important.

Judy: something to consider is whether its more important for things to be known as "your" idea vs the idea getting through... that depends on the situation. Think about it, but also don't give up, an when you can, own your work as yours.

Truly, this panel inspired me not just to be bold, but in how to foster a culture of innovation, and to see how I already *am* an innovator. This was a fantastic session and I hope it is a theme we see in the  future at Grace Hopper.

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