Jo White – a woman in a … startup

I am very privileged to know a number of truly remarkable and inspiring women who work in, on and around geek stuff. One of my notions for this year was to share some of their ideas and experiences with everyone.

The first woman who sprang to mind is Jo White (a.k.a. @mediamum on Twitter). She’s been a friend and an inspiration for a while now.

There are not many women who combine a career in journalism, a large family, activism for breast-feeding, postgraduate studies, teaching, co-founding a startup, and moving to the other side of the world. Jo has done all that and more.

Jo’s response to my idea was to say: “You have officially turned into the Andrew Denton of the internet. The ‘Are you happy’ question had me thinking for a few days.” (Being compared to Mr Denton is hardly the worst thing anyone’s said of me ;))

Her responses got me thinking and helped me to consider my own experiences differently. Here are the questions and Jo’s answers about how she got to be where she is now…

How/Why I’m doing what I’m doing now.
We moved to the US to pursue this company launch because of a few reasons. Firstly, I firmly believe that my children should see us working hard and really chasing dreams. They saw me do my undergraduate degree by distance education that took three years, and went to Queensland with me and saw me graduate. That kind of thing makes a lasting impression on kids. I want them to have big dreams, and put in solid work to attain them.

I also wanted to demonstrate to my husband the full commitment and faith I have in our ability to travel this path together. There are simply not many husband/wife startup relationships that are celebrated, and this was a massive move for us.

Finally, of course I would never have made this leap unless I firmly saw the vision behind the company itself. What we are seeking to provide the world with is a tool that will help everyone navigate the web, find credible information, and inform us all on what and who the best resources are on the web.

I want to really encourage everyone to create more content, and to make it the best content they can pull together, no matter what their space is. TribeVibe will really make that come together.

I have just written my Masters thesis on the strength of social media communities, and have been accepted the offer of a fully funded PhD position at Colorado University’s ATLAS program. I will be working in the EPIC Project Colorado Lab, researching social capital and other aspects of communication online as they relate to crisis informatics (disaster relief, information dissemination and communication).

I am also the Program Director for the 60 Weeks Program at Boulder Digital Works, connecting world leading graduate students in cutting edge digital with the best minds in all aspects of digital, innovation and business.

What is the best piece of advice you have ignored to get where you are?
I try to never ignore advice, however there is some I’ll give more weight to than others. Successful women entrepreneurs are people I really pay attention to, especially if they have had aspects of the journey I share. I turn into their biggest fans. There are not many of them.

There remains a view that startups are too risky for people like me – a mother of four. I also ignore the people who say you can’t manage a family, an academic career and a startup. What they’re really saying is that they can’t do it. Not that I can’t. And that’s okay.

Are you actually happy?
I stewed over this question for a while. I’ve come to the conclusion that it depends what you mean by ‘happy’. If you mean content, no I’m not. But I don’t think anyone who loves working in startups is ever content. Being content commonly relates to being stagnant.

But the people I know who are successful are insatiable. If they find themselves ‘content’ then they enjoy it for a short time, and begin looking for the next challenge. That’s me. I’m happy because I’m working towards something I know is enormous. I’m surrounded by the buzz and stress and pressure, but I’m completely absorbed in it.

There’s a lot of laughter and our home is always busy. My children have never said “I’m bored” and they don’t hear it from their parents. That’s a happy environment for me.

How many times they nearly gave up when things went wrong & what kept them going at those times?
I’m not a great quitter. I might feel like it, and spout about it to my closest friends and of course my husband – but I am really bad at throwing in the towel. It’s far easier to say “I’ve had enough” than it is to follow through and close it down.

Lots of people celebrate failure in the world of startups. I don’t. To me, failure is when you stop. Failure is when you allow a problem to be the brick wall that stops you. That’s not good. I see issues as the speed bump you found a solution to, or the lesson you learned to make yourself better. It’s only failure if you stop. I keep going because I like success.

What do you wish you hadn’t sacrificed to be such a success?
I don’t think I’d call myself ‘such a success’ – there’s a long, long way to go. But so far, so good. I have had numerous successes that are the result of hard work and strategic planning. I have learned so much since making the move to the US.

I wish I hadn’t sacrificed a certain amount of my own faith in my ability. It’s hard to explain but I think that the sense of security that comes with a regular job in an office with a company that’s been there forever gives you a sense of establishment and reinforcement of security, even though it’s in a comfort zone.

In a startup, that is never available for you. You’re always creating your own success, and the only affirmation you have is what you create.

What mistakes did you make and what did you learn from them?

Mistakes are plentiful. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to make them. (Sometimes, it seems, numerous times a day!) I am big on metrics and informal evaluation, and I use this in all areas.

I disengage from those people who sap my energy or frustrate me. I also surround myself with close friends whom I respect and learn from all the time, just by being around them – and whose personalities make me happy.

My biggest mistake has been to try to forge paths with people who were having negative relationships with me, and try to turn them around instead of looking elsewhere for positive relationships. I think I pretty much have that sorted now, but I learn all the time.

Also I don’t just trust lawyers and advisers, especially on things that are going to affect me and my kids rather than my co-founders and the business. I double check stuff, and on more than one occasion this has served me well.

Thanks to @victeach, @everydaycook, @150dominos, @silly_billy_boy, @lyrianfleming for their help with the questions.

Company Directors conference 2010 – day 1

I’m lucky to be attending the Australian Institute of Company Directors 2010 conference DIRECTORSHIP:10 Ahead of the Curve in Christchurch this week.

Sessions today included:

  • Australia and New Zealand – performing in the global arena
  • Is the current system broken?
  • Challenges and opportunities in the global economy
  • March to modernity – Asia tomorrow and the rise of the global south

A recurrent theme is the issue of gender equity and boards. Every panel has women participating. Perhaps a valiant attempt to stave off quotas for Australian boards?

But there are some good initiatives in the area of gender equity. For example, a mentoring program for ‘board ready women’ by Chairmen of ASX200 companies.

David Hale gave a whirlwind tour of the global economy and outlook. This included some gems:

on current trends “we could by 2050 have a world in which there are more Australians than Canadians”

Spain next domino? “the problem in Spain is the economic leader is a total idiot”

“Greece has been an accident waiting to happen for a long time” – apparently poor tax collection is part of the problem

His general outlook was fairly gloomy for most of the world, especially UK, Europe and Japan. With emerging nations plus Australia/New Zealand as only

David’s key message was that governments really need to reduce debt and there is going to be a lot of pain associated with that process.

Avril Henry did some straight talking to the assembled (mostly Boomer) audience about the expectations of the GenX and GenY people their organisations need. She outlined how much the next generations expect technology as part of their life and work expectations.

She outlined issues of network amplification effects of social networks and their impact on business environment and culture. Avril’s points about how the forces of fear and command and control are driving away potential employees really resonated for me.

I really hope the leaders at this conference heed her call for greater focus on ‘soft’ skills in management for Australia’s sustainable economic advantage.

Loved how Avril called:

“generation Y – generation WHY? because they always ask this question”

Some good stuff here! Looking forward to tomorrow.

The Digital Revolution and the Educator’s Dilemma

The digital revolution is already here and it is changing the way people expect to communicate or share knowledge and information. Educators are facing technology changes together with changing expectations from students about the use of technology in an educational context.

A key challenge for teachers is also the delivery of personalised learning. This is happening the context of the growth of social and collaborative technologies, that reach outside the traditional walls of educational institutions.

The digital revolution has seen a shift in communications technology that has even begun to engulf the traditional book. Newspapers as we knew them are a dying breed. Television is now mobile and digital, and we can consume it wherever we like in the western world.

We are seeing a shift in communications from the old style broadcast towards an interactive and mobile style. Advances in mobile technology mean that handheld devices like iPhones and Android mobile phones often have just as much computing power as desktop PCs. Once these devices proliferate the ability to deliver localised, customised and personalised content to users regardless of location will be generally available.

Traditionally education was a teacher centred process with the teacher in the role of an expert who delivered objective information in a linear fashion. The teacher was the owner of the privileged truth and the role of the learner was to acquire the knowledge and demonstrate via exams their successful acquisition of knowledge. Teachers were in control and learners were not in control.

For 21st century education computers are the norm. But also the notion of education taking place in a particular fixed location is becoming irrelevant with proliferation of mobile computing and wireless broadband. It also means that collaboration does not need to be confined to a group who are physically co-located. Learners can collaborate with people all over the world using cheap and accessible technology. It also means that teachers are liberated from the tyranny of place too.

Over the past few years the social web has built up a value system that is quite different to the educational and business value systems of previous centuries. This shift is now flowing out into general society and influencing news media, social interactions and education. It informs the expectations of students in both explicit and implicit ways.

networked-teacher1-300x2251This new digital world looks very daunting to most of us. I love this picture by Alec Couros that shows the teacher at the centre of this bewildering new world (it applies just as well to other knowledge workers).

The teacher is at the centre of all of these new technologies, expected to master new technologies as well as their specialist knowledge domains.

But that is old world thinking. Because in the old world the teacher had to be the expert in every sense. But now the teacher is liberated to be the expert in narrow areas and facilitating the learning experience. Thus the picture above is not so daunting at all. And, most of all, it is not about the teacher as entertainer. It is about using the technology resources available so as to engage the attention of learners enabling them to discover information and build appropriate knowledge sets. The role of educators in this model is that of facilitator, as a guide on the journey.

The problem is that we’ve all been educated to know the answers. And we feel bad or inadequate when we do not fulfill that image. But knowledge today is so vast that even experts of have huge swathes of things they do not know. The leadership that our learners need is for us to model the behaviour of discovery rather than knowing in many cases.

While there are simple things we can know (multiplication tables are a good example) there are many more things for which knowing how to find them or how to derive them is more important. Thus educators are moving from purveyors of facts into facilitators of discovery.

The average person confronted with the plethora of social media and social networking sites is confused. And educators are being asked to assess which of the many platforms available they should incorporate into their classes. It’s enough to make the average person break out in a sweat.

The transparency enabled by web 2.0 is also enabling comparisons to be made more easily. And, while we all love it for shopping, it is not so much fun when you’re the one whose performance is being publicly monitored and compared with your peers. Looking on the bright side, it is happening to many others (even kittens).

Some people talk about the new pedagogies of engagement or inquiry but I prefer to think about it in terms of attention, engagement and discovery.  Teachers have moved into the engagement economy.

Libraries for the future

I spent most of my youth and childhood hanging about in public libraries and reading their books. In fact I blame libraries for most of my quirks these days, since it was there that I was exposed to dangerous ideas from philosophers, historians and fiction authors. The local, school and state libraries provided a welcome haven away from my rowdy siblings at home and the somewhat unpleasant school bullies of my youth.

Last week I was lucky enough to join a distinguished panel at the State Library of NSW to discuss the future of libraries. The event was the Futures Forum 2010 (PDF of media release available here).

The panel and assembled librarians were considering the possible futures for libraries in NSW – looking at these via the The bookends scenarios : the future of the Public Library Network in NSW in 2030 (PDF copy of the scenarios available here).

The booksellers on our panel were very worried about the impact of e-books and readers such as Kindle or iPad on their existing business of selling physical books.

This concern is no surprise with the rapid shift of consumption towards virtual rather than physical media for both books and audio. It seems very clunky to buy a CD for music now when I can just download the music I want to my mobile phone. It’s not hard to imagine the same scenario for books once equivalent reading devices are more widely available.

Another feature of the shift to virtual goods instead of books is the growth of recommendation engines and the ability to share our enthusiasms widely and immediately via social networks.

Thus if I love a new book, article or song it is easy to share it was all my contacts via Facebook or Twitter with a click or two. And interested parties can acquire it almost immediately based upon my recommendation. Thus the role of the mediators (like booksellers) is being replaced by the broader community of my social connections.

The growing hyper-connectedness facilitated by the internet and our connected devices make sharing of media a communal thing. In the same way that we pass physical books and CDs around amongst our circles we are sharing our passion and interests for virtual media.

Libraries are either going to adapt or go the way of the dinosaur. Judging by the level of thinking, debate and discussion I saw last week, my money is on adaptation.

Of the future scenarios considered, the one I see as most probable is that libraries become shared community spaces providing a hub for local activities and collaboration.

Have you been to your local library lately? Why not get along and check it out?