Thursday, November 20, 2014

CIW Q&A: You Are Beautiful's Matthew Hoffman

Simple, sleek and silver—that’s the formula behind the You Are Beautiful stickers that, since 2002, Chicagoans have spied everywhere from the CTA seat in front of them to a college students’ book bags to the 11-by-15 foot wooden “sticker” off the Oakwood exit ramp at Lake Shore Drive.  With the 2-millionth sticker hot off the presses, creator Matthew Hoffman has no plans to slow down.  He’s introducing a line of stickers translated into 81 languages, is working with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to bring You Are Beautiful to 44 billboards in Buffalo, New York, and recently held a CIW Lab.
The You Are Beautiful installation at Oakwood greets Lake Shore
Drive's daily commuters and has contributed to a sense of "community,"
according to Hoffman.
Your recent CIW Lab started at the Lake Shore Drive installation and took people around the city’s South Side.  What was the idea behind the scavenger hunt–inspired Lab?
The idea was to feel what it’s like to do your own project, so there were different ways to interact with the project and interact with the environment.

It was a reverse scavenger hunt: You were given stickers and magnets and assignments.  So, one of those was to draw “You Are Beautiful” big in the sand, and everyone worked together to make a huge piece in the sand.  [Participants also] thought through different ways to hand out a sticker.  The idea was to put one in a very, very public place where everyone might see it, and put one in a very, very hidden spot where almost no one would see it, [except] for when it would be really unexpected for the person to find it.

What did people get out of this “reverse scavenger hunt”?
I think they looked at their environment differently.  Any time you’re able to stop and walk around the city, you get to re-explore it.  Even if it’s the same block you’ve lived on for years, you’re always going to find new things.  When you interact with it, you are inadvertently creating a community.

And what was your experience re-exploring the city?
It actually—it didn’t feel like work or a Lab or anything.  It felt just like an incredible Sunday morning hanging out with people.

You’ll be debuting stickers translated into 81 languages within the next few weeks.  What was the inspiration for the project?
[The idea is that] no matter how you say it, you are beautiful.  It will be interesting to see the reaction because…even though we worked really hard to get the best translation, there are always disagreements with dialect and also with the meaning of beauty.

What was that translation process like?
We started with the original translations we did in 2006 [for a smaller pack] that were all through individual people.  We also pulled things we couldn’t find readily available using Google translate.  Then, we created a survey where you could vote on best translation and offer others.

As many people as we could find who spoke the native language—for instance, the Irish and the Dutch translations, we talked to two people overseas and they both corrected what they were given. As many were fact checked as possible.  Since we’re always printing lots of stickers, if one is off, we can easily change that for the next reprint.

Reflecting on the past 12 years, what do you view as the reason for You Are Beautiful’s almost viral success?
It’s really about the community and the openness of the message and the approach of it.  It’s meant to be something very simple, delivered in a very clean way, so that you can take it any way you want.  That’s been the success of the message, [the reason for] its growth.

CIW Q&As are edited for clarity and length. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

CIW Q&A: Nerd Nite Chicago's Jason St. John

Nerd Nite Chicago provides “evidence-based entertainment”—the type of entertainment that pairs, for example, an exploration of the life of bees with the use of “the beloved and timeless characters of Sex in the City as our guide,” all while attendees enjoy beers.  An offshoot of a network of over 75 organizations worldwide, Nerd Nite Chicago regularly hosts free evening events, each featuring a handful of speakers discussing their pet academic topics.  We talked to Nerd Nite Chicago’s Founder and emcee Jason St. John—a physicist who is an expert presenter himself—in advance of tomorrow’s 7 p.m. event at the Bottom Lounge.

With Nerd Nite Chicago, Jason St. John curates "evidence-based entertainment."
OK, start at the very beginning.  How would you describe the typical Nerd Nite presentation to someone who’s never been before?
It’s not just someone up there giving their opinion.  It’s not a platform for that.  Nerd Nite is for people to bring things that they have found out in the world to other people.  The formula a friend of mine uses is: When there is something where you corner people at a party the moment they ask you about some topic and deliver some rush of information at them, and then they enjoy it—that is a Nerd Nite.

What types of topics have people covered on the Nerd Nite stage?
I try to keep it diverse.  The temptation would be to have an all-science program the whole time because that’s all evidence-based stuff.  But we’re not exclusively science by any means.  We’ve had great presentations from linguists.  One guy very memorably got very drunk and talked about swear words and inclusions from foreign languages in ancient Coptics. 

We’ve also had historians—there was a great one on people who would use hermits as decorative devices on their lawns.  They’d have [the hermits] go and live for seven years without speaking to anyone in exchange for food and shelter.  [Ed. note: This presentation was titled The Life of Times of Ornamental Hermits, and St. John is not kidding about its focus—or this bizarre and sad historical reality.]

So, it sounds like an academic’s brown bag lunch presentation, only considerably less stilted, with more of a sense of humor and more interesting powerpoints.
That’s right—and you can swear and drink, and it’s actually encouraged.  It makes everybody else and just as involved.

What types of Nerd Nite talks have you given?
Every now and then I’ll have something that I should just present.  I’ve given some on my own work, although I encourage people not to give them on their own work.  They tend to take it seriously, and then when they are heckled, their feelings are hurt—

Wait—there’s heckling at Nerd Nite?
Yeah, by their friends, they tend to get heckled.  Like, are those error bars or did buses park on your plots?

What is the typical make up of the crowd?
We end up with quite a cross-section.  When I first went [in Boston, where Nerd Nite started], it was only students.  And I thought that that’s what would happen in Chicago, too.  We do have a lot of students, but we have a lot of young professionals.  It tends to be anyone who is looking for something fun to do in a bar with their friends, and who enjoys learning something while they’re at it.

What’s the most surprising or fascinating or all-around-nerdy fact you’ve learned at Nerd Nite Chicago?
If you buy fresh squid, you should clean it. There was this woman who bit into the spermatophore of the squid, and it was inseminated her tongue, which is very painful.  So, just, clean your squid.

Check out Nerd Nite Chicago tomorrow Wednesday, November 19 at 7 p.m. at the Bottom Lounge.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Chicago's CHIRP Radio Aims to Go from Online to On-Air

In Chicago, there are just 25 licensed FM stations, from 88.1 all the way up the dial to 107.5.  CHIRP Radio is lobbying to be the 26th.

Finding a spot on the radio dial has been a long road for CHIRP, which will celebrate its fifth year on online “airwaves” in January.  The FCC hasn’t opened applications for low-power FM broadcast license, the license type CHIRP is after, since 2000.  To request access to applications, CIW Co-op Member and CHIRP Founder Shawn Campbell, alongside other independent radio activists, traveled to D.C. to persuade the FCC to open applications in 2013—a request that required not just FCC approval, but a new law. The bureaucratic hoops exist in part because, as Campbell notes, unlike the web, the radio dial is “finite.” 
CHIRP Founder Shawn Campbell brings local, genre-diverse
music to Chicago radio.
Ultimately, obtaining a license is a step that Campbell sees as integral to what is, after all, the Chicago Independent Radio Project—with emphasis on independent.

“If you control the license, you control the state of the station,” Campbell explained, drawing on 20 years of commercial and independent radio experience.  “The only way to have a truly independent station is [to have a license].”

In the meantime, CHIRP’s team of over 200 volunteers continues to program unique, often Chicago-centric music of all genres via their website.  (And CHIRP’s music selection is truly genre-diverse—in one sentence, Campbell mentions punk, country and hip-hop).  Online, CHIRP curates unique music lists (“Top Five East German Bands”), mines Chicago for upcoming shows (and sponsors many shows, to boot) and offers interviews with Chicago’s people of interest.

Through these programming efforts, CHIRP aims to restore listeners’ trust in radio—a trust Campbell believes many lost when radio veered farther toward the commercial over the past 20 years.

“A lot of people say, ‘I completely stopped listening to radio until I found you guys,’” Campbell said.  If granted an FM radio license, Campbell is certain that the number of people who find, and appreciate, CHIRP will only grow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

DesignHouse Takes CIW-Inspired Piece to Kickstarter

A CIW–designed piece hits Kickstarter today, thanks to an October 14 Lab hosted by DesignHouse.  The design and innovation firm teamed with Skol Manufacturinga local family-run manufacturing companyand CIW attendees to bring “Reveal,” a sleek, metal picture frame, to the market.  

DesignHouse's first Kickstarter product, Reveal has 50 backers thus far and is the result of DesignHouse’s “crazy, one week sprint” to build a product from a concept developed at its CIW Lab.  Over 20 CIW attendees participated in the “design jam,” a product development process that founding partner Pam Daniels stresses is “different than a typical brainstorm” because of its tangible, hands-on focus.  In other words, “you get to start making stuff right away.” 
CIW Lab attendees worked with DesignHouse experts
to design a simple, market-ready product.

Among the designs that arose from the brainstorm—which included a belt buckle and light fixtures, among others—Reveal was distinct in its simplicity, ease of use and wide potential market.  Unlike a typical store-bought frame, Reveal has no glass panel to protect photos that can easily be reprinted.

“The photo has changed radically…and no one’s really rethought the frame,” Daniels said.  “We got really excited for the opportunity for the artifact that displays the photo to keep pace with the way photo-taking has changed.”

The product also fits neatly into DesignHouse’s broader mission to connect designers directly to manufacturers.  Comparing its methods to the farm-to-table movement, DesignHouse urges designers to design based on available, locally-sourced materials and manufacturing methods.  At the CIW Lab, for instance, Skol Manufacturing owner and President Ray Skol was on hand to answer questions and brainstorm solutions.
The Reveal frame has a streamlined design for ease of use.
“Computer-aided design has become so ubiquitous, and the computer will let you do anything.  It will not tell you: Metal does not bend like that. You cannot do that,” Daniels said.  “It’s helpful and useful to start from what it really takes to fabricate a physical thing.”

Daniels hopes that these methods will not only result in products whose designs are based in a strong manufacturing foundation, but also lead to a more general return to the U.S.’s manufacturing roots.

“Design is a key part missing in the equation about how to revitalize U.S. manufacturing,” Daniels stressed.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

CIW Q&A: Sustain Condoms Co-Founder Meika Hollender

CIW 2014 speaker Meika Hollender didn't attend business school with the intent of becoming a "condom entrepreneur."  But when her father, Seventh Generation Founder and former CEO Jeffrey Hollender, came to her with an idea for a sustainable condom, Hollender jumped at the chance to collaborate. She quickly added her own twist to the product: Meika suggested Sustain Condoms be marketed to women—an out-of-the-box strategy in an industry dominated by companies like Trojan. 

Now, the father-daughter duo is focused on bringing a sustainable, Fair Trade product to the market that is not just, as Meika puts it, “less than”—less environmentally harmful, less of a carbon footprint, less potentially economically exploitative.  And their “more than” approach has been drawing results, and clients.  Launched just last year, Sustain Condoms can be found in select grocery stores and pharmacies, as well as on Amazon and Sustain's own website, and through social media and other means, Meika and Jeffrey are beginning to bring condoms into the broader reproductive health debate.

With Sustain Condoms, Meika Hollender is bringing the conversation
around women's health to a pharmacy near you.
This idea, as you explained, started as your father’s, but I imagine that as a young woman, you brought a lot to the collaboration.  What sorts of changes did you make as you prepared to launch Sustain Condoms?
As we were starting this, I thought that it needs to be something more than just sustainable condoms.  I thought that was a great idea from a product standpoint, but I thought we needed a bigger opportunity. As we thought about creating a brand of condoms for women, that’s when I got a lot more involved.

It’s really unique that you approached this idea with the thought that to be a successful business, you needed to tie it to a social issue.  Did this always inform your work?  Did it contribute to why you chose to pursue an MBA?
I call it the “Seventh Generation bubble” that I grew up in.  I wasn’t exposed to business outside of the most socially responsible and environmentally responsible type of business until graduating from college and working elsewhere.  Going back to business school was definitely about feeling dissatisfied…working with Fortune 500 companies. So [I started thinking], How am I going to move the needle and have a positive impact?  I didn’t necessarily think I’d be a condom entrepreneur, but it’s a pretty unique opportunity to start a company with somebody who’s so well respected and successful in this space. 

Now that you are a “condom entrepreneur,” what is your take on how your business model has succeeded so far?
I think we’ve definitely hit a nerve.  I think we’ve definitely figured out a white space in the condom category that is appealing to women.  And I think also the time is now.  Reproductive health is a hot topic.  In general, women’s empowerment is a big issue and topic.  It’s great to tap into those larger conversations.

What are some of those larger conversations you’ve tapped into?
My dream and goal is to…start a movement to not only empower women to get on top of their sexual health and understand the benefits and importance of using condoms.  I really want to get rid of the stigma around women buying and carrying condoms, and the negative perception guys have of a woman who has condoms in her apartment.  I find that not only ridiculous, but dangerous.  It’s a dangerous stigma that our society has created.  In US Weekly magazine, they always have “What’s in My Bag?  When is one person going to have a condom in their bag and not be totally freaked out about what that’s going to say about them?  Those are the types of things that we need to have happen in order to remove the stigma.

You mentioned earlier that reproductive health is a hot topic right now, but condoms often are not a part of that conversation.  What are your thoughts on how Sustain Condoms fits into the larger women’s health conversation?
When Hobby Lobby was happening, all of the bloggers ran to write about how birth control is bigger than preventing pregnancy and STDs.  It’s about regulating your period and reducing your chance of getting breast cancer. We’re really doing ourselves a disservice here.  We’re not defending our rights to have casual sex and enjoy sex. I think it’s dangerous because—I call it the Tinder generation—women are getting more empowered and engaging in casual hook-ups, but the responsibility and safe aspect of that is getting lost, which is tricky.

By only building up one or two forms of birth control and ignoring the rest or putting them in a bad light, it’s again a dangerous exercise.  Condoms are the only way to prevent STDs and HIV.  We focus so singularly on pregnancy and we ignore the other aspects of sexual health.  If you’re not in a monogamous relationship where both partners have been tested, not using condoms is not a good idea.

Why are platforms like CIW important to you and your company?
There are so many aspects to what we’re doing and to the issues that we’re touching.  We can’t communicate all of that just by having a product on shelf.  Because what I’m trying to do is much bigger than selling condoms—I’m trying to start a movement among women—these types of platforms are critical in talking about these issues and creating awareness.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Backstage Pass: Future Global Leader Hannah Song Works Toward Liberty in North Korea

CIW Future Global Leader Hannah Song had a nine-to-five job and “the rest of my life planned out” when she first started volunteering with Liberty in North Korea (LiNK).  Song, whose grandmother had left North Korea decades before, had previously known very little about North Korea—“my family doesn’t talk about it”—but quickly became committed to raising awareness and helping improve the political and social climate faced by North Koreans.  After working and volunteering for several years with LiNK, Song took over as CEO and president of LiNK in 2008, where she's since taken a "long-term approach" to the issues facing North Korean citizens and refugees today.
LiNK CEO & President Hannah Song is leading efforts that
aim to transform North Korea from the "inside out."
Has your family started talking more about North Korea since you’ve become CEO and president of LiNK?
No. I only found out recently that when [my grandmother] left North Korea she didn’t know she was never going to be able to go back.  She actually left behind a husband and two children. 

In South Korea, you have about 27,000 North Korean refugees that live there today. They have not been necessarily warmly welcomed into society.  My parents’ generation, they grew up with…a negative perception of North Korea.  My grandparents’ generation is the last generation that will ever remember a unified North Korea.  It’s such a painful history.  It’s more often that you don’t see that generation talking about it and just moving past it.

What is the vision, the goal of your organization?
Our name is our vision: Liberty in North Korea.  For us, though, we believe that it’s the North Korean people who will be the ones to achieve that liberty.  Our role is really just to come alongside them and to empower the North Korean people with tools and resources. 

In order to do that, we have a multi-pronged approach.  The first for us is that one of the major barriers to this issue is a perception issue—it’s how the world views North Korea.  That’s a real challenge because most people view North Korea either from a purely political perspective or from the perspective that it’s an impossible issue to get involved in.  We try to change that perception so that we can bring more support, more resources to the North Korean people.

What are some of the resources you provide to North Koreans?
We actually provide assistance to North Korean refugees that have left the country.  We help to provide a way out for them, to get them safely out of China where they’re hiding and into countries like the U.S. and South Korea that will welcome them and will help them to start new lives.  These refugees are playing really important roles in helping to change North Korean society from the bottom up inside.  They’re keeping in touch with their family members inside and sending money and information in, and it’s really transforming North Korean society from the bottom up.

Most people don’t realize, but there have been really important changes that have happened in North Korea over the last 15 to 20 years.  It seems so simple, but it’s the most straightforward: Let’s look at where change is already happening and be a part in accelerating that change.

What are these changes and transformations in North Korean society?
A lot of those changes have to do with social information and economic changes.  Twenty years ago, there was a huge famine in North Korea. What resulted out of that was a survival mechanism—this grassroots marketization happened.  Those markets have become a part of everyday life for North Korean people today.  In a lot of ways, it’s helped to create more independence for people apart from the regime.  They’re able to get food and goods and even information from these markets that they weren’t able to get before.

How can individuals get involved with LiNK?
We have an incredible global movement of support all over the world.  We have what we call rescue teams—about 500 of them globally, most of them here in North America.  They are a group of people who are committed to raising the funds to rescue one North Korean refugee and also to change perceptions in their local communities.  That’s one way that people can get involved.

We encourage people to host events in their local communities as well.  We believe a lot in the grass roots, and we work a lot with young people.  I think there’s a huge opportunity for us to be working with young people to really prepare the next generation.

Why is it important for you to share your work with audiences like those at CIW?
I always appreciate the opportunity to share the story of what’s happening in North Korea with new audiences.  [At CIW Future Global Leaders] I was just so inspired by so many people and what they’re doing. So many young people are doing incredible things that seem so unimaginable, and it inspires me and it gives me a lot of ideas to go back and work even harder.  From a personal level, I really appreciate that, and I leave inspired.

For the issue, it’s awesome to have a platform to speak to people who are already here because they’re a community that’s curious.  They want to learn about what’s happening in the world around them, and they want to be a part of changing the world that they live in.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Backstage Pass: Learning through Experience with the Experience Institute's Victor Saad

CIW speaker and Co-op member Victor Saad knows that the end of school—at least as we know it—is near.  In fact, when Saad was interested in pursuing an MBA, he skipped business school himself, opting instead to embark on what he called The Leap Year Project.  An educational race in which Saad completed 12 experiences in 12 months, The Leap Year Project gave Saad the types of hands-on experiences usually reserved for internships or daylong field trips. Now, he’s helping others pursue experiential educations, with the Experience Institute, a higher education platform that recently graduated its first class and that is aiming to redefine the way we all approach education.  

Victor Saad's Experience Institute transforms the city into an intellectual playground. 
The Experience Institute aims to “establish experience as a credible form of education.”  Why is this important?
I think everyone knows experience is transformative.  I think all of us have had those moments where we realize that our most valuable lessons have come from those moments when we’ve had to do something outside of our comfort zone or we’ve had to do something where our neck was on the line.  It wasn’t just a case study; it wasn’t just a sample problem.  It was for something that people were actually going to interact with.

Since it’s such a valuable part of education, I’ve just been curious why is it usually just a small portion of it, like an internship.  [I thought], How do we design education with experience at the center? I think if we do, people end up becoming more inventive and adaptable. 

So, how do you design education with experience at the center?
With experience being so organic, you can’t be too formulaic with it.  It’s important to create a community, to create the space and the vernacular for it, in the same way that CSS and HTML have done for designing websites.

What were some of the experiences you undertook yourself during your Leap Year Project?
I wanted to be able to work with individuals who both believed in what I was doing and also had excelled in what they were doing.  I found myself working alongside Samuel Stubblefield, who is a world-renowned experience designer at an architecture firm in Seattle, to build out Microsoft’s healthcare facility. Specifically, the lobby needed a dose of levity and interactivity.

On the other extreme, I spent time with Union Rescue Mission in downtown LA.  I was getting out of the more design-heavy world and thinking about what it means to work for an organization that serves people.

What are your overall takeaways from all of the “experiences” you undertook?
Personally, I think courage comes when you attempt something that is seemingly impossible.  The moments of discomfort and the moments of challenge are the moments that we actually ought to lean into and not avoid.  Those are the moments that build our character.

Many of your Experience Institute students are attending CIW events.  How does this fit into their experiential education?
[This fits into] the idea of us having electives, and the city is our campus.  Our meeting spaces have been all kinds of office spaces.  Our classes have been taught by practitioners.  And then our electives are this.

Why do you think events like CIW are so important?
Inspiration is perishable.  It’s like food; if you have a great meal in front of you, you ought to consume it.  CIW serves up the best of meals, and it invites you to act on them relatively quickly because you have the people who can make your ideas come to life right next to you.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.