AdoptUSKids gets it right

I’m always impressed when a company manages to pair a good ad campaign with a crisp online presence. When it’s not a company, but a government agency, I’m floored. And “Adopt US Kids”* has done an absolutely amazing job of this by staying funny, keeping it simple and staying on message- “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.” Their Twitter team tells quick but compelling stories (“It’d take less than 1% of the US population to find a forever family for every child in foster-care available for adoption”) and no spam.

In other words, they have a pretty straightforward recipe for success:

One of the most surprising things about working at NewsGator this summer was realizing just how many government agencies are actively trying to figure out social media and how to best exercise it (click here for a cool case study on how the Air Force uses a NewsGator platform).

Initiatives like Adopt US Kids offer an exciting, and very unique opportunity for the government to speak directly to the people, and it’s fun to watch them figure out how they’re going to use that opportunity. Especially when it’s for something as important as this.

 

*AdoptUSKids is a cooperative agreement with the Adoption Exchange Association, Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children & Families, and the US Department of Health & Human Services. I don’t know the details on which agency/NGO manages which part of the campaign, but regardless, they’ve split the work/outsourced it well. Other agencies should take note.

Hiding Your Head in the Sand

Digital presence has been a hot topic at Darden lately, coming up in several classes- in fact, @CarlosRCamacho and I will be talking to first year MBA students at Darden about building their personal brand next week.

While students are more open to social media as a means to do so, most companies (at least the banks, consultants, consumer products, pharmaceutical firms, etc. that recruit here) still aren’t fully comfortable with student’s social media profiles. While these companies have marketing & PR departments active in this sphere, those are corporate and controlled accounts; companies aren’t comfortable with individual profiles. I think they’re missing a valuable opportunity to honestly learn more about whom they’re hiring, create a positive grassroots network effect, empower employees and applicants and get ahead of the curve.

But that’s easy for me to say, since I want to work for tech start-ups that are more accepting. Regardless, I thought I’d share the 4 basic rules that I always follow- feel free to chime in if you have more/disagree.

  1. Be consistent with the lines you blur: I’m ok with expressing some personal beliefs that might be seen by colleagues/clients, but I’m consistent. For instance, I’ll mention activities I do with my family, but not items about health, finances, etc. I made a decision as to what social and political beliefs I’ll share- I’ll advocate for LGBT rights on my accounts, but won’t talk about abortion. I’ve simply made a few choices as to what I will share and am staying consistent with that. Decide what you’re comfortable with.
  2. Built a platform for integration: There are a lot of services out there; I chose what I wanted to use and integrate. I publicly blog and Twitter, and have linked those accounts to both a Google and Linked-In profile, then directed them all to a public email address. That’s on purpose. My Facebook account I keep private; you can’t access photos or posts without being my friend.
  3. Be controversial, but don’t be rude: I’ll challenge things I don’t agree with and post controversial links, but I always treat conversations online as if I’m having them in person.
  4. Know what’s out there about yourself: I’m not saying you should hire an SEO firm, but at least know what’s out there. I know what’ll come up if a potential employer Googles me; I know exactly what they’ll see. And I’ve spent some time developing the content that comes up so it shows off the skills and experience I want to emphasize. That’s just common sense.

I understand why firms would rather play it safe and how those preferences affect how MBAs look at Twitter and Blogs. And I’ve heard the execs who come to school and say “be very very careful what you put online.” I agree- be careful.

But you can’t hide your head in the sand- like it or not, you now have an online resume. We all do. And as time goes on, more content will bleed- family, clubs, high schools, colleges, hospitals, etc will all be putting info about you online, and those items will become the frontline of what people see ….unless you take control. Decide what content you want to share- be honest, don’t create false expectations- and then showcase that in a way you control. If I were hiring an MBA I’d like to see they had an understanding and control of this technology, as well as the ability to generate content and sell themselves.

Is my iPhone fueling war in Africa?

“Only after the last tree has been cut down
Only after the last fish has been caught
Only after the last river has been poisoned
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

That’s a Cree Indian prophecy I read for the first time today on the “Travels With a Nine Year Old” blog (it’s seriously awe-inspiring; a mother traveling round the world with her 9 year old son).

While not directly related to my post, the quote convinced me to write about an issue I don’t have a clear opinion on. The issue is  “conflict minerals” and their use in consumer electronics (the below Mac/PC video gives some background).

(I offer several article links in the below; if you’re only going to read one, make it Jason Stearns’)

It’s an issue that strikes especially close to home given my fascination with tech, and off the bat, it seems extremely clear – if buying minerals assists a group or government in fueling conflict, genocide, murder, rape, etc, then we should stop allowing the companies to buy them. That’s the point of the US legislation passed in July. But critics of the bill are pointing out that sensationalism may cloud the fact that legislation will not stop these conflicts – and in fact, may make it more dangerous because we think  it’s going to (Laura Seay at Texas In Africa posts very clearly on this). Jason Stearns (as mentioned above) responds to that here.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this isn’t a question I have an answer to. I am against conflict minerals. I don’t think the legislation can hurt as long as we’re honest about what the impact of it can (and cannot) be. But I also don’t believe it offers a clear solution; nor do I think we can ignore the economic ramifications for these countries and the U.S.were we to immediately halt all purchases of these goods.

What I do know is that this is a cautionary tale.

The proliferation of stories/photos/blogs in the Age of Information we live in has definite negatives- we’ve all seen and commented on this (why is Lindsey Lohan in the news? why is CNN telling me this non-news? etc.). Because we live in an age of instant information, we expect instant answers and solutions. And so we draft bills, issue statements, and build committees that may not actually solve the problem- but they quickly appease the ravenous news cycle of the moment. So the machine churns on to the next story, leaving problems half-solved, partially addressed, but believed to be finished. Whether a bill will or will not help this problem is a question. What will help answer that question is our ability to provide continued pressure and examination of the issue as we implement this and other laws. It is the danger of our times that information moves so fast.

As our continued use of mineral resources ravages the planet and we are forced to make tradeoffs, speed of information will continue to become a double-edged sword. On one hand, we are lucky to live in an age where information is this available- we are more informed about issues than ever before. On the other, speed can result in poor decisions, half-executed plans, and the abandonment of yesterdays crisis for the story du jour.

The class I am most grateful to have taken this year at Darden is Ethics, because I learned very quickly that I am like most people- I default to a given position without truly thinking it through and then defend it out of sheer ego. I was lucky to have a class setting in which to realize this, and lucky to have a professor that helped us develop our own frameworks for preventing this (creating the focus and patience to think through and challenge the position I was defending). Without that class, though, I don’t know if I would have realized how often I fall into that trap, and how restricting that trap is when faced with complex and challenging problems – like conflict minerals.

Challenging one’s own beliefs is a skill that is not only valuable in the careers/hobbies/relationships/lives we each build, but is also one that is absolutely necessary if we want our actions and decisions to make a true and sustained difference in the world.

Entrepreneurs in Appalachia

Darden offers a very cool second year course called “Markets in Human Hope,” where students “build on such innovations that use business and markets as viable tools in transforming societies.” http://faculty.darden.virginia.edu/warnockf/mhh.htm

The premise is that capitalism is more sustainable than donation and that empowerment of humans through creation of markets and businesses will lead to outcomes that can significantly improve and change their lives. Microfinancing in India is an example of that line of thought. It’s a year-long class and the goal is to actually create something; not just study, but to build something sustainable that can be passed to the next year’s class for continuation.

I’ve always been interested in Appalachia (ever since a service trip there in high school) and would like to focus on a county in western Virginia. While huge improvements have been made in health and education infrastructure, there are still several counties in which education remains a challenge and high school remains a ceiling for many students.  During one of the several conversations I’ve recently had with people experienced in the area, the idea of enabling student entrepreneurs came up. Providing small loans to entrepreneurial-minded students would enable job creation (hopefully different from the low-paying, high-turnover jobs that many people depend on) and build local markets. It’s an interesting idea and one I’d like to explore.

If you have any experience with micro-financing / entrepreneurial lending / Appalachia, let me know – I’d love to hear about your experiences.

What’s an LOL worth?

Clay Shirky gave his great talk about cognitive surplus on TED Talks recently. His definition of “cognitive surplus” is shared online work that people do with “spare” brain cycles. Things like editing Wikipedia- things that build a better world, using the collaboration of many to improve things. (Very generally) Shirky says we are driven to “engagement” (editing a Wikipedia page) rather than “consumption” (watching TV) because of intrinsic motivation.

In seemingly unrelated news, Improv Everywhere, the undercover comedy agents who “cause scenes of chaos and joy in public places,” released a new video yesterday- a reenactment of a scene between Darth Vader and Princess Leia…but on a New York City subway car.

I love Improv Everywhere. I love them because they put something magical and unexpected in front of an audience that only expects the mundane…and they change the rest of the day for those people. They take what is normal and they transform it- they mix and match things and places we know with things and places that don’t belong there. And it is 100% positive and affirming humor. There is only joy in their performance- a performance that depends upon the reaction of the audience as validation that they are part of something special that is happening, right now.

And right now their performances are important, because I think we all have a great deal of in-person emotional surplus. The cognitive surplus that Shirky talks about is important- it’s people generously giving their time and effort to help build something that makes the world better. And we feel rewarded. But at the same time, I think the reward we feel from those interactions is less rewarding than the reward of in-person generosity and engagement. We are becoming more accustomed to online stimuli as a means of emotional fuel but like a drug, the high is less and less each time and more and more online stimuli is needed. The reason is that online tribes can’t replace in-person ones.

This isn’t a ding on the internet! Obviously, I’m a heavy user, and the positives associated with the online communities we’ve built are incredible. But I think dependence on these interactions have left us craving personal interactions. Our cognitive surplus can leave an emotional gap if we’re not careful. People want to react positively to something real. We want to laugh with a stranger. We want to connect on a subway. Humans used to have a tribe of 150 people that we saw everyday, that we laughed with everday. We now have much larger tribes- but how many of those people do we laugh with in-person on a daily basis? What’s an LOL worth?

So maybe we crave these personal interactions. And isn’t THIS a great way to have them?

Education Needs More Chinese Resturants

Charles Leadbeater’s TED presentation “Education Innovation in the Slums” blew me away; I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it a week ago.

The man spent years researching innovation in education (and the need for it) and his speech is drawn from the innovation and change he saw happen in places as challenging as Rio and Kibera slums. What was most striking to me is how important innovation and change in education is for not only the developing world, but for first world countries as well. From his presentation:

  • Motivation: The challenge, as Leadbeater points out, is that education in the developing world can’t afford the luxury of time in motivating students- “Education in these settings works by pull, not push.” Curriculum and compulsory education won’t motivate students to learn, because they offer rewards that don’t apply in the developing world.
    • In the developed world, info was pushed on us and we tried to learn it well so we could move on. We did so because the motivations fit (or we thought they did).
      • Extrinsically there was a payoff 10 years down the road (do well now, get into good college, get high-paying job later).
      • Intrinsically there was a payoff- our self worth (and the value we see others put on us) was linked to performance.
    • In the slums of Rio and Kibera, though, that doesn’t work! Payoff for education 10 years down the road doesn’t apply when you have no food or both your parents have died of AIDS.
      • Motivation must therefore be different- education must contain information that is necessary and useful now, in this moment, and it must be engaging. Education that succeeds in the slums begins with the premise that you must engage students before they will learn.
  • Chinese Restaurants: To accomplish this on a worldwide scale, a “Chinese-restaurant” model of education is necessary. Schools shouldn’t follow the McDonalds franchise model (exactly the same, precise and dependable everywhere) but rather the Chinese-restaurant model of growth.
    • Leadbeater talks about Madhav Chavan, who helped found Pratham, and how he came up with this model. Typically you don’t see Chinese chains, but you see restaurants everywhere. And yet, despite that they are not chains, everyone knows what to expect inside, although there will be subtle differences. Schools will feature new and different ways of learning that will catch on and spread across to other cultures, in slightly different ways.
    • He points out we spend a lot of money on sustaining the model of education we have in places like the U.S. (trying to improve it by sinking billions of dollars into it.) What we need is innovation in how we do it.
    • “We need a global wave of social entrepreneurship to create highly motivating, low cost ways to scale in the developing world.”

I thought this was an amazing speech and it is frightening in how it applies even to countries like the U.S. I won’t go into details to argue about for education in the U.S. and how it’s failing- suffice it to say that I think most of us can agree it needs to change. Not only does it need to change because it’s not working, but it needs to change because the world that students are entering is vastly different as well. Extrinsic motivation in the United States must change to mirror our circumstances. Seth Godin writes in his excellent and inspiring new book “Linchpin” that we have been indoctrinated in a system that has failed us. We went to school believing that if we did well, we would find good jobs. If we found good jobs, those companies would take care of us. We would rise through the company, be rewarded and have a pension.

None of that is true anymore. You don’t get paid for showing up, you aren’t sure of a promotion, and your company won’t take care of you in the future. The world has changed; if it weren’t already dead, this recession killed it. And if that extrinsic motivation no longer exists, then why should we learn?

Just as the developing countries need to change their method of teaching, so do we. Seth Godin thinks we need to teach two things: (1) solve interesting problems (2) lead. I think it may be a few more (Cameron Herold gives an interesting TED talk about teaching kids to be entrepreneurs) but regardless of what it is, it has to change.

The world is no longer the same- why do we continue to reward educational achievements that don’t connect to reality? Shouldn’t these things align? Don’t we need them to?

Barcode scanners and digital content? What iPhone app is that?

Did the update to iOS4 on June 21st, although I can’t afford to invest in the iPhone4 right now. Enjoying the upgrade and the features, but more than that even, lately I’ve had time to enjoy some apps I’ve been playing with- thought I’d share some.

  1. The “not used daily but too friggin awesome to not mention” award goes to the StickyBits app. StickyBits lets you attach digital content to real world items by scanning it (you hold a product in front of your iPhone until the camera captures the UPC), attaching a text/photo/message to it online and uploading that. So the next time someone else scans that product (not the actual item but a product with that UPC), they can see what you uploaded! While right now this is just a “for fun” item, imagine the possibilities for viral marketing?
  2. The “must have on the bus” award goes to Instapaper. This is easily one of my top everyday apps- a Read Later bookmark for the internet. When you find an article but don’t have time to read, open Bookmarks and click on the Instapaper bookmark you’ve installed. Then go to your Instapaper app, open it up, and voila the article is there. I use this very specifically to ward off frustration from my constantly absent AT&T service in downtown Denver. I use Instapaper to pick a couple articles, mark them for read later, then open up the app right there and load the articles (it needs an initial internet connection to sync). Then I close it. Later on, when AT&T inevitably fails on the bus and I can’t access my RSS reader, I open Instatpaper and read those pre-loaded articles.
  3. The “wouldn’t read/know half as much without it” award goes to NewsGator’s NetNewsWire. I do love my RSS reader…seriously. FeedDemon for Windows is my absolute favorite thing in the world, but NetNewsWire is easy to use and star. It’s my everyday on-the-go fix.
  4. The “keeps me out of a lotta trouble” award goes to the extremely useful and always accessible Evernote, which keeps me from forgetting important things. I like it better than the original iPhone notes for a couple reasons. Having the option of text, pictures, voice notes is great but my absolute favorite part is that I can email things directly to my notes that are then saved remotely.
  5. The “just for fun” game of the month- Scribattle. Check it out; the graphics are so much fun because they make you feel like you’re cutting 5th grade history class to play; it’s just old skool like that.

Anyone have any other sexy apps I may be missing?