The Bay Area… Silly by Design

I grew up in the Bay Area, and returned there after grad school to start my family and my career. I’ve been in start-ups, working in design, analytics, data science, and product management. A little over 3 years ago, my family got off the increasingly insane Bay Area train, and moved to the Seattle area, where we’re looking forward to another glorious summer in the PNW.

So much about the Bay Area is amazing. From the now well-known success stories of start-ups launched in garages, to the incredibly fast-paced culture where no idea is too far-fetched, too far-reaching, or too ambitious… If you’re not proposing something nearly absurd, then you’re not pushing the envelope enough.

The Bay Area is a unique, inspiring place. Truly a land of opportunity. It can also be a rather ridiculous roller-coaster ride. If you haven’t experienced it, you should consider getting on for at least one loop around the track. It’ll stretch you in more ways than you expect, and amidst all the twists and turns you just might find your own sweet spot.


“My perception is that much (but not all!) of Silicon Valley is riddled with these sorts of people. Smartest in their class, impressive degrees, ability to ace whiteboard interview problems, but very little ability or desire to relate to teammates or even customers as human beings.”

via Three Years in San Francisco — Discover

Capitalism at the Crossroads: Aligning Business, Earth, and Humanity

I remember the day I came home and told my parents that we needed to put a brick in the toilet. We should also get a new showerhead. And we should recycle too, and start a compost in the backyard. We did all those things, and much more.

It was 1990, and as a Jr High student, I was riding my bike to downtown Palo Alto, CA, to volunteer every week at the Earth Day 1990 headquarters. I made photocopies, I assembled informational packets, I researched a variety of environmental topics, and I wrote an article about dolphins getting caught in tuna nets. I asked a lot of questions, I learned a great deal about the environment, and I developed a passion for being environmentally conscious.

I recall that at the time I wanted to deliver a greater direct impact through my volunteering. I wanted my contributions to carry more weight.

Looking back more than a quarter of a century (!) on that Spring of volunteering at Earth Day 1990, I realize that my biggest and most meaningful contribution was the investment that I made in myself. As an eager and impressionable youth, Earth Day 1990 changed my outlook on the world, and that has been far more valuable than any number of photocopies or articles I might have produced in the hours after school. In truth, that’s what the movement was always about anyway – increasing awareness, generating participation, and inspiring action. I remember that my mentor at the volunteer headquarters, Peter, seemed very aware that my involvement was less about what I was producing, and more about how the experience could forever shape my view of the earth, and of my social and environmental responsibilities. Peter, wherever you are, thank you.

On April 22nd, 1990, my family took the train into San Francisco, and we made our way to the Earth Day festivities at Crissy Field. It was the 20-year anniversary of Earth Day, and the first year that the grassroots movement went international. Some 200 million people gathered that day, across 141 countries. I’m proud to have been one of them.


It’s been so long since that day that I can barely find a trace of the Earth Day 1990 logo on the internet. Since then, the environmental dialog and the consumer options have evolved significantly. Recycling is no longer a novelty, products everywhere are labeled as “Green”, “All-Natural”, “Eco-friendly”, and “Organic”, and we have more options than ever when we shop for light bulbs, paper products, water filters, etc. And while somehow there’s a controversy over global warming, it seems that there’s nonetheless general agreement about certain seemingly insurmountable global changes. As the planet’s population continues to grow, the air quality is getting worse, pollution is on the rise, species are going extinct, and the global competition for resources is increasing.

Where there are problems, there are opportunities. The business world has responded in a variety of ways, and many of these initiatives are encouraging. Consumers have access to so many options these days, from hybrid vehicles, to installing solar panels for their homes, to smart refrigerators, and so on. And yet, the environmentally appropriate, health-conscious, socially-aware options are still generally offered at a premium. As consumers, there’s typically a trade-off. To get the “right” product, you have to spend more.

Businesses seem to face a similar trade-off. Making the “right” decision for the environment, or for society, is rarely at the forefront of the company mission. Rather, corporations tend to focus on making money first, and then in some cases they give back later through philanthropic programs.

How can environmental and social initiatives be converted from expensive problems, to strategic business opportunities? How can multi-national corporations simultaneously profit and serve the largest but poorest socio-economic group in the world? What is the role of corporations with respect to accelerating the growth of global sustainability, and what is foundation for a business framework that champions sustainability as a model for success?

In Capitalism at the Crossroads: Aligning Business, Earth, and Humanity, Stuart L. Hart argues that environmental and social responsibilities need not be expensive corporate activities that disrupt core business lines. His framework is centered on win-win opportunities to serve the Base of the Pyramid (BoP), the four billion poorest people at the “bottom” of the global economy. Hart provides many case studies to illustrate how companies have successfully pursued and established corporate models that are innovative, profitable, and inclusive, as well as socially and environmentally responsible. These examples are intriguing and inspiring, and Hart leverages these accounts to articulate strategies and insights that apply to any and all companies.

As individuals, as employees, and as entrepreneurs, we should all challenge ourselves and each other to put our social and environmental responsibilities first as much as possible, and to create win-win opportunities rather than compromise with trade-offs.

From Bust to Boom: A Town Reinvented

Leavenworth, WA. It was once a bustling town on the eastern side of the cascade mountains. Then it went bust, and lost relevance. But the town rallied, a plan was made, the locals executed, and now it’s a booming community once more.

What a great example of stretching… starting with Inspiration to initiate change… followed by a Strategy to be executed… and ultimately leading to a model of Success.

Before the Bust
Leavenworth boasts of the proud heritage of the Native American Yakima, Chinook, and Wenatchi tribes, who hunted for deer and elk, and who fished for salmon along the Icicle River. Eventually, the area was settled by gold miners, fur trappers, and pioneers. However, when the Great Northern Railway laid its tracks by Leavenworth in the late 1800s, and the town became a divisional hub in 1893, Leavenworth was soon bustling with opportunity. Rail workers arrived and made Leavenworth their home. A dam was constructed nearby, to provide power for locomotives to travel through the tunnels of the Cascade Mountains. The Lamb-Davis Lumber Company was incorporated and established along the banks of the nearby Wenatchee River. A sawmill was built, and logs were floated down to the millpond for processing. A hugely successful fruit industry was launched along Icicle River and the neighboring valley. Ultimately, the influx of jobs led to a population boom in Leavenworth, reaching around 1,000 in the year 1906, the year that Leavenworth was incorporated.

Heavy winter storms, snowslides, and avalanches hit the Great Northern Railroad’s section through the Cascades. In 1910, one of the worst blizzards in the Cascades’ history led to the Great Northern Railroad’s decision to reroute the railroad tracks away from Leavenworth to a less hazardous stretch. As a result, the divisional hub was moved further east to Wenatchee. Then the sawmill closed in 1926. Businesses collapsed, the local economy suffered, the high school was condemned, and what had once been a thriving community became a desperate and desolate mountain town. Busted.

Two men from the community, Ted Price and Bob Rodgers, are credited with initiating a change that would alter the future of Leavenworth. They bought a Cafe in 1960, remodeled it with a Swiss-Bavarian theme, and named it the Squirrel Tree. With the beautiful mountains as its backdrop, the alpine-themed restaurant became a hit, and it sparked a movement.

The townspeople came together, and in 1962 they formed L.I.F.E., Leavenworth Improvement For Everyone. Various community committees were spun up, and in 1964, it was decided to update the entire town to reflect an alpine Bavarian theme. Price and Rodgers organized a trip down to Solvang, a Danish-themed town in California, which served as an inspiration for Leavenworth’s transformation. Once the remodeling was underway, the marketing efforts to bring in tourists kicked in, including the establishment of various seasonal festivals.

Today Leavenworth is a known tourist spot in the Pacific Northwest, and with over 2 million visitors each year, it is clear that the strategy initiated over half a century ago has led to long-term success. The Autumn Leaf Festival, Oktoberfest, Maifest, and the very popular Christmas Lighting Festival are just some of the main events that draw crowds every year. Affirmation of Leavenworth’s success include that it was cited in Time magazine as one of the Top 10 Places to Find Holiday Cheer, and that it was listed by The Lonely Planet as one of the Five great German towns in the USA.

A Recent Visit
After hearing from many friends of the fun that they had at Leavenworth, I recently took my family out for a long weekend to experience Leavenworth first-hand. We had a great time, and can now attest ourselves to the town’s hospitality, charm, and tourist appeal. There’s something for everyone at Leavenworth, and in our case, the fond memories include laid-back fireside dining at the Munchen Haus, ice cream cones, salt water taffy, miniature golf, a walk along the waterfront, play time at Smallwood’s Harvest farm, and an engaging visit to the bookstore, A Book For All Seasons, where we picked up Leavenworth (Images of America Series).

A Remarkable Story
The history of Leavenworth is fascinating, and as a California native who has biked through Solvang, the so-called ‘Danish capital of America’, it’s been interesting to learn about the connection between the two cities. The determination of the local Leavenworth community to put itself back on the map after going bust, and it’s ability to deliver on a creative and ambitious strategy to reinvent itself as an authentic Bavarian village is inspiring. It took great personal and financial risk on the part of the townspeople and business owners, and what was achieved is remarkable.

A Visual History
The historical pictures included in Leavenworth provide a poignant visual accompaniment to the story of a town that has gone through so much change in the past 150 years. The imagery of Native Americans, prospectors in front of their log cabins, and miners at the mine, are a reminder of days long gone by. Then the depiction of the railroad, the locomotives, the sawmill, and all of the business development that accompanied the period of early growth serve to highlight the major cultural and economic transitions that took place. Later, the impact of the L.I.F.E. program on the community, and the remodeling of buildings after the Bavarian theme, demonstrate not only the commitment and hard work that was involved during a difficult phase in Leavenworth’s history, but also the pride in the transformation that would lead to a new town identity.

The Next Chapter
I wonder what the future has in store for Leavenworth. I worry about the footprint of more than 2 million visitors each year, passing through a small town of barely 2,000 people. How long can Leavenworth support the increasing level of traffic? What is the impact on the local population, and on the environment? At what point does it become too much, and what will the town do to handle the burden of its own success? Perhaps the town is already being stretched to find new solutions, and maybe there are current challenges that require new sources of inspiration, new strategies, and new paths to success.

Stretching Abilities… Breaking Records… Creating New Categories

Records are meant to be broken. And usually it’s an incremental improvement. But every once in a while, a record gets shattered to the point that the new record-holder finds themselves in a category of their own.

The 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors have broken a number of NBA records, including the most games won in a regular season (73), the best start to a season in all of the major professional sports in America (24-0), the longest regular season home game winning stretch in NBA history (54), the first team in NBA history to go without back-to-back losses, and quite honestly, the list of broken records goes on and on and on.

But as the reigning MVP from last season, Steph Curry didn’t just break the 3-point record along the way to leading the Warriors this year. He obliterated that record. It’s been demolished. Destroyed. Shattered. As if the final tally entered into the records system was a typo. But the truth is, Steph’s been in a category of his own all season long. A category that didn’t exist before.

A fantastic visual is all it takes to display very simply just how much Steph Curry’s 3-pt performance this year is simply Off the Charts. Curry already held the record, at 286 3-pointers last year. Because breaking 300 wouldn’t have been enough, this season he also passed the 400 mark. Much has been said about this achievement, and here are a few more fun and thought-provoking graphs to put this new record into perspective.

Whether you’ve been following this season closely or not, you won’t be disappointed to spend 5 minutes checking out an incredible highlight reel of passes, alley-oops, and naturally, no shortage of amazing 3-pt shots by Steph this year. Many of them, from well beyond the arc.

So hat’s off to you, Steph, for another remarkable year. And thank you for being an inspiration to us all. To come back from your 2014-2015 league MVP season and stretch your performance to the point that you blew past any semblance of incremental improvement in 3-pt shooting, is quite amazing. You’ve totally wrecked the curve. Disruption achieved. Well done.

In challenging ourselves, and each other, may we not limit our ambitions to simply inching past current records. Rather, let us aim far beyond the perceived limitations, and let our achievements redefine success.

— Stretch Yourself!

Christmas Miracle

Some years ago I had the privilege of working for a company that builds IVR speech applications for clients across a wide variety of industries, including travel, retail, and finance. That is, we provided that delightful experience you get when you call a company and speak to an automated system, rather than to a person. My responsibilities included working closely with clients, designing call flow experiences, partnering with developers to build speech applications, and leading the speech data science team to analyze and continually optimize user experiences.

One of my favorite clients was the Canadian airline WestJet. Our working relationship was smooth, their team was fun to work with, and they treated us well when we flew out to Calgary to visit them on business trips. I was also intrigued by their business practices. For instance, WestJet saves costs by operating a fleet of planes based on a limited range of aircraft. Every employee is a potential “owner”, thanks to a generous matching corporate plan. And, WestJet cares about its customers.

WestJet pulled off a remarkable Marketing stunt for Christmas 2013. A kiosk in the shape of a Christmas present was set up at the airports in Toronto and Hamilton, with which travelers on the two flights to Calgary were able to interact with Santa via a digital screen. Santa asked each person what they wanted for Christmas, and travelers obliged, sharing their wishes: a choo-choo train, an Android tablet, a warm scarf, a flight home for the holidays, a large TV, a diamond ring… Then, while the holiday travelers were on their flights, WestJet elves in Calgary scrambled to collect and package the items on the Christmas wishlist. Upon their arrival at the baggage claim, WestJet travelers were greeted by Santa and his elves, bearing the gifts that had been requested at the departure gates.

What a wonderful act of giving.

The YouTube video of the WestJet Christmas Miracle is about to hit 45 Million viewers. The cost of that scarf, those socks, that 50 inch TV, and even that diamond ring are all airline peanuts now, compared to the number of impressions and overall virality that this marketing campaign has generated. The Christmas Miracle has paid for itself many times over.

What a remarkable Social Media, Marketing, and PR success. (The Christmas Miracle has been been repeated in subsequent years, by both WestJet and its competitor Air Canada.)

WestJet’s Christmas Miracle is just one of many anecdotal stories shared in The Real-Life MBA: Your No-BS Guide to Winning the Game, Building a Team, and Growing your Career, by Jack & Suzy Welch. The Real-Life MBA is engaging, positive, motivating, and contains helpful, practical, and common-sense career advice.

A quick read, I found this book to be informative and grounding. It’s a pitch for leadership based on truth and trust. It’s an encouragement to seek your Area Of Destiny. It’s a refresher, a reminder, and a reinforcer of good practices and healthy perspective for every professional.

Re-thinking things through an Autistic filter

Since being diagnosed with autism in my mid-30s, I’ve been re-thinking a lot of things. I’ve spent a lifetime of trying to appear to be the same as everyone else. I’ve been watching. I’ve been studying. Every book, article, overheard conversation, brings me that little bit closer to passing for normal. I’ve spent a long […]

via Re-thinking things through an Autistic filter — Autism and expectations