Building a Russian Business School
Embracing Your Inner Geek
Katie Lindgren, MBA 08
Katie Lindgren is a second-year Berkeley MBA student. She holds an undergraduate degree in Ethics, Politics, and Economics from Yale University. Before coming to Haas, she spent six years working in the software industry. This summer, she interned in corporate marketing at SunPower Corporation, plated pastries at Eccolo, and traveled to India through a Management of Technology fellowship to pursue a white light-emitting diode research project working with rural communities without grid access. Most importantly, she completed Harry Potter #7 within 15 hours of its release.
When I began my MBA at the Haas School last August, I heard much about innovation. For a school whose graduates are noted for pursuing off-the-beaten track social ventures, innovation presents both a powerful inspiration and a personal challenge.
To teach innovation, an outside consulting group led a workshop with our class. We were bombarded by PowerPoint slides with sparse, black-and-white text that advised us to: "See. Think. Believe." Suffice it to say, this well-intentioned presentation did not inspire much innovation. It did, however, raise a lingering question: where does innovation come from?
What follows is my laywoman's theory regarding how individuals and organizations can capitalize on their unique abilities in order to innovate. It is centered on the notion of embracing your inner geek.
The Case for Embracing Your Inner Geek
You may be tempted to dismiss this argument as pure nonsense. Lest you hastily overlook the underlying point, though, I ask you to bear with me for a moment. The challenges facing our generation – environmental degradation, increasing economic disparities between the developing and developed world, and epidemics like AIDS – require creative, innovative minds to effect change. Embracing our inner geek liberates us to acknowledge, celebrate, and harness our passions towards these efforts.
Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank, which provides credit to the rural poor in Bangladesh, are a fantastic example of passion harnessed for innovation. Instead of following conventional thought about economic development, Yunus boldly challenged notions about what is viable. Today, over five million people have benefited from Grameen's micro-credit loans, making a tremendous impact on global poverty.
Pursuing your passions, instead of confining yourself to the question of social acceptance or financial reward, creates a platform for effective differentiation and innovation. That's the unique opportunity presented by the concept of embracing your inner geek. So how do we get there?
Recognize That it's Okay to Be Different
A fundamental aspect of innovation is differentiation: understanding what make us unique. By engaging in this reality check, we recognize what truly motivates us and develop the courage to pursue this path – even when it leads us away from the well-trod road.
At an organization level, the same lesson applies. The question becomes: when we put aside the glossy marketing materials and fancy spreadsheets of sales projections, are we inspired by what we are doing?
Channel Your Inner Geek: Follow Your Passions
The beauty of an organization of self-realized inner geeks is that people are genuinely passionate about what they are doing. They are motivated by more than a paycheck, the prestige of the firm, or an impressive title. Such passion creates tremendous power for innovation.
Of course, there is no single formula or PowerPoint diagram to follow. Yet, if you walk the halls of many corporate offices, you'll hear the dreaded phrase, "out-of-the-box" thinking. In application, it often becomes the new corporate groupthink. When we all adopt the same "out-of-the-box" thinking to leverage our assets and target the same low-hanging fruit, we fail to innovate. Exploring your passions requires action that transcends meaningless jargon.
Demonstrate a Commitment to Lifelong Learning
Priya Haji, MBA 03, CEO of World of Good is a textbook example for Inner Geek success: she understands what motivates her, boldly pursues her passions, and continually works to develop the necessary skills for success. Last fall, Priya spoke to a group of Berkeley MBA students about founding World of Good, an organization that connects artists, cooperatives, NGOs, and non-profits in developing countries with US markets to create a new sector of fair trade opportunity. Priya advised us to develop our weaknesses so that we could successfully pursue our passions. She is passionate about social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility. But at Haas, she concentrated on studying finance and accounting – necessary skills to establish World of Good.
By no means must you take corporate finance to become innovative. Nevertheless, the point remains that a commitment to address your weaknesses and to continually learn is a core part of the inner geek ethos. Whether you are a Haas MBA or a college drop-out like Steve Jobs, lifelong learning is necessary to continually differentiate yourself from others and successfully innovate.
Too often, individuals and organizations conform to a pre-set notion of what is socially acceptable or financially expedient. The danger is that we limit our possibilities. Imagine a world where people apply their talents and energy to pursue their passions. What an incredible opportunity for growth, change, and innovation. Let's not delay. It's time for all of us to embrace our inner geeks