Wow! That’s Such a Cool Job!

Cool jobI have recently been catching up with colleagues from companies past, and when I let them know what I am doing now, I often get the reaction, “Wow! That’s such a cool job.” And it is … I’m fortunate to be the director of delta v, MIT’s student venture accelerator. Each year, we guide a new group of startups through “entrepreneurship boot camp” and help them to launch their startup ventures into the real world. This past summer, I worked with 21 startup teams as they were striving to either gain traction or make the tough decision to regroup. It was an amazing group of students with ideas that address real world problems.

But, I also thought I had a cool job at age 12 when I cleaned up after dogs at a kennel. I had a sense of purpose, got to fulfill a passion of mine by working with animals, and met some great people as well.

trish-cotter_real-estate-innovation_croppedThe organization I worked at most recently, prior to MIT, was IBM – a company that is trying to bring data analytics insights to companies, so they can address real world problems. The complexity of what both our MIT startups and IBM are doing, albeit in different ways, struck me. Are they so different? I have deep respect for IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty, who is moving a company the size of a small nation. However, the leaders of the MIT three-person startups are also scaling difficult challenges and placing bets with tremendous odds of failure.

The Three Constants of a Cool Job

I started my career at Honeywell – a big company for sure, where many people (mostly men) took me under their wing as an apprentice in engineering. This laid the foundation for my career, and I learned skills that I call on to this day. Why did I work from 4 am to 4 pm shifts to test chemical baths? —because I loved the people I worked with, we were doing interesting work, and I had mentors who were willing to share their time with me. As my career went on, and I worked with smaller companies, I saw the same trend… great people, interesting work, and mentorship. This is when I started to spend time mentoring others.

New Challenges Every Day

demo day 2Is MIT any different than a corporation? The complexities of a university rival corporations, but the opportunity to be immersed in new technology brings me back to my days at Honeywell. Working with our startup teams, I feel like a first year engineer every day. The teams in delta v are addressing new science for medicine, solutions for water scarcity, addressing the lack of open spaces, and use of AI to improve workers skills to name a few. These students range from undergraduates through post-docs, from all engineering disciplines to business. It is the team that matters most in start-ups. After reminiscing with my colleagues from Honeywell, Computervision, Sun Microsystems, Stratus, Visual Networks, Netezza, and IBM it is also the teams and the challenges they overcame that they most fondly remember. We took on challenges together and broke down those challenges into manageable parts, then worked together to achieve a goal. The other key item was leadership. Great vision and a lot of latitude to solve the problem for customers (clients, suppliers, internal organizations) reflected on inspired leaders.

Comparing this to our student ventures, they are all focused on solving a customer problem or addressing a new market – the same thing all successful companies focus on. You solve those problems with a team approach—you don’t have all the answers, but you learn, assess the new information, and address the issues.

The Greatest Success comes from People

Are huge corporations and startups all that different?  Sure, they both have their challenges in infrastructure – which is sometimes a help and sometimes a hindrance. But, at the end of the day whether you are a 300,000-person company or a three-person company, the people in a company need each other. (Maybe you can hide in a corporation, but if you want to do satisfying work is that really working?)

At this point in my career I have seen big, medium, small, and now micro-small companies. All of them have their own struggles but the greatest success comes from people. My realization is that any job can be a really cool job, as long as you are working with people who will challenge you, lift you up, and inspire you to do your best.

This post was originally published on the MIT Sloan Experts blog at:

This video will give you a glimpse of what we do at the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship at MIT.


Corporate Communication and the Sound of One Hand Clapping

There’s an irony in writing blogs. Here I am, at some potentially great distance away from you, in time or space, sitting in front of a computer, and yet anticipating a conversation with another human being (That means you). If I didn’t have that genuine feeling of connection, I think I’d probably never blog at all. I wouldn’t read so many blogs, either.


What draws us to blogs and social media? I think it’s almost always about connectedness. There is a natural human desire to connect. After all, we’re social animals. Solitary confinement is considered a form of torture in many countries for this reason.

While the instinct to connect is as natural as our need for food and shelter, it is one that is typically stifled in corporate environments, and that’s a problem. Too often, corporate communication is a monologue, not a dialogue. Business leaders tend to forget how our successes are often built on ideas generated by others. Communication is viewed as just another resource used to control, instead of engage, employees. Too many American business executives see “discussion” as an exercise in public relations, just another way to gain the upper hand.

In reality, breakthrough ideas tend to come from outside of traditional control-oriented companies. The workers who have the best ideas in these organizations are encouraged to communicate those ideas, to “shake things up” instead of being treated as though they don’t have a right to be heard.

IBM’s Executive Insights program is an initiative that tries to level the communications field, encouraging executives to use discussion as innovation resource, not a cattle prod. It’s a three-day program which gives real practice in social cognitive theory with the purpose of improving communication at every level.

Open Communication Requires Time … and Even Space

Open dialogue, trust, and respect. These are the three essential ideas of great team coaching and scaffolding, to build teams that “talk smart,” which in turn helps broaden the way employees expect to be heard. IBM has a vision of creating what I call a “smart talk zone.” Communication is part of the 360° feedback concept in IBM’s Executive Insights program. 360° feedback relies on gleaning insights from employees as well as managing executives to create a more complete, useful and actionable review. Few things have worked as well as 360° feedback to open deep dialogue. A 360° concept can clearly increase self-awareness skills while also helping to correct deficiencies in management through communication.

One thing we need to do more often is to create actual workplaces with physical environments designed to optimize open communication. Lev Vygotsky has even said that we must build specific “zones” to make this happen. Vygotsky, who survived the Russian Revolution, knows something about chaos and creation, silence and survival. The idea of building an actual, physical zone of communication is something that could truly revolutionize the way people expect to be heard. For now, IBM is attempting to create these kinds of creative communication zones with speakers bureaus that engage every level of management. Perhaps most importantly, IBM is committed to investing time in the process, too, since the workshops can last three days.

A college workshop on communication once left me with some valuable and lasting insights. As an example of how to communicate, a professor gave a sample lecture. I noticed a friend of mine taking notes on what he was saying – and I slipped a note to my friend: “Don’t write what he says…write down how he says it.” Context is essential. We value the “Eureka!” moment so much that we forget it almost always comes as part of a broader conversation. An unshared idea, I discovered, was the sound of one hand clapping. We tend to follow structure and miss meaning. When we consider and share ideas with others in context, we perceive. We create.

Being overly or rigidly structured, especially in how we communicate our goals, is why we so often get to the wrong places when we’re driving. After all, we know where we’re driving, even if what we know happens to be wrong. Once a company believes it is successful, it tends to become risk averse. It tends to blindly follow the pre-conceived directions without questioning them anymore. We can see that complacency in communication, in the way that innovative, “outside the box” communication can become stifled in a successful company. As corporate drivers, we may still feel connected to the steering wheel, but we forget the view, the intricacies, and the nuances that surround us.

Within the typical established corporate environment, we often tend to discount the ideas of people who appear to be unstructured in their communication. We want it to be sharp, efficient, to the point. Anything else seems like a waste of time, and hence a waste of money. But something can be lost in the equation: creativity.

I would challenge people to look anew at the shortcuts they use in daily communication. Are you able to consider new ideas with an open mind, even when these ideas may not be fully formed? Are you able to help cultivate and nurture ideas without controlling them? Are you empowering your employees with the assurance that they can run with an idea once it is fully formed? After all, James Laird at Clark University showed through his research that lasting positive communication relies on more than just words, but on action as well.

I remember as a child, seeing an old wooden plaque on a small business owner’s desk. It said “You ain’t learnin’ nothin’ when your talkin’.” We tend to learn best when we learn to listen. That’s easier said than done. But businesses have a lot to learn from their employees. Paying attention and empowering the exchange of ideas is a smart way for organizations leveraging a precious asset – and it’s the natural thing to do.

Innovating Education for Tomorrow: Some Takeways from #TSummit2014

One college president believes that the way to solve the education crisis lies not in the classroom, but within “innovation zones” that encourage experimentation and invite the prospect of failure as a pathway to success. That’s not something you hear every day among academics, is it?


The panelist spoke at IBM/Michigan State University #tsummit2014, held at IBM’s research center in Aladmen, California, which I had the pleasure of attending this year. Over 200 business leaders and higher education institutions attended to discuss skills for the 21st century.

A variety of thought-provoking panels, speakers and discussions made for an informative and entertaining conference. The focus was not on meeting today’s employment demands (a popular topic of discussion among parents and in the media), but on a longer-term view of producing students for the global economy of the future.

One of the event’s panels, which consisted of college presidents, provided for a lively, candid discussion on what is needed to prepare students for the economy of tomorrow. They all seemed to agree that education’s center of gravity will be outside the classroom, not in it.

One of the presidents described his vision of an “array of high impact learning experiences that are not defined exclusively by traditional measures or approaches.” As the president pointed out, we now have content available in formats “that don’t require it to be written in scrolls.” How best to take advantage of this?

According another panelist, there are only about 200 institutions in the U.S. today that reject more students than they accept. The vast majority of institutions are aggressively competing for students, and many of these students are not as well prepared for school as we would like them to be. To add to the problem, he said, there are now roughly 40 million American adults with some college credits, no degree and often a lot of debt. “This is a “debilitating trifecta,” he said. “You’ve got none of the things that we hold out as a promise.”

Despite the conventional wisdom, all in higher education are not merely whistling and twiddling their thumbs when it comes to confronting these important challenges. Some promising developments are under way. One is so the College for America Program at Southern New Hampshire University. Approved by the Department of Education in 2013, this is the first degree program in the country that is competency-base, offering a degree based not on credit hours or courses, but on direct assessment of student learning – a profound change.

SNHU President Paul LeBlanc said the program was inspired in part by Muhammad Yunus, a social entrepreneur who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance.

In an interview for 60 Minutes, Yunus was asked how he came up with the idea of the bank. According to LeBlanc, “He said, I thought about what big banks do and I thought what would happen if I did the opposite. They lend to men. I’ll lend to women. They make you come to the bank. I’ll go out to the village. They only want to lend big amounts of money. I loan little amounts of money. They want a lot of interest. I’ll take a little. They require collateral. I won’t take any and I’m not and changed banking in a developing world.”

LeBlanc wondered what would happen if they asked the same sort of outside-the-box questions at SHNU. “Rather than using the credit hour in which time is fixed and learning is the variable, what if we could flip that? What if the university changed the business model? What if we went to a mentoring model? What if we could find other resource than text box for materials? What about the length of class?” The result was the College for America.

If a new hire can articulate and demonstrate their skills and knowledge through presentations, analysis and collaboration, is the end result a better predictor for success on the job than a high GPA? Time will tell, but we will need to follow up on the University of Pennsylvania Health Systems, Partners Healthcare System in Massachusetts, ConAgra Food and Dunkin Donuts, as all have signed on to support the College for America program.

Another college president made the point that we need a “different kind of innovator” now and in the future, one who understands complexity, a concept he said is completely overlooked in conventional engineering programs. A narrow, focused, nose-to-the-grindstone view of the world has resulted in countless innovations in the past, he said, but also countless unintended consequences. Climate change, for example.

T-shaped education is part of the solution, the president said, enabling students to span a variety of disciplines and have conversations with people in very different places right from the start. It’s easier to learn how to do that – to talk to people who are disciplinary experts in different fields — when you are young than it is when you are in mid-career, just as it’s easier to learn how speak Spanish if you’re five than when you’re 45. Students are “wet cement” when they’re young. So we need to consider educating within the T-shaped paradigm earlier, rather than later, he maintained.

Innovation isn’t just about thinking: it’s about doing

Another panelist defined innovation as the process of generating original ideas and insights that have value and then implementing them in a way that changes many peoples’ lives. Without implementation, he said, it’s not an innovation. It’s just a cool idea. A genuinely profound innovation is an innovation that changes the world so dramatically that you can’t remember what it was like before it happened. Electricity, the automobile, the airplane, the Internet, radio, and television are all such examples. They had an impact not merely because they were great ideas, but because people used them.

Last year, the president said, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. that were awarded to students studying engineering in any university – 4.5 percent, a declining market share. In Europe it’s about 12 percent. In Asia it’s about 30 percent. What are we going to do in ten years when the U.S. number drops to, say, one percent? In addition, the number of students who find what we define as “engineering attractive” is not great, he said. About half of all students who begin studying engineering last fall won’t graduate in engineering – a big hole in the pipeline. In addition, only 18 percent of the students who graduate in engineering are women, another big gap.

His university’s definition of an engineer is a person who envisions what has never been and does whatever it takes to make it happen. So how do we create great engineers? We have to change three things, according to this panelist. Who we teach in engineering – we’re teaching the wrong people. There are creative people out there. Have you heard of folks like Steve Jobs? Bill Gates? Creative people who started down the engineering path, and left. Why? Because the way we teach stifles creativity instead of encouraging it, he said. In addition, what we teach has to change, and how we teach it has to change. We’re using methods that are known to be fundamentally ineffective. “Otherwise,” he concluded, “we’re doing a great job.”