Emily Fowler is becoming a leader in the innovation space. But she’s not an inventor, per se. Rather she creates incentives that motivate other people to be innovative and solve problems. Emily began her work with incentive prizes in 2010 while working at the XPRIZE Foundation. Their mission is to find answers to the world’s worst problems by motivating people to create solutions and win a prize. She quickly learned that prizes motivate people on the psychological level.
Soon after, Emily was asked by the Chairman and Founder of XPRIZE to explore the idea of creating a democratized online platform where anyone could launch a challenge. (XPRIZE launches 1-2 challenges per year with $10M – $30M prizes.) HeroX was born out of this idea, and Emily serves as the co-founder and Vice President. HeroX creates smaller, shorter competitions. This allows anyone to launch a competition and create fundamental change in many problem areas.
Below, we talk to Emily about her job, the field of social innovation, and what it means to dress “capable chic”.
Q: HeroX is such an interesting concept: a platform for running competitions to solve local and global problems. As the co-founder and VP, tell us a little bit more about the work you do there.
A: HeroX is built a three core beliefs:
- The first one is the belief that every problem is solvable.
- The second belief is that you have to ask the right question to get a powerful answer.
- The third belief, and in my opinion, the most powerful, is that breakthrough, world-changing ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, anytime. You don’t have to have a particular pedigree or level of expertise to solve a challenge and win the ultimate prize. Instead, you need to have a passion for the problem and a relentless curiosity that propels you forward to create the solution.
The goal of HeroX is to expand the awesomeness of the XPRIZE model; it’s meant to be a complement to it, whereby anyone with a problem they care about can launch a competition to get others to solve it. We wanted to create an innovation platform where it’s really easy for people with problems (and prizes) to match them with creativity and talent to find solutions.
It’s also about risk. Anyone who’s done innovation knows, you can’t have innovation without risk. It’s about trying on crazy ideas that may not work. Peter Diamandis, founder of the XPRIZE, often says, “The day before it’s a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.” We see HeroX as contributing to the world where crazy ideas are tried out and the ones that work are rewarded.
I’d love it if, in the future, someone reads the newspaper in the morning and as they read all the terrible things going on in the world, instead of feeling badly about them, they go to HeroX.com and launch a competition to solve it. We’re trying to change the relationship with problems – instead of complaining about them, we want people to feel empowered to get into action and to play a hero’s role in whatever way they can – whether it’s through putting a problem out there, funding a prize, or creating a solution.
We believe in the power of the human mind and our ability to create solutions when motivated and passionate. We hope to play a small role where people can “stand” upon our platform and make amazing things happen.
Q: Tell us about one of your favorite challenges that is going on at HeroX right now.
A: Honestly – they are all my favorite. I am so impressed by our clients’ courage in launching challenges where they believe a solution is possible. We have the San Antonio Mx Challenge, which is a $500,000 prize to the team that can create a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem in San Antonio. Love those guys! We have the Smart Tech for Firearms Challenge, which is $1M to the innovators who are working to improve firearm safety by developing personalization features in firearms, locking devices, and ammunition systems. We have the Ellucian Student Success Challenge which is just in the process of awarding it’s winners – $50,000 for the best ideas about how to ensure graduation and retention rates in universities.
All of the organizations, their missions, and individuals behind are so different and yet, they all are using competitions as a way to source the best ideas in the world!
We are launching a series of AMAZING challenges in the next month, so stay tuned for that!
Q: The social innovation space is growing rapidly but is still a bit amorphous. Did you always think this was the type of work you wanted to do? What led you to this line of work?
A: Social innovation and social entrepreneurship are focused around the strengthening of our society. Our generation (Millennials) have had a major influence on the influx of this space. The way I see it – we grew up with everything at our fingertips. We also grew up with a knowledge of world problems, a vision of the mistakes that were made, and, above all else, a positive and passionate drive to make the world a better place. For me personally, I grew up in a town where we were taught to be kind to each other, to respect and embrace diversity (and to desire it), as well as to “think for ourselves, but think of others”. (Thanks L-S!)
We were also taught that “You can do anything!” and “You can be anything you want to be!” and “The sky is the limit!” Those empowering thoughts affected our generation where, when we were unleashed on the world, we were (and are) ready to take anything on.
I think the other main driver of our generation is that we believe in equality. Again – diversity and equality were fundamental to what I was taught and, based on convo’s with other friends from around North America and Canada (in particular), I can see that to be true elsewhere. So, fundamentally, we believe in the world around us, we believe in each other and we believe we are powerful. It makes for an AWESOME generation of go-getters! Social innovation is all about taking on really daunting, large, complex, wicked problems and finding creative, effective ways to solve them. If that’s not our generation, I don’t know what else is!
Growing up, I always knew that I wanted to “help”. I recall a time when I was 7 or 8 and someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. At the time, I said I wanted to be a doctor. When I got to university though, I realized that I wasn’t as interested in the biology of the body as I was about the concept of a doctor making someone/something get better. It was then that I decided to go into studying business. I recall that I wanted to have an impact on the world and I felt that business was a useful tool to allow me to do just that.
I had no idea that I would eventually get into this line of work – using competitions to motivate people. I know that I have fallen into the right place and I’m so grateful for that. Although I know that prizes aren’t the only way to create change in the world, they are a great tool. I love that they allow for a sense of possibility, wonder, creativity, drive and passion.
Q: In a world where too much attention is paid to Kim Kardashian’s ass, do you feel like there is still hope for our planet and the human race based on your day-to-day work?
A: Absolutely! One of the things that I love the most about my job is that every single day, without fail, I get to have conversations with people who bring problems to me that they want to be solved. In a given day, I get to speak with a father who wants to cure his daughter of a very rare disease, I get to speak to a passionate entrepreneur who wants to create personalized flying devices, I get to speak to a foundation that wants to share the stories of all the hard work their partners have done, I get to speak to a philanthropist who wants to change the way that business is done in an entire city. I speak to some of the smartest and most passionate people in the world and it’s an immense honor. On the other side of those problems, I also get to meet some amazing innovators who create solutions based on their innate desire to manifest change in the world. They are not experts and often do not have the “pedigree” or credentials to solve such hard problems – but they DO! They do. I’ve meet teens who’ve created early diagnostic tools for pancreatic cancer, 83-year olds who have devised prototypes of smart-technology guns, and astronauts who want to create humanlike robots to soothe and assist the elderly. All in all, I have the utmost faith in the human race – we are incredible and capable of absolutely anything. We are fascinating and powerful!
Oh – and if Kim ends up reading this (because one time we locked eyes and waved at each other with an all-knowing “Hey, girl” smile), I love your bum.
Q: When it comes to the startup/innovation world it seems like there is a wealth of men and not so many women. Why do you think this is? Do you see this with your challenge applicants at HeroX and what are some of the steps we can do to change this?
A: The gender (and race) discrepancy has finally been noted by large tech companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo. So that’s good news! Also, the Forbes 30 Under 30 lists just came out and I was super happy to see the diversity in the class.
There are a number of factors that have created the situation that you’re describing – everything from early childhood beliefs created by parents, toys that girls and boys are pushed to play with, school, peers, what we see on TV and read online/print, and eventually how women and men are treated differently (and treat each other differently) in the workplace. It used to make me very angry, but I realized about a year ago that, anger was never going to solve the problem. Instead, creating a new future, together, will.
In my life personally, I have been seen as a leader from the get-go. I have been respected and given greater and greater challenges to rise to. I attribute that to the men who were in senior roles who realized right away that I was ready for a challenge. For better or worse, men are still at the top in many instances, and so the more that they notice, appreciate, and utilize the power of women’s leadership, the better the organization will be. It’s just a simple calculation based on diversity – the more we diversify, the stronger we are. It’s really that simple. I think the world is starting to get that.
As a leader myself, I have a big role to play. As I rise in my career, it’s my responsibility to support both men and women as they rise, too. I want women to know that they can be CEO’s and I want men to know they can be homemaking dads. What I tend to do is to look at the person in front of me as a human. Not a woman. Not a man. I listen for who they are and more importantly, who they want to be in the future and what they are committed to creating and being in their lifetime.
With our innovators, they still tend to be primarily male. However, in 2015, our goal is to put a lot of effort on getting lots of different types of people to participate. Again, brilliant ideas can come from anywhere and so we want to ensure that we’re getting ALL different types of people from many walks of life.
Q: The wardrobes of many women are determined in large part by the workplace. How would you describe your style and is it influenced by your work environment?
A: I work from home, so if I let my work environment affected my style completely, I’d never EVER get out of my Lululemons. Fortunately, I also travel a lot for work, so when I go to see clients, partners, governments or investors, I go for what I like to call “Capable Chic”. I want to look pulled together, elegant, and approachable. It’s a fine balance!
When I’ve put my outfit together, I do two tests to make sure I’ve gotten the balance right. First, the wake-up-your-face-and-talk-with-your-hands test. I stand in front of the mirror and pretend that I’m presenting to a crowd. I make sure my face wakes up by smiling as BIG as I can and then I give a pretend award acceptance speech. I’m pretty sure that most of us ladies start the day off like this, right?!
And then? I do the “hug” test – I make sure that I can give a proper, whole-body hug. While I may start a meeting with a handshake, I often end it with a hug. We’re all part of trying to change the world and I see us as all one family. Might as well hug it out!
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