Inspiration from Watermark Conference for Women: Making Your Idea a Reality

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Cynthia Stoddard’s meet and greet with Reese Witherspoon and team member, Terrell Neilson.
Inspiration from Watermark Conference for Women: Making Your Idea a Reality

I had the honor and privilege to participate in the Watermark Conference for Women this year.  Among the key highlights were being inspired by actor and business leader, Reese Witherspoon, and speaking on a panel topic I’m passionate about:  Innovation Quotient: Making Your Mighty Idea a Reality.

While I have been a long-time fan of Reese Witherspoon and the characters she plays in movies, this was the first time I heard her talk about her career journey as an actor and business leader.  Like all of us, Reese experienced many set-backs in her career and had to persevere.  Today she has a successful media content and production company called Hello Sunshine, focused on telling female-driven stories on film, TV and digital platforms. We learned she had actually tried to form a production company years earlier and was not successful.  But she drew upon that experience and her failures and started all over again to become the creative and innovative business leader of Hello Sunshine.

‘Innovative Thinking’ was a theme weaved into many conversations at the event.  On my panel, our moderator, Karen Cahn, CEO of iFundWomen, led a lively and productive discussion around unlocking our potential to create and innovate, pushing us to rethink how progress can happen for our businesses, communities, and ourselves. I was joined by Shireen Santosham, Chief Information Officer for the City of San Jose, and Becky Margiotta, Co-founder of The Billions Institute.

Watermark panelists left to right: Shireen Santosham, Cynthia Stoddard, Becky Margiotta, Karen Cahn

Here are some of the key insights shared during the panel.

What are the top tech trends to build skill sets for the future?

Given my enterprise and software development perspective, I addressed this question by outlining the emerging trends of Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI).  ML and AI are driving automation across business and customer experiences and as such are augmenting people’s capabilities and effectiveness by shifting to non-routine, analytical and creative tasks. These trends will grow new industries and jobs that require a distinct skill set, including creative problem solving.

However, a key challenge in capitalizing on these trends is cultivating creative problem solving among the next generation, who we are relying on to advance future innovation.  Adobe released a global research study on the importance of teaching creative problem solving skills to students to ensure their success in tomorrow’s age of automation.  The study surveyed educators and policymakers globally and unveiled the following key findings:

  • 75% said professions that require creative problem solving skills are less likely to be impacted by automation.
  • 85% said students who excel at creative problem solving will have higher-earning jobs in the future.
  • However, 65% educators and policymakers agree that there is not enough emphasis on creative problem solving in today’s curricula.
  • More than 50% of educator respondents don’t have access to the tools and training they need to nurture creative problem solving skills.

These findings demonstrate that we – business leaders, educators, policy makers — have a lot of work to do in this area.  As outlined in the survey, we need a multi-faceted approach tackling the issue by prioritizing training and professional development for educators; revisiting standardized testing requirements; allocating more budget to schools for technology.

How do you jump start innovation?

Shireen Santosham is the first Chief Innovation Officer for the city of San Jose where she leads efforts to make San Jose the most innovative city in America by 2020.   Her task was to demonstrate to decision makers and her constituents the art of what is possible – no easy feat.  To help guide and inspire her team, she looked to the expertise in her backyard, and brought in entrepreneurs from across the Silicon Valley to talk about their failures and best practices.   She and her team have outlined their vision through a compelling initiative calledSmart City Vision.  Her guiding principles for jump starting innovation include having a strong vision, creating a tribe of innovators to push things forward, and being fierce and persistent about your goals.

How do you scale innovation and spread it to people who need it?

Becky Margiotta is the managing director of The Billions Institute, where she created the Skid Row School to train nonprofit executives and social entrepreneurs to effectively design and run large-scale initiatives.

Her advice for scaling innovation: “You need to orchestrate the loss of control to move people in the desired direction.”  She explained that you need to experience some mishaps and a level of confusion, in order to scale innovation.  Losing control creates key trigger points for creative decision making and forces you to shift in new directions.

Do you think people who have failed are more likely to innovate?

All the panelists agreed that experimenting, failing fast, and pivoting are all key aspect to driving innovation.  As a leader in IT, driving large scale efforts with significant budgets, I have learned that it takes guts and courage to pull the plug and pivot.  It’s never easy to say things are not going the way you think they would.  But to drive innovation you need to be bold, set your ego aside, and recognize when things are not working or achieving your desired outcome.  It takes leadership to learn from your failure and pivot vs. moving forward with blinders on.

What should the audience think, say, do after the panel?

The panel concluded with a call to action from each of the panelists.

Shireen Santosham urged the audience to develop a clear vision and empower those around them to help drive innovation.  She commented, “Play chess not checkers – it’s the long game that matters.”

Becky Margiotta advised the audience to be their authentic selves and listen to their voice and ‘Spidey sense’ when making hard decisions.

My advice to the audience was to find the time and space to be innovative and creative – it won’t happen overnight.  And extend that to the teams you are working with.

Overall, the event was an inspiration addressing topics across leadership, career advancement, and personal development.  You can see some of the buzz from Adobe attendees on this Spark page.  I am already looking forward to next year’s event!

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