It’s All about People

People amaze me. There are moments everyday in my life that I sit in complete awe of the men, women, and children who walk this earth. This happens even more frequently before, during, and after the Business Innovation Factory summit, AKA BIF. So much so that I wrestle with the idea that I often nonchalantly refer to BIF as a “business conference.” It is so much more. It is a PEOPLE MOVEMENT.

Last week, I had the honor of interviewing Steve Cronin, a Rhode Islander who has leveraged BIF as one of the many ways he is helping change the world one student at a time. Steve is the president of TWOBOLT, a longstanding direct marketing company in Pawtucket, RI. But, if you ask me, his greatest influence has nothing to do with marketing and everything to do with his direct impact on kids.

Beyond curriculum: teaching kids life skills

As a way to give back to the community, Steve teaches a weekly class at Hope High School centered on life skills, namely leadership, change, and success. His ultimate goal is to help students achieve the success they aspire. One of his core messages to his students, perhaps even above and beyond teaching leadership concepts and skill development, is: “You don’t know how great you are right now!”

“These kids are so smart, so creative, and have so much potential,” said Steve. “Part of my challenge is to let them know this – and to give them strategies to help exploit their potential.”

Steve believes in his students. And he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if they master fundamental skills such as networking, critical thinking, risk management, interpersonal, creativity, and empathy, they will realize their dreams. They will thrive.

There’s more than one way to learn

Steve gets kids. He understands that students come from diverse backgrounds, face different challenges and opportunities, and learn in a variety of ways. This is why he caters to each student going so far as to create personalized textbooks for his students. He also includes TAGs throughout these books so students who more readily process video information than text can learn that way.

Steve invites the community into his classroom, as well. This allows students to interact with the real world and hear stories that might resonate with their own and give them hope. Local leaders who’ve participated include the likes of U.S. Federal Attorney Richard Rose; double amputee and Providence native featured in Mark Patinkin’s inspirational book Up and Running Andre Bateso; and nationally recognized creativity professor Amy Whitaker.

And, of course, Steve gets his students out of the classroom. They tour colleges, visit local businesses, have an opportunity to attend the National Youth Leadership Forum in Washington, DC, and, yes, participate in BIF!

Students experience the magic of BIF

Ah, BIF magic. Believe it. It’s real. Thanks to people like Steve Cronin more students are experiencing it. For the past several years, Steve attended BIF with his students in tow. This year, he took five of them, dubbing them, “The Fab Five.”

“What an opportunity for these kids,” said Steve. “It’s exhilarating to watch them, to see them take risks, to meet seemingly intimidating people, and to see how they carry themselves.”

Although Steve’s students are quick to share vast feedback, nearly all of their thoughts can be summarized in one word, “Wow!” Like Steve, they were simply in awe of the storytellers and overall BIF experience.

“I cannot thank Chris and Saul at BIF enough,” said Steve. “The opportunity they’ve given these kids is unbelievable. BIF is a wonderful chance for students to meet people different than themselves and to see what is possible if they do the right things.”

Never too old to learn

Steve’s students learned a lot at BIF. And, they’ve learned a lot from him. I did, too. Steve’s life lessons aren’t reserved for students. He’s impacting people like me, too.

Here are just a few lessons I took away from my conversation with Steve that all students – all people – can learn from:

  • Talk to strangers! Build networks!
    We tend to hang out with people who are similar to us. Mix it up! Hang around good, honest, intelligent, hardworking people who have different interests, ethnicity, culture, education, and economic status. Build a network of successful people. If you hang with positive, smart people, you will become positive and smart.

    Who’s in your network?

  • Ask! Just Ask!
    How many people, even in business, just never ask? Steve thinks, too many! “We talk a lot about asking in my class,” said Steve. “It’s a big deal – part of life is to ask.” He stresses that asking should always be done in a respectful manner, but that it should be done. Case in point: Four of his five students who participated in BIF went one day. One student went two days simply because she asked! “One girl asked to go a second day, and I found a way to make it happen.”

    Are you asking enough?

  • Show up!
    Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But, Steve cannot stress this enough. “You create opportunities in life just by showing up,” he said. And, show up on time. “Showing up late for class is the ultimate expression of disrespect for a teacher, and this translates to work,” he said. “If you work for me and you’re late, you don’t last.”

    Show up any chance you have – class, work, BIF, whatever. You never know what possibilities lay ahead.

    Do you show up?

  • Tell your story!
    Over the years, many students have touched Steve. One in particular is Marta Aparicio, who was born in Guatemala and came to the United States at age 12 with her grandmother. Throughout high school, Marta worked at a nearby hospital 30 hours/week, played soccer, and was ranked among the top five in her class.

    One day, Marta approached Steve and said she wanted to go the National Youth Leadership Forum. No one from his class had ever attended. He simply said, “Tell me your story.” She did. Not only did Marta attend the forum, but today she is also a junior at Georgetown University on full scholarship.

    Your story matters.

  • Don’t quit!

    The first day of the National Youth Leadership Forum, Marta called Steve. She shared that all of the kids at the conference were “white, affluent, and from private schools.” He told her she could do it. By the end of the conference, Marta was sharing her wonderful experience on Facebook.

    During Marta’s first year at Georgetown she once again doubted her ability to continue. She felt surrounded by rich, smart kids whose first language was English. Again, Steve encouraged her to press on. Today, Marta has found her niche, is thriving, and never wants to leave. She’s learned that kids might have different skin color, come from different backgrounds, etc., but they have similar aspirations of becoming successful, of being happy.

    Can you muster the strength to keep trying?

Steve wrapped up our conversation by sharing: “These kids inspire me. My challenges pale in comparison to the ones they face. I get more out of this than they do.”

That’s saying a lot because I suspect these kids get a lot out of Steve’s class. But, I think he’s got it right. Life’s about inspiring each other, learning together, and recognizing we all have challenges. It’s about being there for one another, creating the life we want, and realizing our dreams.

Mostly, it’s about PEOPLE. Just like BIF.


Meet educator and storyteller Anita Verna Crofts, Associate Director and Faculty, Master of Communication in Digital Media, University of Washington. Share in her inaugural pre– mid– and post– BIF summit:

Pre– summit

How did you first learn about the Business Innovation Factory?
I learned about the Business Innovation Factory from Jessica Esch, who then introduced me to Eli Stefanski, BIF’s Chief Market Maker, in the summer of 2011 when I was based in Maine. Jess, Eli, and I sat out on the Eastern Prom in Portland talking over iced lattes, and I knew I’d met a kindred spirit. I cannot think of two better ambassadors for the BIF magic.

What ultimately drew you to the summit?
I teach in a graduate program at the University of Washington called the Master of Communication in Digital Media, where we emphasize the power of story and strategic engagement in this noisy digital age. As the program continues to grow and mature, I’m always looking for opportunities to expand my “idea vault” and BIF-8 boasted a collection of storytellers – both on the stage and in the audience – who would provide rich material and catalyze my own thinking.

What are your hopes and expectations going into the conference?
I love listening closely to people as they share their stories (I was an anthropology major for a reason)! I look forward to moments in the course of the two days that stop me in my tracks and make me think of something in a completely different way.

What’s one thing you’d like to walk away with from this experience?
I’d like to walk away with two things: first, an encounter that prompts me to change my mind or be open to changing my mind about a preconceived notion. We can get very comfortable in what we think. The flip side of this, is I hope there are moments that gird and send me back to Seattle with renewed commitment and clarity on issues I care deeply about.

What are you most excited about?
To start, I’ve not been to Providence since 1987 and I cannot wait to see the city and sink into its rhythms for a few days. But, I’m most excited about the people who come to BIF and the chance to meet old friends and make new ones.

Mid– summit

In the midst of the conference, what are you feeling?
I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the information! I decided to leave my technology in the bag today, use my pen and notepad, lean in, and really listen to the speakers. It made a big difference.

Is your experience in alignment with your initial expectations?
It’s always good to be reminded that the speakers who inspire me most are the ones who speak from the heart and tell their stories as such. This was in complete alignment with my expectations. My most memorable moments came when people shared personal experiences that had larger lessons that could resonate for us all.

What’s something you’ve experienced that you didn’t anticipate?
I love the intermingling of speakers and audience members – there’s no division.

Saul Kaplan talks a lot of random collisions of unusual suspects. Who’s an unusual suspect you’re grateful you’ve crossed paths with?
I loved a chance encounter with Hillary Salmons in the back room at Aspire yesterday. I thought she was one of the most compelling storytellers of the conference. We shared in conversation for 10 minutes – what a joy!

Post– summit

In a sentence of two, can you summarize your BIF experience?
I’ve come to realize that the BIF-8 experience only begins in Providence at the Trinity Rep, and then it continues as we each return to our orbits and integrate the BIF community. For instance, I’ve added “The Connected Company” and “Practically Radical” to my required reading lists for my fall course entitled, “Leadership in the Digital Age.”

What was your high point?
Before I came to BIF, my Chair and I sat down and he gave me the ultimate gift: completely transform and redesign my job. So my high point was an evening spent hunched over pages of grid paper, inspired by BIF-8 speakers, mapping ideas from sessions on to the new position I am building for myself.

Looking forward, how do you plan to put what you learned to work?
I’m fortunate: I get to share what I learned in my upcoming fall classroom. But more than that, I get to transform the very nature of my job, informed and inspired by messages and ideas I gleaned at BIF.


Posted by A. Smith on Sep-26-2012

Meet recent college graduate and Apatapa founder & CEO Wyatt Hayman. Share in his inaugural pre– mid– and post– BIF summit:

Pre– summit

How did you first learn about the Business Innovation Factory?
Saul Kaplan (BIF founder and chief catalyst) talked about BIF during a talk he gave at Oberlin College to a group of students in the Creativity and Leadership Program.

What ultimately drew you to the summit?
Two partners and I started a modern feedback business this summer and are now on a networking trip. Our mentor Deborah Mills-Scofield connected us with the summit as volunteers. Tori Drew was amazing in taking us on; we’re here because she said, “yes!”

What are your hopes and expectations going into the conference?
To learn from the mistakes and successes of innovators who have tried and are still trying to improve the world and solve problems through entrepreneurship.

What’s one thing you’d like to walk away with from this experience?
Something I think about every day.

What are you most excited about?
Seeing adults acting like kids during recess. Hearing the buzz at every break and sampling the different types of excitement inspired by each of the storytellers.

Mid– summit

In the midst of the conference, what are you feeling?
Intense motivation. Respect and gratitude toward Saul, Tori, and the BIF team. A new dream is to spend a month living and working with Saul, Tony Hsieh, Jeff Lieberman, and Hillary Salmons. I’m hoping to internalize their stories, and all the storytellers’ stories, to make that at least partly true.

Is your experience in alignment with your initial expectations?
I didn’t anticipate how exhausting BIF would be! I was so excited I didn’t think much about the difficulties – like overcoming the fear of joining into conversations.

What’s something you’ve experienced that you didn’t anticipate?
A talk about staying connected to one’s present moment and its powerful applications in business and life. I couldn’t agree more with Jeff Lieberman’s message.

Saul Kaplan talks a lot of random collisions of unusual suspects. Who’s an unusual suspect you’re grateful you’ve crossed paths with?
Jenny Mcaab, an Innovation Entrepreneur at General Mills. I want to start my own business but, initially, I wanted to do exactly what Jenny and her partner Lisa Pannell do at General Mills. I don’t trust that existing businesses are going to inspire the social and environmental progress that people in power should be demanding of their institutions. Lisa gave me some faith that while the movement may be young, some large corporations have seeded a powerful shift. Corporations are social capacitors. To me, Jenny represents a seed that might give rise to a new standard where businesses invest power back into communities by empowering progress.

Post– summit

In a sentence of two, can you summarize your BIF experience?
Powerfully motivating, comforting, and humbling. I learned creating great change is a slow and difficult process. I’m reassured people who have experienced these frustrations firsthand are still forging ahead and rallying the troops.

What was your high point?
Experiencing Hillary Salmons. If I don’t get enough traction in my pursuits I’m finding Hillary and joining her cause until I’ve learned what it takes to inspire change.

Looking forward, how do you plan to put what you learned to work?
I’m going to try to build positive habits while BIF is fresh in my mind. Validating like Alex Osterwalder. Staying positive and present like Jeff Lieberman. Saying “yes and!” like Second City. Getting people to switch shoes with each other like Nicholas Lowinger. Creating virtuous cycles like Tony Hsieh. Building culture like Dries Buytaert. Embracing fear like Lara Lee. Getting to the heart of the problem like David Stull. And, of course, amplifying and facilitating change like Saul Kaplan. I’m going to try to make them part of me every day so that I can be an effective catalyst of change.

The Immeasurable Value of a Mentor

Posted by A. Smith on Mar-16-2011

Earlier this year, I was sharing in conversation with a colleague and a compelling question was raised, “If you were an entrepreneur and had to choose, would you give up your seed money or your mentor?”

While I haven’t had to rely on seed money, my intuition immediately told me I would hold steadfastly to my mentor.  I have been blessed with two incredible mentors, and I cannot imagine being where I am without them – professionally or personally.

My first mentor was also my first boss at Catholic Charities USA more than 15 years ago. Fresh out of college, I learned valuable lessons from her – including the fact that a college curriculum can only take you so far. The reality is, while I believe my years at the University of Maryland certainly helped prepare me, nothing compares to jumping in and doing the work. Sandy taught me so many tricks of the trade from building a media list to holding a press conference to writing an annual report.

I learned a ton about marketing and public relations. But, this was a case where actions didn’t speak louder than words. Sandy’s greatest influence over me came through our dialog. To this day, I marvel that she always took time to really communicate with me. Real time. Not rushed time. She gave me feedback, walked me through projects, cared about my personal life, and was always good for a laugh.

What I will never forget, what has resided in me for well over a decade, are the words Sandy spoke to me on my last day of working for her: “You have the talent, now you just need the confidence to go with it.” I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have echoed these words. They have carried me.

My second mentor entered my life about 10 years ago thanks to a cold call. No kidding. As a Navy wife, I moved around a lot early on in my career. So, I learned to be bold, pick up the phone, and simply introduce myself to people in my field. Some calls didn’t pan out. This one did. Big time.  Mona and I hit it off within minutes, and before I knew it, I was in her office and on her team.

From the start, Mona and I shared an integrated approach to marketing, a commitment to building brand, and a belief in the power of stories, but over time I realized what we shared was bigger than work. We shared vision, values, and a passion for life.

It’s hard for me to put into words the difference Mona made in my life. She pushed me, empowered me, and took time to know me. She assured me it’s okay to trust my gut, introduced me to the world of appreciative inquiry, and even changed my language (our words become our realities).

Mona and I used to laugh because we could finish each other’s sentences – when we weren’t talking over each other. And, when the rest of the world thought we were crazy (we are), we got each other. We danced on the edge of chaos, did amazing work together, and built an incredible friendship.

After I moved to Maine (I worked with Mona in Florida), I can remember hanging up phones call with her and thinking, “Who hangs up the phone with his or her boss and the last exchange is, ‘I love you’?”

Mona was vested in me. She believed in me. And, she continued to grow my confidence – the void Sandy identified so many years ago.

I am a work in progress. There is still so much I want to learn and do. But, I know I can achieve great things because these women, my mentors, have given me skill and confidence. They have been, and continue to be, extraordinary forces in my life.

Yes, I’ll keep my mentors, hands down. There are simply some things money can’t buy.

I met amazing people at SXSW. One of them was Traci Fenton, founder and CEO of WorldBlu, an organization created to unleash human potential and inspire freedom by championing the growth of democratic organizations worldwide. In other words, Traci works with and promotes companies that “get it.”

Talk about refreshing. This is a vision I can get on board with. It’s simple, yet powerful: choose organizational democracy ( and help change the world. But, it was more than Traci’s message that resonated with me; it was also her. This bright, forward-thinking and successful woman was so completely down to earth, so gracious and fun. She brought to life the very characteristics her company stands for – from integrity to dialogue and listening to openness.

I love that Traci and the WorldBlu team are spreading democratic values throughout businesses worldwide. One of their key initiatives is a groundbreaking, global award: The WorldBlu List of Most Democratic Workplaces. This year’s list was announced three days ago and is comprised of 44 organizations from an array of industries, ranging from five to 60,000 employees. To learn about the recipients, visit

In reading through this list, I was excited to see an organization from Portland, Maine, made the grade: Innovation Partners International ( I was even more thrilled to learn that Innovation Partners uses Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to help companies achieve excellence. Over the past several years, I have incorporated aspects of this methodology (AI) into my brand consulting services because I am a big believer in asking questions and using a strength-based approach to business.

On this note, and in the spirit of WorldBlu, what is one way your business already promotes democracy in the workplace and how might you build on this strength?

Happiness delivered by @Zappos

Posted by A. Smith on Apr-5-2010

Last summer I started a bucket list. So far, I have 114 items on my list. It’s a random list. No particular order. Simple pleasures. Crazy goals. But, all things that I believe will contribute to my overall hope in life, which is to be happy. Perhaps this hope is what led to number 14 on my list:

Meet Tony Hsieh.

Tony is the CEO of Zappos, the online retailer that Amazon acquired last year for more than $1.2 billion dollars. He’s a lifelong entrepreneur who has worked hard and reaped the benefits. Big time. But, I didn’t want to meet Tony because of his success in business. I wanted to meet him because his core goal in business and in life is to experience and share happiness.

Yes, I had to meet Tony.

Last month was my chance. I was in Austin, Texas, for SXSW. Tony was, too – riding around town on a bus promoting his upcoming book Delivering Happiness. I took my chance and tweeted Tony on a Saturday afternoon:

@Zappos My goal for today: getting on the @DHBook bus. On my bucket list: Meeting you. Any way to kill two birds w/ one stone?

A few hours later Tony sent me a direct message, followed by an email. He graciously invited my husband Shawn and me to meet the bus at 5 p.m. and join the festivities. I was so excited I was shaking. Literally.

We partied on the @DHBook bus Saturday and Monday nights. We swapped stories with amazing people, wore balloon hats, drank too much, and, yes, met Tony. As I’ve always read, he was incredibly shy but also unbelievably generous and thoughtful. And, although I felt a bit awkward, I did drop back in line at one of the bars to personally thank him for what he does. What can I say? I believe in expressing gratitude.

Bottom line, Tony gets it. The world needs more people like him: People who deliver happiness as a path to profits, passion, and purpose – which is what his new book is all about. On the bus, I was fortunate enough to get a signed, advanced copy of Delivering Happiness. I started reading it a few days ago and already love it. The book is broken down into three sections, and I plan to blog about each. But, let me share three things that resonated with me right off the bat:

First, Tony wrote the book himself. I love this. Way to keep it real, Tony.

Second, my favorite quote in the book (so far): “There was something alluring about being involved in something where the sole purpose was to create an experience and emotional journey for people, and then to have nothing but memories left afterward to hold on to.” This sums up my observation of Tony on the bus. He really seems to garner happiness by spreading it. It’s almost as if Tony sits contently in the shadows and soaks up the aura around him.

Finally, I discovered early on in the book that Tony is the first of three boys. I have three sons, and my oldest, Payton (age 6), already shows the characteristics of an entrepreneur. Last summer, he ran “Payton’s Sea Shell Company,” and he’s currently brainstorming his next big venture. But, what makes me smile the most is not that he shares this trait with Tony; it’s that Payton also has a heart of gold.

I wish the world for my children, but more than anything, I wish them happiness. And to think…they might someday find it in a place as random as a bus. I did.

Not your ordinary business lessons

Posted by A. Smith on Dec-30-2009

I could spend hours, heck weeks, thinking through all I’ve learned over the past 15 years in marketing. Instead, I am going to share what comes top of mind because these are the ideas that live in my head. This is not an end-all-be-all list. It is a rapid reflection of lessons that keep me afloat and moving toward excellence:

(Top five lessons that came to mind, unedited, in no particular order)

  1. I am not an expert.
    This is one of the first things I tell clients. And, it’s true. I am not an expert. I bring expertise to the table…and so do they. I respect my clients and have come to truly understand the meaning and power of real collaboration. When I enter a room, I always go in believing the answers are already there.
  2. It’s okay to struggle with confidence so long as confidence wins out.
    On the last day of my first job (which I left because I was moving), my boss Sandy said to me, “You have the skill, now you need the confidence to go with it.” In delivering this phrase, she gave me confidence. I whisper this sentence to myself almost daily.
  3. There’s nothing more powerful than a story well told.
    I just witnessed a wonderful example of this. The agency I share space with is kicking off an ad campaign for a local nonprofit to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Many organizations would celebrate this milestone by simply focusing on the number. In this case, however, they are telling 50 heart-opening, human stories every Sunday in 2010. Ah, I get chills just thinking about this. If given the option of communicating about helping hundreds of people or telling the personal story of one of them, tell the story.
  4. Part of my responsibility is expectation management.
    One of my not-so-glorious responsibilities is to help clients understand that branding is a process. Overnight success is unrealistic. PR, for example, requires meaningful story ideas and time to nurture and grow them. Companies shouldn’t expect one press release to land them a front-page article in the New York Times – but they do. Therefore, it’s important that I am clear and honest upfront: Commit or don’t bother.
  5. People are the heart of business
    I inherently believe that every employee matters – and contributes to business. This belief was reinforced for me a few years back when I was a patient in the ER at Maine Medical Center. My brain was bleeding and I was completely disoriented. I remember very little about that night – except for the friendly janitor who calmed me down by giving me a Tootsie Roll and reassuring me that everything would be okay. He got through to me in a way no one else could. I love Maine Med, and he is among the reasons why. Every person at an organization has the opportunity to live its brand.

These are just a few of the many lessons I have learned. And, I know it’s just the beginning. As we approach the end of this decade, I encourage you to reflect on your personal journey. What lessons have you learned in business?