Institutions + Innovation + Detroit

Ending Social Inequity Begins With Ending Political Inequity

I can’t go into the details, but a member of my family was recently preyed upon by some seemingly crooked cops. And it got me thinking about the rough set of circumstances that some people are born with. Say you were personally affected by some number of these circumstances:

  • You grow up in a poor neighborhood
  • You have an unstable family situation
  • There were a lot of kids who try to get you to smoke or do drugs growing up
  • You have an appearance which makes it hard for you to make friends
  • It’s hard to find people to help you with your homework
  • You were not nurtured or were maybe even abused as a child
  • You are not of the majority race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity where you grew up
  • English is not your first language

Now what the general societal narrative tells you is that if you work really hard, make a reasonable amount of reasonably good choices, and don’t do anything catastrophically stupid you’ll make it and have a good life. That you’ll be okay and not have to deal with an unreasonable amount of hardship.

But this is what gets me – say you are a person who has at least a handful of those statements applying to you. And let’s say you work real hard, make a reasonable amount of reasonably good choices, and you do not do anything catastrophically stupid. You do everything right.

The way I see it in American today, there’s still a good chance you won’t make it, because you get miffed hard by the system. Because if you’re one of those people I’ve referenced above (and maybe not even as in as difficult a starting point as one of those folks) you still have to deal with these political realities, which are totally outside your control:

  • Cops are going to write you up for things that you don’t deserve
  • Even if you get good grades, you can’t afford to pay for college or graduate school
  • You get passed over for a job (or paid less) for reasons having nothing to do with your qualifications
  • You are poorly represented in congress because your district is gerrymandered, and so laws and policies never slide your way
  • Because of your social identity, you’re never able to act like yourself – you always feel like you have to put up a front
  • You never feel like you can enact political change because of the tremendous influence of money in politics (and you’re not a rainmaker)
  • You don’t have the personal or family connections of others so you never get access to the best jobs, mentors, or business opportunities

So let me recap where we’re at with this hypothetical example – you’re born at a disadvantage but you work really hard and do everything right. But you know that you probably still won’t make it because of how much the system is stacked against you. So whether you work hard or not, you hold the reasonable belief that your chances of being upwardly socially mobile are slim. So why even try?

If I were in that situation, I’d find it very hard to motivate myself to work hard. And even though I’m incredibly privileged because of the circumstances of my birth, even feel politically marginalized in some of the ways I’ve listed.

All this makes me think that if we’re ever going to resolve social inequity in America, we’re going to get nowhere if we don’t resolve political inequities first. Because if we don’t resolve political inequities, it’s disillusioning to the point of giving up hope. And, I couldn’t hardly blame anyone for giving up if the political deck was stacked against them like that.

This is all a bit stream of consciousness and written rawly. I get that. That sort of style seems fitting, given the topic.

My take on “How will you measure your life?”

I’ve been taking a class with Bob Quinn called Transformative Leadership, and I’ve been reflecting on how I live my life. Here are three observations – two truths and a lie, if you will – that I’ve been thinking about.

Two Truths

Lately, I’ve been captivated by a question that Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School talks about, “How will you measure your life?”

You should definitely watch Professor Christensen’s talk, but this is my take on his question.

In the biggest sense, the largest outcome we impact with our lives is the trajectory of human history. The way I think about this is simple – we can either help humanity move closer toward good (which I think of as God’s glory) or we can help it move closer to evil (which I think of as wickedness).

And really, we each have a micro-impact on this very large thing. There are very few people (I’d argue none) on the planet who will ever make an aggregated, measurable impact on the trajectory of human history. That said, I do think that we each influence humanity’s trajectory and that impact, however small, does matter in aggregate.

That is this idea’s brilliance. By looking at our impact on the trajectory of humanity, something none of us can cause a measurable blip on, we don’t have to focus on whether we outperformed somebody else. We are freed from comparing ourselves to others. Rather, we can focus on fully utilizing our own potential. We can put all our efforts into being good people, instead of worrying about being more good than others.

So that’s the first truth – the biggest “measurable” in our life is whether we influence the trajectory of humanity toward good or evil. In practice, I ask myself the following question: today, did I move humanity toward good, toward evil, or was it a wash? I try to log more days in the “good” category than the “evil” and “wash” categories.

In any case, that’s how I’m starting to measure my life.

But, thinking about measuring your life in terms of the trajectory of humanity is unbelievably impractical on a day-to-day basis. After all, how the heck do you know whether you are inching humanity closer to good or to evil? The short answer is, we can’t. There’s no way for us to know whether we are spreading good or evil.

Given this practical quandary, I thought about what a good, practical, indicator that is a good proxy for whether I’m influencing humanity toward good or toward evil. After all, if you list out your values, you can look at them every day and reflect on whether you lived them out.

It seems to me that if I choose a strong set of values to live by, and have integrity to them, I feel pretty confident that I’m positively affecting the trajectory of humanity. So more practically, that’s what I try to ask myself and practice on a day-to-day basis – whether or not I’m living my values.

To be sure, living my own values is not a trivial matter. It’s very hard. In fact, it’s probably the single hardest thing to do on a day-to-day basis. But that brings me to the second truth – living your values is the hardest challenge we have every day, but it’s also one of the things we have the most control over. As John Steinbeck talks about in East of Eden, we have timshel – we have the choice of conquering our sins (see an excerpt below). We have a choice.

This argument is why I’m starting to think character is the most important thing we can teach. If you do that, I believe, everything else starts falling into place.

A Lie

In this scenario I’ve created – centered on living our values as the practical proxy of positively influencing the trajectory of humanity, it becomes very disillusioning if you feel like you don’t have character or agency. After all, if life comes down to living out your values and you don’t feel like you can, then that’s the ball game. If you can’t live your values, you might as well hide under your bed and give up.

But that brings me to the lie, that we can’t change. We can change. We can live our values. We can be less wicked. It’s hard, but we can.

Hope (or lack of) is a powerful narrative. If you have hope you can change, and therefore become more good than wicked, and therefore positively impact the trajectory of humanity. If you don’t have hope, you don’t think you can change and you regress yourself into destructive behavior. To me hope is the belief that we can change into being better than we are.

I think it’s a lie to believe that we can’t change. Why? Because we do, all the time.

In any case, this is what I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks.


On timshel, excerpted from East of Eden, pulled from:

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”

Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

What we’d presumably have in common with space-faring aliens

I’ve been trippin’ out over the Fermi Paradox lately. Indeed, it’s hard not to. And I’ve been contemplating – if we were to encounter a space-faring alien civilization in our travels across the universe a few hundred years from now, how similar would they be to us?

More similar than we’d want to admit, I think.

They’d probably have senses to detect different things like we do, like light, sound, touch, and others. Maybe their senses wouldn’t be exactly the same, but they’d have to have some way of understanding the world around them. They’d probably have discovered and developed some of the same materials that we have, after all, the types of elements in the universe are fixed.

They’d probably have some mechanism in their bodies for capturing, storing, and expending energy. Their bodies would probably have some sort of waste or disease. The universe after all, is not efficient and it is certainly prone to random mutations. They’d probably have some mechanism for reproduction.

If they were space-faring explorers of the universe, they’d probably have a large population. After all, it would be difficult for a single alien or small group of aliens to develop the technology needed to explore space. As a result, they’d probably have some sort of language and some set of social issues arising from many beings having to live and work together.

Surely, it is captivating to think about an alien race’s similarity or dissimilarity to us, but here’s what gets me. Despite how much we have in common with an alien race, we have much more in common with other humans.

Our emotions, psychological biases, our notions of beauty, art, and God…something, even many of those things have got to be unique. I’d hope that our full humanness is not something that could be replicated by aliens. Human life is special.

At the same time, let’s assume that we never find any other space-faring alien civilizations. That even more so makes me believe that humans are special. We could be the only life in the universe that’s left. And even if we aren’t alone in the universe, we may be the only civilization that ever explores the universe.

So whether we are alone in exploring the universe or whether we aren’t, I can’t help but think that human life is special. Which means we are all special beings, endowed by God with something magnificent. Which makes me wonder why we treat each other so badly sometimes. I just don’t get it.

To whom would your life’s work be dedicated?

To Nakul, who in death teaches me every day how to live.

If I were to ever write a book of significance, Nakul is who I would dedicate it to. He is my brother, my teacher, and my inspiration.

If you were to write a book of significance – meaning one that you put your heart and soul into – to whom would you dedicate it?

A friend from school, Heather, pointed out the dedication in our Professor’s text book. The dedication in his textbook is here:



Money is everything, money is nothing

Money is everything, and money is nothing. This is one of the most interesting insights I’ve had since starting business school.

For a company, meaning the LLC-CCorp-faceless-legal-mumbojumbo contractual relationship, money is everything. Companies exist to generate a profit. Money is the means and the end. There is no reason to have a company if it does not make money. To be sure, it’s not unfortunate if the company does other things instead of make money, but that’s not the most function of a company.

The most important function of a company is to make money. But a company is nothing without people.

For people, meaning the air-breating-love-making-hand-holding-fun-loving-soul-filled humans, money is nothing. Everything that matters in life to people is precisely not money. We care about freedom, love, justice, god, greed, stability, pleasure, pain, prestige, and truth. Money only matters because it is a way to get one of those things that we actually care about. To be sure, money is important because it’s how we can get those other things.

For a person, money is a mere means that’s not intrinsically valuable. But we need it.

Paradoxically, money is everything and money is nothing.

3 simple rules to reform political campaign finance

Today, I had the pleasure of catching up with one of my parents’ longstanding customers, who has become a family friend. Let’s call him Jack.

Jack is in his eighties and without fail, we always end up talking about politics when we get together. He’s staunchly conservative and his view on most issues is starkly different from mine.

Despite our differences, we always see eye-to-eye on governance issues. In a nutshell, we both believe it’s better to have a government which makes decisions in the public’s interest, rather than in the best interests of private political actors.

Today, he shared a few simple rules to improve elections and campaign finance schemes. I’ve added and modded a little bit to round out the spirit of our conversation. I think they’re good rules, and rather elegant.

  1. You must be a registered voter to make a contribution to a candidate or party organization
  2. Registered voters are only allowed to donate to candidates / party organizations for races in which they will be able to vote (e.g., someone voting in Ann Arbor wouldn’t be able to donate to a candidate representing Omaha, if you live in  Michigan you can only donate to the party organization in your state or to a national party organization)
  3. Any individual donor or donating organization to any organization engaging in political activity (whether to a candidate, party, issue group, etc.) must be disclosed weekly in a machine-readable format with the donor’s name / unique voter ID, donation amount, donor’s company Tax ID, and date of their donation

This proposal would presumably need constitutional amendment to be legal. Is there any reason this wouldn’t work well?

In any case, I re-learned something important today. There are people who care about politics because of their private interests and others who care about politics because they care about the public’s interest and future of this country. Liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, it doesn’t matter – people of all political stripes fall into both camps.

Jack and I are a great example of this. Because we both care about the public interest over our private interests, we are able to engage in respectful discussion even though we wildly disagree on most issues. More importantly, because we both prioritize the public’s interest, we are able to find clever nuances on specific policies which allow for compromise.

Will the city benefit from economic growth initiatives? (Plus a framework)

In business and innovation, Teece’s model helps you determine who will profit from an innovation. After learning about it, I got to thinking if that model – or a similar concept – could be translated to cities and regions.

So I came back with a question – how do cities know if they will reap the benefits of an economic growth initiative? Here’s a model to help answer that question. It’s unsubstantiated by data, but it’s an intuition that I’d love your feedback on.


To determine if a city or region will benefit from an economic growth initiative, I propose mapping the initiatives along two axes: the type of growth the initiative intends to create and the source of new revenues created.

As it happens, the quadrant look curiously similar to the Michigan Model of Leadership.

  • Type of Growth – is the growth created because of a creating a new product or services that meets an unmet market need? Or, is it a product or service that tries to steal market share from a competitor?
  • Source of New Revenues – are the incremental revenues created generated from customers in the city? Or, are those revenues collected from people from another locality? In other words, are the revenues exports or not?


A model for determining the sustainability of economic growth.

A model for determining the sustainability of economic growth.

Using the model is simple. Note that the “city” is a placeholder term for the economic subdivision being analyzed. You could replace “city” with state or region.

Each quadrant has a distinct flavor. I’ve included notes in each quadrant to help economic growth teams determine the conditions under which they can reap the benefits from initiatives in each quadrant.

  1. Generate a list of all economic growth initiative for the city
  2. Map them on to the model. Initiatives that are 100% new products/services with cash 100% generated from non-local customers would go in the top right hand corner. And so on.
  3. Each quadrant has a distinct flavor. Look at where the distribution of all initiatives across the framework lie. Is it balanced? Should it be balanced?
  4. Look at the quadrant each initiative is in. Are the conditions in that quadrant met? If so, the city may reap the benefits of growth. If not, their ability to reap the benefits of growth will be handicapped.

Does this model made sense? As an economic development professional, do you find it useful?


Business lessons from social movements

My friend Erin raised an interesting question a few weeks ago, during the height of the Ferguson protests. Here’s a snippet of what she wrote:

“I would love to hear a good lecture/discussion (of series of the same) on the business of social change. I think what people fail to realize about the Civil Rights Movement is how deliberate and strategic its leaders were. For example, they chose Selma for the march for specific reasons…

In the end, a comparison of Selma and Ferguson (and even Occupy Wall Street) would be more than warranted. It’s a different day and time, in some ways, but thought-provoking to consider the definition of tangible metrics for success, identifiable leadership, legal and political leverage, and management of public opinion.”

On this point, I agree. It is interesting and important to understand what makes certain transformative efforts successful versus others. In a sentence, though more discussion is obviously warranted, what strikes me about Selma vs. Ferguson is how focused the activists in the Selma were, compared to today’s protests.

And that’s a lesson for leaders today, when leading other people it’s crucially important to focus.


There are three questions which bring a goal into focus – why, what, and how. Most of the time, business leaders focus on the how. What I think makes organizations and movements (like Selma) effective is very clearly defining the “why?” and “what?”.

I think of why, what, and how like a road-trip. What is the destination you want to go to. Why is the reason you want to take the trip. The how is the route you take, the stops you make, and how you pack the car.

The what and why function like the lenses on SLR cameras. An SLR lens has two calibration steps. First, you rotate one of the focus rings to get the framing of the shot in the right range. Then, you rotate the second focus ring to get a clear image through the viewfinder.

Similarly, defining the “why” casts a compelling big-picture frame. Then, defining the “what” helps everyone understand exactly what matters within that frame.


What’s difficult is clearly and actually defining “why” and “what.” If a leader is able to clearly define these things to his/her team, choosing the “how” is much easier in turn.

Different types of leaders start in different places to define these important questions of what and why. For discussion’s sake. Let’s assume we’re a visionary leader who gets an image of what the future could be and clarifies that vision as he goes.

First, define a vision – this answers who and what.

Then, define why this vision is compelling, using each of these angles:

  • Convictions (Why do we care?) – Strong beliefs tied to intrinsic motivations give people the fortitude to achieve a goal. This is an exercise looking inward.
  • Context (Why now?) – This is an exercise looking outward. In the organizations market/operating environment, why is this vision worth pursuing now? Is there a regulatory change? Is there a new technology? Why is the external environment ideal now rather than later?
  • Capabilities (Why us?) – Each organization has a unique set of resources and skills which lend themselves to achieving different visions. What capabilities do you have which make your organization ideal to go after this vision?

Finally, define the target by addressing the remaining “whats”:

  • Purpose (What outcomes do we want to see?) – A vision is broad and purposes are specific objectives. These are smaller, incremental pieces of the larger vision which can be measured and tracked. What are the small group of things that you must achieve for the vision to come true? Define them.
  • Priorities (What matters most, and, what doesn’t matter?) – People in an organization need to know what’s highest priority and what’s not, so that effort and resources are used wisely. Defining what’s not important is just as necessary as defining what is.

If a leader, a company, a movement, or any other organization can define the answers to these 6 questions, they have a chance at accomplishing tremendous transformations. And, if you clearly define the whats and whys, it much easier to craft a strategy (a how) to actually get it done.

That’s why I think movements like Selma were successful – they were able to clearly define what and why, and then pick the right how to actually make their vision a reality.

Also, I’d encourage you to read John Hagel’s recent post on terrain vs. trajectory-based strategy. It gave me a good boost in congealing my thoughts here.

The questionable accountability of non-profits

Organization’s tend to work better when independent entities (like boards or regulators) hold them accountable for their actions.

That’s why public companies have boards of directors – to make sure the company’s leadership team is effectively advancing the interests of shareholders. Similarly, government entities like the SEC and FDA exist to make sure companies follow the law and aren’t causing harm.

Who holds non-profits and foundations accountable for their day-to-day actions?

Non-profits are given tax exempt status because they serve a charitable or other purpose that is in the public interest. Most non-profits I know, though, don’t have independent boards that make sure the organization is appropriately serving a charitable purpose or doing it effectively. There also isn’t a government entity that regulates the day-to-day management of non-profits.

Sure, non-profits have boards of directors, but those directors aren’t independent. Directors are often close allies of the non-profit’s founder or are big donors or who have private interests in addition to any public interests they have. And those boards aren’t selected or monitored by the public. Rather, the selection and operation of boards are often heavily influenced by the chief executive of the non-profit, further blurring independence.

I’m not suggesting that the non-profit that you or I donate to is corrupt, run poorly, or otherwise complicit in some level of malfeasance.

What I am suggesting, however, is that the systems of governance that most non-profits have in place would make it very hard to know of malfeasance when it occurs, because non-profits police themselves.

On balance, do you know of any institution that polices itself effectively? Do you have any reasons to think non-profit organizations would be better at policing itself than the average institution?

An ethics lesson from the Shawshank Redemption

One of my favorite quotes from any movie is from the Shawshank Redemption. In the film, the character played by Tim Robbins (Andy) says you either “get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” It gets me every time.

[Here’s a link to the video clip]

It’s obviously an inspiring scene, but it also brings an interesting observation about human behavior to light – we have a hard time staying where we are.

Andy suggests that as we go through life, we can’t stay at the same equilibrium indefinitely. Rather, he says, we either get better or get worse. There’s no such thing as staying where you are.

And so it is with acting ethically. I do not think ethics is as simple as drawing a line in the sand saying “I will not cross this line”. If that’s how we chose to manage ethical behavior we will always lurk toward acting unethically. In real life, it doesn’t work for ethics to be a standard.

Rather, ethics is a practice. We have to constantly strive to be more ethical and live our ethics more fully. It’s something we must work on every single day. If we don’t do that, we’ll surely become more unethical as time passes.

Ethics isn’t something that can be maintained as a status quo. We must either get busy being more ethical or get busy being less ethical. There’s no in between.

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