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Drinking From the Fire Hose -- Reflections on the Social Innovation Summit 12

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A party among some close friends and colleagues on a beautiful sunny day in New York is always fun, especially if you’re on the 87th floor with some breathtaking views and surrounded by original art from Picasso, Chagall, Miro and Liechtenstein. This is what Zeev Klein and his colleagues from Landmark Ventures are able to pull off every year. This year’s Social Innovation Summit hosted at JP Morgan Chase headquarters and the United Nations was once again awe-inspiring and I think I am now just over stimulated.

What I love about these events is that I walk out of there humbled and feeling like I have not achieved anything in my life. This is extremely good because it motivates me and hundreds of my other colleagues to go out and continue to do what we do to make a difference. I heard from Steve Gleason, the former NFL star, who is now stricken with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a fast moving and debilitating disease. He is wheelchair bound and completely dependent on technology to live his life. He urged us to create new and innovative technology solutions so people like him can live their lives while a cure for ALS can be found. He has archived his synthetic voice as that is the only way his daughter will ever hear him. What an amazing man who is surrounded by loving and caring friends.

We also heard from Lady Gaga’s mother, Cynthia Germanotta, co-founder and president of the Born This Way Foundation. She shared how together with her daughter they are using Lady Gaga’s reach and power to help transform the lives of young people.

In the same vein, Alicia Keyes spoke about her visit to South Africa and how she was moved by the kids she met who have been impacted by AIDs. She is the co-founder and global ambassador for Keep a Child Alive, an effort to ensure kids with AIDs in Africa get a chance to live.

Bill Gross of IdeaLab spoke about developing a low-cost construction system to house over a million families – he plans to make it. He has the power to bring technology and financial resources in a unique and sustainable way.

Craig Venter, Howard W. Buffet, Nick Negroponte, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Jeff Swartz, all spoke about what drives them. A unique aspect of what the Social Innovation Summit does is that it opens up a fire hose of phenomenal people on you. The quality of ideas and conversations is overwhelming – in a positive way. There’s no let up, you just move from one session to another. Having spent a decade at MIT, I know what it is like drinking from a fire hose, a lot of water does get spilled but you do quench your thirst.

Amidst all these great sessions, two in particular stood out -- and at the same time made me feel that I’ve accomplished very little to date. Those were the sessions where the young innovators spoke. They are helping other girls change their lives. Genevieve L’Esperance (Girls4STEM) from Montreal started teaching young girls to get into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers when she was 14 and has built a set of videos on You Tube for young girls to learn from. She is at McGill studying computer science and was telling me she is not finding it hard enough so she wants to also study bio-medicine. Avery Winthrop McCall, Teen Advisor for Girl Up, is a teenager who is raising money as part of the Girls Up project in Chicago and has organized a walk with her friends and family. Bianca Louis, Vice-President, ING-Girls Inc. Investment Challenge (Teen Advisor) of Girls Inc., is also a teen doing her part to ensure girls in Africa are safe and secure and get the opportunity for education. Along with them were Asha Sharma who is the co-founder of the A-List (website), Johnnie Lovett, CEO, Fresh Connection Brand and Ben Stone, CEO of Indego Africa, all social innovators who have all found a way to create economic opportunities for them but all bring about societal changes.

One lesson I did take away is that overstimulation is good for the brain and that the future is in safe, good and strong hands if the young people we heard from are any indication. Let’s continue drinking from the fire hose.