THE BLOG
07/19/2013 04:26 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

From Tragedy to Innovation: Using Loss to Fuel Invention

I lost my two younger brothers to drugs. We were close -- only one and two years apart, respectively. Our family tried everything we could to intervene, including rehab, but nothing worked. Naturally, I racked my brain to figure out why my brothers chose to ruin their lives with drugs and the only thing that seemed clear is that they wanted to be cool. They wanted to fit in.

If you have an entrepreneurial spirit like I do, it seems you're always trying to solve problems. Businesses and non-profits are typically borne out of some sort of dissatisfaction: The creator was unhappy with some consumer experience, and fueled by that dissatisfaction, they set out to solve the problem by designing a better way. But for me, it goes so much deeper than that. I wanted to use the tragedy of losing my brothers to innovate the anti-drug movement.

Trying Something Different

Think about it: My brothers initially tried drugs to be cool, so the typical prevention tactics wouldn't have worked for them. And that means they're probably ineffective across the board. No one wants to listen to the paranoid old man shaking his finger and saying, "don't do drugs!" He's the antithesis of cool. I realized that the "just say no" message simply wasn't working.

To truly affect change, we needed something different. We needed to show kids that they could be cool without drugs and alcohol. I realized that the "cool" kids in school are usually passionate about something, be it surfing, sports, writing, acting or biking. Those passions produce a natural high, and you can't be your best self and fully enjoy what you love in a drug-induced haze. We want kids to "just say yes" to their Natural High. Think about it: the football star can't score touchdowns if he's spending all of his time getting high.

I also realized that kids and teens often look up to celebrity role models. Unfortunately, we all too often hear about celebrities who bounce in and out of jail and rehab between movies or albums, but there are many more that live successful, drug-free lives that we don't hear about. I wanted to turn the focus on them. To spread a message that would resonate, we produced a video series featuring celebrities who discuss their natural highs. To date, we've distributed hundreds of thousands of DVDs for free-of-charge to schools in all 50 states, reaching 6 million youth annually. As a result, 83% of educators surveyed have reported a change in their students' perceptions of drugs and alcohol and with our programming slated to go 100% digital this fall, we will be able to spread our message even further.

Find the Right Partners

So, say you've experienced a tragedy in your life and you want to use that experience to make a difference, to solve a problem or to fuel innovation. You're 100% committed, but what about your employees or partners? There's an old adage that says: "Figure out what you love to do and you'll never work a day in your life." Doing anything that disrupts the status quo, whether for a cause you care about or your business, is very hard work, and the only thing that can truly sustain you on the bad days is having a deep and very personal interest in what you're doing. Start by asking potential hires/partners what their passions are; what they would do if they didn't need to work for money. If the gap between their dreams and your organization is too wide, encourage them to keep looking.

The Power of Flexibility

When you experience a tragedy, you may be so passionate and driven that you experience tunnel vision. You have an idea in your head on how to affect change and that's it, there's no flexing. Well, I encourage you to question even the most basic assumptions. Is your strategy working? Do you have the right people on staff? With the smartest business model?

When you hold a retrospective, don't simply look back on the past week/month/year, but all the way back to your initial intentions. Sometimes that means you'll discover the need to pivot, and that's OK. It doesn't mean throwing away everything you've done and starting over, but it does mean you are mentally open to identifying a better opportunity that may be completely tangential to the organization you initially started.

Has a tragedy in your life fueled a business idea, an innovation or sparked a philanthropic venture? What have you learned along the way? Please let me know in the comments.