05/06/2014 03:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Finding Our Way Out of the Woods

Mike Kemp via Getty Images

What happened when a world-renowned designer (Bruce Mau) and an equally well know activist and champion of women entrepreneurs (Nell Merlino) got lost in the woods together?

Nell freaked out because she wasn't sure where this was leading and how to get out of the forest.

Bruce got scared that she was freaked out.

That wasn't what we were going for, but it added a dimension to the experience that will ultimately produce access to much more money and better management for women to create the companies and communities we know the world needs right now. More on those topics after we explain how we got lost in the woods in the first place.

The virtual woods was actually an inaugural conference called Thrive with Massive Change: A Collaboration between Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence and the Massive Change Network along with Capital One's vision to leverage design thinking and bring this methodology to small businesses. Pictured below are all the women business owners who participated in the event.


From the first moment, Nell listened to designer Bruce Mau, who by the way has helped thousands, including the King of Saudi Arabia, a few country Presidents and dozens of major CEOs, including Oprah, describe the Massive Change Network approach over drinks at the Soho Grand last summer, she was hooked. Struggling with the stampeding pace of change in technology, commerce and climate herself, and then hearing similar stories from woman business owners across the country, Nell wondered if Bruce could help figure out the challenge that had driven her crazy for decades.

With all the new opportunities brought on by better education, technology, availability of data and women's growing power in all sectors, why are millions of women still stuck not making enough money, still not asking for enough and still reluctant to charge enough money for the goods and services they sell in businesses across the U.S. and around the world?

Nell told Bruce some of her Count Me In stories about incredible women-owned businesses. Like the one creating new technologies to prevent violence, another that stops biking accidents, and another that improves your experience at the airport. Nell also shared her ongoing lament about their financial challenges.

Bruce started talking to Nell about his design methodology, developed over decades of innovation for some of the biggest and best brands in the world. Called 24 Hours to Massive Change, his method focuses on identifying the problem and applying simple design methods that anyone can use to design their life and their business. Bruce says when dealing with apparently insurmountable challenges, it's often that we have not identified the problem correctly.

Count Me In's methodology has always been based on listening to women first, acknowledging their success, figuring how to remove barriers and finding solutions together. Bruce sat through 45 presentations of women business owners describing their latest successes and their biggest challenges. He heard them, synthesized the information and named the problems the women business owners were having. Bruce shared three of his methods, then put people to work in getting lost in the forest (which is one of his methods) for each problem.

For Bruce, design is a method of leadership. The ability to visualize a future and systematically execute the vision is the definition of design -- and a powerful leadership tool. But a vision does not emerge fully formed. It must be iterated, allowing for evolution and trial and error in the process.

To that end, Bruce introduced his design method, "Sketch: Hey everybody, let's fail!" To experience their own potential to use high-speed visualization, 45 women business owners were blindfolded and asked to draw a camel. They discovered two truths: First, they all have the power to visualize, even blindfolded -- the worst camel was excellent. Second, using the power of the group, these entrepreneurs were able to explore ideas super-fast. In a few minutes we had dozens of ideas about one problem. The power of sketching is the power to fail fast. The women in this process now have a tool that allows them to explore problems and ideas quickly.

The four problems we targeted together were:

  1. Getting Beyond Me -- where solo-preneurs think of how their business will transform, impact, and empower themselves, their customers, and the world.
  2. Get Me The Money -- where the problem was how to allow women to understand their full potential to gain access to capital.
  3. Making Money While You Sleep -- where all entrepreneurs are looking to add to (or supplement) their current revenue streams without selling time.
  4. Scaling the Business -- where businesses that want to grow in size must focus on leadership, sales, and performance.

During this problem solving process was where Nell freaked out. Many of the women were thrown by the group sessions, since most of them are used to being in charge, they wanted to have a more clear path to follow. However, that wouldn't have led them to the amazing discoveries they made. After the first of two sessions, the groups presented preliminary findings, with Q&A from business experts. From there, they honed their ideas with a second group session, and made a more mapped out, clear presentation to the larger group.

The result of this exercise produced one of the best potential products Nell had seen in all her years of helping women find the money to live their dreams, grow their businesses, and bring them to scale.

One never knows how people are going to react to a new idea or a different way of working or solving problems. Nell considers herself pretty open minded about change and new approaches, considering she has asked millions of parents, girls, employers and teachers to "Take Our Daughters to Work" on the fourth Thursday in April 1993 (which they are still doing today), invited over 5,000 reporters to cover the largest gathering of women ever held in the world in Beijing in 1995, and has openly challenged thousands of women to go where too few women have gone (which is over $1 million mark in annual business revenue). You'd think Nell would be comfortable getting lost in the proverbial woods and finding a way out, right? But being lost in the forest, for real, (and Bruce insists that the only way this works is if the experience is real), can create a certain amount of fear and discomfort.

Nell has been trying to figure out for over 15 years why women's businesses are chronically underfunded and what we can do about it. In less than four hours after listening to Bruce Mau's Massive Change problem solving methodologies, 10 business women, along with a gifted listener from Massive Change Network named Paddy Harrington, optimized their ideas to create a new product deck called In$ights, an app to get the money you need for your business. Not only did this new product map out the full range of opportunities for accessing capital, it spelled out the implications in each case.


Nell's inbox has been flooded with messages from participants of the Leadership Institute about how much their thinking has changed. Jessica Kizorek of Two Parrot Productions sent this email after the event:

Though I've grown incrementally for many years, I went to D.C. last week asking the question, 'How do I have to innovate the way I do business in order to grow earnings 10x without dramatically decreasing my current profit margins?' And I'm clear...I can't do 10x the stuff I'm already doing. I don't have the bandwidth. It's a simple mathematical equation.

This makes me a bottle neck. To grow, I have to change. To change, I have to cultivate talent I trust to do the jobs I've never trusted anyone to do.

So this week I gulped and took a big risk.

It made me nervous.

It challenged me.

For the first time in the history of working on a non-profit video project, I hired a project manager to interface directly with the client.

In the end, not only was I proud of Jaren, I was proud of myself. I was proud of myself for taking one more step towards building a business bigger than me.

And Bruce has been getting notes like this one from Roberta Baskin:

I love the alchemy of design thinking. At just the right moment, you redesigned my thinking! I now look at the world, and all that is right in front of my face with wild newness. Standing ovation!

Princess Jenkins of The Brownstone shared her experience with Women In the Black. The methodology these women learned at the Leadership Institute is spreading into their businesses, and we can't wait to see where it takes them.

All the old language went out the window with Massive Change. The generosity of our sponsor, Capital One and the grit of 45 women business owners has culminated in each one of them going back to their business to take risks, apply design thinking to solve problems and find their way out of the woods.