At the highest level, my role is to inspire people to see the world from a slightly different perspective or to think about a problem in a way that opens up new possibilities.
I’m fascinated by humans and human behavior. I started out as an art major in college but quickly realized I’m not good at art—what I really love is the creative process and creative people.
I transferred into cultural anthropology. I was interested in understanding why people do the things they do and how where their beliefs came from and how cultural systems create that meaning.
I was inspired by things like the VHS player my parents had that was so hard to figure out, they could never change the time—I grew up with it always flashing “12.” Why did it have to be so hard? What could I do to make a difference?
Writ small, that was the VHS player; writ large, why doesn’t this company, this ecosystem or this product work?
Today, my job and my team’s job is to help clients look at opportunities in ways they haven’t before. Humans are clever and they do a great job figuring how to get things done even when they don’t have the tools or resources. But getting people to change their behaviors is really hard.
We look at how people are getting things done now and then build on that to make things easier and more intuitive—that’s really the heart of innovation. But you have to do it in a way that’s palatable and leaves people feeling in charge, inspired and empowered.
If I want to get people to spend hours imagining an ideal future, I have to do so in a way where they feel heard. They have to feel we understand their situation, the context and the problem they’re trying to solve. We have to show them our process. I’ve found that if I map out a seemingly far-reaching ideal and then map out how to get there, or some semblance of how to get there, they relax enough to go through the exercise.
We have to meet people where they’re at—not with a sense of complacency, but with empathy so we can help them articulate where they want to go. Humans have a hard time doing this. They tend to reference things they know, but when you’re trying to innovate, you can’t just reference what already exists.
Something like science fiction can be a good tool. It’s a safe way to imagine a different way of living or being. Someone was pondering the other day about the things that were science fiction in the 1950s and have come true—did that happen because we built what someone envisioned?
I really love my job. By nature I like to stir the pot—challenge assumptions, expectations and norms. But I’m also optimistic, perhaps annoyingly so!
When I started in this role, no one knew what a cultural anthropologist did or what design thinking was. Now that work is recognized, and you can get a PhD in it. Over the course of my career I’ve experienced the value of the process. I can feel confident pushing boundaries and explore without worry because I know the process of design thinking will get us where we need to be.
My most memorable caffeine would be one of two. One is the routine of Saturday mornings in the pre-COVID time. My partner and I would go to the local coffee shop with our dog, just talking, surrounded by neighbors and focusing our energy on each other. It was such a great way to really spend time together. Sure, you can have coffee at home, but it’s just not the same. The other is my high school hangout, The Omega. It was one of those places with 500 things on the menu and where my friends and spent hours and hours talking and drinking bottomless coffee in one of the booths.
My current caffeine of choice is a latte, choice of milk varies. Or, I’ll just have a black coffee.
My favorite place for caffeine is the Barriques on Atwood. I love the community feel and they make a really good latte.
The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with is my Grandma. She was born in Lithuania and lived through both WWI and WWII. She marched her family into Germany in the heart of WWII and had to re-create a life for herself and her family in German work camps for over five years, then came to America— Chicago—and had to learn the language, get a job, then she bought a farm in Wisconsin and learned to farm. I want to talk to her as who I am now, a woman in her 50s, and really hear her story and ask her questions. Hear the things she wouldn’t/couldn’t tell a granddaughter.
World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine:
I’d like to sit down and have a cup of coffee and learn how to be anti-racist. We need a new way of being, thinking and believing where people are safe to be who they are.