Last week, through hard work, commitment to detail and occasionally seeming against all odds – a tri-fecta of organizations launched Good Shirts, a t-shirt collection to support UNICEF’s efforts to save kids affected by the famine in East Africa. I have never launched a product from scratch before, let alone conceived, coordinated and launched a collection of products as a fundraiser. This effort took a boatload of passionate, dedicated people, teams of people. It took senior level buy-in from two companies and one NGO. It took re-thinking the rules on every front. It took a super cool idea leveraging an artist’s vision. And a crack legal team navigating the tricky rules where the term ‘cause marketing’ can sometimes seem like an oxymoron. But most of all, it took stamina and sense of humor by more people than you can count on your fingers and toes. When BBH answered our call and came to us with the concept, we immediately loved it. It was simple, articulated the need and was in a word, fun. But I don’t think any of us knew what we were in for. Seven days into its launch, we are all hoping Good Shirts becomes not just unique idea for the records, but a disruptive and successful fundraiser. We know the idea is right but we know we’re only half way to the finish line with its introduction. If we thought a good idea could have overnight success (and I’m not sure we did), we are reminded that diligent execution is, and continues to be, everything. With a bit more luck, a lot more hard work and allies everywhere who believe in kids, this idea could turn great any day now. The teams at BBH, Threadless and the US Fund for UNICEF certainly won’t stop until it is.
As is always the case, day two in the office drove a significant pick-up in the pace. Or should I say, day two and I learned how business really gets done in Kosovo – in the café’s. Part of my contribution here will be a retreat for the 6 month-old Lab. With 4 full time staff and 2 full-time volunteers, 21 projects underway and plans to expand the office and program by the end of summer, a retreat to reflect, refresh and re-calculate is warranted. My job: to create the agenda and facilitate that retreat, which has now moved from a week from tomorrow to Friday to the day after tomorrow as of lunchtime today!
I had lovely welcome meetings yesterday and read through a myriad of documents to get me up to speed on the projects, criteria and administrative infrastructure the team built. Today it was time to get down to business getting to know each of the staff, their roles, their vision and the opportunities they see as critical measures of moving forward in the near term.
First up, two meetings at the Amelie Café across the street from UNICEF with Ron, the Lab’s Project Coordinator, and then Arbnod, the Design Center’s Project Coordinator. My days at Sterling came flooding back as I recognized the odds that are inherent within a small entrepreneurial group of people. Both Ron and Arbnod are diametrically opposite thinkers, yet both are what have gotten the Innovations Lab to this point.
Ron is an enthusiastic visionary who gets excited by the possibility of expansion and impact. He came to our meeting with a plan for what could be possible over the next 6 months, excitedly conveying a multitude of detailed points that included seeding outreach, training project coordinators, and essentially dramatically increasing program inclusiveness throughout the country leveraging the reach that PEN (Peer Education Network) has established over the last 7 years.
On the flipside, Arbnod, a Holland graduated double major in computer science and economics, wanted to skip the scoping and get straight to the intricacies of the technology and its potential to solve a problem. “I want to be at the 3rd or 4th meeting. I don’t care about the generalities, I want to get into the technical detail necessary to solve the problem.” Arbnod is excited about the platforms themselves and the potential that open-source applications can bring to solving the very urgent issues of birth registration, vaccine management and service mapping in the country.
33% of my interviews were complete and I was on opposite sides of a fence. Two people, two totally different views of the world and yet part of a tight-knit team.
My afternoon coffees only confounded my quest for synchronicity of vision and challenge. A four block walk that felt more like playing Frogger in our journey to find a café with an open seat, I met with Affie who is passionate about the vision, seeing for other youth what she wished for as a teen herself and understanding explicitly the skills building that the Lab is offering youth with very few opportunities for accessible cultural role models. Another Frogger game back to the office and then Etnik and I embarked out with hand-drawn instructions from Afertida to a café where Etnik pointed out that he could finally get full without having to order two meals.
Etnik is a wise Albanian national who is a third year U.S. college student, understanding that being part of the Innovations Lab format is big both for the country and for his future. The freedom to work on projects without the hierarchy of a traditional boss breathing down his neck motivates him to deliver his contributions on time and at best possible quality because he is an equal part of a team, passionate and energized by the same vision. He spent all this past weekend working on the web site because he wanted to get it done, not because he had a deadline.
And then came my meeting with Arsim. Closer to the office, Arsim picked a cafe that could have doubled as a bar. With front and back patios and a dingy smokey bar that had an NBA Finals recap on when we walked in the door (no, I couldn’t see the score), Arsim searched for a table as far out of the smoke as possible. Arsim was out yesterday during that critical introductory meeting so not only did he have this unknown “interviewer” land at the end of his day with a demand for an hour “to get to know he and his role”, he had the added pleasure of trying to communicate with me – not the slowest talker and in English – not his native language. Arsim has one of the most frustrating roles in that his responsibilities are for the project contracts and monitoring. In fact, his role really helped drive home the challenge that they all face in this new venture.
Arsim is responsible for tracking down twice monthly reports to assess project progress ranging from technical maps to hip-hop dance culture to recycling initiatives and balance those with UNICEF embedded regulation for payout – all while trying to prove to donors that the Lab is successful without killing the enthusiasm of the novice youth that the program is meant to engage with these new skillsets.
As this process normally does, despite the level of concern I felt building with each passing and completely diametrically opposed interview, at some point during the evening I began to feel serene again as I realized that the formula for getting everyone on the same page is interwoven in the format of the retreat. Sharing challenges seemingly irrelevant for the rest is often exactly what brings people together and creates the right environment for collaborative resolution.
Or maybe it’s just the coffee starting to finally wear off.
Two red eyes later and here I sit at the legendary UNICEF Innovations Lab in Kosovo. Legendary, you say? Why yes, you haven’t heard? Though only months into their official launch, the concept behind the Innovations Lab Kosovo has tremendous potential for conflict strewn regions to provide a platform and voice for social change amongst the communities that have the most ability to see and drive the future of it – youth.
Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe and also has the highest number of youth at over 50% of the population of 2 million and with 73% of those aged 18-25, unemployed. With the war only 11 years old this provides a huge challenge to a society that has been ripped apart with ethnic conflict and societal upheaval.
The UNICEF Innovations Lab is not a novel idea – there is Global Pulse, there is Instedd Labs, there is the HUB. However it is a new approach for UNICEF given its role in upstream policy work and experience in working with government around the imperatives of children’s rights. First launched here in Kosovo, the UNICEF Innovations Lab strives to create opportunity for change by connecting academia, government, the private sector, NGO’s and students. The problems – plentiful and urgent – are introduced through UNICEF’s relationship with the government and addressed collaboratively by design through the Lab and its participants.
In Kosovo, 10% of children go unregistered at birth. This creates a slew of lifetime problems limiting the quality of their life from the second they are born. Lack of access to social services, employment opportunities and risk of exploitation through child trafficking, prostitution and other life altering threats are a result of non-registration and ethnic minorities are the most at risk.
Solutions created through technology have tremendous opportunity to meet a variety of criteria. The mobile platform in particular provides a means to collect, send and track data in real time, creating transparency and also immediately actionable items. And concepts like the Innovations Labs create really interesting opportunities for resource mobilization with technology companies. Which is really the reason I’m here – to learn more about the opportunity and how it can track to corporate support, and to hopefully contribute a little in the process.
So, back to Day 1.
This morning started out with a tour of the 40 staff Kosovo field office. Of course everyone was so welcoming and the tour of the office up and around and around the staircase ended in a beautiful little office with a balcony overlooking one of the main roads through town, Luciano’s office, my host and the Deputy Director of Kosovo.
A few paces out the front door and up an alley to the left our tour led us to the Innovations Lab. A really bright space outfitted with an inviting sitting area, 12 work stations and a requisite bean bag throwdown brainstorm space – the Lab was everything I imagined it to be and even more pleasant in the afternoon sun with the open door blowing in the slight breeze. See here for loads of pics
And, the on-site Innovateers are awesome. There’s Arbnor who runs the Design Center. Afertidie who leads capacity building with the BYFY students, helping them build and track to budgets and project reporting. Etnik, a summer intern working on the web site and IT issues. He’s an original Kosovar but new to living in Pristina after moving to New York when he was 7 . Ron manages the BYFY projects and I’ve yet to meet a few of the others who were out today.
After our morning meetings of getting to know each other, planning my short weeks here and discussing the challenges that the team faces, we left for a group lunch to Café Mexicana. Mexican food in Pristina! Be still my heart.
The focal point of the afternoon though was a visit to the University of Pristina where we met with the Dean of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department and a Professor of Computer Science to discuss student participation in the Labs. Right now there are 4 students working with the Design Center to receive course credit for 6 weeks of work on projects including birth registration, youth service mapping and vaccine management. The meeting was set up because we need many more students and for longer duration. Our goal is to bring corporate mentorship to Kosovo as part of a larger resource package, bringing technology, funding, mentorship and internship opportunities and we need more students to fulfill our part of the value equation. The variables in this work are endless but there is real heart for the outcomes and the UNICEF experience card is a heavyweight when it comes to making these crazy ideas a possibility.
However, the highlight of the day might have been my very short introduction into the realities that most Kosovars live with. On our way back from lunch, my conversation with Affie turned suddenly serious as we started talking about what might make Kosovo different than what I had anticipated. What you don’t see hidden between the fresh new buildings, she explained, is the reality of a citizen base that either fled or spent months hidden in basements, avoiding the eye of the invading Serbs. Affie spent 9 months with 30 other family members tucked away out of sight, something she didn’t want to elaborate on and which she said no words could describe the feeling of. I deeply respect that sentiment though of course I am curious to know more as it’s this kind of humanity that many of us in the western world can’t fathom but need to understand exists.
The American public is upset. All they’re getting from our President is the truth and after a year, it’s getting kind of hard to digest. Call in the marketing teams. The U.S. government needs a marketing makeover!
Just when I was ready to give the American population credit for recognizing substance over sound bytes, I have become increasingly aware of the media attention devoted to the Presidential drop in popularity credited specifically to Obama’s pragmatic and cool-headed response to the quagmire of issues that surfaced within the months preceding the change in administration.
It is no surprise that his popularity is down; any President’s approval ratings would be down given the groundwork that had been laid in the prior years and the decisions that were required to be made immediately to stop the bloodletting. A government funded rescue was already underway, the auto industry was in crisis, the unemployment rate was gathering speed, the terrorist threat had increased in volume, the military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iran were already in evolved states of unsatisfactory policy, and the healthcare debacle had been simmering for near a decade.
Many of these issues took on new twists when Obama took office. All of them have required urgent attention. These are issues that require dissection, discussion, council, collaboration and political navigation. Yet the media is now scolding Obama for the same attributes that I thought we overwhelmingly chose him for – thoughtful resolute problem solving and honest communications.
Instead of providing the vague sound bytes similar to those our previous administration took refuge under and utilized to a frustrating degree – and to which we ultimately came to characterize as a reflection of the inability to understand and resolve our problems – President Obama has provided thoughtful arguments and insights that give context and a narrative assessment of the factors coloring the discussion. He doesn’t hide behind rhetoric but creates an open dialogue built on refreshing candor and submission to the facts. He doesn’t leave us with vague promises but honestly transmits that the answers are not clear. And that seems to be the ironic downfall of his popularity.
Hillary Clinton was herself a re-vitalizing candidate during the presidential campaign process because she was also knowledgeable and engaged in real conversations. But she was never able to package herself quite the way the Obama campaign did. In an ironic twist of fate, it turns out that the brilliant “Yes we can” slogan, complete with its now iconic imagery of Obama’s silhouette emblazoned with the words “HOPE” across a red and blue background, was the rallying cry necessary to get the “change” president elected..
What the media seems to be telling us is that as it turns out, we are not a nation of intelligent minds hungry for justice and the truth, we are a population who prefers pre-packaged messages that we can digest and track to. Much like our high school football games, we are not looking for true leadership but rather cheerleaders with a microphone to lead us in familiar chants that will create community and a spirit of collegial agreement, regardless of the coach’s ability. We don’t want difficult facts and realities. We want someone to act as our spiritual leader, do the digesting for us and then provide a singular message that we can believe in, regardless of its alignment with reality.
As it turns out, the American population and the media that represent us, are looking for a marketing engine to package the President’s cool discernment of the facts and craft a short emotional story that we can “believe” in. There are a significant number of pundits who openly (and rightly) derided the increasingly delusional rhetoric used by the last administration in the face of sometimes totally opposing factual realities. And yet we are now asking for short messages that demonstrate a “clear vision” so that we will feel better about the uncertainty of our future. We finally came to grips with the fact that we had been mislead from 2000-2008, but in our own desire for a fairy tale with a near-term happy ending, we are once again looking for someone to just make us feel better.
Can we handle honesty or do we just want another “Yes we can”?