On May 4, 2015, Meridian welcomed the inaugural cohort of the Meridian Social Innovation Fellowship to Washington, D.C. The eight Fellows – who hail from Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain – are global problem-solvers who bring together networks and resources to solve critical challenges facing their organizations, communities, and countries. Meridian has brought together this distinguished group to drive ground-breaking advancements in the fields of youth and women empowerment, cultural integration, entrepreneurship, science, technology, and education.
For updates on the Meridian Social Innovation Fellows’ experience in the United States, follow Program Associate Eirene O’Connor on twitter @EireneOC
Alberto: Javier, what inspired you to start working on JuntoSalimos?
Javier: The entrepreneurial journey is full of doubts and challenges. If you are looking around, almost everyone everywhere is helping entrepreneurs behind closed doors. But what about the connections that entrepreneurs need, what about the visibility, the feedback and ideas that you need even before you start your own business? These are very important ingredients when you are developing a start-up. We want to change the paradigm around the entrepreneurship system. We believe in open innovation happening in an interconnected world. We need to connect with each other in the early phase of development of a new business. This is the vision behind JuntoSalimos.
J: Alberto, what is the problem that you are trying to solve through TalentEurope?
A: My experience as a scholar and teacher of innovation management and my experience as an advisor on innovation policy taught me two things: First, there are great ideas about innovation that are coming from outside Europe, and the US has been a very important source of inspiration. Second, European policy making and management strategies have become stubborn, somehow fixated on certain hidden hypotheses. This leads us to ignore intuitions that are brewing outside our local ecosystem. TalentEurope wants to serve as a bridge, to create a platform for the exchange of ideas on innovation policy and management. I would like to take one or two good ideas back home, in this particular moment of time.
A: Something that I find very interesting is the name that you chose for your initiative: “JuntoSalimos” – What about it?
J: JuntoSalimos literally means “together we will rise.” The project started in the middle of the economic crisis. We started by asking ourselves the question: how can we help others solve some of the problems that are emerging during this economic downturn? Is there anything we can do?
And the answer to that question was that, in spite of everything we believe in the power of people. We believe that communities can create value, solve problems and empower those who really need their help. We also believe in the power of both connections and technology as the most powerful tools to foster and encourage our ideas.
Together we can create value, solve problems, and move power. JuntoSalimos! Together, supporting each other we will make it.
J: Ok Alberto, you need to tell me more about these great ideas that you observe here in the United States. I am curious, what are the three main differences where you would like to focus the attention of Europe?
A: The short answer is: “I don’t know and this is exactly why I took the opportunity to become a Meridian Fellow!” The first phase of Talent Europe is to absorb, to understand. Even if I don’t know which are the main differences, I think I know where to look.
There are four areas that are worth considering for differences and similarities – not necessarily things that the US does better, but areas where we can find differences. These areas are: communication of science and technology, teaching entrepreneurship to scientists and engineers, corporate venturing, and demand-side innovation policy.
TalentEurope is based on the idea that a debate evolves through the exchange of different points of view. The dominance of a policy paradigm can very easily derail towards group thinking and biased interventions.
A: Javier, your job as Innovation Consultant and Public Policy Advisor at Telefónica is probably keeping you very busy already. Why then work on another ambitious project like JuntoSalimos? What is your motivation?
J: JuntoSalimos is first and foremost a story of family and friendship. My parents have always been an example for me. They came from very humble origins. They gave me and my sister the most important things that any kid can receive: values and love. As the economic crisis hit Spain, I had several conversations with my parents and they told me “Son: you are lucky, you don’t have problems, and in these circumstances, people without problems have the obligation to create value for others.”
Around that time a good friend of mine, Felix González, who is the founder of JuntoSalimos, told me about the idea he was just starting to build and invited me to join. I will always be deeply grateful to him.
J: A similar question for you Alberto…I imagine you are also very busy as a Professor in Sant’Anna University. Why would a Professor of Management want to become a Meridian Fellow?
A: As a professor you teach, you do research, you deal with administrative tasks, you work with a team and you are not exactly able to run things the way you want. Actually sometimes I have the feeling I am not in control of how I run my activities, but rather I let daily activities take control of my time and initiatives.
The Meridian Social Innovation Fellowship allows me to concentrate, to study, and to think at the various dimensions that characterize TalentEurope.
In order to find new ideas to bring back to the European debate on innovation, it is necessary to have the time to enter into other debates and to understand them deeply. This takes time and energy, which are sometimes just not available when I find myself immersed in my activities in Pisa, Italy.
Meridian is offering me the luxury to focus on the development of new projects.
J: Some say that the best ideas arrive in the shower, or when you go for a run, when you are truly disconnected and relaxed.
A: In a sense you can say that the first part of this Fellowship is like a three-week-long shower! It would be great if universities, companies, and governments allowed at least 20% of our time to focus on the development of new ideas, completely disconnected from the projects we are currently working on. I think this should be implemented at all levels of an organization.
A: Javier, if I offered you a million euros for JuntoSalimos, what would you do with it?
J: I would invest at least part of these resources for a better understanding of the activities that are currently taking place on the platform. If we are able to understand what drives interaction, to validate our assumptions about what moves people to solve others’ problems and get feedback from them, we would be able to determine more effective methods to intervene and to shape what we already have on the platform. Investment of money in promotion is fundamental, but what if we are wrong about the assumptions we started with?
I would also spend some of this money on international expansion and building strategic partnerships.
J: How can Meridian help the development of your project?
A: As I said, the first contribution Meridian is giving me is the opportunity to take time off my daily work and concentrate on the development of a new project. But also, the core business of TalentEurope will be “exchange” and during the first week of our US-based program I realized that exchange is also the core business of Meridian. I envision interesting opportunities to collaborate. A first milestone could be to the development of the syllabus for a new course on social innovation I would like to teach at Sant’Anna. And maybe you and the other Meridian Social Innovation Fellows could be the guest speakers for this class.
A: Without overthinking this too much, tell me three books that have inspired you.
J: Off top of my head: Henry Chesbrough’s “Open Innovation,” James Gleick’s “The Information,” and Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Future.” I’m a real geek and I’m passionate about innovation!
J: And as for you Alberto, I am not going to ask you for books–too easy for a professor! Tell me who has been the most influential person in your life.
A: You know Javier, I could name famous professors, entrepreneurs, gurus…but today my grandpa would have turned 104 years old. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the stories of all four of my grandparents. I was fortunate enough to absorb a lot of their experiences through their tales and memories. I kept asking questions about very difficult times that an entire generation, born at the beginning of the 20th century, went through. I think my grandparents were a true inspiration for me. They worked very hard. They went through a lot: global conflicts and their aftermaths, the rise and fall of a totalitarian regime in Italy, and the establishment of democracy. They laid the foundations for our comfortable life.
I don’t know if in Europe’s history we have ever had or will ever have again a comparable generation. I just hope the memory of this generation will never go away. I don’t think that we celebrate it enough. And indeed, when we talk about innovation, do we keep in mind that it relies not only on passion and inspiration but also on hard work (…and transpiration)? We get fixated with the storytelling of success, but the complete tale does not begin with a start-up that takes a great innovation to market. It is also about the years of investment in science and technology that enabled such innovation to take place.
A: Can you see an alternative evolution for JuntoSalimos? A trajectory which is different from what you and your partners are planning?
J: To be honest, we are now working under a strong uncertainty of circumstances. This is challenging, but the whole team feels comfortable with this. Meridian’s support has been fundamental here. I can envision JuntoSalimos becoming the reference online platform helping entrepreneurs worldwide to receive guidance, advice, and support from a network of well-known experts coming from different entrepreneurship-related industries and disciplines. However, this is the vision, things evolve very rapidly and I can also see JuntoSalimos change into a sort of “beta-tester” platform, an area where entrepreneurs not only test their assumptions but also share and compare developments. And finally, the platform could become a marketplace for professional services with the ultimate goal of creating business opportunities around the world. Partners would be very welcome here!
J: How do you see your project 15 years from now?
A: I don’t imagine TalentEurope will be around 15 years from now. After an initial phase of absorption, and a second phase of delivery, that’s it. TalentEurope needs to find partners to take over its mission and the ideas developed during its lifetime. Eventually I myself will move on to new projects. TalentEurope will operate as a “commando think-tank.” Once we have effectively delivered our message, the goal is to pass the torch on to more established institutions. But 10 or 15 years from now it is my hope that we will see concrete results of our work.