This is the dream


I dreamt to convince at least one NGO of my ideas. Instead I hit a coalition.

It sounds arrogant. I assure you it is not. Here is my story that led to my third winning solution through open innovation realm in June 2016.

Ever since I put an end to my over 10 years chapter of business entrepreneurship (at least for a while), I tried to find ways to do something closer to my core visions. Just doing business and paying my 2 cents to society through tax venue didn’t feel good enough. Making money took all my time and vitality in the Romanian emerging market, a country with chronic corruption and law issues, infertile for small and medium private businesses. I eventually couldn’t hold it anymore on this road.

I needed something more meaningful, to go beyond myself and to bring peace to my restlessness.

So I made a choice: no matter how rough it gets, I’ll stick to myself. And so I started my journey to find my way in this loud and over crowded world. I can only die trying, go crazy or die of poverty and painful diseases, I said to myself. But at that point of my life it seemed the only road that made sense. I took full responsibility for this edgy choice and I stepped into unknown. I hit the ground instantly and while laying there at the bottom of my life, I realized that coming back is not an option. I look around and also moving forward was not an option. I woke up suspended between myself and my life, between times and worlds, and between versions of myself. There were no bridges, no exit doors and no one to build some.

Instead there were unprecedented levels of anxiety, fear and confusion. And also all people in my life asking me the same endless questions about my work and life, and me answering the same way: I don’t know.

At first I empathized a lot with social-business and social-enterprise venues. I ended up a finalist inside an European social-innovation competition that held the potential to give me the opportunity to implement my idea and restart my life. Bureaucracy and Romania put an end of it on fast forward mode. More, there were no specific financing options for these economic models and no specific tax & income frames for solving unsolved governmental & NGOs social tasks. My first choice of new beginnings smashed by a wall.

Then I tried to offer my skills and knowledge to NGOs. My business background was a turn off and the mindsets and leadership I met were a turn off for me. This second choice of new beginnings smashed by another wall.

I started to doubt myself and my way of thinking. Then I tried to get a job. My background as an entrepreneur and my diversity of skills and knowledge were a turn off, and the HR mindset and the overall brain automation and creativity inhibition practiced in corporations were a turn off for me. Then I tried abroad. My Romanian IP was a turn off from the start for the HR software. I asked my emigrated friends to send my CV from their new western countries. The same result. This third choice of new beginnings smashed again by a wall.

Doubting myself became more and more uncomfortable and even painful. Cinematography & TV industry dragged me out of this vicious circle as jobs in the location department and fixer zones were offered to me by people who trusted my skills and interacted with me in the past. The payment was all right, the work hard like hell and unbalance creator, though not so challenging at an intellectual and learning level. It was random and it didn’t seem to hold the potential to solve my problems in perspective. I loved the networking side of it and the people I met through this venue, but it was still far from my visions about my next life. So here I was smashing again by a wall. A softer one, but still a dead end.

What to do with myself? was a daily question in the last 7 years while my life got harder and harder to endure. No resources for new business, no environment for new affairs, no first dollar way of financing option available for social business projects, no job, no health coverage, no entertainment, no vacation or travelling, no meeting with my friends, not being able to visit my family. No NGO and government program to address people in these circumstances. No money, no life.

Surrounded by the lack of light, the economist in me wondered: in this violent crisis, in this time of historic giant companies going bankrupt over night and unprecedented levels of high skill unemployment, aren’t there organizations and governments looking for better solutions in terms of quality, legitimacy and price? Someone with more access to information must have thought of this. Who could have done it? Who is the country with the biggest appetite for research and education? United States of America.

I opened my broken laptop, made a list of key words and target search and research, and I started to look for an unknown, unconventional and maybe also non-existent company that had the resources to take this unique opportunity to intermediate between solution providers and solution seekers. And so I found Innocentive, a USA based open innovation platform about solving specific problems that profit and non-profit organizations have at various levels of the process with the help of worldwide professionals. At that time, 2010, it was the first and until today it remained the most articulated one, but also reasonable in terms of revenues if you win a challenge.

I immediately joined it and started to hunt problems I could solve. As I am a generalist specialist, it proved to be an almost impossible mission as most of the problems were highly technical. I decided to wait and to monitor it. Soon enough, more and more diverse problems appeared. The problem solving process turned out to be highly entertaining and soon it started to pay off for my overall state of being, but also from a monetary perspective.

It’s been over 6 years since I cannot stop myself playing this game. My solutions portfolio weighs about 30 solutions until this point for both profit and non-profit organizations, and many more in my head.

In 2011 I won the first challenge “Models for sourcing food data bases” for a healthcare seeker and in 2014 I won the second one “Humanizing customer digital experience” for banking seeker.

It felt good, the money wasn’t as good as in the case of more scientific challenges, but it helped me solve some of my own problems. It was good enough for what the market offered and for the time and effort involved in solution design, that’s for sure.

Still, these two winnings didn’t change anything in my life at a more fundamental way. Two reasons for that:

1) from competition motives, my both seekers decided to operate under anonymity
2) my both seekers were business seekers

There were cases when knowing the seeker’s brand helped a lot in solvers career progress, it made a difference, they got exposure. Like winning for NASA or The Economist or for an international NGO or brand. The anonymous status of my seekers was a turn off and their business origin couldn’t fulfill that empty place in my heart. The first one brought a little spark into it because it addressed patients with diabetes and my solution broadened the horizon to all kinds of patients, though…it was a niche problem.

I remained with the satisfaction that both my solutions involved technology architecture and scalable strategies, the winnings validated me in many ways. Though, I remained highly challenged to succeed at least once with a larger problem, governmental or at least one addressed by an international NGO with no anonymous status in the middle.

I had some visions in my previous solutions for food redistribution models, conquering the food deserts issues in combating hunger problem, models for anti-corruption and political transparency, operational strategies and plans for various crisis and natural disasters, turning Naples into a social-business hub, etc but none reached seekers’ mindsets and hearts.

Until this month, June 2016, when a coalition between six of the largest peace and security funders in the United States awarded my solution for the challenge “Innovative Approaches to Proliferation Prevention: An Industry-Government Information Sharing Platform”.

The seekers who launched the problem were N Square and Stimson Center (N Square is a collaborative effort between five of the largest peace and security funders in the United States: The Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Skoll Global Threats Fund). There were 91 solvers who registered to solve this challenge and 3 or 4 solutions were awarded (I don’t know exactly at this stage of the process). I also don’t know how many solvers sent a solution eventually in order to provide also an insight about the dimension of the competition.

Anyway, to break the ice with one international NGO would have been enough for me, but to break it with these big six at once on such a challenging and sensitive matter was not even a possibility in my hopes.

The chances that a coalition to join forces in an open innovation platform and for me to win were close to zero, especially because spending funds in open innovation channels is not such an eligible expense for an NGO and for the bureaucracy and endless procedures that surrounds it, and then because my approaches are usually very concrete for the abstract way many NGOs think and act. Very few NGOs use open innovation in meeting their challenges and they are usually USA based where the system seems more open and flexible in some points.

If in the previous two winnings I felt an adrenaline boost, as if it was more like an ego thing, with this one the feeling was different. It was more like a heart thing and it felt much better as if it completed me in some way or at some level. It’s a huge satisfaction. And the money feels as if I won the lottery in this time of my life, a time when I am still walking on the road I chose at the beginning of this story.

It would have been a typical American happy ending story, if I told you I reached “home”, my life changed and eventually I lived and worked in peace with myself, that I finally started the real deal: to fulfill my potential, to work aligned with my passions, values and callings, to bring a decent level of stability in my financial and material matters, in my life overall.

Well, I am European. A Romanian to be more exact. I am not sure about what comes next as I have no clue. I wish I had, but I don’t.

All I can say now is to be continued.

***

About N Square and Stimson Center, the seekers who awarded my last winning challenge:

NSquare

“N Square is a multi-year, multi-million dollar program designed to foster collaboration, ignite the public imagination and spark new ideas about how to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons.

N Square is a collaborative effort between five of the largest peace and security funders in the United States: The Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Skoll Global Threats Fund.

N Square is based on the idea that new forms of cross-sector collaboration—combined with the sheer ingenuity of an engaged public—will enable us to innovate our way to a world free from the risks associated with nuclear weapons and fissile materials.”

Stimson Center

“The Stimson Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan “impact” tank based in Washington DC and devoted to addressing transnational challenges and exploiting opportunities that enhance global security and economic prosperity. From the halls of Congress and the United Nations to the corporate boardroom, Stimson’s experts do more than develop innovative solutions—Stimson transforms ideas into pragmatic action, addressing the most complex global challenges of our time.

For over a quarter of a century, Stimson’s experts have analyzed global threats and worked with governments, multilateral organizations, civil society and private industry to build collaborative solutions that transcend national boundaries: geographic, bureaucratic and political. Our success has earned Stimson recognition as a global leader in the international ideas industry.)”