This article was originally published on Forbes.com on November 27, 2018.
What is innovation? For some people innovation is about ideas. For others, it is a process or way of thinking. Lana Ustinova, founder and CEO of IGotOffer, views innovation as, “creating value in a new way. Ideally, innovation builds a new market. It should be part of your business strategy, where you create a culture of creative problem solving.”
Definitions vary, but there is one thing everyone agrees on. To catalyze innovation — put yourself around people who think differently. Last month, I had that opportunity when The Broad Center gathered a group of leaders from across the country to spend the day with social entrepreneurs in Baltimore. Although Baltimore is known for the recent civil unrest, it also has a powerful ecosystem of entrepreneurs re-shaping their city and the future.
One of Baltimore’s distinct features is its dirt bike culture. For some people that evokes imagery of young Black men, wheelie-popping through traffic, engines roaring like powerful lawnmowers. Brittany Young, like most entrepreneurs, sees things different. Brittany is the founder of B360 and she views dirt bikes as an opportunity to build engineering skills, provide access to careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and lift people out of poverty.
I recently interviewed Brittany. A Baltimore native and engineer, she has participated in the John Hopkins Social Innovation Lab, partnered with Red Bull and is an Echoing Green Fellow. The intersections in which entrepreneurs like her operate are ripe with lessons we can all learn from.
Tell me how B360 started.
2016 was a pivotal time. A bunch of reports came out that year about ways to move Baltimore forward after Freddie Gray and the uprising that followed. One report showed we have more than 122,000 STEM careers that can lift low-income people to the middle class. But most STEM programing isn’t led by people that look like me and students don’t relate to the content. That’s a problem because when students cannot see themselves in a career, they don’t think it is possible.
How did dirt bikes become part of the solution?
There is a dirt bike culture here and it is viewed negatively. It is a misdemeanor to be in possession of a dirt bike. A misdemeanor to ride on private property. A misdemeanor to ride on public property. I agreed that the style of riding should not be in traffic. I didn’t agree that misdemeanors were the only way to instill safety. The thing is, most dirt bike riders have been fixing bikes since they were kids. They’re self-taught mechanics. Well, why not become mechanical engineers? I was thinking of a culturally relevant way to get young people interested in engineering, but also to get them out of traffic and away from trouble.
What type of resistance did you face as an entrepreneur?
When you are an entrepreneur you have to be ready for people to be confused. You are doing something different. In this case, it isn’t just that people don’t think of engineering when they think of dirt bikes. It’s worse. They think all dirt bike riders sell drugs and carry guns, because that’s the only thing people have been shown. That perception affects people who I’m trying to get funding from or partner with and it affects our students. Dirt bike culture and crime are not synonymous. The reality is these kids have genius level talent that we can work with and build on. B360 can help fix those perceptions, but I have to work through a lot of confusion and fear.
What strengths do you lean on?
I always tell people I’m a Baltimore City Public School student. That means I have an innate ability to be creative in order to survive and that gives me advantages over other people. But people don’t believe it because Baltimore has a bad reputation. The ability to have overcome adversity and have genuine passion to create change are the biggest superpowers anyone can have. Cities like ours, schools like ours, get less resources. But out of these places come some of the most brilliant people. My personal experiences tell me that is the truth. My personal experiences are what attracted me to engineering. I was in first grade and I saw Bill Nye the Science Guy on the TV and I was like “That’s pretty cool.” I asked my parents for a chemistry set and the one they gave me was too advanced for me. I didn’t know that, and I wound up blowing my eyebrows off, gluing my sister to the chair, making polymers, doing experiments that a first grader should not have been doing.
Can an entrepreneur succeed without personal experience connecting them to their work?
Yes, but then they better have empathy. I have a brother who was incarcerated as an adult at 16, for a non-violent offense. I understand how that feels and how that destroys your family. I’m not saying everything he did was right, but there also wasn’t a program available to him that could’ve helped. Empathy though isn’t just about my side of the story. I also have to understand the side of police officers. This is just a job they have to do. It’s not personal. It’s what they’ve been taught, it’s the legislation and the policies. That empathy allows me to help police officers understand what B360 is about and that we are here to help. Empathy gives me a concrete lens from the riders’ perspectives and the officers’ perspectives and helps me be a middle ground into an equitable compromise. The best ideas come from people close to the problem. If you aren’t personally close to the problem, you need empathy to learn from people who are.
How do you define innovation?
Innovation is a fancy word for survival. Innovation just means creation and where I come from, you have to be creative to overcome. A lot of things that people define as innovative, we’ve been doing all along. Uber and Lyft. Do you think that hasn’t been done before? In Baltimore you can put your finger out on any corner, somebody will pull up and you pay $5 to get anywhere in the city. Because Uber and Lyft added technology, it’s considered innovative. The reason people in our communities are so innovative isn’t because we want to blow things into big tech ideas. We’re innovative because we’re experiencing a problem, like I’m doing with dirt bikes and STEM. How do I solve this problem in front of me that is making it hard to survive? That is innovation.
What are mistakes you’ve seen other entrepreneurs make?
Having too many people tell you what to do, is the first one. There is nothing wrong with getting advice, but I’ve learned everyone won’t give informed advice. If you don’t have a strong vision for the future, people will push you toward what they see. The second mistake fits with the first one. Even though you don’t want other people to sway you – you can’t stay in your own circle. Put yourself around different people. That’s the value I’ve had being part of the Baltimore Corps or Impact Hub Baltimore. That is how you learn new skills and new language. The third mistake is self-doubt. Everyone tells you “no” when you are an entrepreneur. If you have self-doubt you will take “no” as the final answer. That’s not really entrepreneurship. When I hear “no,” I think, “Okay cool, I’ll figure some stuff out and I’ll be back.” It’s not the end all, be all. “No” just means I still have work to do.
How has B360 evolved from when you started?
That’s a hard question to answer because I don’t think like that. From the beginning, I’ve been thinking about what I want this to be twenty years from now. I was sharing visions of what is possible, and people couldn’t grasp it. That forced me to concentrate just on the STEM aspect, so people could wrap their heads around it. Next year we’ll add more to that, and more the year after that. Challenges do make you evolve though, we’ve had a lot of those. We don’t have a permanent space, but that led us to hold events that pop-up. That has allowed us to serve more students in a short amount of time. That wasn’t the original plan. But the original idea for B360 is still how it has always been in my head.
What is the job of an entrepreneur?
An entrepreneur’s job is to show people how things they don’t think make sense – do make sense. We change people’s minds around who engineering professionals are, who dirt bike riders are, and prove that everything they thought they knew – they really don’t understand. When some people think about STEM, they don’t think that can be led by someone who looks like me. A Black woman. When they think about dirt bike riders, they don’t realize riders start as children who have all this heart and all these mechanical skills and that those same things are engineering skills. My job is storytelling so when people hear “illegal dirt bike” they understand that people in this community have been using dirt bikes for recreation for generations, and it became a culture. And then someone decided to turn our culture into a misdemeanor. And it got worse from there. That’s an entrepreneur’s job. To change things. To show people how things they think are impossible – are possible.