I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, son to a Jewish father and Mormon mother. My father, a born entrepreneur and amazingly creative, gave me my love of innovation, design and building stuff. His father, my grandfather, ran one of Utah’s biggest companies and was heavily involved in the community. I was quite close to him. He gave me my desire to make a real difference in the world.
As a young man, I spent several years living and working in Japan and China. My first real job was in the Beijing offices of a U.S. trade association that helped American companies in China. It was 1985, and the country had only just recently opened to U.S. citizens. In the spring of 1989, I walked among the massive crowds gathering in Tiananmen Square, buzzing with hope for a democratic China. The massacre that followed several weeks later gave me my deep, and inexplicably emotional, love of democracy.
Still reeling from the heartbreak of China, I enrolled in a special MA/MBA program at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. It was there I developed my love of strategy and business models and got my first taste of marketing. I graduated in 1991, and while my classmates were interviewing with investment banking and management consulting firms, I limited my job search to handful of companies in the emerging field of multimedia. One of them was Microsoft.
I moved to Seattle, and for my first few years at Microsoft I worked on a small team marketing our CD-ROM encyclopedia and other amazingly cool multimedia titles. Over time, I became interested in more directly shaping the products we built. I did a stint in “product planning”, and the fairly uncommon jump from marketing to product development, as a program manager. My first project was an idea I’d come up with while in product planning: consumer guides, integrated with an online buying experience. This was 1994, and the web was just getting started. I grew a team, and we turned that vision into one of Microsoft’s first Internet services, an online car buying service called CarPoint that. By the time I left the team, it was serving several million people and generating over $600 million in automotive sales – every month.
Feeling emboldened by my success with CarPoint, I joined Microsoft’s Systems Division to work on online commerce solutions. My project there failed miserably. I found myself genuinely unhappy working at Microsoft at that point, though I will admit that that taste of humble pie was an extremely valuable learning experience.
Making Sense of My Life:
In the midst of this professional turmoil, my wife CJ and I had our first son. The night we brought him home from the hospital, my grandfather, who I loved so very much, passed away. Life, it seemed, was prompting me to ask some big questions about what why I was here.
The answers began to emerge for me in 2000, through a handful of conversations with community leaders here in Seattle, and my experience with a local philanthropic group, called Social Venture Partners. It was through them that I stumbled onto a little nonprofit organization in Seattle called ONE/Northwest, and it was love at first sight.
The organization now goes by the name Groundwire. By the time I joined as its executive director in 2001, it had already installed computers into hundreds of environmental organizations across the Pacific Northwest. My task, as its new head, was to figure out what could be accomplished with this kind of networked social change infrastructure. Within a few years, we shifted the organization from computing hardware to software, sharpening its purpose to using technology to help environmental organizations build relationships and influence. We developed cutting edge websites, CRM databases and other tools, and eventually a whole new service area called “engagement strategy.”
My experience at Groundwire taught me many things. It’s a top-notch technology consulting shop, designed specifically to promote a mission of global sustainability. Groundwire gave me a hands-on, nitty-gritty understanding of how to run a real social enterprise – and that experience informs much of what I write about today. Groundwire also taught me the joy of working with a deeply motivated group of smart, good people – and the amazing things they can accomplish.
Alchemy of Change:
A few years into my job at Groundwire, I found myself growing frustrated by some of the dysfunction I saw in the environmental movement. So, for a few months in 2004 I would wake up early each morning to work on a white paper outlining some new ideas for restructuring social change movements – and called it “Movement as Network.” A lot of people read that paper, and it helped me realize just how much I love writing about big ideas. Executive director jobs don’t leave much time for writing, so it was not until several years later that I felt comfortable enough with the state of things at Groundwire to step down and finally refocus my energies on writing.
So here I am today, writing at Alchemy of Change, exploring ideas that may one day form the basis of a book (or two).
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