By Helene Solomon, CEO, Solomon McCown
“What is innovation? How is it best nurtured and facilitated?”
What more fitting location to explore these questions than in the heart of Boston’s Innovation District. Friday morning, I had the honor of moderating a panel at The Commonwealth Institute’s Top 100 Women-Led Business event (in partnership with The Boston Globe Magazine) held at the Seaport Hotel. Joining me on stage were four dynamic women leaders from a mix of start-ups, established companies, and the non-profit world.
Here are my key takeaways on what the word “innovation” means in today’s economy:
Innovation isn’t always new. “Sometimes it’s a recombination of two or more things that we already know about,” remarked Laura Fitton, Founder of oneforty.com and Inbound Marketing Evangelist at Hubspot. Fay Donohue, CEO of Delta Dental of Massachusetts, cited the example of the rolling suitcase—if putting wheels on a suitcase could be such a game-changer, why wasn’t it done sooner?!!
It all starts with hiring. Joanne Domeniconi, Co-Founder of the Grommet, told the audience, “Hire people that you admire, not that admire you.” Her other suggestions for having teams on staff that innovate: Understand in what areas the individual you hire will be a superstar and understand in what way he/she will raise the performance of their team. If you have the right employees, they will “own” initiatives. Instead of saying “I think we should do this,” they will come up with solutions. Fitton urged the audience to remember that the “butterfly effect” is already happening in everyone’s workplace, so have a culture that helps nurture those ideas. But don’t forget to listen to your customers and vendors too: They know what you’re doing and innovation comes from everyone your organization touches!
Innovation is as possible in mature organizations as it is in start-ups. Donohue described how Delta Dental has successfully pushed for training of those outside the dental community, such as physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners to look into the mouths of children under the age of one. The result? The number of young children with developing new decay has declined by a whopping 28 percent. Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, President and CEO of YWCA Boston, explained how her organization is on the cutting edge when it comes to responding to the needs of women and the communities they serve. Innovation at the YWCA means remaining true to the organization’s core mission while dramatically changing how initiatives and programs are executed.
Allow failure. Everyone agreed when Ferrell-Jones expressed disappointment in how we don’t allow ourselves and our employees to fail more often. Not everything is going to work. Freedom to fail is an absolute necessity when pushing the limits. Indeed, this is how innovation often happens.
Venture Capital funding for women-led businesses has a long way to go. Fitton cited a statistic that only 4 percent of V.C. funds go to women-owned businesses. (ABC News cites an even lower 2 percent statistic). She suggested Congress act and mandate funds, just as they did with Title IX. (Domeniconi excitedly pointed out another option: 40 percent of funds from crowd-funding platforms currently go to women-led businesses.) And for those women who work in V.C. and don’t help move the needle, beware! Donohue put it best by quoting former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help women!”
This year’s Top 100 will be published in the Sunday, October 26th edition of The Boston Globe Magazine.