The conference was bookended by two compelling speeches by two women thrust into the international spotlight early in their lives. The first was Monica Lewinsky, who opened the event by reflecting on her rise to infamy nearly 20 years ago and the advent of internet bullying. The final speaker was Malala Yousafzai, who closed the event with an interview that brought the crowd of 1500 to their feet at least a dozen times. In between were compelling panels and breakout sessions featuring entrepreneurs from all different arenas: tech start-ups, non-profits, venture capitalism, hospitality, Taylor Hanson even made an appearance (my inner 11-year-old swooned).
For the all the diversity in backgrounds, I heard unifying ideas repeated throughout. Three themes of entrepreneurial success stood out to me: passion, problem-solving and humility. Successful entrepreneurship seems the product of the marriage of passion and problem solving (with some luck thrown in) and to sustain that success demands humility. On more than one occasion I heard a speaker (arguably the smartest people in any given room) affirm that her ideal work environment is one where she’s the dumbest person in the room. I think I had the misconception that entrepreneurs, especially those successful on the scale of Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal) or Sara Blakely (founder of Spanx) would prize unrelenting focus and devotion to the goal. And they did, to a degree, but humility (including but not limited to the ability to fail gracefully and carry on) and bringing others with you are equally important components of success.
Malala Yousafzai’s interview was an inspiring close to the event and a summation of the themes of the event at the highest order. At 17, she is the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She embodies passion, problem-solving and humility in the best possible way. Her story is incredible and her commitment to her passion—education for everyone—is so genuine that it’s hard to believe that she’s only 17. (See the whole interview here.)
One thing that she said that struck me was: “An important part of our life is questioning and the ability to say ‘why.’” Education at its most fundamental is questions and answers and indeed problem-solving begins with a question—“why” or more likely, “why not?” The importance of questioning and the need to encourage that inclination and provide a framework to act on answers, that’s the foundation of education and entrepreneurship.
Malala’s speech and the reflections and insights of all the speakers I had the privilege to hear were enlightening and uplifting and the energy of both the presenters and the attendees was infectious. I felt such a sense of potential in the room. I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions in the days following—it’s the best I’ve felt in a while and certainly the most inspired.