From her entrance to Bell Labs as an intern developer…for independent voice recognition systems in the early eighties, to being hired as a system engineer that same year, and then recruited to design AT&T’s next-gen US domestic network…to today as a VC, teacher, mentor, and ‘network exploder’, Deb Mills-Scofield is a storyteller…with a journey to share.
Deborah Mills-Scofield recently challenged the attendees of the 2013 Business Innovation Factory 9th annual summit (BIF9), and also at the UnleashWD Innovation Summit 2013, with one of her favorite topics: networking (and survival).
Innovation Excellence, in a partnership with BIF, attended the 2013 Storyteller Summit where Mills-Scofield is one of the Summit’s most accessible and beloved “unusual suspects”. An unconventional strategic thinker and intentional disruptor, Deb explains why your network is not about YOU… and tells us what we all must all do!
Here are two examples of her insightful message, first in the BIF9 2013 Storyteller Summit video; followed by her presentation text for UnleashWD.
Deborah Mills-Scofield: BIF9 2013 Storyteller Summit
For more about Deb’s network story, you’ll find an alternate written version that was the basis of her presentation before the UnleashWD Innovation Summit 2013:
I’d like to talk to you about networking – for me, it’s been a form of survival.
My mom and her parents fled Eastern Europe from the Nazis. In those days you needed someone in the United States to sponsor you to be granted a visa. My great aunt had come over earlier to NYC and sponsored them. They got the last boat that made it across the Atlantic. For reasons we never knew, the Germans stopped the boat and took off all the Jews except my mom and my grandparents,.
About 60 members of my family were killed in Auschwitz. 5 survived – 1 was sent to London to avoid the Nazis, 1 was put in a work camp, not death camp, another fled to Israel (Palestine). Another escaped from Auschwitz running barefoot through forests and ended up in Australia; and one of my mom’s cousins was liberated from Auschwitz and came to this country sponsored by my parents.
I was raised to understand that I was alive because of America but that my family was all over the world. A network brought my mom and grandparents over that ocean to America and once they were here, it allowed more family to come over as well.
To me, the purpose of a network is to innovate to solve problems, be they very small or large. Scope doesn’t matter. What is important is different experiences, viewpoints, and backgrounds so we can see things differently. As Einstein said, “We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
The broader, deeper and more diverse the network, the better. And that doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes time and intentionality.
I grew up by the ocean in New Jersey (I used to be able to say the “Jersey Shore” before that TV show). As a kid my mom took us into the museums in New York every Tuesday because they were free, whether school was in session or not. We went to the Met, Guggenheim, MoMA, Whitney and all the galleries. We went back in during evenings for concerts, Opera, Ballet, theater. My parents taught me to integrate these worlds. They taught me how to leverage my insatiable curiosity to cross pollinate seemingly disparate concepts, making it seem totally natural to think that learning to play the piano was just like learning to speak French – they are both ‘just’ languages to communicate ideas. In my home, a diverse network of thought was critical to be a well-rounded individual.
As an undergrad at Brown, I had a terminal in my room, which was not typical then, but I knew the ‘right’ people to get one, which was hooked up to UNIX in the computer center so I could do my programming and so I could email my High School friends. After Brown, I went to Bell Labs as a system engineer to design a voice mail, email, fax and other messaging systems to compete with ones coming out from IBM, DEC, Wang (anyone remember them?).
At Bell Labs, I used usenet and netnews to ‘talk’ to people all over the world on topics like a shared love of Leo Tolstoy, Mark Rothko, the latest research on language acquisition, and of course on networks. I hung out with the guys that invented UNIX and had lunch with a Nobel Prize winner. We’d email (yes, this was in 1982) stuff around – data files, memos, videos, music, all sorts of data ‘types’ and didn’t think much about it. It was commonplace and even a work habit for us, but not yet for the rest of the world.
Onto my project. It was procrastination and laziness that led to the breakthrough. I’d ‘waste’ time by hanging out with all these gurus doing other things at Bell Labs, listening and learning. I realized what I knew implicitly, was that bits were bits – really, what’s was the difference between voice, email, faxes, music, videos, etc.? Not much – so if I could put that ‘stuff’ into an envelope and the envelope told you how fast it had to get to its destination and what was inside, wouldn’t that work? I created an architecture where the header (envelope) told you what was inside, how fast it had to get to its destination, and, if known, how the recipient wanted to receive it (e.g., ‘hear’ an email, read a voicemail – not yet, but we were working on that – hear a fax if it was mostly text, etc.).
Voila! And, not only that – this meant that all the messaging systems, regardless of the media type, could talk to each other, which meant that, over time with technological advances, the recipients could determine when and how they could get all their messages – what AT&T named, Unified/Universal Message – and my patent. And I learned a valuable lesson on politics. The way we got the product houses to build the common architecture ended up being very simple – put their name on the patent.
This turned out to be one of AT&T and Lucent’s biggest revenue generating patents – AT&T got the money and I got a plaque!
It was a network once again that, after leaving Bell Labs/AT&T, helped me find my next calling – developing a successful strategy & innovation consulting practice and becoming a partner in a Venture Capital firm. Looking back, I went to Bell Labs because they were doing cool stuff related to my interest in cognitive science with amazing people, like Noble Prize winners, and it didn’t hit me til later that I went to work for a network company!
I’m even on this stage because of my network and the willingness to use it. I’m involved in a mentoring program at Brown that pairs women in their senior year with alumni in business. In 2009, I was mentoring Sarah, a mechanical engineering student interested in innovation. I didn’t know the innovation scene in Providence so I googled “Innovation” and “Providence and up comes BIF and Saul Kaplan. I cold called him. He met with Sarah and I came to BIF6 the next year. Not only was that the start of a beautiful, mutually beneficial friendship, but my network has never been the same.
Here’s a picture of my Twitter network Pre-BIF6…About a month after BIF6.. and last April.
Now, some might say, “Wow! Look at all your followers!” But that’s not the point. What’s important is the breadth, depth and diversity of the followers. My network is a mash up of artists, musicians, business leaders, scientists, innovators and academics.
The broader, the deeper, the more diverse my network, the more impact I can have in the world. And the more I use it, the broader, deeper and more diverse it becomes. It is a virtuous cycle.
But it’s not all about you. It’s about the ‘other’ too. About finding out what others are doing, what their passions, issues, challenges are, what they are interesting in and discovering opportunities and possibilities together. I have this saying – what we know depends on who we know which depends on what we know which depends on who we know. We need to break out of this circle and start meeting people not our usual circle! That’s how we learn, adopt, adapt and grow our companies and ourselves.
In the late 1930’s Bell Labs was moving its headquarters out of NYC to NJ. Frank Jewett, Bell Labs’ president, intentionally designed the new building, with long hallways of scientists in different disciplines, to encourage chemists, physicists, biologists, cognitive psychologists, etc. to interact with each other. Saul calls these Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects, which I shorted to RCUS, because hey, I’m from Bell Labs, everything’s an acronym. Steve Jobs did the same thing at Pixar decades later.
So, what if you started putting yourself in the path of unusual suspects?
Lest I sound too altruistic, I’ll confess to an element of selfishness. Benefits do come back to me – intangibly in terms of joy and pride and tangibly in terms of business and opportunities. I get great joy from sharing my network when the timing is right– from seeing what results from the connections I helped initiate to the pride I feel when others start openly sharing their networks as well.
I love seeing my clients’ businesses grow because of connections I made with someone with a new technology, business model or market. I love introducing the entrepreneurs I fund and mentor to others who can help in their supply chain and customer acquisition. I love seeing my Brown kids learn and think differently, as well as teach others to learn and think differently, because of connections I was privileged to make.
Let’s face it; sharing my network is cool, fun and addictive.
But…a big network is worthless if you don’t use it well.
My network has always led me to some amazing fabulous people, many of whom are in this room. These people have helped me, my clients, and my entrepreneurs, create solutions to challenges of all sizes and shapes.
So go out there and start a RCUS (Random Collision of Unusual Suspects)….and don’t ever stop!
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Deb, founder of Mills-Scofield LLC, is an innovator, entrepreneur and non-traditional strategist with 20 years experience in industries ranging from the Internet to Manufacturing with multinationals to start ups. She is also a partner at Glengary LLC, a Venture Capital Firm.