The long boardroom table was crowded with entrepreneurs and executives hailing from multiple international hubs, many having travelled thousands of miles to catch some of the magic of Silicon Valley. Men and women seeking the next wave of innovation and entrepreneurship. Our job: to help them climb aboard – and enjoy the ride.   

In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, immersions and expeditions are always in motion for groups of professionals. These innovation sojourners arrive in a steady wave – tens of thousands making the trip each year from Europe, Asia, Latin America (and yes, North America) for a week or longer. Many groups enjoy a full palate of fascinating academic lectures and stimulating tours of Stanford, Berkeley, Google and Facebook. Their goal: to tap the Silicon Valley mindset, and level up.

Transformation & Design by Constraint

That’s where we come in. We deliver the transformational component of these in-depth programs. Last week we were working with the popular Silicon Valley Innovation Center, positioned at the heart of the action on the peninsula. We had a challenge that forced us to be fast. In just two hours, we’d need to awaken our group to the potential of innovation – and collaboration. We’d planned ahead. We knew there would be individual participants from Saudi Arabia, Germany, Mexico, and Brazil, and a few small teams from Canada, Texas and Nigeria. We also knew they were on Day Two of their week-long immersion on “Leading Digital Transformation.” So, after shaking everyone’s hand as they entered the room, we encouraged them to seek out and sit next to someone they hadn’t yet met ­– a small, but surprisingly important step toward collaboration.

In workshops, as in entrepreneurship, time limits can be an advantage. We hit them with our talk, inspired by Jon’s book with IDEO The Ten Faces of Innovation, leading them through key tenets of design thinking. Then, we paired them off to engage in an empathy exercise to discover their strongest persona, and followed up with insights gained from our own ongoing local and international research – images and observations from Amsterdam, France, Beijing, San Francisco and Stanford University. All the while challenging them to consider culture, experience design, fast prototyping, and failure, as they moved to the next step in their professional development.

Co-Create an Innovation Center

We built toward a design-thinking-styled challenge: imagine and co-create a new bustling innovation center. The collective group’s experience and energy accelerated– and they had fun. One team focused exclusively on social injustice, aiming to reduce the one percenters’ world domination of money and resources. Another imagined an entire innovation center geared around giant screens to play and prototype video games. Connecting international talent was the theme in one futuristic center. The teams envisioned creative strategies to transform walls, screens and design into powerful mediums to convey stories and create moods for the entrepreneurs within. They reminded us how rewarding our work is, and how lucky we are to collaborate with people of all ages from so many different cultures. Our group was thoroughly international and yet not one of the five innovation hubs they dreamed up was located in a city where any of them lived – instead they chose Ibiza, Barcelona, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and a roving cruise ship.  

But it wasn’t until the next afternoon, when two enthusiastic participants came to visit us at Schoolab SF, where we are Entrepreneurs in Residence, that we had our own “aha” moment.

These two bright-eyed young German women, busy building an innovation consultancy back home in Germany and Northern Europe, shared an important reflection. When they’d arrived in San Francisco they knew only one another. Our collaborative team project was an important step in “bonding while prototyping.” They made friends and shared insights with the rest of the cohort. They were inspired by our lessons on “failing forward” and risk-taking, a healthy chunk of the business model they are creating. Their trip to the US was already paying off.

We sometimes forget that when people fly five thousand miles or more to San Francisco, they face far more than jet lag or a language gap. There’s a cultural divide. Cross-pollination is the goal, but there are big leaps to make. The prized Silicon Valley mindset of openness, of thinking big, and focusing on original, yet highly specific targets, is at heart a distinctly human endeavor.

A journey that gains momentum when you start to know yourself and others.