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Ready for Anything

These Are the 5 Questions All Entrepreneurs Should Ask Themselves If They Want to Create Real Change

Alexandra Amouyel is the executive director of MIT's Solve, which aims to assist innovators who are tackling the world's biggest problems.
Image credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Amouyel
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.

In this series, Open Every DoorEntrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.

We need to work together to accomplish great things. That is the belief that drives Solve, an MIT initiative dedicated to ameliorating the biggest issues facing our world.

After stints at Save the Children and The Clinton Global Initiative, Alexandra Amouyel recently celebrated her first anniversary as Solve’s executive director. Amouyel, who oversees a team of 16, says that the work is meaningful because she can help provide brilliant minds with the resources they need to make an impact.

“I think what's really exciting is finding social entrepreneurs and finding incredible people who are already doing incredible work but aren't necessarily getting the resources, the exposure and the connections they need to thrive,” Amouyel tells Entrepreneur.

Launched in 2015, Solve focuses on bringing together a community of foundations, investors, academics and government and business leaders to solve challenges in the fields of learning, health, economic prosperity and sustainability. This year, the program and a group of esteemed judges asked its solvers to pitch ideas about how to bridge gaps when it comes to women in technology, building sustainable urban communities, the workforce of the future and brain health.

Amouyel shared her insights about what questions you must ask before launching a new project, knowing when to make a change if something isn’t right for you and learning to be an effective manager.

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When entrepreneurs are faced with big, daunting problems, what should their mindsets be? What questions should they ask themselves?

"Should I be even doing this project?" "Is the right place for me?" "Can I make the most difference in the world here?" "Should I be doing something else?"

I think it is important to ask, as you go on is, "How am I listening to the people's feedback and adapting, while at the same time still having that core vision?" Be it [feedback from] your team or be it your customers.

In this role, what have you learned about what is required to create real change?

Having a great idea, having a great solution and having a great product, whatever it is, is already one thing and that's hard enough. When we're talking about something like brain health, which is one of the challenges, or women and technology, which is another, there aren't easy solutions. There's a lot of players involved, there's a lot of effort.

Our challenges are about technological innovation but it is often not just about technology by a large means. What are the economic, social and cultural issues that play into this? How is this technology adapted and made affordable to different marginalized populations? None of those things are easy and it requires a lot of people to get involved and it requires a lot of, above all, hard work, grit, determination and a bit of luck.

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Can you talk about a moment in your career when you had to advocate for yourself? How did you approach it?

It was advocating for myself to myself. I started a Ph.D. in biochemistry right after I graduated from undergrad. And I hadn't really wanted to do it, in a sense. My parents and my professors had encouraged me and I didn't really have another idea of what I wanted to do and I got this big scholarship to do this Ph.D. And so there was an element of, you are good at this. And everybody thinks you're good at this. You've got this money to do this. So you should do this. My parents said, "Oh, it'll only be three or four years." I was miserable and cried myself to sleep for three months.

And then, literally the day I turned 21, three months into this Ph.D., I quit. The team leader, the person I was working for, was not happy at all and I still feel bad about that. But it was important for me to recognize that that was not what I felt happy doing despite what other people thought and despite being good at that.

That's probably one of the most stark examples of doing that. I've not always taken the path that made sense on paper. In the end, it turned out more than fine. And I certainly think I made the right decision. It was sort of advocating, being grown up enough I guess and tough enough to say this isn't for me.

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When was a time in your career that you made a mistake? How did you move forward from it?

As I started to become a manager and a leader, I don't think I knew much anything about good management. It was easy enough when I was sort of managing two people. And then at some point I went from managing two people to managing 12 people. The hierarchies within that, and internal dynamics between people, were more complex. There was not a training manual to help me and I don't think that I always managed all those relationships in the best way I could. I also think that as managers or as leaders sometimes we shy away from giving feedback early to people.

We let things slide on some level and then those things tend to just build up and got worse up to a point where they're quite unmanageable and things have deteriorated. As a leader, if you're not dealing with that, it comes back, rightly so, back onto you. These are things that are just very [important to] manage about how you give feedback quickly and appropriately, how [to make sure] people don't take it personally, how you recognize if you have made a hiring mistake. And then to deal with it quickly so that it doesn't affect the team. Those are things that I think I didn't do so well earlier in my career and if I went back I would definitely do differently.

I got an executive coach. I think it can be both lonely and you cannot share all these things with your team members. So it's important to have somebody that you can share some of your struggles with. And then who can also put back a mirror and say, "Did you approach this the right way? What would you do differently? How can you improve? Have you thought that maybe this is what they're thinking?" I think that's been tremendously helpful for me.

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What is a piece of advice that a mentor gave you that you still use today?

When I was applying for jobs just out of my master's, I wasn't getting the jobs I wanted, and I was sort of complaining that I wasn't getting even interviewed for these jobs, and [one of my advisors told me,] "Alex, you're going about it completely the wrong way. Why are you applying for jobs? You need to create your own job. You need to create your own path." And at the time, I was like, this is ridiculous. You can say that because you've got years of experience and I'm trying to get a job to pay bills but yet do something interesting. And now I get it.

It's not really applicable if you're 21 just going out of your undergrad years. But I think it's applicable in the sense that especially in social impact, there really isn't a path. Even a traditional career, I still think that those days are probably gone. And so it's about it is about sort of progressing in and finding your niche and following things that are interesting where you can grow. And then as you go, you do end up creating this unique path for yourself.

How have you grown and changed as a leader?

I realize that now I have been in this job as executive director for a year. And we've achieved a tremendous amount in this year with this team, which is fantastic. But I think I recognize that essentially the learning and growth is often incompatible with comfort. The more you're learning and growing the more you start to put yourself out there and be uncomfortable and have to climb every single time a steeper and steeper mountain. So that was in a sense a realization that that's what you have to go through. And I think I'm still learning that. How do you pay yourself and how do you help the team pace themselves?

If you're in that growth phase and things are going well, you want to say yes to everything and you want to take advantage of everything. And at the same time at some point you have to say, "Great, we've had this period of exponential growth, we're now at a bit of a plateau, let's bolt things down, let's check that everything's going well. Let's learn from things we didn't do quite right. Let's design some the processes and standardize things and rest. So that we can then go back up into another cycle of growth." I definitely think I'm still learning that and Solve as well is still learning about how to find that balance.

Related: You Must Ask Yourself This Question Before You Pitch Your Idea

What innovations do we miss out out on when we don’t have a diversity of perspectives at the table to attempt to solve these problems?

The challenges that face this world today are the ones that are multidimensional, interdependent and complex. I completely believe they are solvable but they're not solvable by one actor and one perspective alone. And it requires people to work together and technologists to come with policy makers, economists and local leaders. That's how you get something robust and something off the ground. I think it's important for innovations around the challenges that Solve is looking at to also make sure that the people that the solutions are designed for participate in creating them.

In Solve, anyone in the world can participate. The youngest solver we just selected out of the 38 is a 13 year old. And the eldest is an 84 year old. We're bringing on more and more innovators and I think the idea is really to show that good ideas, talent and ingenuity can come from anywhere. But that then it's about helping these people get access to the resources they need to first impact their community and then the world. We had a 1,000 solutions from 103 countries. Obviously that's great. That's not good enough. We need to get to 195 countries and then we need to make sure that it's not only solutions from the capital cities of those countries, but also in different settings. We'll get there.

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