PopTech's Andrew Zolli on Resilience and Solving World Problems

The executive director of PopTech, which hosts an annual conference in Camden, Maine, talks about trends in social entrepreneurship and how to thrive amid disruption.

learn more about Amy S. Choi

By Amy S. Choi

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What does Andrew Zolli want on his tombstone? That he helped change the world.

He is the executive director of PopTech, a non-profit which brings together innovators from a variety of fields – science, technology, design and public health, among others – in an effort to find unusual, collaborative solutions to the world's biggest problems.

The group, which first convened in the mid-1990s, is well-known for its annual conference in Camden, Maine, and several global events that draw thousands of attendees. But PopTech's core focus is its fellows program, which recruits social entrepreneurs and scientists for an intensive training, development and co-working regimen. The fellows hail from 104 countries, and their projects serve some 300 million people. "There will be someone in our century who wins the Nobel Peace Prize for solving the problems of poverty," Zolli says. "And in the process that person will become a billionaire."

In between his travels this past year, Zolli, who is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., published Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. In it, Zolli, who has a background in cognitive science, details a key trait of successful entrepreneurs and organizations: Their ability to persevere, even thrive, in an age of tremendous uncertainty.

Edited interview excerpts follow.

Entrepreneur: You recently traveled to Saudi Arabia and Kenya. Where are the most interesting developments in social entrepreneurship happening?
Zolli: For much of the last century, we got used to innovations flowing, globally, from West to East, and from North to South. The U.S. gave us television, microchips, the personal computer and countless other inventions which then flowed to the rest of the world, who eagerly consumed and copied them. Now, the most important 'compass points' on the innovation needle are flowing in other directions – from South to South, for instance, as innovations from Brazil find a new home in India, and innovations in India find new markets in Africa, and vice versa. Social entrepreneurs are at the forefront of many of these changes.

Related: The 'White African' and Nairobi's Tech Hub

Entrepreneur: What is the most important trend in entrepreneurship around the world?
The plummeting cost of innovation. When technology progresses, it progresses in two directions at the same time. There's one part of the progress curve that enables greater raw capacity, so we have computers that get bigger and faster and more powerful. Then there's a companion curve, which is that the price for any particular form of technology decreases exponentially over time. Lots more people can participate, lots of unconventional people can start businesses.

Entrepreneur: What if somebody knows they are an entrepreneur -- self starter, hard worker, great networker and communicator -- but they don't have an idea?
There are lots of things you can do to encourage new ideas -- and one of the best is to expose yourself to novelty. One of my favorite approaches is that every year, I try to go to a conference that is far outside of my field of expertise -- like heart surgery, or food marketing. You learn a ton about how the world works…and often, people will tell you what their problems and painpoints are.

Entrepreneur: How can an entrepreneur compete in a crowded marketplace?
You need a compelling story. People are not just buying a commodity but buying the narrative, who's behind it and what's the story behind it. The second aspect of breaking through is that "experience design" [for example, designing a retail "experience" or the "experience" of using a Mac vs. a PC] matters more now. Customers will pay a premium for experience, quality and ease of use.

Related: Entrepreneurs Take Lead in Building Vibrant Startup Communities

Entrepreneur: Let's talk about resilience, the subject of your book. How do you define it?
As an ability to recover, persist or even thrive amid disruption. Disruptions can be experienced as failures but being resilient is not failure dependent. A disruption can be a positive thing. We live in a world today where the systems that govern our lives -- ecological, economic, geopolitical, technological -- are tied together in ways that are very unobvious and very connected in a giant ball. If you pull one string you can't be entirely sure what will happen as a result. As a result organizations and institutions and companies are beginning to think about their own resilience and ensure that they are able to withstand disruptions.

Entrepreneur: Can resilience be learned and practiced?
Absolutely. There are many determinants of personal resilience, like the strength of your social networks, the quality of your intimate relationship, your genes, your life experiences, your physical health, your access to resources. If you believe the world is a meaningful place and you have agency in your life, and you believe your successes and failures are put in place to teach you things rather than being horrible accidents, you are much more likely to be resilient in the face of disruption when it occurs. We're seeing a huge shift away from sustainability as the central framework of our generation towards resilience. Sustainability is about putting things into balance. We're living so far out of balance right now that it seems impossible. We're seeking how to make ourselves, our companies and our civilization more resilient.

Entrepreneur: Would you describe yourself as resilient?
When you write a book about this people think you must be a guru floating four inches off the ground in lotus pose. But the truth, is I'm learning about it every day.

Amy S. Choi

Amy S. Choi is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in BusinessWeek, Women’s Wear Daily and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. She is currently working on a book about her travels through the developing world

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