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September 2009

The amazing networks of strangers

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. 
Margaret Mead 

First a shout out to my friends and colleagues of APEX, the premiere Asian American professional networking group here in SoCal. APEX celebrated its sweet 16 birthday last night. For the last two years, APEX has been under the fantastic leadership of Hogan Lee who has taken founder Stephen Liu's vision to new heights. There are many things I like about APEX. I have watched it grow and mature. Today it enables thousands of youngish Asian Americans (I am too old :) and new immigrant Asians to develop their confidence through mentoring, networking, leadership and service. 


 Apex has grown well beyond the typical networking and mingling orgs that connect young people for business and pleasure and evolved into a formidable community resource for new leaders. I have always advised joining organizations that have purpose and meaning to network v.s. joining a networking org that has no other purpose.  Some people are still critical of ethnic oriented groups because they segregate. What those critics don't understand is groups, especially immigrant and under-represented groups, need to build bridges of commonality to integrate the tremendous ambitions and talents of the very diverse Asian American community into the greater society. To be honest we need more APEX-like orgs. Congrats to Hogan and his leadership team for their accomplishments. 

This last week I was reminded of the power of strangers networking. Previously unconnected people coming together for a common purpose, driven by self interest resulting in collective benefit. Howard Rheingold said in his book , "Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation."  

Group idea

James Surowieki in his book the Wisdom of Crowds asserted how valuable the informed perspectives of the many are to see the whole and to derive more effective solutions. 

Open source organizations have led the way using smart mobs and wise crowds for many years. Open source, some say open architecture, allows for contributions and improvements to come from diverse peer-based sources v.s. a closed controlled and hierarchical system. You have undoubtedly heard of or used many open source products/services. WikipediaFirefox, and Moodle come to mind. Linux pioneered open source development where volunteers and peers update and improve the software or service driven by their own professional development AND contributing to the common good. Most often these products and services are free to use as well. 

Beyond open source, there are numerous examples where smart crowds are gathering. I just joined Groupon. (a commercial enterprise) Have you seen this? Bulk buying with strangers. A deal is offered in your home city (24 now) and a minimum number of purchasers to get the deal is announced. The deal is not good until that number is reached within a set time. Sort of an eBay bid for a Buy it Now with a minimum number of buyers. Brilliant. 

One of the hottest trends in philanthropy are giving circles.  Giving circles are groups of like minded people who gather offline and online to use the wisdom of the group to find worthy recipients of their collective charity. Smaller groups are more enjoyable and more effective.Today giving circles account for $100mm of gifts annually.



I have been a huge fan of They have led the way in making small project donations delightful and easy. Donorchoose enables tens of thousands of teachers (250,000 so far) to post their requests for supplies, special class projects, and field trips. A donor can contribute as little as $1. Here's the great part: Donorchoose receives the donations, delivers the purchases, including the field trips to the teachers AND thanks the donors. If you give $100 or more your get a report on how the donation was used and the impact it had. What has been a pleasant surprise is that donors are not just geographically focused, but also funding ideas and subjects across the nation. For example, donors who love Shakespeare, search and fund those projects locally and across the country. Donorschoose calls it Citizen Philanthropy and they have set a standard that all fundraising orgs should follow.


 is another incredible site where you can connect with other people and their networks who have similar medical challenges. And get the benefit of wise and smart crowds.

I have learned how to rely on strangers on the net, I am trying to translate that to my face-to-face life! How much wiser would we be? How much smarter would our decisions be?-- if we would work and think together in an open source way. 

Thanks for reading. John

True Selflessness and Humankindness

For me meeting and reconnecting with people nearly always presents opportunities to see the world and myself differently. I am constantly inspired by networks driven by the desire to help each other and others. This week was no different. I had the chance to spend a few hours with a group of non-profit execs and leaders from around the country. Incredible leaders who selflessly devote themselves to causes and issues that will transform lives. J0439384

Some were just starting their roles, others were veterans, and still others were private sector refugees.  But they all decided to work in arenas that they care about and where their work has impact. First of all the non-profit sector is blessed to have so many talented selfless people working tirelessly and out of the lime light providing the safety net for the less fortunate.  But the world of non-profits is so much worse off than the general economy.  Consider a “business” where the demand for service far exceeds the supply—sounds  like a winner, right? No way. The challenge is how to pay for increasing the services, when your clientele is defined by need.The non-profit  business model  requires donations from individuals, corporations and foundations. Those sources are depleted. And donations to non-profits has never followed the economy on the way up and always lead the way down. So there is a serious, and probably invisible to you, disintegration of the infrastructure for the poor.


When you listen to the economic prognosticators you hear that the stock market has rebounded 60% since March, housing prices are up ticking, consumer confidence is leveling off, and corporate profit forecasts are improving. Contrast that with the beneath the radar hidden basement of the poor and uninsured. This is where the trifecta of cancerous challenges lurks: unemployed, uninsured, and poor. This population now represents tens of millions of families! It grows like a hidden tumor delivering great  pain and suffering-now and will continue well into the future. And so the cavernous abyss between the haves and have nots also grows despite the economic improvements. The burden and cost of our poor will continue to undermine any long term sustainable growth.

One critical fact is being submerged in the uncivil war of words over health care, non-profits are the backbone for health services for the individuals and families that need them most. It is a special and vital network that is being washed away by the after effects of the financial tsunami. But all hope has not been extinguished.

Recently I had the chance to visit UMMA, the University Muslim Medical Association in south LA. UMMA was founded in 1996 by a bunch of Muslim students at UCLA, who wanted to carry their university experience into the community and pursue their faith by serving others. The followed their hearts and their minds and their religious teachings to build a clinic in one of the toughest and most under-served parts of Los Angeles. In what appears to be a small storefront office that looks more like a used car lot than a medical facility from the outside,  but a state of the art clinic that will serve more than 16000 people this year on the inside. The staff is majority Muslim, almost all of the doctors are Muslim, who volunteer their time and expertise, but the clients are whomever in the neighborhood needs medical treatment - few if any are Muslim. They have quietly and consistently grown their clinic into a model for the country and today there are 26 similar Muslim clinics across the nation. So hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim Americans receive free or low-cost health care because of these clinics.

Umma docs

As the health care debate rages on and there is so much dis-information and misunderstanding. But standing in the waiting room of UMMA, you see the overwhelming need, you see diverse faces of people who have no other choices. Who probably do not know or care that UMMA is run by Muslims. They are grateful that there is now a facility in their environs which is devoid of hospitals and other medical facilities. Here is a side of the Muslim community that gets no visibility. Stereotypes and sensational newscasts hurt this community and its ability to become equal participants in our country. But like all pernicious stereotypes, the truth is massacred. The real people have to live amongst these vicious half truths everyday. It hurts their self esteem, it hurts their identity as Americans, it hurts their connection to us all. Yet at UMMA, Muslim Americans tirelessly work to carry on their deeply held religious belief in service of others. They seek no publicity or accolades, although they deserve our appreciation and support.

What we learn over and over again is that ignorance and prejudice ominously stand in the way of our ability to work together and find solutions to common problems. Regrettably, we think we get along with everyone else. We wrongly think we do not stereotype others. We are all colorblind. Racists are other people. Prejudice lives in other places. Once we face our own inner ignorance and ethnocentricities we can begin to embrace our human bond and the majesty of our interconnectedness. And recognize that differences are necessary to survive.Then we can truly leverage and reap the benefits from our humankindness.

We rely on an invisible network of non-profits, often  managed by and funded by people we do not know and in some cases we do not respect. Should we care? Absolutely.

Thanks for reading (and enduring my sermons) John


Who is mentoring our kids?

J0439456 Most kids have returned to school. Isn't the Fall a wonderful time to reflect and consider our possibilities--how we all need to get back to the "school of life". 

Check out this new website that my good friend quietly launched this week My Teacher My Hero. See who influenced some of the top thinkers and leaders in our country. Funny how we can each remember a teacher or two who made a deep and lasting impression on us. Someone who took an interest in us and made us see our own possibilities. A teacher who challenged us to reach higher and further. This was one of your first mentors, they helped you become better as a person and a student. For me, Mrs. Lewis in 3rd grade and Mr. Bougeris in 10th grade stand out as teachers who made a difference. J0439571

Educate yourself about this debate on teacher quality and teacher performance -- makes a difference to our kids and the next generation. We don't appreciate how hard this job is. We don't really understand what it takes to manage a classroom, get through all of the curriculum that is required and do that basically by yourself. It is a job we do not understand or value enough. That being said, having the best teachers standing at the front of that class could be the difference that not only changes student lives but changes all of our lives. We all lose when any talent or shred of genius is not given the chance to shine and grow. This is not a standard that can be compromised. 

The Gates Foundation has spent literally billions of dollars trying to improve public schools. It has been a experience that has yielded great lessons and data. Watch this video Bill Gates Unplugged, he discusses malaria and then gives a riveting presentation on teachers. 

And I like many believe that teachers are undervalued and underpaid. I like what  Michelle Rhee Chancellor of Washington DC school system is doing, --offering huge pay increases for the right to evaluate teachers on performance and not on tenure is a model that needs to be emulated. Hard to believe that most school systems give tenure--security of employment for life-- after about 5 years, it varies from 2-7 years. Did you know that? No other profession I know has such an amazing deal. Clearly that is one of the factors that keeps salaries down. Not against tenure, but performance and quality have to be major factors in granting tenure, right? And should tenure be for life?!! 

If you have an interest in addressing poverty, helping kids make better choices, improving the economy--think about how we guide and mentor our kids outside the home. Think about one of the biggest influences on our kids--teachers. Don't you think that if students encounter a teacher like the ones we remember, that their ability to find themselves, to stay in school, to become productive members of our society increases? For many kids they don't have 2 parents or any parents. Who mentors these kids?

When I was at Big Brothers Big Sisters, I used to ask people what the most powerful mentoring organization is. It was a trick question. I would say "Gangs."  Homeboy They have an incredible system of mentoring, training, and fulfilling the needs of young vulnerable people. And the consequences are deadly. And for the few who can escape or be rescued, the re-entry into society can be brutal. One of many guiding lights in this area has been Father Boyle's work at Homeboy Industries. Homeboy does miracles with its tattoo removal, re-education, training for jobs, and placement services. But this is the consequence of a failed system. I am not blaming the schools, I am blaming us. How did we let this happen?

We all know, if a kid can stay in school, the likelihood of being recruited to the dark side is lessened. And, if those kids are fortunate to have teachers who will inspire them, to mentor them, then we save kids and we preserve the talent in our community. Those of us who have kids or care about our future--that would be all of us!--need to keep on top of this issue. No single factor makes a bigger difference in our public schools than the teacher.

Let's all go back to school this Fall. Let's all cherish those teaching and mentoring memories of days gone by. Let's reflect on the influence of great teachers and mentors. Let's engage in the understanding of what is happening in our classrooms. Let's support our teachers and our public schools. 

Who are you mentoring? Never forget, regardless of your position in life, you too are mentoring and teaching kids and others by your actions.

Thanks for reading. John

A Career Shopping Spree even in a slump

Gratuitous spending, ostentatious luxuries and hedonistic purchases seem like relics of the past--we hope. With the mounting needs and growing gap between the have and have nots, flaunting your wealth has to to be frowned upon. Even impulse buying and mall binges are a thing of the past. Most of us are re-focusing on what matters and the basic needs we have. 350px-Mazlow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg This fall down Maslow's mountain is an ideal time to take inventory of our careers and our next jobs. The question always is What do you want? So the career shopping mall is open and your shopping basket is empty and you can now fill it with whatever you want, the only limits are your true inner needs and your timeline. Here's the big caveat--you have to have time. If you have been laid off AND you have days instead of months to look for the next thing, then I am NOT talking to you. On the other hand, if you are "looking" to make a change. You are proactively evaluating your professional trajectory AND you have a good runway to make that choice, then pull out your cart and let's go down the aisle ways!Shopping carts

First, let me let out a brief cathartic rant. Many people I encounter feel they are at-risk of losing their jobs and/or have reached a ceiling in terms of how their work fulfills them. And they are gainfully employed! They are not operating with any urgency. They have forgotten that they have many resources and opportunities at work to re-tool and enhance their skills, knowledge and abilities (SKA) to make them marketable for the new and better thing. Some of them have full tuition reimbursement still! And yet, they wallow in their indecision. They lolly gag their way through their confusion of choices and options. Many even blame their employer for not doing more for them, WHAT?!! Regrettably, a big percentage of these folks can not take the steering wheel of their own career and start to drive it towards their preferred destination even when someone else is paying for the gas! One thing is certain, they will get focused when they get the layoff notice and for all of us who have been laid off sometime in their careers, including yours truly, you know that is a very very different career/job search process. So, if you are employed and not in immediate danger of layoffs, then kick it into the next gear, because time is your enemy. Take full advantage at doing your job well (you will need this reference) AND the resources available to you to address your weaknesses or build up your SKA for what is required of your next desired career chapter. Stop waiting for the right time and right feeling. Stop procrastinating. Otherwise, the reality is the time and feeling will inevitably be controlled by something or someone else. Car stranded Your little career car will be stranded in the desert and you will be staring at your GPS system! Not your preferred option. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Whew. 

For those re-thinking their careers this may be an ideal time to go on a career shopping spree. What am I talking about? Unemployment is at record levels. There are so many depressed and shrinking industries, but there are also many opportunities. But jobs are being posted and opened everyday. But sometimes our perspective and self loathing prevents us from seeing them. Rose colored glasses Our lenses are colored by our pasts and our habits. Just like when we go down the aisles of the grocery store, we are looking for our brands, and the others are a blur and our brains have filed as irrelevant. We make our career path choices in much the same way--the past is prologue. If you are building a career and you see the steps ahead within the industry you are in, then focus is critical. But if you are considering making a change, then you have to get your brain to see new brands and new shelves and aisles of career options. Perspective is everything. Change your lenses then some new worlds and opportunities will come into view. 

If you are employed and antsy, then let's go shopping -- for what's next. Be a serious and focused shopper who is open to real change. Yes, competition is fierce. And being competitive is essential. However, we can't say we want something different in our lives and then look at the same options. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a change. (apologies to Mr. Einstein) The wonderful thing about this type of shopping is it won't cost you a cent, but if you don't do it the costs could be much higher.

Thanks for reading. John