Purpose takes the front seat at SXSW 2017


This week, I’ve been with Elaine Weidman-Grunewald at South by South West (SXSW), the enormous festival of music, film, innovation, and technology in Austin, Texas, where Elaine participated as a panelist on the topic of Technology for Good.

In what’s been called “Spring Break for tech geeks,” this festival is a wild ride of color, flash, startup energy and celebration of how technology can – and should – be maximized to solve the world’s big issues and to benefit society.

“Impact” is a key word here. No one talks about simply what they do; they talk about the impact of what they do. It left me with a feeling of urgency and gravity – important discussions that need to be woven into daily work, not just at festivals far away from home base.

I’m on my way home thinking about three things:

1) We are in an urgent situation to take care of our world and our fellow human beings
2) We are fully capable of doing so with the help of technology and empathy
3) No one will solve these problems in a silo.

There’s a reason things become clichés – they’re true and so they stick.

An all-female panel on “Disruptive Diplomacy” highlighted the need to support women in endeavors to educate, mentor and practice innovation and technology. The program TechWomen was started under former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and has now reached women mentees in 50+ countries who are invited to internships in Silicon Valley for a limited time. The four women on the panel stressed the reality that true impact was occurring in both directions: for themselves as mentors, and for the mentees who return to their home countries with experience, confidence, and ideas that become business. Men can also be mentors – this is an inclusive program that calls out the situation to provide equal opportunities for talented women in the tech industry, and they’re taking concrete steps to do so. No silos here.

One unforgettable moment for me was attending the speech of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, introduced by his wife Dr. Jill Biden, on the “Urgency of Now: Launching the Biden Cancer Initiative.” He talked about the “cancer moonshot” assignment he received – and the revolution that started when he asked different government agencies and hospitals to begin collaborating with the singular mission of curing cancer.

“The only bi-partisan thing we have left is cancer,” he said wryly to the packed auditorium. He also asked the creative minds and technology experts in the room to devote “at least some of their ingenuity” to go beyond entertainment and change the world for the better. He talked about his son’s battle with cancer – and I recalled my father’s battle with cancer with barely a dry eye.  “Dream big, work together, start now,” said Joe.

It was 45 spellbinding minutes that left the room feeling hopeful that yes, technology could be harnessed and one day, yes, perhaps we will have vaccines for the 200+ types of cancer.

By the time Monday came around, I felt even more sure that our work with Technology for Good and the projects we have to promote secondary education for girls, reuniting refugees, and working with the United Nations and International Red Cross were the right examples to bring to the discussions in Austin.

In a panel moderated by TechCrunch journalist and author Andrew Keen, Elaine discussed how tech companies can give back to communities with fellow panel members John Donovan, ATT’s Chief Strategy Officer and President of AT&T Technology and Operations, and Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association. Elaine said: “Companies that stand for causes mean more than economics. It’s about society. Tech companies have a most powerful role to play in solving global sustainability goals.” Check out her Facebook Live re-cap with the UN Foundation.

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