2016 Smart 50 specialty award winners

2016 innovation winner

annaliescorbinAnnalies Corbin, Ph.D.
President and CEO
PAST Foundation

What truly impressed the judging panel about Annalies Corbin is that not only did she spend 16 years exploring innovative educational practices and pushing the boundaries of how meaningful learning is delivered to all students, regardless of their background or location, she put that research into action by founding the PAST Foundation.

Corbin and her team work at local, national and international scales to create responsive solutions to the challenges facing educators trying to prepare students to thrive in a complex world.

In Central Ohio, Corbin and her team created the PAST Innovation Lab, which allows education partners to explore ideas that are difficult to implement within their own buildings or community. The Innovation Lab includes four workforce development, STEM-based Learning Labs — Bodies, Design, Growth and Energy — as well as fabrication labs and robotics arenas.

As the Innovation Lab gains momentum, the renovation of the facility continues. The next phase, planned for 2017, will add more Learning Labs and enhance existing programs.

The horizon is never static for innovative educators. Whether professional development delivered online to teachers across the nation, school redesign, bridge programs that focus on after and out of school immersive experiences, or applied research that facilitates and validates change, Corbin and her team constantly explore new ways to promote, amplify and accelerate innovative approaches that will change the conversation on the educational landscape.

 

2016 impact winner

markdebellisMark DeBellis
President and Owner
Suburban Steel Supply Co.

Mark DeBellis of Suburban Steel Supply Co. cares about his employees, deeply. He truly wants engaged workers, while also working to improve the image of blue-collar workers. For example, he likes to help his employees develop softer skills, such as learning how to take care of their finances.

Suburban Steel also has an anti-smoking program, where employees bring in the amount of money they would have spent on cigarettes each day for 40 days. If they don’t start smoking again, they receive double that amount.

Now that DeBellis isn’t running as much of the day-to-day business, he’s focusing more on educating younger people about careers available in skilled trades that don’t mean starting out with college debt.

College isn’t for everyone, and that’s something that DeBellis promotes every chance he gets. When students find out what a typical day is like for a Suburban Steel employee, and about the salary, benefits and career development potential, this real-world data can be eye opening.

As a nation, we’ve lost focus on the value and need for skilled tradesmen. At Suburban Steel, the culture embraces the hard-working, skilled laborer — it’s the economic engine behind the business.

By exposing and attracting students to skilled-labor career opportunities, as a financially-viable alternative to the mainstream four-year college degree, DeBellis and his team make a lasting impact on their community and business for years — and perhaps generations — to come.

 

2016 sustainability winner

skipprichardSkip Prichard
President and CEO
OCLC

In just three years, Skip Prichard has had a profound impact on OCLC, an organization founded nearly 50 years ago, setting it up for another 50 years of success.

A nonprofit global technology company and research organization serving the needs of libraries, OCLC provides shared technology services, original research and community programs. Through OCLC, member libraries produce and maintain WorldCat, the most comprehensive network of data about library collections and services in the world.

Prichard reorganized products and services into four lines of business, bringing clarity and focus. He restructured the executive management team and cut operating expenses by millions while maintaining, and in some cases, increasing revenue.

After a review of technology platforms, architecture and data centers, he determined that the technology approach that supported OCLC’s growth and success for decades needed to improve to take the organization into the future. Today’s OCLC provides cloud-based services that change how libraries and information providers work together.

In just one year, OCLC completed a project to evolve its data center strategy, upgrade equipment and infrastructure, and further standardize processes globally to increase service responsiveness.

Knowing that space impacts workplace culture, Prichard spearheaded a major upgrade to OCLC facilities. The renovations were completed just in time to host the IFLA World Library and Information Congress, an international gathering of thousands of information and library professionals that Prichard helped to bring to Central Ohio.

Six tips on how help from a peer organization can ease innovation development

With all due respect to Ralph Waldo Emerson, building a better mousetrap far from guarantees that the world will beat a path to your door.

I spent months developing, prototyping and even patenting a product. Then, when the bugs were worked out, I put out press releases and even did some advertising. I was waiting expectantly to hear cash registers ringing, but all heard was the disappointing sound of crickets chirping — a costly lesson.

So what did I learn?

First, I didn’t run my plans to create a product past anyone with experience innovating and bringing a new product to market. I didn’t do market research. Further, my attempt to pour money into an advertising campaign was a waste. Conducting innovation and development in a vacuum is an extremely risky proposition.

What have I changed?

The most important step forward was to join a peer-to-peer organization; in my case, the Cleveland chapter of EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization) and taking the time to learn what other entrepreneurs utilize for go-to-market strategies. By being in an open, safe and experienced-based environment that enabled me to be confident and to be surrounded by with supporters who allowed me to formulate my current process, I learned to focus on a positive result in order to move on to the next.

What does that look like?

Here’s the thumbnail version:

  • When visiting customers, have your salesforce look for gaps in your product offering, specifically weaknesses areas where your product isn’t making the customer’s life easier. Use this to formulate a product idea.
  • Once you have an idea, talk to several more key customers to see if the problem is worth solving. If so, how much would they be willing to spend for the product? If the amount is in a range of profitability, go to next step.
  • Collaborate to hone the idea (the more people who are smarter in this group than you, the better). One caution: be sure non-disclosure, confidentiality and employment agreements are in place to protect your ownership of the product.
  • Go back to key customers with the innovation and gauge their interest. Get commitments to test it at their facility along with signed confidentiality agreements.
  • Build the prototype and test it; make design adjustments as feasible.
  • Evaluate whether it is worth patenting. My criteria is simple: Is it unique enough that competitors will have to go to great lengths and expense to get around it; and/or will getting a patent offer a marketing advantage large enough to justify the cost?

Obviously, this patent or statutory patent must be applied for before rollout.

Is this the most definitive process for innovating a successful product out there? Probably not. Is it better than innovating in a vacuum and keeping your fingers crossed? Definitely. Take it from someone who’s done it both ways.

Tom Hobson
Abanaki Corp.

Tom is the founder of Abanaki Corp. and Aerodyne Environmental, companies that manufacturer water and air pollution control solutions to make our world a cleaner place for the next generation.

Website: www.abanaki.com/
Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Abanaki/119932741365116?ref=ts
Twitter: twitter.com/oilskimmer
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/428768
You Tube: www.youtube.com/user/Abanaki
Blog: blog.abanaki.com/

Did you define innovation?

Manufacturing companies are at their most efficient and therefore lowest cost when they are executing on their business plan. Outside the walls of every manufacturer, however, other manufacturers are working to out innovate the competition. If you fall asleep or get complacent, you will suddenly find yourself scrambling to catch up.

True innovation — discovering or finding disruptive technologies, practices and processes — can be expensive for a well-oiled corporate machine. The entire system is designed to deliver optimum performance on the linear path of the business plan.

Leaving that path with a new technology or practice is painful and will cost you in lost profits, at least temporarily. But you have stakeholders that expect a certain income level, commission, flexibility of schedule, security or safe repeatable routines from you that they can count on to be the same tomorrow as they were today.

So you strive to be the industry leader, to find that newest tech, the next process improvement, the next advancement in equipment or machinery. You introduce innovation to the entire company. You try to create the culture that will attract the best people. You hire an innovation manager, someone who has a proven track record at companies just like yours.

Finished before the start

I worked with a large manufacturing company that makes commodity plastic commercial products. The CEO of the company hired an experienced vice president of innovation and handed him the keys to R&D. He immediately held an internal all-hands R&D symposium on innovation to develop the culture that would drive new ideas and attract smart, inventive people. He brought in experts in finding new technologies inside and outside the company. As a team they visited the local big name research university to see all the new stuff they were working on, the newest leading edge polymer research. It was exciting to see.

The R&D team returned to its respective divisions with a new outlook, ready to roll up their sleeves and start innovating.
After a few weeks, the vice president of innovation resigned. Good people left. Research was back on the previous focus. What happened?

Clarifying the message

Turns out that to the CEO, innovation meant finding lower-priced plastics and reducing cost throughout the company. He wasn’t interested in disruption, only in lower costs to drive profits to please the stakeholders with minimum change.

He hadn’t defined for the team what innovation was to him. You can imagine what the cost could be to the morale of the R&D team, to the manufacturing groups, to the sales team. The company has been through a series of layoffs to help reduce costs and improve the short-term profit picture since.

Every company is demanding innovation. Is your company truly ready to embrace what innovation is and all that comes with it? To create the culture that attracts the best people? Can you afford it? Will your stakeholders accept it? Have you defined what innovation means to you?

John Myers is entrepreneur-in-residence, director TA2 at the University of Mount Union. He is helping the University of Mount Union build out its entrepreneurship program, connecting with manufacturing companies to provide R&D and to establish a patent and IP commercialization policy as well as managing its incubator.

It’s entrepreneurship …not innovation that is the key to economic growth

Gallup Inc. has been using its StrengthsFinder methodology to look closely at what makes successful entrepreneurs tick, and its new book, “Entrepreneurial StrengthsFinder” by Jim Clifton and Sangeeta Bharadwaj Badal, identifies some interesting strong suits.

The book is the result of 10 years of research across more than 4,000 successful entrepreneurs and describes the traits and behaviors that propel these entrepreneurs to create, build and literally change everything known about the world today.

Four ideas advanced by Clifton, Gallup’s CEO, in the forward of the book are important to share. These ideas underline the importance of identifying and cultivating the people that possess these strengths in all of our communities.

1.         The central belief that innovation is the key to economic growth is dead wrong — it is entrepreneurship that is the key to growth. Clifton argues that if innovation is the “cart,” entrepreneurship is the “horse” that creates the customers and value from any invention and innovation that occurs.

Universities and laboratories are full of invention and innovation. Patents abound. But until an entrepreneur takes an innovation and builds a business around it that solves a problem, attracts a customer and creates a job, innovation itself does nothing for economic growth.

2.         Entrepreneurship as measured by startup activity is in trouble. Despite growing confidence in the economy and a sense that we’ve seen economic recovery, for the first time since the numbers have been tracked, the latest census data shows that business deaths were higher than business births. That means that free enterprise as the engine of job creation and employment is slowing down and that can’t be good for our future. We need more successful startup activity and that means we need more entrepreneurs.

3.         Entrepreneurship is more about nature than nurture. The research shows that 5 in 1,000 working-age Americans possess the rare talents required of successful entrepreneurs. Identifying those with the skills and intentionally cultivating their talents with systematic support can accelerate growth of successful startup activities.

4.         Economic growth hinges on the ability to better identify and nurture entrepreneurial potential in children and working age adults. While educators identify and develop students with high IQs and those with great athletic talent, they are missing the estimated 150,000 blue chip entrepreneurs in today’s high schools and middle schools.

Similarly, there are lots of adults with this same talent that aren’t being cultivated. Finding these entrepreneurs and exposing them to curriculum, mentors and experiences that ignite their inborn talents will fuel the startup activity we need for growth.

 

As a reader of Smart Business Cleveland, you are most likely one of the 0.5 percent of the population with the gift of entrepreneurship in your DNA. As such, there is a role you can play in helping to cultivate the next wave of individuals that can shape our country’s growth. We are queuing up a conversation in September with Gallup in Cleveland. If you want to be a part of it, contact me at [email protected] and we’ll get you involved. — Steve Millard

 

Steve Millard is president and executive director of the Council of Smaller Enterprises. For the last 15 years, he has guided COSE’s work to support the success of small business owners and act as a nonpartisan advocate and resource for their needs on the state and national levels. Contact him at www.cose.org

 

 

 

 

It’s not always about something new, just better

“An innovative reimagining of obsolete urban industrial spaces”— that’s how the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association describes The Strip District, one of its four 2014 Great Neighborhoods in Pennsylvania.

I’ve always loved the bustle of The Strip, with its mix of tourists and locals bumping into each other as they search for bargains. (Although, I admit sometimes I feel like there’s a neighborhood ordinance that Steelers gear must be sold every 200 feet.)

In many ways, it represents the heart of new Pittsburgh, where gritty warehouses have been turned into modern market stalls with organic products or decorative jewelry. So, that’s why it makes a perfect subject for this month’s Uniquely Pittsburgh.

And reimagining the obsolete to make it useful again is something we can all do more of in our organizations.

Put a twist on what’s tried and true

Innovation isn’t always about coming up with something new. It can be about rediscovery and reinvention — taking the tried and true and putting a twist on it.

For example, remembering last year, I can’t help but think of the transportation phenomena that swept the nation, Uber and Lyft. It certainly made a splash in Pittsburgh, both negative and positive.

The idea of rideshare isn’t really new, but it does provide consumers with a different choice for car services.

We need to be willing to experiment with new ideas, methods or devices, whether those are truly novel or more a matter of taking something obsolete and updating it for today’s world.

Going from routine to creative

OK, that’s easier said than done. Yes, let’s go forth and innovate, but what now? I’ve certainly experienced the futility of a blank Word document and nothing to type. Getting started is often the hardest part.

First of all, it’s hard to switch gears from the routine to the innovative. And even when managers say they want to innovate, the organizational structure itself can work against that.

I found an old article by Stanford professor Robert Sutton from MIT Sloan that offers ideas for switching gears and getting your team to stop working only by rote. And in the interest of rediscovery, I thought I’d share some of his insights:

  • Incite discomfort and dissatisfaction — being uncomfortable or unhappy can break people free of ingrained and mindless actions.
  • Treat everything as temporary and ignore the experts.
  • Identify and reject your preconceptions. For example, think of something ridiculous and plan to do it. Dumb ideas can lead to good ideas, or turn out to be good ideas themselves.
  • Shake up the composition of organizations and teams to break up atrophy. You also can try bringing in new people who think differently, such as smart people who had bad grades in school.

Just like taking apart an old toy to see how it works, and how you can improve it or mix it with your other toys, keep experimenting. Yes, you might have a blank Word document in front of you, but if you don’t get started — even if it’s terrible — you’ll never go anywhere.

Every inconsistency scratches fertile ground for innovation

Some may observe the incongruity of a church across from a casino on Cleveland’s Public Square. The Horseshoe Cleveland opened in 2012 and The Old Stone Church, the subject of this issue’s Uniquely, was founded in 1820. The current structure, built in 1855, is the oldest building on Public Square.

While I’m not making a judgment here, it shows how people have become amenable to little inconsistencies like the one mentioned above. How often do you find gambling and religious institutions across from each other?

If there weren’t inconsistencies or contradictions in the world, there would be few challenges. Without challenges, man would not have developed innovations leading to today’s products.

Inconsistences/challenges appear all the time during the business cycle — not just during the lows. In fact, many executives feel the real challenges occur during the high points.

“The biggest leadership challenge typically comes when things are going well,” a CEO told me. “Companies often think the biggest challenge is when you lose a customer, the economic climate is difficult or conditions are bad. What I have found is truly just the reverse.

“When a business has had serious challenges, whether it be from economic events like 9/11 or the 2009 recession, there is generally a kind of feeling within the organization that there is a challenge, a burning platform that everyone has to respond to.”

During those times, employees will pull together and respond and are willing to make changes necessary to ensure that the business survives.

If a leader allows the company to develop feelings of complacency, and that it’s OK to coast now, it will likely cause damage.

“If you have had some success, it is very easy to take your eye off the ball or do things in your business that may not be the right ones for the long term,” the CEO says. “It’s easy to get a little careless, so it is really important not to lose your discipline on the costs, investments or accountability of your team to execute the plan. You have to use constraint in some respects.”

In other words, if a leader has a nothing-can-stop-him mentality, the leader shouldn’t go in over his or her head.

“You have to be careful because hubris can occur and can lead to problems down the road. Overexpansion, too much hiring, too much equipment brought on, new technologies and new acquisitions — all those kinds of things when businesses are doing very well may not get as carefully scrutinized as they would if the business were going through a bad economic cycle.”

That scrutiny means knowing exactly where the business is going from one month to the next, one quarter to the next and one year to the next before a leader decides on an ambitious route.

If a company has a sense of ambition and urgency, it avoids the slower pace of business as usual, and a new project has a much better chance of succeeding.

You can bet on that.

Key factors can make the difference between stagnation and success

Far too often, companies hope for an “aha” moment — viewing innovation as a sort of magical event that occurs out of thin air. However, in reality, innovation is often the result of a long, costly and painstaking process.

Additionally, if a company relegates innovation to its research and development department and wonders why R&D is not having the success hoped for, that company is not alone. This is a common mistake, and it can be made worse if R&D has little direct interaction with customers or prospects.

Smart Business spoke with Christopher Meshginpoosh, Director of Audit & Accounting at Kreischer Miller, on creating a company culture of innovation.

What can a company do if it has committed time and energy, but has not seen results?
When companies stagnate, it is often the result of tunnel vision. Sometimes it can be difficult to approach a common problem from a new perspective. One way to combat this is to engage team members from unrelated functions or lines of business. By doing this, the teams will not be as heavily influenced by current habits and are more likely to achieve breakthroughs.

If a company does not have multiple lines of businesses or functions from which to draw, it should consider bringing in an outsider, and not shy away from one who knows nothing about the industry.
Engaging someone who is unencumbered by longstanding assumptions can lead to game-changing insights.

How can companies engage other employees in the process?
For those who really want to create a culture that fosters innovation, innovation cannot be a part-time job.
Innovation takes time and energy. If employees are always up to their eyeballs with other responsibilities, a company will most likely fail. To be successful, an organization needs to provide time and space for employees to focus on products, services or processes. This may mean allowing key employees to spend as much as 10 to 15 percent of their time trying to come up with the next big idea.

Are there other ways to overcome stagnation?
Many times, innovation simply comes from observing something in a seemingly unrelated field and connecting or associating that observation with the problem a company is trying to solve. As a result, sometimes the best way to solve a problem is simply to leave.

Taking a vacation or getting away not only recharges team members, but also provides them with the chance to see things — products, services, or processes in other industries or geographies that could result in breakthroughs in the industry. Additionally, leaving the confines of the office to get out and observe customers in action can help personnel challenge assumptions and generate new ideas.

What other approaches stifle innovation?
Those companies struggling with a lack of quantity or quality of new ideas, should consider how the organization reacts to failure. If failure typically results in negative outcomes — poor performance evaluations, lower raises, embarrassment or dismissal — culture may be the problem.

To create an environment where employees feel safe sticking their necks out, a company should celebrate the effort and accept the fact that for every 10 ideas that fail, one idea may be the groundbreaking idea that was sought.

Are young people better at innovation?
The press tends to celebrate youthful innovators, so it’s assumed the best innovators are young. However, if that were the case, why is the average age of a Nobel Prize Laureate well over 50?

While industries such as technology tend to have many more young disruptors, the skills necessary for innovation in many other areas come from years of experience and observation. So if a company’s goal is to create breakthroughs, make sure it includes some people with gray — or no — hair.

Insights Accounting & Consulting is brought to you by Kreischer Miller

 

How innovation solves a requirement in a new way

The Cleveland Police Department was one of the first to use fingerprints for identification purposes, one of the first to have radio communications in police cars and the first in the world to capture a bank robbery on film.

This month’s Uniquely Cleveland tells the story of these and other innovations that helped advance the fight against crime.

You can’t ignore the connection between crime fighting and invention. As long as there have been thieves, swindlers and killers, there have been efforts to outwit them.

As the old saying, based on a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, goes, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” The power of innovation is a strong one, and I venture to say that fighting crime with the latest innovations stands at the top of the priority list of society.

Witness the growing use of DNA tests in forensic investigations. Police have the ability to store the DNA profiles of repeat offenders and by using technology, can compare the profiles with DNA samples from unsolved crimes. Every person has a unique DNA profile. Once the DNA profiles are matched, it speeds up the search and conviction of the perpetrator.

On the other side of the coin, individuals convicted of crimes and serving time have been released following new DNA evidence submitted in court. Unfortunately there are backlogs of samples waiting to be analyzed. It takes years before the DNA in some cases is analyzed.

It’s easy to see that governmental entities need to develop faster methods for analyzing DNA evidence. Equipment is outdated, laboratories are understaffed and more training is needed for law enforcement officers as procedures improve.

Another technology on the rise is the use of video cameras. Surveillance, dash and now body cameras are seemingly everywhere.

Don’t forget stun guns and Tasers. The list goes on …

As I mentioned earlier, there is so much interest, rightfully so, in innovations to help fight crime. But that interest doesn’t have to be overly focused on that field. Many other industries and sectors deserve similar enthusiastic support for innovation. It just takes someone who is inspired and driven to invent and innovate. It’s amazing what one person can do.

One of our Smart Business columnists, Lois Melbourne, recently put it  in one of the best ways:

“The true nature of innovation, solving a requirement in a new way, is taking a risk. An improvement is just doing something better, but an innovation is changing the game. Sometimes people don’t like change. Sometimes the innovation is ready before the market is ready for it.

“But progress depends on innovation, so giving an environment that allows risk-taking is critical. It is actually mandatory, to get real innovation. It is never enough to only give the R&D department the risk taking reins. Allowing voices to be heard throughout an organization fosters engagement and the comfort level that the leaders embrace innovation and the risk that comes along with it.”

A culture of innovation: key factors can make the difference between stagnation and success

Far too often, companies hope for an “aha” moment — viewing innovation as a sort of magical event that occurs out of thin air. However, in reality, innovation is often the result of a long, costly and painstaking process.

Additionally, if a company relegates innovation to its research and development department and wonders why R&D is not having the success hoped for, that company is not alone. This is a common mistake, and it can be made worse if R&D has little direct interaction with customers or prospects.

Smart Business spoke with Christopher F. Meshginpoosh, Director of Audit & Accounting at Kreischer Miller, on creating a company culture of innovation.

What can a company do if it has committed time and energy, but has not seen results? When companies stagnate, it is often the result of tunnel vision. Sometimes it can be difficult to approach a common problem from a new perspective. One way to combat this is to engage team members from unrelated functions or lines of business. By doing this, the teams will not be as heavily influenced by current habits and are more likely to achieve breakthroughs.

If a company does not have multiple lines of businesses or functions from which to draw, it should consider bringing in an outsider, and not shy away from one who knows nothing about the industry.

Engaging someone who is unencumbered by longstanding assumptions can lead to game-changing insights.

How can companies engage other employees in the process? 

For those who really want to create a culture that fosters innovation, innovation cannot be a part-time job.

Innovation takes time and energy. If employees are always up to their eyeballs with other responsibilities, a company will most likely fail. To be successful, an organization needs to provide time and space for employees to focus on products, services or processes. This may mean allowing key employees to spend as much as 10 to 15 percent of their time trying to come up with the next big idea.

Are there other ways to overcome stagnation? Many times, innovation simply comes from observing something in a seemingly unrelated field and connecting or associating that observation with the problem a company is trying to solve. As a result, sometimes the best way to solve a problem is simply to leave.

Taking a vacation or getting away not only recharges team members, but also provides them with the chance to see things — products, services, or processes in other industries or geographies that could result in breakthroughs in the industry. Additionally, leaving the confines of the office to get out and observe customers in action can help personnel challenge assumptions and generate new ideas.

What other approaches stifle innovation? Those companies struggling with a lack of quantity or quality of new ideas, should consider how the organization reacts to failure. If failure typically results in negative outcomes — poor performance evaluations, lower raises, embarrassment or dismissal — culture may be the problem.

To create an environment where employees feel safe sticking their necks out, a company should celebrate the effort and accept the fact that for every 10 ideas that fail, one idea may be the groundbreaking idea that was sought.

Are young people better at innovation? The press tends to celebrate youthful innovators, so it’s assumed the best innovators are young. However, if that were the case, why is the average age of a Nobel Prize Laureate well over 50?

While industries such as technology tend to have many more young disruptors, the skills necessary for innovation in many other areas come from years of experience and observation. So if a company’s goal is to create breakthroughs, make sure it includes some people with gray — or no — hair.● 

Insights Accounting & Consulting is brought to you by Kreischer Miller 

Steve Wozniak never stopped innovating and helped Apple become king of computers

 

When Apple Computer co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs collaborated on their first project together — a couple of years before Apple was created — it became clear what role each would play in their business relationship.

Both had youth on their side, and without it, that first project might not have happened. The pair was given four days to deliver to the Atari Corp. a circuit board for the game Breakout. They worked day and night and met the deadline.

Jobs showed his expertise of electronics and Wozniak demonstrated he could design a computer.

Jobs was a visionary and a dreamer who could pitch an idea while Wozniak was content to be an engineer all his life, working in a basement laboratory designing computers. It was the combination that helped launch the world of personal computers and put Apple at the top of this cultural revolution.

EO Thrive 2014 was largest region confab in North America

EO Thrive 2014, which took place in Cleveland, featured keynote speaker Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. The event took place over a three-day period in early October, attracting more than 300 members of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization from across the globe — making it the largest EO regional conference ever in North America.

The largest membership organization in the world dedicated to peer-to-peer learning for successful entrepreneurs, EO has more than 10,000 members in more than 135 cities.

The Cleveland EO Chapter is one of the largest in North America, and was selected to host Thrive for the first time.

Over an 18-month period, Adam R. Kaufman, the 2014 chairman of Thrive, and a committee of other EO members planned the conference.

“We decided to build a theme around key questions in the life of an entrepreneur: ‘How do I sell my business?’ ‘How do I wisely buy other businesses?’ and ‘How do I raise capital?’” he says.

The theme seemed to resonate with the 320 registered attendees who represented 28 chapters, including some from as far away as Hong Kong, Perth and New Delhi.

“EO members have a thirst for learning, and they left Cleveland full of new ideas, deepened relationships, and also impressed with Northeast Ohio’s growth and hospitality,” Kaufman says.

Other speakers at the event included Eric Chen, co-founder of TinyPrints; Doug Holladay, former ambassador and Wall Street veteran; and Stewart Kohl, the Riverside Co.

“When you are falling asleep and waking up, especially in those younger days, your mind is more lucid and just goes to more places, like creativity and thinking out of the box and innovative,” Wozniak says of his energy level in those days. “Those are the times when you get really good thoughts. The trouble is you just have to be around someone or have it in yourself to know that you have the skills to build what you think of.

“You’re young, you’ve got so much intellectual energy and so much physical energy that you can work late nights.”

He later left Apple to finish his education, but it’s been reported he still receives an annual stipend from the company.

Wozniak was the keynote speaker at the recent EO Thrive Cleveland conference and shared the stage with Fred Koury, president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Here are the highlights of the interview: 

FK: What I would like to do is go back to the beginning, prior to you co-founding Apple Computer, and have you share with us how you got into engineering.

SW: I had one of those elementary school projects that now I look back on and say, whoa, that was the equivalent of a master’s degree at a university and I didn’t even know it. To me, they were just the most fun projects. I was kind of great in electronics, because electronics was an analog science. You had to learn difficult mathematical equations, formulas and design things with all these little parts that fit together. So I was very good at that.

I had a ham radio license in sixth grade. That was when you had to bolt together a bunch of parts. You had to bolt them together and had instructions on how to bolt them together, solder all the wires and run the little strings to tune in your receiver and transmitter. I was an early guy in analog electronics, but somehow I also discovered digital.

In high school, we didn’t have computers, but I had a great electronics teacher who said education is outside the school too. I got to go down once a week to Sylvania in Sunnyvale and program a computer. I was like, in my mind, the star of my school. Of course I was a nerd, an outsider, because I was an electronics geek. But I got to go program a real computer!

So I never had a book, I never had a class, I just had pencil and paper and tried to formulate methods to design a computer out of the smaller parts, the little chips that were available. I did it for fun. I never thought I would even have a job designing computers. I didn’t think there were such jobs. 

FK: How do you keep innovation alive when you are growing a company? How do you stay ahead of the curve?

SW: In the early days of Apple, it was just so free. Almost everything we touched turned to gold. It was a new industry and there was a lot of positive press. The computer was built on parts connected to a printer — that changed the world for people forever. You could plug a printer into your computer. You had a part to plug into a modem. You could turn your computer into a terminal. These were new things, so this is what I loved to do. I would’ve done that anyway. Back then, the innovation was all really on me, I was the only engineer for a while.

We were revolutionary, we had the best product in the world, we had a real high price, but our product cost less to build than the ones with the low price. We had a company. We had investors. We had advisers. We had professionals around telling us how to establish a company — you need a president, director of operations, and here’s what he does. Investors were telling us all the people we needed and what their roles would be. At that time, Steve didn’t have an official title. You just participated in everything and learned how to run everything. But I hate politics, so I said, leave me out of running the company, just don’t kick me out.

I stayed in the laboratory. I wanted to do hardware, software for the rest of my life. I believe engineers are the best people in the world, and I wanted to be an engineer for life. I never wanted to move up the management ladder. Engineers are where brilliant ideas can become reality. There were a lot of great ideas, but they are not worth much on paper. You better have some working model; you better have an engineer who can build it.

When you design something, it has to work. It has to do the job. You have to take every precaution, because one little bug will come back to haunt you. That is what engineering is about, and you need that kind of precision when you are thinking out what kind of things do we put in a product. 

FK: Is innovation something you are born with or is it something you can learn?

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SW: My own thinking is that you are not born with it. I think everybody is born equally curious. Every little baby wants to learn everything about anything that starts to come into their eyes.

We are all born that way, but that doesn’t mean we’re all going to fit in a box and follow the same course. You have to take the same tests and you are called intelligent if you have the exact same answers as everyone else. But if you think differently and try to come up with answers that aren’t in the book, or if you challenge that thinking, you are called disruptive.

In schools there are 30 kids and one teacher, and you can’t have every kid doing everything randomly and independently. It doesn’t work in our system because of money. We don’t have one teacher per student. So we are trained all our lives to not be innovative.

I would do a lot of things outside of school. With my science fair projects, I discovered thinking about a problem and how to solve it. I was just lucky to be a creator, to create things on my own, and not just read about them in books.

I had no idea that in 1975 all the pieces were going to be there at the right price to make the personal computer affordable. I didn’t know that when I was learning. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was I wanted a computer of my own someday, because a computer sounded impressive. 

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