December 30, 2013

Declaring Email Bankruptcy

I just declared email bankruptcy.

With nearly 70,000 unread emails in my Gmail inbox and my labels and filters in shambles, my email hygiene was at an all-time low. Before graduate school, I'd always been a staunch advocate of an Inbox Zero lifestyle, but sometime in late 2010 my inbox completely got away from me.

So, I decided today that I would give myself a blank slate and a clean start for 2014. Now, my inbox has nothing in it, and I couldn't be happier.

Here's how I did it:

I) Unsubscribe from mailing lists you don't read
I've tried in the past to manually cull my inbox for mailing lists I no longer read, unsubscribing by hand on an ad hoc basis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this wasn't particularly effective. Today, I had to break out the big girl tools. I used a service called to scan my inbox for mailing list subscriptions. They allow you to easily unsubscribe with one-click from any and all mailing lists. I was shocked to discover that I was on 457 mailing lists -- definitely too many. Many of them were for products, services, causes, and events that I love, but I just don't read their emails. I have many other ways to connect with the organizations I want to reach, so most had to go.

II) Archive everything
I wanted to archive everything I've received to date, but I didn't want to have to click through each page of my inbox, archiving only 100 emails at a time. Here's how to do it all at once from the Gmail desktop interface:

1) In the search bar at the top, type the following search command filling in whatever date you want to use as your email bankruptcy cut-off (I used tomorrow to make sure I got everything): in:inbox before:yyyy/mm/dd

2) Below the search bar, click the checkmark menu and select "All"

3) A bar will appear at the top of your inbox that says "All conversations on this page are selected. Select all conversations that match this search." Click that second part to select everything.

4) Click the Archive button at the top under the search bar. (Alternatively, you can add a label to all of the emails, and then repeat steps 2 and 3 for all the emails with that label.)

III) Enjoy your new inbox!

My new year's resolution? Keep my inbox this clean.

P.S. This is just how I did it, but I'm sure there are many other ways to declare email bankruptcy. Feel free to share yours.

October 14, 2013

Two big updates

2013 has been a wild ride, and I'm pleased to share two very exciting updates today:

1) Bread is joining Yahoo
When we started Bread two and a half years ago, we set out to change the way people did promotions and advertising on social media (click here to learn what Bread actually did). Since 2011, we created the only rich-media advertising platform that works on every social platform and across any device. We built really great technology that re-imagined what digital advertising looks like. We made beautiful ads with some of the world's top brands. But most important, we helped a new generation of content producers (musicians, bloggers, writers, and comedians) make a living. We're thrilled today to announce that our team has joined Yahoo to continue build awesome stuff to make the web better. You can read more about the announcement here.

2) I have joined the Google Creative Lab
I'm super excited to announce that I have joined the Google Creative Lab in New York City. Although I will miss my Bread family as they go to Yahoo, I just couldn't pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with Google. Tucked away in the sky loft of the NYC office, the Creative Lab is a small, scrappy team of creatives and strategists that cooks up some of the most exciting creative projects at Google, from Google's most popular ad to envisioning the future of the Internet. (Correction: It turns out that this tear-jerker from the Lab is actually Google's most popular ad. Incidentally, it is also my favorite)

I'm so grateful for the opportunities I've had over the last few years with Bread. Building something from nothing is an exhilarating experience, and I learned a lot from working with the team that did it with me. Entrepreneurship is a wild ride, and I want to especially thank all the great clients, partners, investors, advisors, and friends who've been a part of the journey.

As always, you can find me on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, where the next chapter in my story is sure to unfold.

And now, on to the next adventure :)

What did Bread actually do?

Aside from some press when a very early beta version of the technology launched in June 2011, the ad tech start-up Bread stayed under the radar. The team focused on building tech and building relationships, and so there's not much publicly available information about what the heck Bread actually did. This post is a bit TL;DR, but for those who are interested, here's what Bread was all about...

What problem was Bread trying to solve?
Starting with a great domain name (, Bread was founded in 2011 and set out to solve two problems the team saw in the marketplace.

On one side, there were more and more non-traditional publishers building audiences online, particularly on social. The proliferation of influencers and content creators on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest caught the team's attention. Bread started to hear from lots of these bloggers, musicians, writers, and comedians that they didn't really like a lot of the ways they had to monetize their new social content. Paid tweets and sponsored posts often didn't feel authentic, adding more banner ads on their blogs felt cluttered, and these influencers were tired of having to cannibalize their own content and voice. A lot of them were saying, "We need a better way to make a living creating content online -- something that works no matter where my audience finds my content or what kind of device they're using."

On the other side, Bread saw brands and advertisers eager to get into social and mobile. Marketing budgets were predicted to shift from traditional media into newer digital channels, and there was a keen interest to use rich media to do more brand storytelling rather than click-driven direct response ads. Forward-thinking brands wanted to run innovative and engaging campaigns on social and mobile, but there wasn't a lot of good technology to do it.

What was the solution?
Taking these two opportunities into consideration, the Bread team came up with what it thought was a pretty elegant solution to both. Bread developed technology to serve a full-page, rich-media ad as an interstitial on any link shared on any social media platform. This first product was called Bread Social and it worked like this:

For its second product called Bread Oven, the team built a version of the technology that did the same thing for links on blogs.

But how did that make the web more awesome?
I know what you're thinking: a full page ad sounds kind of intense. How does that make the web better? The team saw three main ways:

1) Bread really tried to differentiate its ad product by being more beautiful than other units. Some of that came from its ad builder technology that allowed advertisers to be more creative with the types of imagery and storytelling they could present. Some of it came from working closely with advertisers to make sure they shared Bread's vision to make the web more beautiful. From both quantitative performance and qualitative feedback from fans and readers, it seemed that Bread was moving in the right direction for making ads a more beautiful experience.

2) The unique qualities of the Bread ad unit allowed influencers and publishers to share their own authentic content when and where they wanted, without having to redesign their sites to accommodate more banner ads. In fact, some publishers did away with banner ads and paid tweets completely and just used Bread technology to monetize.

3) The Bread team was always very sensitive to the end user experience, since the goal was to try to fix problems with online ads, not create new ones. With relevancy targeting, strict frequency capping, clear countdown clocks, and a functional skip button on every ad, Bread added several features to protect end user experience.

What technology was actually built?
At its core, Bread was a technology company. Ad tech is very fragmented market. Sometimes dozens of middle-men companies take a cut along the way between the advertiser thinking of the ad and a viewer seeing it. Bread was a very different kind of ad tech company. The team built everything itself, from a WYSIWYG custom ad builder, to ad targeting technology, to the link-based ad server, to a robust analytics tool to track performance.

Who did Bread work with?
In addition to building all its own technology in-house, Bread also built all its own relationships, too. Rather than rely on third party resellers and remnant networks, Bread sold all of its campaigns itself. The company also built its own publisher network from scratch fostering personal relationships with influencers in verticals like music, entertainment, fashion, sports, and comedy. Everyone from Lady Gaga to a niche film blogger.

How did Bread roll out its product?
Bread technology was not easy to build, and it wasn't evident from the beginning how influencers, advertisers, and end users would react to it. As such, Bread staged its tech roll-out, starting small with a democratized bare-bones version of the a link ad, open to anyone to use however they wanted. Since that launch was public, the company got some press in June 2011 when the beta went live.

As the team built out more features for the fully developed product, it was low key about the work it was doing behind the scenes. It quietly built a sizable ad network (targeted at social media and blogs) to use its technology, and the company started running paid campaigns with top advertisers in the fall of 2012.

At the time the company was acquired by Yahoo in October 2013, Bread had created the web's only full-page, rich-media ad unit that worked across every platform and every device. It worked for big publishers and tiny bloggers and everyone in between, and it was a point of pride amongst the team that they built something that helped support the content creators who make some of the most beloved stuff on the web.

October 6, 2013

The Ignorant Backlash Against Instagram Ads

Last week, Instagram posted an announcement on their company profile that they're going to start slowly rolling out ads in the United States. When Instagram dipped its toe in the monetization waters last December, the backlash was aggressive, so this company definitely understands that ads are a sensitive topic.

Full disclosure: I'm a heavy Instagram user. I love the service, and I use it daily. I appreciate the beauty and the authenticity of the product, and I don't want to see it sullied by slapdash attempts to monetize. With that in mind, I have to say, I couldn't have asked for a better announcement.

Everything about this post indicates that the Instagram team "gets" it. I've taken the liberty to highlight the parts that illustrate this best, but it really is worth a read to see that their plan for ads on Instagram is thoughtful and more considerate toward users than almost any other platform.

Click to zoom

Within seconds, the post received a flood of vicious and obscene comments.

Comments on Instagram's 10.3.13 post announcing the roll-out of ads.
Over the weekend, they continued to pour in.

Comments on Instagram's 10.3.13 post announcing the roll-out of ads.
I know I shouldn't be surprised. There's always backlash whenever a consumer technology company changes anything, and ads are a particularly touchy topic. But I was truly appalled by the reaction. These comments aren't light criticisms suggesting a different path to profitability. They're scathing attacks against a company that has provided us with an excellent service for three years.

What surprised me most was how ignorant people are about how the internet works. Do they think Instagram is a charity or some kind of subsidized government program? How do they think Instagram pays for the servers that securely store all their photos in the cloud? Do they think Instagram's employees are all volunteers? Are they so indignant as to think they deserve this service for free?

You can't get something for nothing. That's just not how economics works. And I'm saying this as someone from the Napster generation. I grew up on file-sharing, CD-ripping, and bootleg everything, so it's not that I don't understand the hunger for free content. It's just that I grew up enough to know that people who make things are people, too. They have rent to pay and groceries to buy, just like the rest of us.

So I understand that people who make things -- whether those things are sandwiches or songs or beautiful mobile apps -- deserve to be compensated. Sometimes I pay them directly, like when I buy a slice of pizza or pay for my monthly Netflix subscription. But most of the time, at least for digital products and services, someone else pays on my behalf. That is, I'm exposed to ads that allow me to have my content without paying for it myself.

This seems obvious when it's explained, but we in the tech industry do a really terrible job letting people know that this is how our businesses work. We ought to be direct and say, "Content isn't free. We all have to pay, either with dollars or with eyeballs." But we don't say that. Instead, we use veiled language and jargon like "freemium," and so we can't be surprised if the average person has no idea how our businesses work.

One of the clearest examples of the general public's ignorance about how internet companies make money came from @taylorhindman, an apparent 16-year-old from Indiana. She left the following comments on Instagram's post about rolling out ads:

Comments on Instagram's 10.3.13 post announcing the roll-out of ads.

Taylor's just a teenager, so we can't be too hard on her, but I think it's worthwhile to address her arguments because they represent those of so many others. When Taylor says, "You have enough money," what exactly does she mean? Last time I checked, Instagram has no revenue, so she certainly can't be referring to the company's current income stream. Maybe she's talking about the $715 million Facebook shelled out to acquire the start-up in 2012. But where does she think that money came from? 88% of Facebook's revenue comes from ads.

Also, I can't help but point out that her financial predictions ("Doing this is going to lower stocks") didn't quite pan out. Turns out, the folks on Wall Street understand how a business works, and Facebook's stock was up 3.78% on Friday after the announcement, which is pretty much an all-time high for the company's stock price.

Facebook stock price Oct 3-4, 2013 (Source: Google Finance)

One last note on the Instagram ads brouhaha: exposing users to ads isn't the only way Instagram can make money, and criticisms that center on this point are certainly valid. Other potential sources of revenue could include user subscriptions, paid upgrades to premium features, fees charged to businesses for access to brand support, or revenues from selling user data. Given the backlash Instagram faced last year when it hinted that ads may be to come, it's safe to say the Instagram team probably explored all of its non-ad options before settling on the plan it announced on Thursday.

Although I'd personally be willing to pay for access to the Instagram service, I understand that keeping the service free to users is a big part of what's fueled its growth. The openness and democratization of information that a free global platform like Instagram empowers is dependent on it being accessible everywhere. If the occasional beautiful, high-quality photo or video from a brand can make that happen, maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.

March 16, 2013

Necessary But Not Sufficient

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit The Downtown Project in Las Vegas. The ambitious revitalization of the original downtown area includes sizable investments into infrastructure, education, health, arts, and community. My friend Tony Hsieh, the project's champion, has been telling me about his plans for years, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to visit and see it for myself. I came to Vegas for a program called Catalyst Week, a production of Catalyst Creativ, a Downtown Project company.

The week was a great opportunity to explore the early stages of Downtown Project development (they were just breaking ground on The Shipping Container Park, one of the first large construction projects) and meet some of the people who are driving change on the ground. Recommendations for folks who want to visit: stay in a "crashpad" at The Ogden, eat brunch at Eat and dinner at Le Thai, drink at Commonwealth (best wristbands ever), and buy all the clothes at Coterie.

I was asked to speak on the opening night of the program, and I shared a talk called "Necessary But Not Sufficient: Why Being Smart and Working Hard Aren't Enough." Huge thank you to Amanda and Staci at Catalyst for giving me the opportunity to share my story.

January 10, 2013

The World's Most Colorful Factory

Neon colors, blacklights, and a heart-shaped piece of industrial equipment? This video tour of the DayGlo factory in Cleveland, Ohio is making me hyperventilate.

Booking a flight to Cleveland in 3...2...

Thanks to Gizmodo and @barronlee for sharing.

November 11, 2012

Let Your Nerd Flag Fly: NPR's Weekend in Washington

I lived in LA for nearly a decade, so I’m rarely star struck by traditional celebrities. Bring me into a recording studio with a famous hip-hop artist or send me to a cocktail party with an international supermodel—I can play it cool. But if you put me in room with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel, I’m pretty much going to get Beiber fever.

I learned this the hard way at NPR’s Weekend in Washington (November 9-11, 2012), an annual gathering of the media company’s executives, member station heads, board members, top donors, and, of course, on-air talent.

NPR Weekend in Washington 2012 Program
The private, invitation-only event is traditionally conducted rather quietly. But this year (at the wise encouragement of their head of PR Danielle Deabler), NPR invited a handful of young thought leaders, mostly entrepreneurs and other NPR enthusiasts, to join the conversation. They affectionately ordained our group of young ambassadors Generation Listen.

Members of my generation love to identify themselves with brands, and in my nerdy opinion, there is no brand stronger than NPR. As I often tell people, I bleed NPR-red, blue, and black and evangelize for the smart, engaging content NPR stations produce around the clock. And I'm not the only one -- there are lots of secret NPR lovers. This American Life seems like a harmless gateway drug, but before you know it, you have a secret crush on Carl Kassel. This weekend was the perfect opportunity to let my nerd flag fly.

I laid out goals for the weekend in advance: meet Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne and kiss NPR heartthrob White House Correspondent Ari Shapiro. I knew the latter was a pipe dream as Ari is both married and gay, but I was pleasantly surprised when Renee was one of the first to introduce herself to me when I arrived at the opening night reception at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington DC.

The petite star of NPR’s iconic morning news show, Renee was gracious and kind. She answered all my stupid questions about what it’s like to be a radio journalist, and confirmed that she gets up at midnight west coast time to go to work. I met Ari and Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg briefly before we all sat for dinner and the opening program.

I sat at the “kids” table with an impressive under-40 crew: Summit’s digital mastermind Audrey Buchanan, Love Social founder Azita Ardakani, KQED’s VP of Digital and Education Tim Olson, Sandbox and Holstee co-founder Fabian Pformuller, Aspen Institute’s Jeff Harris, NPR Head of Talent Lars Schmidt, and Danielle Deabler. The indisputable highlight of the night was the keynote address from Weekend Edition Saturday’s host Scott Simon, who wowed the audience with this comprehensive, elegant, and wise recap of the country and the world in the wake of Tuesday’s election.

Scott Simon keynote at opening ceremony
On Saturday morning, I didn’t join a run through the monuments led by All Things Considered’s Guy Raz, but instead headed to breakfast at a table of NPR patrons who were many decades my senior. It was such a pleasure to have in-depth conversations with another generation about a shared love of public radio. NPR CEO Gary Knell delivered a welcome address chock full of interesting NPR facts. NPR has 35 million listeners, 10% of whom voluntarily give money to support the programming they love. “We are building a media outlet that is not owned by anyone other than the American people,” he proclaimed.

NPR CEO Gary Knell welcome address
Unlike most other news outlets, NPR has 17 foreign bureaus with plans to open more. “Our reporters don’t fly first class, do a stand-up routine in Tahrir Square, and then fly back. They actually live there.”

Knell went on to talk about how technology is changing the NPR landscape and his teams are focused on recreating the NPR experience for digital platforms. Citing the missteps of the music industry as an example of what not to do when faced with technology changes, he vowed to embrace technology and innovate with it. He gave a shout out to Generation Listen and said of his desire to grow listenership amongst young people that “NPR Music is a secret weapon.” (He even noted the waiting list of musicians who want to play a Tiny Desk Concert.) I was particularly delighted to hear his announcement of new NPR executives: CMO Emma Carrasco and SVP of Strategy Loren Mayor — both women.

Tell Me More host Michel Martin hosted a killer post-election debrief panel with Correspondents Michele Kelemen, Dina Temple-Raston, Mara Liasson, and John Ydstie. We got to see a behind-the-scenes video of election night in NPR’s studio 4A, complete with live-broadcast bloopers like Melissa Block catching Ron Elving completely off-guard.

Michelle Keleman, Dina Temple-Raston, Mara Liasson, John Ydstie
Mara argued passionately that this election was more important than 2008 given that Obama capitalized on demographic shifts that everyone knew likely favored Democrats, but the GOP was surprised by how quickly the future came. Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa asked from the audience about the Latino vote. Mara responded that the GOP can't be the anti-Latino party anymore, and she called this a watershed moment for the party. Saying we should expect comprehensive immigration reform soon, she joked, "The GOP is now in two groups: those who can do math and those who can't.”

During a break, I swung by the impressive NPR swag table. Definitely check out the NPR Shop for more awesome gifts.

NPR swag
The morning breakout session presented us all with tough choices, as we had to pick between a panel on equality issues with Nina Totenberg and two former Solicitors General, a conversation about race with NPR’s Manager of Digital Initiatives (and Mischief) Matt Thompson and Maria Hinojosa, a talk on social media from Science Desk Correspondent Joe Palca, and (my choice) a roundtable on the future of privacy and technology with Technology Reporter Steve Henn.

Henn’s guests, academics Ryan Calo and Alessandro Acquisti painted a grim picture for the future of privacy. Of particular interest to them was the use of facial recognition technology, which, Calo warned, could be quite dangerous if used for nefarious purposes (e.g., identifying protestors in a crowd and punishing them). Acquisti showed us how facial recognition software can be used to easily identify “anonymous” profiles on dating sites, which creeped everyone out, but not as much as his prototype technology that can guess your social security number using just a photo of your face.

We all ate lunch over a familial conversation between Religion Correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty and her brother David Bradley, owner of the Atlantic Media Company. It was a joy to see how much the two clearly love each other as they lavished praise upon the other, but their candid conversation about their own religious experiences was most interesting. Raised as Christian Scientists, they have both left the church. Joking about the Christian Science antagonism toward modern medicine, Hagerty joked, “I left Christian Science after a really happy encounter with Tylenol. I had the flu and felt immediately better. I’ve never looked back.”

Gary Knell introduces Barbara Bradley Hagerty and David Bradley
When his sister asked him about his own religious beliefs, David explained that he’s about 60/40 on the existence of god and has decided to believe in god. He told the story of evangelical mega-preacher T.D. Jakes, who shared a simple metaphor for the belief in god as the “whoosh” feeling you get before you turn a key that will unlock a door. He described it as the inexplicable “knowing” that we use to make all kinds of unknowable decisions: whom to marry, what job to take, where to live. Getting back to current events, they discussed the (minimal) role religion played in the election. Citing the religiously unaffiliated—currently 20% of the population—as a huge demographic growth area, Hagerty gave a prediction: “We may be seeing the eclipse of the power of evangelical conservatives.”

I attended an afternoon session on social contagions and the biology of sleep. Science Correspondents Shankar Vedantam and Allison Aubrey explained that when we’re sleep-deprived, lipids begin to leak out of our fat cells which can cause weight gain. Bad news for the one in five Americans who are so-called short sleepers getting less than six hours per night. Allison also led us in a group exercise to practice mindful eating (chocolate was provided).

As with the morning session, choosing an afternoon session meant you missed out on other good content, and I heard rave reviews from Independent Producer Joe Richman’s session on his project Teenage Diaries, airing this month on All Things Considered. Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson and Senior Vice President of News Margaret Low Smith gave a quick presentation about the future of radio, explaining that NPR is increasingly trying to be personalized, on demand, social, local, and seamless across multiple devices. Pushing themselves to innovate, they gave their team an exercise: Imagine being a startup with access to all of NPR’s content and resources and you want to eat NPR’s lunch. What would you do? They have used this type of thinking to bring intrepreneurial ideas to NPR. “In some ways, we're a scrappy startup again, “ explained Smith.

Highlighting an example of NPR’s newer content that attracts younger audiences, the next presentation came from Robert Smith and Zoe Chace, both reporters for Planet Money, who performed a live “show” of Murder on the Euro Express. The upbeat, and entertaining presentation broke down the complexities of the European Debt Crisis into a fun and digestible “murder mystery.” Their upbeat energy and fresh approach to smart storytelling was palpable. I’ve been a Planet Money fan from the beginning when they produced “Giant Pool of Money” with This American Life, and it was awesome to see how successful the Planet Money program has become.

Live Planet Money performance
Planet Money's Zoe Chace and Robert Smith
In our hour-long break, I slipped out of the hotel with fellow Generation Listen friends venture capitalist Thysson Wiliams and CatalystCreativ founder Amanda Slavin. We grabbed some delicious drinks and appetizers at Jaleo, Jose Andres’ tapas restaurant in Gallery Place. We returned to the hotel just in time for a sneak peek at NPR’s new game show, Ask Me Another.

First Look: NPR's new quiz show Ask Me Another
I’m a sucker for puzzles, word games, and trivia, so I was particularly stoked to see host Ophira Eisenberg and resident musician Jonathan Coulton perform live. All Things Considered host Robert Siegel was the first guest and then Nina Totenberg and Ari Shapiro faced off in a battle to the death. Not really, but Nina won. Obviously.

Ask Me Another contestants: Top: Robert Siegel, Bottom: Nina Totenberg and Ari Shapiro
With the formal program done for the night, the Generation Listen crew headed across the river to the beautiful home of entrepreneur Joel Holland, who hosted us for dinner and a group discussion about the future of NPR [photos here]. Steve Henn, Tim Olson, and Matt Thompson—hardly old men—played the role of question-asking grown ups, prompting the room of opinionated Gen Y-ers to pipe up with ideas, insights and opinions. I have to say, I was a pleasure to be in a place with other young people who share my passionate love for NPR.

Amanda Slavin, Danielle Deabler, Gina Rudan, Azita Ardakani, Anneke Jong, Amy Benzinger, Emily Greener

Danielle Deabler, Steve Henn, Tim Olson, Matt Thompson

We had an early start on Sunday morning, and I picked the panel called “NPR in Pictures.” The presentation from NPR’s little-known multimedia team featured some of their beautiful and moving work including this story about photographer Charles W. Cushman and a short movie about the military’s lackluster reaction to traumatic brain injuries. The team shared their genuine pride that the latter piece had helped to change lives, as it inspired actual changes in military policy. Supervising Senior Producer for Multimedia Keith Jenkins explained his team’s role this way: “Everyone knows what NPR sounds like. Our job is to figure out what NPR looks like.”

I was disappointed to have missed the morning session about NPR’s coverage of this summer’s Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, but I happened to sit for breakfast with Executive Editor of News Programming Ellen McDonnell and Producer Sam Sanders who both played important roles in the reporting and were able to give me a recap.

Everyone fell in love with Guy Raz and Weekend Edition Sunday's Audie Cornish, who took the stage at breakfast to informally chat about the NPR intern program. They are both former NPR interns, and they spoke humbly and graciously about the intern program’s importance and quality. “I never went to journalism school,” explained Raz, “Robert Siegel was my journalism school.”

Audie Cornish and Guy Raz
One of my NPR heroes, Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan took the stage next to moderate a presentation of stories from the field from Foreign Correspondents Kelly McEvers (Middle East), Frank Langfitt (China) and Jason Beaubien (Global Health). It was a delight to doscover that, yes, Neal Conan really does talk like that all the time. It’s very endearing.

Neal Conan
McEvers set the stage with some very serious admonitions about the impact of US foreign policy in the Middle East region. She shared a story from Syria in which women who have suffered at the hands of their government expressed their disappointment that the US had yet to intervene. “When we take over this country,” one Syrian woman warned, “we won't forget that you forgot about us.” In her reporting from Yemen, McEvers sees the fallout from when the US does intervene. She interviewed a family which had lost its father in an Al-Qaeda-targed drone strike. When asked about his loss, one son vows to avenge his father’s death with whomever is responsible. When asked whom he thinks is responsible, the boy looks to his little brother, who produces a crumpled picture of an American aircraft.

Langfitt showed shocking photos comparing Shanghai in 1990 to today, and enlightened the audience about the rapid pace of growth in the country. When asked about security, he shared a story about his car being followed by Chinese officials on one trip to Shenzhen, and the clear message they send to western journalists: “We know where you are.”

Beaubien shared a multimedia report from Nigeria where gold miners are inadvertently surfacing dangerous levels of lead that are killing off their children. He explained the expense and effort required to tell a story like that—one that other news outlets just don’t pay attention to.

Jason Beaubien, Frank Langfitt, Kelly McEvers
After the panel, I got an up-close look at the sweet polar bear pin Neal Conan was wearing (gift from his wife):

Neal Conan and Anneke Jong
For the final session of the weekend, NPR brought out the big guns. With his iconic baritone voice, Robert Siegel moderated a discussion between The Brookings Institution's Martin Indyk, and U.S. Institute for Peace Senior Fellow Robin Wright. The discussion topic was Iran, and the experience, expertise, and mental horsepower of the three people on stage was mind-blowing. The wisdom coming out of the discussion was too abundant to capture here, but the general consensus seemed to be that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was in large part and effort to secure power in the region and make themselves heard. “Both Israeli and American intelligence agree, Iran is not yet ready to weaponize,” explained Wright.

Martin Indyk, Robert Siegel, Robin Wright
Although the program ended on a serious note, Gary Knell pointed out in his closing remarks that the complicated nuances of the Middle East put some of our pettier topics of concern into perspective. He shared the founding intent of NPR: “To cover the world like we’re speaking to friends.” Now that their “friends” are 35 million strong, there is a lot of work to be done, and everyone in the room seemed motivated, excited, and empowered to get it done.

September 26, 2012

Another Detroit Is Happening

In her 2009 TED talk, Nigerian storyteller Chimamanda Adichie warned of the dangers of a single story. If we only know one story about a place, we become blind to the nuances of reality -- the story we tell ourselves clouds our ability to empathize and connect.

The story of Detroit is one of decline and hopelessness. From headlines about rampant unemployment to traveling photo exhibits of “ruin porn,” the single story America tells itself about Detroit is that it is a dying city overcome with despair.

That is simply not true. Let me show you why.

I recently joined 120 invited guests for a curated weekend called Another Detroit is Happening. Hosted by a small committee of young Detroit entrepreneurs, the weekend’s purpose was to invite other young business leaders, technologists, investors, philanthropists, and artists into the city to tell them the many stories of Detroit. Many of us owe our friendship to the tight-knit Summit Series community, and it is in the collaborative and open-minded spirit of that collective that we convened in Motor City for a long weekend in September.

What we found there may surprise you. Behind the veneer of melancholy and blight, there is boundless art, kindness, craft, innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity—reimaging a new version of a city whose history is stitched deep into the fabric of our great country.

Few people got to experience Another Detroit first hand, but the weekend overflowed with stories that must be told. In the words of Adichie, “Stories matter. Many stories matter...When we realize there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” The single story of Detroit is unsatisfyingly incomplete, so I’ve recorded some more, and I’d like to share them with you.

Imagination Station, Detroit

We landed and headed straight to Ponyride, a craftsman co-working warehouse cum construction project that is reimagining how businesses contribute to communal space.

Ponyride entrance
The warehouse’s owner, Phil Cooley, was one of our hosts for the weekend, and the team had set up a makeshift tent city in the newly sand-covered yard adjacent to the warehouse.

Jameson Detweiler (#neonjesus) at Camp Ponyride
Kicking it at Camp Ponyride
Upon check-in every guest received a handmade tote bag from Detroit Denim, an American denim manufacturer whose workspace was just a flight of stairs away from the gymnasium-type room where we registered. Each bag contained local goodies, and every camper got a custom Ponyride mug with their tent assignment. Handmade washer necklaces hang from leather straps around our necks to designate us as Ponyriders. Everything at camp was provided: tents, mattresses, sleeping bags, and all the goods would all be donated after the event.

Detroit Denim's studio at Ponyride
Walking around Ponyride, you get a sense for the entrepreneurial, roll-up-your-sleeves energy in Detroit. Unlike incubators on the coasts, the focus on craft and hands-on problem solving is palpable in the layout of the building and the business models of its inhabitants. Signs for chores hang in bathrooms and hallways. Sheetrock and piles of fiberglass insulation await installation. Company signs proudly proclaim: Made in Detroit.

Chores at Ponyride
Though united under one roof, Ponyride’s craftsmen inhabitants are diverse in trade. Fencing instructors, letterpress printers, apparel manufacturers, furniture makers, and digital agency designers breathe life in the once abandoned warehouse they now call home.

I had some work to do and so I holed up in a corner of the gymnasium with my laptop. As soon as I sat down, two young hip-hop dancers approached me to ask if they could rehearse in our registration room. In the spirit of the-more-the-merrier, we obliged them and suddenly had our own hip-hop soundtrack for registration.

RunJit dancers rehearse in the #anotherdetroit registration room
First stop of the evening was on Belle Isle at the Giant Slide, which was opened specially to celebrate the birthday of one of our hosts, Dream Hampton.

Birthday girl Dream Hampton on the Giant Slide
From the top of the Giant Slide on Belle Isle
Belle Isle, Detroit
Next, I hopped in a car with host Nicole Patrice to drive across Belle Isle. Dream’s birthday dinner was at Flynn Pavilion, and it was designed to replicate a local dinner series called Clandesdine -- an underground pop-up dinners series to connect people over good food and conversation. Each course in our four-course meal was prepared by a different local chef who described the dish and its wine pairing before service.

Dream Hampton's Clandesdine birthday dinner
Everything was extremely delicious, and I literally licked the plates. Some young musicians from Detroit Youth Volume created ambiance.

Young violinist from Detroit Youth Volume
The birthday girl, Dream Hampton, is a Detroit native and embodies the insatiable pride our hosts exude for their city. Dream encouraged everyone to fully experience the weekend, to take in Detroit and to explore how we might be part of the new Detroit that’s happening “We hope you all invest in Detroit in ways that don't have anything to do with money.

After dinner we headed over to Michigan Avenue for handcrafted cocktails at speakeasy Sugar House.

Cocktails at Sugar House
I finished up the night at LJ’s, a karaoke bar, where it seemed only right to recruit my friend Nathaniel Whittemore to do a duet of “Forgot About Dre.”

Nathaniel and I doing a little rapping
My friend Tobias Rose-Stockwell and I left the bar in search of late-night eats. Having been trained by my friend (and Detroit host) Ben Bator to make good decisions, I picked Lafayette Coney Island for a plate of chili cheese fries.

Late night chili cheese fries at Lafayette Coney Island

Campers woke up to the sound of rain on their tents, but it cleared by late morning. I headed up the street from Ponyride to Astro Coffee, which felt more San Francisco than Detroit. Bearded baristas wore vintage framed glasses and chatted with customers beneath a large chalkboard menu. I had a delicious cappuccino and an Anzac cookie (coconut, oats, butter, sugar).

Astro Coffee in Detroit is the hippest
The walls at Astro were covered with cool-looking posters for hip, young revitalization events around the city.

Cool posters at Astro Coffee: Schnacktoberfest and The Future Is Changing
Eastern Market After Dark swag at Astro Coffee

We walked across the street to the old train depot, which was one of the most memorable landmarks of my trip to Detroit last summer.

Graffiti on the train depot: Sex, Drugs, and Detroit
Next door, a burnt out home had been rebranded as the Imagination Station and painted with a Detroit-inspired mural (see top of this blog post).

Imagination Station: social media in Detroit

Imagination Station
Back at Ponyride, we chowed down on soup, cornbread, and chocolate milk for a luncheon hosted by Detroit SOUP. At their regular events, pay to join a group meal during which several social entrepreneurs pitch their ideas for improving the community. At the end of the meal, the attendees vote on which idea deserves the money paid in to attend the event. (If you’re interested in replicating this model in your city, visit The winner was Food Field, an urban farm seeking funding to expand winter production. San Francisco-based entrepreneur Mike Del Ponte voted for them: “I’m really into sustainable agriculture, and I love how this team is doing it in Detroit. They’re not being fancy pants about it, they’re just doing it.

Chatting after the Detroit SOUP luncheon
Detroit Revitalization Fellow Erin Kelly gave a fascinating presentation about how to deal with the city’s 72,000 deserted residential structures that reduce surrounding property values and attract crime. Highlighting the waste and inefficiency in the city’s failed culture of brute demolition, Erin described an alternative solution called deconstruction—the process of thoughtfully dismantling a building to harvest added-value materials, and recycle where possible. The labor-intensive deconstruction ecosystem seems to be an elegant solution for an economic region whose abundant “natural resources” include abandoned buildings and unemployed workers.

Erin Kelly tells us how "A House is Like a Cow"
After Erin’s presentation, in a Google-sponsored session called EXCHANGE, we broke into small groups to brainstorm with local social entrepreneurs about the challenges of developing a deconstruction industry in Detroit. The room was full of ideas on scratch paper, sketching out business models and new ideas for sustainability in Detroit’s infrastructure industry.

EXCHANGE: brainstorming with social entrepreneurs about deconstruction
The afternoon shifted from business to art, as we piled into retro school buses to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MoCAD), where the highlights included “Dammi i Colori,” a short film about an Albanian city whose mayor decreed that all buildings be painted vibrant colors, and an installation of tricked-out low-riders called “Vision in a Cornfield.” The artists re-imagined how abandoned vehicles in the city could be reanimated to engage the community. Each Frankenstein car in the installation was embedded with instruments and outfitted with motion sensors, turning it into a bizarrely interactive musical experience.

Vision in a Cornfield
On the ride to the Detroit Institute of Art, I got a lesson in trap music from Sean Glass and Jose Mejia and, with the driver’s permission, added my own personal graffiti to the ever-growing Sharpie art proliferating in the back of the bus.

#mittenlove in the back of a school bus
The DIA is the fifth largest art museum in the United States and boasts a pretty sick Diego Rivera mural. We got free entry to walk around for a bit before heading back to Roosevelt Park for dinner. Under a large white tent in the park, we mingled with Michigan Googlers (the tech giant has an office in Ann Arbor and generously sponsored the dinner) and chowed down on deservedly famous eats from Slows BBQ. Probably the best meal we had all weekend, and there was a high bar.

Slows BBQ: pulled pork, ribs, brisket, chicken, jalepeno cole slaw, sweet potato mash, mac n cheese
Without a formal PA system, Slows BBQ owner Phil Cooley climbed into a tree to address the crowd.

Analog microphone: Phil Cooley addresses the crowd from a tree
After dinner, we headed across Michigan Avenue to Slow’s Patio for a dance party with the Haute to Death Deejays. At the party, I ran into my friends Lisa Katayama and Mike Del Ponte, who asked if I wanted to join them on a private tour of the city, led by Detroit native Shaka Senghor. Shaka looks like a tough guy with long black dreds and broad shoulders, but we walked together to his Jeep, where he had to move a baby seat to make room for us to sit. As we drove around Detroit, Shaka told us stories about what Detroit used to be and how it’s changed. He showed us streets that used to cater to drug dealers and $2 prostitutes, but now proudly feature townhomes and young families. He told us about liquor store culture, and how in many neighborhoods of the city, the corner liquor store serves as the cultural center where locals come to shop, bank, and gossip. He brought us to TV Lounge in Cass Corridor where we got a different flavor of Detroit nightlife.

The most enlightening part of driving around with Shaka was his generosity in storytelling. The grace with which he shared his own experience was inspiring. At 14, he left home to escape an abusive family and had no options to survive until a drug dealer took him in. He literally lived in crack houses, where he dealt drugs and was exposed to horrific violence and acts of desperation. After being shot himself, he started to carry a gun, and at age 19, he killed a man in a drug-related altercation. In prison for nearly two decades, Shaka reimagined a life of value and set to changing his fate. He read and wrote a lot, and after release, he started a digital and literary arts program called Live in Peace to provide guidance, support, and mentorship to Detroit teens from troubled homes and neighborhoods. The opportunity to spend quality time with a Detroit native like Shaka and to hear his story was one of the highlights of my weekend.

While the sporty among us opted to rise early for the Tour De Troit, a bike ride exploring the city’s historic sights, I joined the caravan of SUVs (generously provided by GM) for a morning of art exploration. First stop was Cranbrook, the renowned mecca of design education about 30 minutes outside of downtown Detroit.

Cranbrook School
The sprawling New England-style campus is home to ten graduate schools in fine arts and architecture, in addition to museums for art and science. We got a personalized tour from the sparkly and anecdote-rich dean himself, Reed Kroloff. He highlighted the nuances of the architecture including how the structures of what was once a boys’ school on campus were designed with the phallus in mind.

It's no accident that this tower was designed for the campus of an all-boys school
We visited the courtyard of an interdisciplinary cloister once graced by design luminaries like Eames (they met at Cranbrook), Saarinen, and Knoll, where Dean Kroloff pointed out the forced perspective designed into an archway leading to a garden. The thoughtful brickwork and deliberately placed sculpture at the diminishing point drew us through the passage into the greenery on the other side.

Forced perspective at Cranbook
The grounds at Cranbrook were absolutely stunning and featured breathtaking outdoor art installations.

Cranbrook Art Museum
Art on Cranbrook campus
Inscription on a statue at Cranbrook: "god and man and cranbrook"
The institution’s initial benefactors envisioned Cranbrook as a utopian community for art an education. “It’s an amazing representation of what Detroit was 100 years ago—big dreams,” explained Dean Kroloff. “But dreams are from a sleeping state. Now we're a transitioning state. We're waking up.” 

Our next stop showcased a very different take on art; we visited a residential neighborhood in southwest Detroit where the community is using art to battle problems with gang graffiti. The Alley Project (TAP) connects artists with home-owners who allow the garage doors of this neighborhood’s interior alleys to feature spray paint murals.

The Alley Project
Every mural installed becomes a workshop for local youth. The murals enrich the aesthetics of the community, provide a creative outlet, and earn the respect of local gangs who largely steer clear of the installations.

Painting on a burned building
TAP 268 Mural
TAP 100 Mural
The Alley Project's constellation mural
Layers of mural paint at The Alley Project
The coolest things about this community art project is the sustainability built into their workshop: fixtures are reclaimed from closed schools and the sliding glass doors feature DIY “stained glass” made from the lids of used spray paint cans.

Spray can pyramids are used to build
"Stained glass" sliding door made from spray can lids
The spray can is an iconic symbol,” said one of TAP’s curators, holding up one of the small pyramids of empty cans they glue together to create bricks for furniture and structural art. “We look at them as building blocks, using them as the foundation of street art culture here in our city.

Spray can wall at The Alley Project
Spray can at The Alley Project
 We rejoined the rest of the group at Eastern Market, Detroit’s public farmers market described as “one of the most authentic urban adventures in the United States.” Brunch was served at the Red Bull House of Art where we enjoyed McClures bloody marys and sweet potato waffles from local food entrepreneur Tawnya Clark’s Batata Shop, followed by a tour through the building’s secret bootlegging tunnels leading to an awesome underground art gallery.

McClure's bloody mary mix
Red Bull House of Art: this painter does amazing eyes
Red Bull House of Art: die faces
Red Bull House of Art: all painted with make-up
The old Detroit Tiger stadium was our next stop where we suited up with jerseys and “broke in” to play a few innings on the historical field.

Playing baseball on old Tigers' Stadium
Dan Petruzzi is a tiger
After a delicious Salvadorian dinner at Ponyride, we headed to Old Miami, a salty dive bar in Cass Corridor, to catch a rare live show by Detroit native, Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s story is so bizarre that it is the centerpiece of the 2012 Sundance documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” The basic overview is this: Rodriguez is a singer/songwriter and a contemporary of Bob Dylan. When his albums failed to perform at the levels his record label expected, his career collapsed. He returned to Detroit to work blue-collar jobs in relative anonymity, while, unbeknownst to him, his albums were beloved and achieving cult status in South Africa. Years later, fans tracked him down, brought him to South Africa where he played to sold out stadiums. Coincidentally, 60 Minutes was filming Rodriguez that weekend, and the quirky musician and film crew were arriving just as we did.

Rodriguez with the 60 Minutes crew
Ben Bator and Rodriguez in front of the Old Miami
Not only did we get to chat with Rodriguez himself for a few minutes outside the bar, but we all slipped into the front row for his eclectic performance. Among his bits of wisdom shared that night: “The mystery of life is that you don’t know when it’s going to end.”

Front row for a Rodriguez live show at Old Miami in Detroit
After the show, we returned to Ponyride where fire pits, sound equipment, and the roster of DJs in our ranks sparked a literal warehouse party in the wee hours.

Warehouse party at Camp Ponyride
We ate brunch (fresh veggie frittata with a deconstructed watermelon, herb, and queso fresco salad) in the pastoral setting of Brother Nature, a surprising urban farm hiding in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood.

Brunch at Brother Nature
Then we headed to Roosevelt Park to compete in the city’s largest (only?) cornhole tournament. Scores of costume-clad teams tossed beanbags at Detroit-themed wood boards at the foot of the abandoned train depot. Fashion entrepreneur Elizabeth Kott and I partnered up to get our butts handed to us by some Detroit locals—a young couple, proud residents of downtown who were happy to share stories about their city.

Roosevelt Park cornhole tournament
Afterward, Chris Barrett and Paul Bloch joined us for a walk back to Ponyride to drink some delicious Anthology coffee. The Anthology coffee craftsmen were on staff all weekend hand-brewing espressos and coffees for groggy Ponyride campers. Pretty much the best cup of coffee I’d ever had in my life.

Anthology coffee: pretty much the best cup of coffee I've ever had
The artisan bartenders at Corkstown speakeasy Sugar House filled our afternoon with hand-crafted cedar-smoked bourbon and other skillfully fashioned throwback cocktails.

Hand smoking the bourbon with cedar chips
Letting the bourbon steep
Pouring the smoked bourbon
A crew mobilized late in the afternoon to visit The Heidelberg Project, an outdoor art environment that combines discarded items and bright colors to transform a forgotten neighborhood into a centerpiece for creative community revitalization.

Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
The highlight of our the neighborhood was Otila, a Detroit native who’s yellow house in the center of the two-block urban art experience has become an architectural guestbook for visitors. For a dollar, you can sign your name and join this constantly changing piece of collaborative urban art.

Yellow House guest book at the Heidelberg Project
Otila at the Yellow House at the Heidelberg Project
We ventured down to the waterfront to the Rivertown Warehouse District, where we walked around the Elevator Building, a 100+ year old structure re-purposed into office and studio space. Local lore hints at the building’s history with organized crime and the four bodies they evidently found upon renovation.
Elevator Building
Around the corner, we wandered into the derelict Globe Trading Company Building, which was straight out of a movie set—truly the abandoned warehouse from your nightmares. However, the afternoon sunbeams pouring in the broken windows cast a different light on the wreckage and gave hope for the 17,000-square foot play area rumored to be in development.

Globe Building
Globe Building
Globe Building
Down the street we sat at the makeshift bar inside the Atwater Brewery to grab some beers brewed on-site.

Beer at Atwater Brewery
On our way back to Ponyride, host Nia Batts allowed us to make a quick stop at Detroit’s Monument to Joe Louis.

Fist bump: Elizabeth Kott, Anneke Jong, Nia Batts
Back at Ponyride, I wandered upstairs to visit Eric Yelsma, the craftsman behind Detroit Denim Co.’s American-sourced hand-made jeans. As Eric worked busily on his retro sewing machines and button-holers, I noticed a pile of remnant tote bag straps and asked if he could make me a bracelet. He kindly obliged.

Custom Detroit Denim bracelet
For dinner we ventured back downtown to the M@dison Building, a physical manifestation of Detroit’s tech entrepreneurship community (a scene I coined as “Silicon Mitten” back in December 2011). The former site of a blighted theater, the M@dison Building is Detroit Venture Partners’s homebase for economic revitalization in Motor City, and the site of a truly beautiful roof deck where we took in the Detroit skyline while watching the Detroit Lions play the San Francisco 49ers.

After a dub-step scored convertible ride with my dear friends Bobby Bailey, Jameson Detweiler, and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, we returned to Ponyride to gather around the fire pits with marshmallows and sparklers.

Sparklers around the camp fire
The last time many of us gathered in a warehouse was in March at SXSW where we collectively broke a world record for largest footed-pajama party in a soiree generously-sponsored by Jumpin Jammerz. Since we’re all now proud owners of onesie pajamas, many of us brought them with us to Detroit and Sunday night’s campfire seemed like the right place to break them out.

Ben Bator, Chris Barrett, Tobias Rose-Stockwell Anneke Jong (photo credit: Wayne Price)
Did we finish the night with a cross-town drag race between a Ford F150 and a panda-colored BMW X5M, fresh off the Mille Mitten? Of course not. That’s illegal.

As the sun rose on a new week in Detroit, I drove through the waking streets with two of my favorite people, hosts Ben Bator and Philip Bator. The inseparable brothers are Detroit natives and current residents who have resisted falling prey to the brain drain plaguing their city.

As we reflected on the weekend, they talked about a trip they’d taken to Nashville where they saw a sign for a local western clothing store that advertised “ranch dressing.” “The locals probably don’t even notice it,” laughed Philip, “but we loved discovering that for ourselves. We wanted to take photos of it and tell all our friends back home.

Ben nodded, sharing his goal as one of the event's organizers: “I just hope we gave everyone a ranch dressing moment this weekend.

Another Detroit is happening. My goodness, it really is.