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Pixar becomes hub for social entrepreneurs

January 17, 2012

The atrium at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, CA, made for a fitting setting for The Intersection, an event which brought together thinkers and doers from a variety of disciplines to exchange ideas about social innovation. The lofty space was conceived by Pixar CEO Steve Jobs to be a place that would force employees from all parts of the organization to intersect with one another on a daily basis by virtue of its central location. All paths lead there, like veins and aorta to and from the heart.

As such, the venue stood as a nice metaphor for what the inaugural Intersection event was striving to achieve: a point of idea-generating connection created as a result of bringing together people from very disparate professional backgrounds.

With a participant list of just 350 people and a speaker lineup that included actress Susan Sarandon, Pixar President Ed Catmull, IDEO CEO Tim Brown and Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, the event piqued my curiosity. It's not the sort of thing I'd usually think of attending. But this year, as I'm spending my time as a John S Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, I'm leading myself down some unlikely paths. I'm intent on following my nose.

Things got off to a promising start with Johannson's energetic keynote speech. The presenter demonstrated with eloquence and humor how great entrepreneurs have solved problems by finding the connecting point between two completely different fields of inquiry. For example, an architect built a huge office building in Harare without air conditioning by exploring termite ecology. (Termite colonies have figured out how to keep their homes at a consistent temperature by channeling the air in the termite hills.) In another example, a Muslim fashion designer enabled burqa-wearing women to be comfortable when swimming in the water by creating the "burqini," an ingenious and rather trendy top-to-toe lycra outfit that's much more comfortable to wear in the water than the heavy black cotton daywear that is the norm for observant Muslim ladies who fancied getting wet once in a while.

A discussion between Catmull and Brown also yielded some interesting insights -- The notion that Brown put forward of looking to the extremes of society to help design solutions for the middle of the market resonated particularly strongly. For example, when IDEO is working on designing a new consumer kitchen appliance, the company's researchers don't go and talk to typical consumers of kitchen appliances. They talk to "extreme" users of culinary tools like professional chefs or children.

Other highlights of the day included the delicious lunch (much better than anything I've had at a corporate networking event) and a short vocal performance by Voices in Harmony, a men's a cappella group based in Silicon Valley. (Pictured above, singing a schmaltzy but sweet ode to Steve Jobs accompanied by projected photos from the Pixar and Apple CEO's life.)

But despite several positive aspects, the team behind the event (a consortium of social innovation and investment groups and consultancies) will need to make some tweaks in time for the next iteration of The Intersection, which is already scheduled for January 19 2013.

For one thing, the day is too long and way too passive. After hours of listening to talking heads talk, I craved the opportunity to be more active. The numerous networking opportunities didn't quite cut it for me -- I wanted a few more tangible interactions and activities.

For another, some of the people up on stage left much to be desired. The worst offender was the person charged with moderating the discussion involving Susan Sarandon and model/entrepreneurial fashionista Lauren Bush. She was a terrible timekeeper, rambled on for minutes on end without actually asking a question of the guests and was apparently oblivious to the guy standing by the stage frantically holding up "5 minute warning" and "Stop" signs for ages beyond the session's scheduled end time. The barrage of tweets flying around ("Worst. Moderator. Ever.") indicated widespread frustration at the woman's utter lack of sensitivity and self-centeredness.

Would I attend this event again? Probably not if I had to pay for it.

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