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Agile Innovation Leaders

Mar 8, 2021


Heather is a social entrepreneur who is passionate about creating communities focused on assets, abilities, and abundance. Heather leads the design and strategy behind Pause for Change, co-hosts the online “talk show” Possibility Project, and speaks at national and local conferences about social impact disruption and innovation. Heather has launched several ventures that benefit the social impact sector, connecting organizations to the training, skills, and resources they need to deepen their impact. What brings Heather to life is teaching and seeing those a-ha moments, and connecting and collaborating with amazing changemakers around the world.


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Interview Transcript:

Ula: [01:12] Heather. Thank you so much for being my guest on the podcast. 

Heather: [01:15] Thank you. I'm so excited to be here. 

Ula: [01:18] Yeah - so let's get started! In our pre-recording session you mentioned that you've always wanted to be an entrepreneur since you were a young girl. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Heather: [01:30] Yeah. I didn't know about entrepreneurship. There's no one in my immediate family that were entrepreneurs. And as I got older, I realized that in every job that I was working at, I always wanted to be the head person. I didn't agree with what everyone was doing. And I really wanted everyone to kind of think of a new way to work. And as I got older, I realized like, oh, there is this thing called entrepreneurship. And it's more than small business, right? It's really how you cultivate ideas and how do you solve problems and became really exciting. And entrepreneurship really changed my life. I think my first venture I started about eight years ago, and very empowering to go on your own very scary. It was really great to have that experience, but for me, it gave me the confidence and the skills to really apply that strength and that grit to other parts of my life. So I was able to leave some negative relationships, really have a new vision for my passion and purpose, and put these new skills into action for solving problems: generating revenue, working community, and yeah, entrepreneurship just changed everything for me.

Ula: [02:39] Hmm. I do resonate with you in the sense that as a young child also, I always felt like I'd want to own my own thing and build my own thing. And I'm still on that journey, but unlike you, my father was an entrepreneur anyway. So he had his own business and I grew up seeing what it means to be an entrepreneur. So it is interesting Steve Blank in my interview with him mentioned that entrepreneurship is a calling. Now, could you tell us a bit more about your career journey? So you said you've gone into entrepreneurship, but what's your career story so far?

Heather: [03:14] Yeah, I like to start it when I was young even I think it's really formative. You know, how we grew up then we grew up with, I grew up with, two very middle-class parents. My dad was an air force guy for decades and was a hurricane Hunter and a meteorologist for the air force. And so a little bit of risk-taking, but lots of practicality and dad was the one that was like, you’ve got to back up what you say - if you want something you have to state your case. And it's really shocking my sister and I are not attorneys instead of entrepreneurs because we really had to beef up our messaging. And then my mom was a teacher for decades, English as a second language teacher, and really involved in social justice issues and issues for the community. And I think growing up with that practicality, some of that risk-taking was that there was some social impact and social justice really gave me that foundation that I can see has completely been that uniting thread through my life.

And I also had the privilege of growing up in a very diverse community, and that was extremely important that it made me understand. And I think it started to build my very early empathy muscle of what it is and what the variety of walks of life are and the variety of experiences. So that was really an important jumping-off point. But my background is a lot of liberal arts. I did my degrees in sociology and African-American studies focused on social inequality and I have a master's in public health, focused on health disparities. And I was actually in clinical research for seven years. I led clinical research studies and cardiology for about half that time and the other half was in skin cancer and melanoma. And so really interesting that, you know, I had this whole science background, but what I love about the research piece is totally connected to entrepreneurship, which is being hypothesis-driven, right?

Saying like what, what is behind this? What is the answer? And I worked with thousands of patients and their family members. So that again, deepened my empathy muscle of being with people in some of their most critical times of need, you know, having a cancer diagnosis, having a heart attack in the emergency department, I mean really connected to people's humanity and, really working with them while they're most exposed was such a pleasure and such an honor. But really also shaped my thinking about, you know, how people operate and how people work. And then that transitioned to a lot more program development, design, fundraising messaging. And then that kind of transition to my entrepreneurial career of moving into, okay, what could I create to solve some of the community's greatest needs? So I entered the consulting realm of helping grassroots and small organizations with their fundraising plans, but just sort of supporting their groups or leadership team to get more stabilized.

And then the next venture that I started was around connecting really needs in the community with abundance in the community and being a connector, which I already was doing So turning that into a business and then it turned into creating social impact within the company as an entrepreneur. So I have a lot of deep empathy for what it is to be entrepreneurial. And then now really spinning out in July of last year and forming this entirely new venture. And then we just launched another project last week. So I think what you're saying it's a calling and it's an addiction. It's really hard to turn that part of you off because you develop those skills. Like you see opportunities, you see problems, you're listening continually, you're creating hypotheses that you're testing assumptions, you're running experiments continually. So it really is what fuels me.

Ula: [06:55] Wow. Very, very impressive I must say. And so what do you do outside work? What are your interests?

Heather: [07:03] It's hard to turn, work off because I love it so much. I have to make sure I don't wake up at 3:30 in the morning, with too many ideas too often, [Interposed Talking 06:02] That part john can tell you many mornings I'm awake You know, secretly typing things into my phone on the side of the bed, in the dark. But when I'm not doing that, when I'm not really enjoying my work, which I really, really, really love work is I love to be outside. I love to be with my family, of course, and my partner and my friends, but I love to be outdoors. That's really where I fill my cup. 

I kind of come back to myself, but I do get so scattered and a little overly passionate and more, I love camping and hiking kayaking and having the dirt under my nails and you know, the smell of pine fantastic. And I love art and, I love watching people create, you know, whether it's on TV or I'm at an art show or something. I just love the idea of people creating something from nothing. And often when I'm looking for inspiration, I'll go visit museums. It's a very quiet space for me. I grew up going to a lot of museums with my family. It's very comforting and it really puts me in a creative zone or from which I can do a lot of writing or a lot of deep thinking. And, yeah, that's really what I try to do to center.

Ula: [08:23] Do you ever… like, dabble into painting yourself or creating art yourself? 

Heather: [08:28] I have a little bit. I did a little bit after I got divorced about six and a half years ago I found that art was very therapeutic. It was very much a part of my healing journey. It was really helpful in that I think now most of the time because it is much more busy now that time is the creativity Is tapping into, okay, what might we create business-wise and being open to those possibilities? And the other piece, I think also fuels me is collaboration. I've worked on that a lot. I think it's hard as an entrepreneur to get over that feeling of competition. And it's something I know I struggle with. My natural tendency is competition. I'm very competitive. So I really worked on having that self-awareness like, oh, it's happening? Why is this happening? Like, am I having imposter syndrome, you know, on steroids am I feeling vulnerable am I feeling not enough, like, what is this about? What is it about this person or their venture that's making me feel threatened? You know, how do I need to really own and not project that. 

And I found this new absolute love and possibility in collaboration of, you know, talking to people like you and talking to others all around the world and understand what they're up to and then trying to figure like, how do we hold each other up? How do we talk about, you know, there's a lot of us that need to be in this game to make it better and to do this really important work. So how can I do that? So that's something that I think that's where a lot of my creative energy is in right now. And it's really exploring what's possible with others, not just by myself because that is hard

Ula: [10:02]  I do agree there's more than enough room at the top. And really once you collaborate, you can get more done than by competing. And you also gain, you know, an ally as well. That's what I found out and I'm still learning every day

Heather: [10:16] It is a continual journey because new opportunities continually present themselves. But I think it's such a chance to be authentic and to be real, vulnerable creative. And I think it makes everyone better, even if some of those collaborations don't manifest and they're not successful or they don't become something. Just the process of exploring all the tendrils of what's connected to collaboration, I think are really valuable for your own personal journey, but your own development of, you know, what venture you do develop and what you do create whether it's with someone or not really, really helpful.

Ula: [10:49] Yeah, totally. I agree. And one of my mentors about 20 years ago told me, you know, there's no wasted experience. And although I took it with a pinch of salt, then looking back, even the most mundane things have taught me a lot about life, about working with people effectively. . Even if it doesn't manifest into a full-blown collaboration, there's always something you'd learn from each interaction.

Heather: [11:15] Something that drives our work is, you know, people, first empathy, reigns Supreme, and relationships matter. And so it's not people that are closing deals and focusing on sales. There's a lot of focus on okay, onto the next, onto the next, onto the next, but, you know, relationship building with potential customers, doing the work to make sure that you're providing, you know, the promise that you made. And then we often forget about what happens after that. Like how do we continue to create value? How does that relationship evolve?  A lot of our work has been word of mouth and a lot of referrals and a lot of repeat customers because relationships are very, very important to us. And I think that's a really important skill that a lot of entrepreneurs sometimes don't have, they're not thinking a full spectrum of what does the entire lifetime of that relationship and how to really optimize that authentically?

Ula: [12:03] Yes. I mean, the listeners probably wouldn't be seeing me on video right now, but I'm just nodding my head off, like yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Empathy, relationships, very, very important. Trust underpins that - to have relationships that work. You have to build and maintain that trust as well. So can you tell us a bit more about Pause for Change and what do you do?

Heather: [12:28] Yeah. So pause for change. It’s an acronym and essentially what we do at pause for change is we help organizations really in less time with fewer resources solve more efficiently and effectively their problems either solve challenges or address opportunities much more efficiently and effectively than they do now. And the space that we really work in is serving nonprofit organizations, local governments, and philanthropic foundations all around the country so far just in the US. And, what we, what we really do is reflected in the name. So pause is an acronym. It's really a mixture of design thinking, agile, lean experimentation, social justice, and organizational change theory. If you can think of all of that in a blender and mix it all up, and then we distilled it down to say, what are the core skills that a person needs to navigate uncertainty? Whether it's engaging with something really tricky and potentially painful, like there's a struggle in your organization or something really inspiring and exciting, like a great opportunity.

We found that in social impact space, which we love and work in, it was too much to go deep into each of those modalities. And we noticed that there was really a fantastic part of each of those. And so we pulled out kind of the best of the best and totally customized it for social impact. And then we further customize it for each of those segments, the local government, you know, the messaging style is a little bit different than what we do with nonprofits, for example. So pause what it stands for as a P is packaged the challenge. And all of this is based on what you've learned during this work over the past six years. But the first is getting aligned, you know, forming a diverse team across hierarchy and across sectors, like across departments and all of that to break down those silos and the hierarchal levels.

And we form a team and we get them aligned around the challenge and all of the stakeholders impacted. We found that that was the part that was really glossed over, where people weren't really deeply rooted where they were trying to solve for them, what the problem was. And then the A is assess uncertainty. And we started this practice a couple of years ago, and it's been really transformative where we have teams identify everything they don't know. And we say, okay, what do you know for sure? So it collects everything that they have learned historically, that they have data and evidence to supporting stuff that might be more legacy staff to really show the history of the organization. And then what do we not know? What do we not know about our challenge? What do we not know about our various stakeholders and what do we need to go learn?

And that's a really important step because it removes failure from the table. It just unites everyone says, wow, there's a lot of stuff we don't know. Okay, let's go. It's not like we're a bunch of dummies or, you know, we don't know what we're doing. It's not demotivating, it's really empowering for them. And so that leads straight into understand stakeholders, which is the real pause. And that's all about empathy interviewing and doing observation, work, teaching people how to do great interviews. And what they do is they take all of those unknowns and they turn them into questions. They prioritize those things that they need to learn most, put them into question format for their intro script. And then they go out and talk with folks. And in that initial step, we talk a lot about, you know, what is it to work in an organization? What is it to have bias? How does bias impact how well or how not your empathy interviews will go because of your inability to listen. How do you take those insights that you've learned and you removed your own ladder of inferential lens and bias. So you can truly hear the voice of the stakeholder.

So that's kind of all in that first section that we talked to teams through and then the S is solution testing. So that's really the experimentation and testing piece. And it focuses a lot on inclusive and bold brainstorming, and social impact. We joke, we often say like, okay, $5, five minutes, and five people. What do we do? And you know that doesn't lead to a lot of great ideas. So we try to push them to be more bold, to be more inclusive because what we see, and this is true in enterprise as well is it's usually board members, executive leadership team that are creating the ideas. And that's a huge, oops, that's a big, big mess, for organizations that don't include diversity of thought in the brainstorming, because you need frontline staff to really align those decision-makers. So we talk about inclusive brainstorming and then, once they prioritize potential solutions, you know, they might have like 30 or 40 ideas we prioritize those and then just pick the first, to begin with. And then we break it into its component assumptions, just like the lean process of what must be true for the stakeholder to drive value. And what behavior do you need to see from them? And that feels the experiments, the teams designing. So, you know, what will I offer? What do I need to see? And then how do I make a decision, which is the evidence-informed, decision-making am I going to pivot persevere or iterate, and then we  teach teams how to tell that entire journey in five minutes or less, and we call it their learning journey.

You know, how do you talk about from the moment you became aligned and you talked about here's the challenge, here are the stakeholders all the way to, you know, we run five experiments, and here's our recommendation. We tell them how to do that quickly and succinctly so that they can train it to leaders. someone we worked with said, this is a process that you can use to tell a leader that their idea is awful in a really nice way, you know, you can say, I thought that would have worked too, but Oh goodness, we interviewed, you know, 40 people and nobody wants that, nobody said that or we ran eight experiments and every assumption is invalidated. We need to go back to the drawing board and we've seen leaders be very open to supporting that type of data and that type of learning to help teams really pivot the way they need to. So yeah, that's what we teach organizations too, is how do you apply those skills to your challenges so that you can make progress as quickly as possible and really maximize impact

Ula: [18:38] I like the clever, way you use the word pause to outline the approach, to helping organizations solve problems and navigate uncertainty.

Heather: [18:49] The organizations would have an idea they'd start building, and then they'd go to full implementation execution mode, which is creating a ton of waste. And so now it's teaching them to be stakeholders engaged in focus. Co-creating then pausing at each of these time points to really see like, am I on the right track? And that's a skill that a lot of folks in the social impact sector have never heard of and do not have. 


Ula: [19:10] It’s not just in the social sector [Interposed talking 18:02] It’s everywhere. Actually I can assure you of that. I like this phrase on your website, you said the power of pausing to see new change you must break old patterns and learn new skills. It’s not enough to learn about the design or the theory behind it. You have to pause…

Heather: [19:35] Exactly and organizations don't realize, but they have their own unique problem-solving habits. They have a way that when something happens they view problems and they tackle problems because the brain hates uncertainty like the brain literally excretes the pleasure chemical when we make a decision when we choose a path forward. So no one wants uncertainty it’s horrible. So what's interesting is we talk about habits of problem-solving within organizations. There's a cue which triggers an action, which results in their inner reaction or reward. And so if people have a wacky way of solving problems and they think that's the only way they're just going to keep receiving and achieving the same impact and seeing results is that whole definition of insanity. You know, it's the same thing over and over again,

But when we can interrupt the way that they interpret the cue and the action that they take in response, their reward will be very different. It'll spin out a whole other results. so that's what we try to really bring to their awareness of its normal all organizations have their own cultural way of solving problems, but you can add more tools to the toolbox and you can really see your problems in a different way. So you know what tools to pull out at the right time. 

Ula: [20:48] Exactly. You did mention something interesting about inclusive brainstorming during the solution testing phase. I don't know about you, but in several organizations where I've worked, to an extent I do see that, depending on your rank or your level in the organization, people who are lower tend not to feel psychologically safe, I don't know if that psychological safety elements, you come across it. And how do you encourage the leadership to create an atmosphere that would force a genuinely inclusive environments that would give the results you're after.


"Quick sidebar everyone: the term psychological safety according to Wikipedia is the ability to show and employ oneself without fear of negative consequences. It’s really about being free to express your mind and to challenge the status quo if need be without fear of losing your job or being punished."

Heather: [21:48] Yeah, that's a great question. We do refer to Amy Edmondson's work. And we talk about the learning zone. You need high accountability and high psychological safety to really help people operate in learning zones. So they don't slip into apathy or anxiety or that cozy safety mode. We do an assessment with leadership. We do like a cultural assessment with individuals and for their own evaluation of like, how do I feel I am innovative? And then we do one across the organization as the very first baseline. And we're able to have that conversation with leaders to show them the data, show them the evidence and do some training of ourselves and say, you know, in these 10 components, these are where you're strong. And these are where we're seeing some opportunities for improvement. And as we work with your teams and as we work with you, because we do a lot of intensive work with leaders and decision-makers. We're going to see what we can shift. And so we also do a post-assessment to see individually what has migrated and culturally across the organization what has also shifted, 

When people start on this process, it's new and it's hard. It's really our first step is with these small teams and getting those small, quick wins and starting to show what the difference kind of the before and after and what's possible that really starts to get leaders on board. And then we're able to hold them accountable and be the voice of our team members who may not have as much power, right, depending on their rank. And we're able to then take their voices in a very safe way and then talk to leaders and say, you know, I know that you're saying this, but your actions are telling the team that this is unacceptable.

And then, you know, we hold up the team to praise them and also reinforce positive behavior that leaders are doing of, wow, you're asking great questions. Like we're so happy you’re not talking about ROI and when it will launch and we're in week two, like group job, just calming down and waiting for like actual validated results. Like good job it is work it's yeah that's why I love this work because you not only see individuals transform and you see those aha that's right. That's kind of the addiction of this type of work, the a-has are the addiction.  We can't wait to see them. So it's so amazing to see individuals change, you know, people that have worked in an organization for 30 years that are like the most rooted in status quo, say, I want this, this is so interesting.

Or people that have never had a voice, but then working with us, they say, you know, while we're at it, I have a hundred ideas in a word doc on my computer. Can I show you? It's like, Whoa, wait. So it brings people to life. And then teams are so interesting. Team dynamics are so fun to watch in action and you get to see teams gel or not. And what that means and what that journey is like. And then as an organization you get to see the ripple effects through the leadership and through different ways of thinking, it is not easy. And we do our absolute best to try and make sure everyone has that learning experience to adopt new behaviors that lead to new change.

Ula: [24:49] You did mention earlier on at the beginning of this conversation that you started a new project recently, can you tell us about that?

Heather: [24:57] Yeah. Yeah. It's called the Possibility Project. And in this time of uncertainty, we really wanted to pause ourselves and we had noticed that there are a lot of big questions and opportunities that are popping up right now. And in social impact, there are issues that have always been there. Issues of equity, issues of power, issues of original design of how social impact organizations and systems were created that are really bubbling up and really showing a lot of dysfunction and a lot of opportunity for change. So we started a project where we went and interviewed thought leaders in social impact. We asked them three questions really, to understand their perspective. And the first was, you know, how are you doing what's happening right now? The second was what dysfunctions do you want to disappear from the sector? And the third was what is emerging that's giving you hope? And so we took all of those, in this kind of crisis. And we started to figure out what themes are common, what are the big questions that are popping up over and over again, that we don't want to disappear? You know, when the virus resolves and when it does, whatever it does.

Ula: [26:14] You are talking about the COVID-19...

Heather: [26:16] Exactly, exactly. So it's like, we don't want things to go back to any resemblance of some of what we considered normal, what we considered status quo. There were a lot of practices and systems and policies that we have in place that are not resolving poverty and hunger and homelessness and some of these large social challenges. So we want to keep bringing those big questions to the forefront, even when everyone is desperate to go back to some sort of, you know, simplicity and clarity, we want to keep those complex things at the forefront.

Ula: [26:49] Sure actually, this COVID-19 situation has highlighted the differences because stay at home, but do I really have a home in the first place? If I'm homeless, you know, where do I stay? And people who typically live from hand to mouth, if they can't go to work, they don't have any savings or anything, you know, no food in the house, how do they survive? So it has really raised a lot of questions. And for some people home, isn't the safe place - they look forward to when they can go out because there's abuse in their home and now they are stuck with their abusers. Yeah. It is a huge can of worms that this situation has opened up, actually.

Heather: [27:31] Absolutely. And we want to hold the sector accountable because if we have poured in trillions of dollars at this point into creating change and money, hasn't solved it. There's something more there. And we know it's the systems, it's the systems that were created and it's the systems and power that maintain how we address social change and social issues, that is part of the problem. And so we want to pull those out. We want to hear from thought leaders, we want to talk about what's possible. How can we re-imagine the sector? So our first topic is all about power and philanthropy. And it's just talking about, there's a huge power differential between the haves and have not’s, right? The foundations, the grant funds, the organizations that apply and, you know, cross fingers and hope with everything they have that they'll secure some of those funds.

And what are the wacky dynamics that pop up when you have that strange, huge differential in power? And what does that mean for community members? What does that mean for their staff? And they're like you brought up the issue of essential workers. You know, the nonprofit sector is huge in some communities it’s one in eight employees works for a nonprofit one in 16, like it's pretty significant. And we just are not paying attention to the safety nets that organizations provide the local government and federal government can only go so far. And you know, what is the entire ecosystem at play that is helping those most vulnerable folks? And how are we designing solutions for the most vulnerable, which is often what we haven't been doing. So it's really interesting to dig into these and this pause for us has given us the opportunity to really focus on deepening our passionate purpose.

We love our work with organizations. We absolutely adore the people we get to support, but it's- we have a larger focus on why we do this and it's to really change the way we change the world. And so this project we hope and we think will really bring a community of change-makers together, engaged in like collaboration like we've never seen it before to get more of these big questions on the table to see how we can start to move the path forward. 

Ula: [29:36] And that's great. Now, before we wrap up, do you have any requests of the audience? Where can they find you? 

Heather: [29:45] Yeah, I mean, to learn more, check out the website, it’s And what I would really want to leave with is for anyone that has entrepreneurial ideas, or is an entrepreneur, or, you know, wants to get involved in social change, social impact is just to really focus on the why, you know, what is that passion and purpose that drives you? And, the focus on empathy I think is huge. I think it is the ultimate superpower in creating a successful business and having a successful life is having the foundation of self-awareness to understand how you're feeling, to be able to watch others and try to interpret how they're feeling, and then being able to ask great questions and be able to listen and listen without bias and to listen without our own overlay of our feelings and our own experiences and our own interpretation. I think that is what I would hope for people and what I really want others to aspire to. 

And we're all on a journey, right? It's really, really hard work to do, but I think if that's the driving motivation of how we're changing better ourselves and better our work and create the very best programs and products and services out there, that's the core of it. So that's the core of customer discovery. That's the core of experimentation and co-creation with customers and stakeholders, and it's the core of your own personal learning journey. So that's what I would want people to really open their mind to and have an active practice around.

Ula: [31:16] Well said. Thank you so much, Heather. The link to your website, as well as your social media handles will be in the show notes. Thanks once more Heather; it's been a pleasure speaking with you. 

Heather: [31:29] Thank you so much.