8 Ways to Say “No”

I just finished Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Great stuff in there.

One of my favorite 90-second segments is a perfect example of that genius balance of principle and practice that actually makes a difference in a reader’s daily life. I now have a ready arsenal of 8 graceful ways to ‘choose no’–a practice absolutely vital to maintaining focus and keeping commitments as an entrepreneur. Interestingly, most of these don’t actually involve using the word “no.” Here they are:

1. The Awkward Pause: own the silence after an in-person request. Simply counting to 3 before responding both gives you the time to get past the impulse to give an unconsidered ‘yes’ and the person asking you the sense that you’ve actually considered their request.

2. The No-but: clearly decline, but suggest an alternative to the request.

3. ‘Let me check my calendar and get back to you’: take back control by deferring on-the-fly requests.

4. The Email Bounce-back: It’s not just for vacations and holidays. People will adapt to the level of availability and responsiveness you project.

5. The ‘What should I de-prioritize?’: force the requester to grapple with the inherent trade-offs involved with saying yes.

6. The Humorous No: Keep it simple. A flat ‘nope.’ followed by a smile is unexpectedly disarming. Note that sarcasm can easily backfire in this context.

7. The “You are welcome to X, I am willing to Y”: couch what you will not do in a clear statement of what you are willing to do. This response beautifully maintains both parties’ ability (and responsibility) to choose.

8. The Handoff: Often, people don’t really care if you’re the one who helps them, as long as they get the help. Simply suggest someone else with the capacity and inclination to help.

Shinrin Yoku 1

Yesterday, I celebrated Shinrin Yoku for the first time.

Traditionally it’s not a holiday, per se, just a Japanese custom/concept I’ve adopted as part of my 2015 adventure in mindful celebrations.

Shinrin Yoku literally translates as “forest bathing” and it’s rooted in the belief that natural spaces have powerful cleansing, restorative, and healing energy.

My inagural forest bath involved a half-mile walk along the river in Boston in (according to my weather app) “feels like” -16 degree temperatures with 21mph winds out of the northwest and several feet of snow.

It was wet. It was COLD. And it was…bafflingly…meditative, restorative, and healing.

Now, let me be perfectly clear, this was not a transcendental experience. There was nothing graceful about my alternate slipping through the slush and stumbling through 3-foot drifts, glasses caked with blowing snow and snot freezing in my nose. But choosing not to distract myself from the intense sensory immersion, the experience took on a kind of harsh beauty–physically, aesthetically, and emotionally.


All in all, not a bad first “bath.”

Opportunity Collaboration



  • Research and Data Analysis
  • Storyboarding, Message and Information Design
  • Graphics

Is the Girl Effect going off the rails? Exploring the pitfalls of “girlwashing”

Back in 2008, a coalition of funders put out the call…

There was a linchpin, a lever, an untapped well of power and potential for solving the world’s most pressing problems–and we were missing it. That unstoppable force, they said, was a teenage girl.

If you haven’t seen the 2-minute Girl Effect video manifesto (or if it’s been a while) watch it here.

From the Nike Foundation website: “In the 1990s, research from the Population Council and International Center for Research on Women began to show that when an adolescent girl in poverty is able to stay in school, delay marriage and delay having children, not only do her life chances radically change, but the children she will later have are far more likely to be healthy and educated. By investing more in girls, governments and international organizations could break the cycle of poverty from one generation to the next.

The Girl Effect is a movement. It’s about the unique potential of adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves and the world. It’s about getting girls on to the global development stage and driving massive resources to them.”

In essence: “Girls are the most powerful force for change on the planet.”

With the explosion of girl-focused programs, partnerships, interventions and innovations that followed, the brown-skinned pre-teen girl has literally become the new poster child for social change. And we feel an urgency to raise the issue of “girlwashing”–using the emotional appeal and timeliness of the “Girl Effect” to promote, fund, and accelerate ventures that lack the kind of specific, holistic, deep impact on adolescent girls in poverty that the girl effect is really about. “Girl Effect” ventures run without girls, claiming “Girl Effect” impact based on theoretical behaviors, equating income generation with empowerment, and other manifestations of girlwashing undermine the power of this otherwise vital movement.


What is girlwashing?

Whenever a new discovery, insight or opportunity makes enough noise in the social impact space to generate significant grant money, investment capital, policy focus, media attention or public engagement, it seems to create a sort of gravitational pull throughout the sector. Individuals and organizations are drawn in; seemingly regardless of strategic alignment or capacity.

This tendency is clearly evident in the rash of companies (and NGOs) making extravagant and emotional claims about environmental stewardship and sustainability backed by substantially less impressive (or even nonexistent) actual changes to policy or practice–a phenomenon known as greenwashing, from which the concept of girlwashing takes its name.

As with greenwashing, there are varieties, degrees, and nuance to girlwashing. It can be as crass and blatant as running a find/replace on a grant proposal to change all “youth” references to “girls” in an appeal to the trendy funding. Or it can be as subtle and unintended as a program that doubles the time today’s teenage girls spend on homework…by shifting chores onto their now 6 to 9-year-old sisters. And, as with greenwashing, there’s room for a spirited and productive debate about whether girlwashing always does more harm than good.


Accelerating the Girl Effect

The ecosystem of impact incubators and accelerators have ridden the Girl Effect explosion along two main paths; girl-focused accelerators and accelerators focused on girls.  It may sound like semantics, but the wordplay illustrates a fundamental difference in approach.

Girl-focused accelerators seek to activate the Girl Effect by targeting female entrepreneurs and social ventures lead by girls. “By bringing more women into the startup community, we think businesses will make better decisions both for their bottom lines and their communities,” says Elizabeth Kraus of MergeLane.

Leaders of girl-focused accelerators specifically recruit female entrepreneurs and say they aim to tailor the program experience to take advantage of the unique strengths of girls; like stronger systems-thinking, user empathy, and team communication.

“We’ve designed a balanced approach to the issues that are more unique to women (like the common female need to have everything absolutely perfect before moving forward) and the more universal challenges faced by all early-stage startups,” Kraus says.

Accelerators focused on girls, on the other hand, have sought to leverage the Girl Effect by targeting entrepreneurs and ventures creating value for girls at the bottom of the pyramid, while remaining gender-neutral in their recruiting and selection. “What we came to realize,” said Daniel Epstein of the Girl Effect Accelerator in an email conversation “is that if we’re going to have a chance at denting poverty, then we need to position our efforts at Unreasonable, and those of world-class entrepreneurs, around the needs of adolescent girls in poverty.” One result of this focus on benefiting girls has been some of the sector, geography, audience and issue-based specialization we advocated in last month’s post.


So, how might impact accelerators be falling into girlwashing?

It’s important to acknowledge that we can only have this conversation because a few enterprising organizations (Girl Effect Accelerator , MergeLane, SPRING, the World Bank’s Gender Innovation Lab in Africa, and  Equita, among others) have taken the courageous and vulnerable leap to be first; to experiment, and lay bare the results of those experiments to the evaluation and critique that alone has the power to move us all forward.

We see three main trends that deserve a closer look:



One of the pitfalls of this first generation of accelerators focused on girls (the Girl Effect Accelerator, for example) is that while the ventures were selected based on their potential to impact girls in poverty at scale, girls comprise only 40% of the participating founders, 30% of the ventures’ CEOs, and 20% of the mentors.

“There is a gadget-arian emphasis by men [in accelerators and in IT],” Gerardo Greco of the Gendered Innovation Accelerator explains, “with a culture of very strong individualism and very strong competitiveness.  [A model created in this environment] is not gender neutral – it is tailored for men.”

One sure way to tap the Girl Effect, he continues, is by “rewarding girls/women who find their own way in IT without mimicking approaches established by boys/men.”

Eneza provides students the ability to ask questions through its app that they are too shy to ask in class. The app wasn’t designed “for girls,” nor does its distinguishing feature exclusively benefit girls. But the program is outpacing the impact of its competitors by solving a problem overlooked by others–a problem experienced disproportionately by, and thus more clearly understood by, girls. The fact that the Eneza team is lead by women may perhaps be coincidental–but it’s hard to argue that the inclusion of more female voices in the leadership of potential Girl Effect ventures would not lead to design choices that increase their impact on girls.

We can’t help but wonder if more balanced gender leadership on the product teams of Apple, Google and Samsung, for example, might have placed menstrual cycle-tracking higher on the priority list of their respective health-tracking APIs.

But just because a venture has a male founder does not make it guilty of girlwashing. Jayashree Industries; an open-source manufacturing franchise for sanitary pads is a perfect example. It’s an organization founded by a man, developed in deep cooperation with women (in this case despite profound structural and cultural obstacles) and showing not a hint of girlwashing.

Conversely, simply being founded, run, or lead by girls does not guarantee a “Girl Effect” venture. Girlwashing happens when products and services are designed for and marketed to girls, but girls are cut out of the process. Impact accelerators can fight girlwashing by making deep participation by girls in the conception and design, if not the execution and leadership, of ventures one of their key selection criteria.



Like the proverbial (and equally distorted) rose-coloured variety, seeing the world through “girl-coloured glasses” masks complexity and glosses over the deep challenge of systemic and cultural barriers.

Just because something has the potential to impact girls’ lives for the better (like a solar lantern from Greenlight Planet that would allow them to study at night after their chores) does not guarantee that it will. If said lantern can help a girl’s father earn money, for example, what are the chances it gets left at home with the girl?

It’s a lot harder to de-prioritize a girl’s night-time studying when the light-source is bolted to the ceiling and illuminates the whole house (as in Off Grid: Electric’s model) for example.

Accelerators can fight girlwashing by selecting ventures that acknowledge systemic barriers and take strategic and creative steps to short-circuit them. As it happens, Greenlight applied for, and was accepted to the program, says Epstein, largely because “They had a hypothesis on their theory of change around girls and they wanted support in better understanding it, measuring it, and finding a way to ensure that they are TRULY impacting girls in poverty.”

Just as important as getting the model right is how accelerators communicate their focus and priorities and promote the Girl Effect ventures they support.



Another subtle face of girlwashing is the notion that women’s empowerment is synonymous with income generation, job creation, or even economic independence. Not to suggest these results aren’t positive, but the Girl Effect is about more than simply giving girls a way to make their own money.

Take, for example, the multi-dimensional impact inherent in EcoFuel. Not only do the women who work as micro-retailers of the product increase their incomes by a factor of 6, time spent gathering firewood (a task typically delegated to school-aged girls) is virtually eliminated, and cookstove smoke (a common cause of eye and lung infections in women and girls–who do most of the cooking) is greatly reduced.

In contrast, SOKO (a mobile marketplace for indigenous crafts) also provides dramatically increased income for female artisans and strives for wide-ranging impact on other aspects of their lives through company programs. But SOKO lacks the baked-in impact on critical elements of female empowerment beyond jobs and income that come with ventures that are multi-dimensional by their very nature, rather than through add-ons.

“We brought in a number of field experts, ‘girl experts,’ and data scientists to help the companies unravel their impact on girls and identify one key metric they will continue to measure,” says Epstein in his email. “Because our portfolio is focused across sectors, companies will be tracking their impact on girls related to education, contraception, access to clean energy and healthcare, economic inclusion, employment, empowerment, etc. ”

Accelerators can fight girlwashing by moving beyond ‘income as empowerment’ and helping participants track and understand their specific impact on girls in poverty.


When it comes to girlwashing, the core question is this:

Can you truly leverage the Girl Effect by accelerating ventures that benefit girls without representing, including, and empowering them? …or vice versa?

Girlwashing puts the impact of perhaps the most powerful insight of the past 20 years in jeopardy. And none of us wants that. Accelerators can play a key role curbing girlwashing and maximizing Girl Effect impact by: Making deep participation by girls in the design and leadership of a venture prerequisite for their selection process; selecting ventures that acknowledge and respond to systemic barriers; and helping ventures move beyond income generation to multi-dimensional impact they can understand and track.


The venture examples in this piece come from the Nike Foundation / Unreasonable partnership’s innaugural Girl Effect Accelerator, and we thank them for being trailblazers. We’re also grateful to Daniel Epstein of the Girl Effect Accelerator for answering a few questions over email, as well as contributions from Elizabeth Kraus of MergeLane, and Gerardo Greco of the Gendered Innovation Accelerator launching soon in Sao Paulo, Brazil.


Something to Celebrate…

A few days ago this collection of cultural ideals and celebrations we Americans are missing out on came across my Facebook feed…I was intrigued by the ideas highlighted in the article, but I was captivated by the author’s foregone conclusion that holidays are a matter of personal preference.

It was a bit of a face-palm moment, to tell you the truth. I mean, of course no one is forcing me to exchange candy hearts on the day some 5th century priest was martyred, but American celebrations are at once deeply ingrained in the culture (to the point that we’re calling on Constitutional freedoms and waging culture wars over how to celebrate them) and laughably meaningless (you mean Labor Day isn’t a commemoration of the barbeque?)

I’ve decided I want the holidays in my life to mean something. The root of the word is, after all, holy day. I want my celebrations to be more mindful, more deliberate, a better reflection of who I am (and, significantly I think, who I want to be) and what matters to me.

So, I’ve unsubscribed from Google’s “US Holidays” calendar and made my own for 2015. Happy Holidays, all.

The Simplicity This Side of Complexity…

I love this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity I would give my right arm” (figs, one must presume, being much more readily–and affordably–attainable in post-Civil War Boston than present-day Seattle)

But it had not until recently occurred to me that such garden-variety simplicity could actually be worse than useless.

I read the brief of a design competition the other day asking for a signage system The competition sponsors (administrators of an expensive private school) “our revolutionary library classification system will be based on how students intuitively think about and explore topics; discarding the arbitrary alphabetization of fiction authors and the meaninglessly abstract Dewey decimal system for non-fiction, all our books will instead be categorized by concept. If a student wanted to learn more about Alaska, for instance she might go to the aisle for Places, find the section on the United States and then the group of books about Alaska. Another student interested in dinosaurs would find the whole collection under Animals: Dinosaurs”

The brief outlined the 24 categories into which…someone…had divided the universe of literature and asked for both a color and a pictogram for each. The competition prize was handsome, so I found myself back at the brief several times; perhaps there was an elegant solution I had missed in my rush to judgment? But no. The idea simply broke down once a reader progressed beyond board books.

Where, for example, would one look for the American classic “To Kill a Mockingbird?”
Under Animals: Birds, right?

Okay, then. Places: United States: Alabama?
Times and Seasons: Great Depression?
Professions: Law?

How about Social Issues: Race, Rape, Murder, Poverty, Disability, or Advocacy?
Honor? Sacrifice? Coming of Age?
What about Burned-out Tree? (the image that stuck most prominently in my mind the first time I read it. I may have been just a bit young.)

In fact, I can’t think of a single book worth reading that is about ONE thing. And I feel deeply inordinately concerned about a library full either of books gutless enough to be classified by such a system or teachers one-dimensional enough themselves to reduce the treasured worlds and heroes of my childhood to a pictogram.

Swiss Cheese Producers



  • Research and Data Analysis
  • Information Design
  • Graphics


Indigogo’s going global, but at what cost?

Crowdfunding giant Indiegogo’s re-launch last week, complete with features on CNBC, TechCrunch, Mashable and more, adds to the growing flood of evidence that this social phenomenon is poised to take the world by storm.

But in our enthusiasm, are we overlooking the disproportionate potential danger that storm (like any real-world hurricane) poses to the disenfranchised, the underprivileged, and the vulnerable?

I recently attended a conference session featuring Indiegogo co-founder Danae Ringlemann on the topic of “megatrends” in the ecosystem of social good.

Danae is passionate, articulate and gracious, with plenty of moxy and just the right dash of incisive humor. She and the team at Indiegogo have created something truly impressive, and the crowd of social entrepreneurs, non-profit and government leaders was captivated by the idea and its potential.

As the conversation progressed, however, I found myself growing more and more uneasy.

Indiegogo’s “big idea” is the democratization of finance. They envision a world where “anyone can raise money for anything,” where success depends on market demand, not institutional gatekeepers. Forget application fees, there’s not even an application! It’s Laissez Faire for the 21st century. And in most arenas where crowdfunding has proven successful (artistic endeavors and product development especially) this is an effective, even elegant approach.  Though it’s important to note here that the role of social capital, often downplayed by crowdfunding platforms, arguably plays an even greater role than strict market forces like supply and demand.

Movies that big studios wouldn’t touch with a 10-ft pole have become festival darlings and blockbuster hits: see Appropriate Behaviour and Veronica Mars. Entrepreneurs who’ve never pitched a single VC now manufacture million-dollar products like The Porthole, Twine and Pebble. Careers are launched, boundaries broken, dreams realized.

But what happens when my dream is realized in your backyard?

According to the Indiegogo logic as Ringlemann explains it, “ideas that succeed have support from the marketplace and therefore should succeed. Period.”

So, me and my “market” get to dig a well in your village simply because we have the money to do it? I get to set up a homeless shelter downtown if I convince enough of my happily-homed network that it’s a good idea?

Your village may need and want a well, or it may not. (Though chances are, if you’re posting the project, it won’t get funded. Of the 9 well projects posted on Indiegogo by someone within the same country as the beneficiary community, none has received more than 10% of needed funding.) My homeless shelter may be efficient, empowering and perfectly suited to its context, or it may not. That’s not the point.

The bottom line is this: The market can’t validate an idea when the idea’s “customers” aren’t participants in the market.

Therefore platforms that rely on market validation as their only criterion for success essentially have NO criteria when it comes to social projects that happen for (read: to) unrepresented populations. Indiegogo is not alone here. CauseVox, Crowdrise, Pozible, Razoo and RocketHub are all in the same boat.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am the first to call out the inefficiency, exclusivity and risk aversion of the traditional gatekeepers of philanthropic funding. And I see immense potential for the social sphere in crowdfunding. But a completely hands-off, “anyone can raise money for anything” approach is inappropriate and irresponsible for many types of social projects.

In the name of democratization, we are disenfranchising.

If vetting and review—someone to represent the interests of the unrepresented ‘market’—simply doesn’t fit in the business model (heaven knows it’s complex and resource-intensive; ask any of the organizations who do it well,) then so be it.

But to claim that the same model that works beautifully for pop albums and tech gadgets applies just as well to community development projects is disingenuous at best, if not downright detrimental.

All-In Translations


Dynamic Infographic Template
Illustrator + HTML5 template for automatically-generated graphics representing the 32 countries in the 2014 World Cup.

  • Information Design
  • Graphics
  • Prototyping

Such. Fun.


Biomimicry at the Tower of Babel

Ran across this little gem recently:

“and it came to pass that the brother of Jared did go to work, and also his brethren, and built barges after the manner which they had built, according to the instructions of the Lord. And they were small, and they were light upon the water, even like unto the lightness of a fowl upon the water.”

Ether 2:16

Nothing like a bit of antediluvian biomimicry before breakfast, right?