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From Star Trek to AI: Exploring Inclusivity and Innovation in the Social Sector
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In this episode, Tim and Kerrin welcome Brandolon Barnett, Chief Product Officer for Humanitas.ai, on the idea of impact from the lens of inclusivity and innovation. The conversation looks at it from two perspectives, one from the privilege in doing good for the world, and then where the technology is going, and how to pull values through within that technology in a responsible way. There’s also a little Star Trek nerdiness, so we cover all bases!
Whether you are a fan of Star Trek or not, you will appreciate the connection Tim and Brandolon make when tying humanity to science fiction and the idealism of the Star Trek universe. One of the key themes in Star Trek isn’t so much about the space battles and technology as much as it is about the underlying human issues that are covered. Star Trek is a mirror of our world today, seen through a lens of science fiction, and Brandolon tries to use that to shape his world view in many ways:
“You think about those interactions of Captain Picard or Kirk with a younger crew member or Cisco on Star Trek Deep Space Nine or Janeway. I mean throughout all these depictions at the core of those stories is someone who's a figure who can come along and help people to understand how they can figure out their place in the world and what kind of value they can bring and how they can make the world better. And I think that is something that just really has always resonated with me … I try to model that in as much as I can, as a mentor and as someone who just tries to help other people understand, how the world as I see it and to whatever extent that may be helpful to them...”
Moving from the stars back to Earth, Brandolon’s book - entitled “Dreams Deferred: Recession, Struggle, and the Quest for a Better World” - addresses themes of race, equality, technology and philanthropy, and seeks to understand how you make a difference in the social sector, and doing work that makes an impact. Filled with stories that come from his own personal experiences within his life and career, Brandolon’s aim was to help others find their way and provide a message of hope during times when hope seems out of reach. Additionally, how we as a community can create clearer pathways for people to participate and succeed in philanthropy.
“I wanted to be one of the many voices that was out there saying, ‘Hey, there is hope, there's light at the end of the tunnel. I'm one of the people that's here to help, but there are also others’. But the second reason I wrote it was just a very practical challenge to the social impact space of ‘Why is it so hard for someone who wants to make the world a better place, wants to work in social impact, wants to work in nonprofits or foundations, to get that opportunity and be able to build a family, build a life?’ Why is that so difficult? Shouldn't it be a priority for us to create clearer pathways for all kinds of diverse people to be involved in the work of creating a better world since we all in fact live in this world and we should all have a seat at the table in determining what a better version of it looks like. And so that's why I wrote the book and that core kind argument is central to a lot of the work that I do.”
Brandolon goes on to talk about his views on product management. Harkening back to his experience as an elected official in his community, he learned immediately that amongst all the issues, breaking down the components to help solve the larger problem critical to success. This translated well to his experience in product management; in order to solve the larger product challenges, you need to break down the components and take it one step at a time.
“I think it's a matter of not necessarily getting overwhelmed when you see there are problems that need to be solved. Cause it's overwhelming when we think about all the problems we have to solve in this world. I just try to break things down into smaller pieces and do what I can at each moment and set major milestones…and that's been pretty powerful for me.”
One interesting topic was on the subject of Artificial intelligence (AI) and, while there are those that immediately assume it can lead to the dehumanization of our world, there is an opportunity to help it to bring more opportunities to the forefront. As Brandolon puts it:
“I'm incredibly optimistic about AI and I'll preface that by saying I recognize that there are a lot of very serious conversations that need to be had. But I'm optimistic because even on a personal level, I think about a lot of my (past) struggles…AI could have answered questions for me about the kinds of careers available in social impact. A lot of people growing up, particularly in communities of color or under-resourced communities, don't even know what philanthropy is. Or that a program officer is a type of job that they could aspire to. AI can give that kind of direct access to almost like a person or mentor, without having to get access to an elite school or go to college. Anyone can begin that journey.”
The conversation was truly engaging and Brandolon had many powerful insights. Listen to the full episode above.
Brandolon’s book, Dreams Deferred: Recession, Struggle, and the Quest for a Better World is available on Amazon or wherever books are sold, and you can also learn more about his AI work at Humanitas.ai.
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Download the transcript here.