My story…

I’m George, and this is my space to share ideas that are making me think and inspiring my actions.

I’ve recently joined Mozilla, to help this amazing organization architect new and newly radical approaches to participation. We’re doing this through the Mozilla Participation Lab.

Prior to this work, I co-founded Engineers Without Borders Canada right out of my undergrad in mechanical engineering, driven by a belief that the creativity, problem solving approach and volunteer efforts of engineers were an untapped resource for getting at the root causes of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Our work with EWB initially began by deploying projects — water improvement, etc — that were, frankly, kind of dumb and had minimal impact. Once we started to understand the real nature of why poverty wasn’t being addressed sufficiently by existing organizations, we ended up optimizing for:

a) building the capabilities of local staff in governments and businesses (engineers and others) to be better project managers, be more data-driven in their decision-making, and just being more effective overall

b) creating, iterating and scaling (and scrapping many) innovative approaches, products, business models, etc that could prove new models for how poverty is addressed. For example, we founded and spun-off southern Africa’s largest equipment rent-to-own business for small-scale entrepreneurs with no credit history, and an online SMS/Voice surveying platform that aims to be the QuickBooks (cheap, low barrier to use) of getting information from citizens to governments.

Participation and community

One big part of EWB that I’m proud of shaping is the community of volunteers and quasi-volunteers, largely built on the principles I learned from being involved with open-source projects in the late 90s. When I left, we had about 3,000 people across Canada (with about 150 based in Africa) contributing 5+ hrs per week and about 750 people contributing 15+ hours per week. They were organized into both functional teams (innovation, advocacy, leadership development, water and sanitation, fundraising, education, etc) and local/University chapters. There’s about another 30,000 active supporters (signing petitions, contributing money, etc) on top of that. People move fluidly between being staff, volunteers and fellows (quasi-volunteers who get living allowances). Depending on skill-sets, experience and interest, people are contributing to proven activities that need scale or being entrepreneurs in developing new programs and ventures.

EWBers really care about and identify with the culture of the organization, which is characterized by: openness (we pioneered producing an annual Failure Report); recognizing and discussing complexity, but with a bias to action; wanting to reinvent the way the org does things constantly and create new stuff (resulting in awesomeness and messiness); spending a lot of time on learning (subject based, after action reports) and leadership development (particular emphasis on self awareness and open feedback).

As you can imagine in any startup, especially one in the non-profit sector trying to raise money from cheapskate frugal engineers, we had limited resources and people, and so that meant being a jack-of-all-trades. Over the past 15 years you could have found me giving speeches to thousands of people, designing a new marketing campaign in photoshop, preparing financial books for a year-end audit, programming a member management system in PHP/MySQL, asking for money from any number of people, and most anything else that makes an organization run. The biggest leadership growth area of my past 5 years was letting go of most of this doing (almost all…you couldn’t rip me away from the odd all-nighter pumping out a new microsite), in favour of helping develop new ideas, and keeping people focused on priorities and supporting their performance.

What am I all about and what I believe?

  1. Mission, working long and intensely.
  2. Open and honest is better.
  3. Believe in people’s greatness: My leadership style is focused on helping people set ambitious and heartfelt goals, giving them more responsibility than they should get “on paper”, supporting them through challenging questions and issues, and rarely telling them how to do something. My experience is that this approach results in incredible achievement; development of new ways of thinking and doing for the organization; personal growth for that individual and for me; and a massive amount of value for the mission.
  4. Frugal: I have a bias toward being frugal with organizational resources.
  5. New stuff: I love being part of teams that are building new ideas and models for working, or changing the way things are done (I’m not the operational efficiency wizard who can bring something proven to scale).
  6. More than I could know about or control: Ultimate leadership success for me is finding out about cool, mission-aligned and goal-aligned stuff after it is underway. I love success, but if it’s a failure that we’re learning from that’s awesome too.
  7. Starfish beat Spiders, but hybrids are the most powerful. Innovation is messy, and ideas come from unlikely places.
  8. Learning: I like listening and learning, and I often change my thinking based on other people’s input. But this is a bit invisible because of my personality that sometimes comes with ‘strong opinions, weakly held’.
  9. Decision-making: I probably bias to making strategic decisions too quickly, and people decisions too slowly.
  10. Wildly ambitious goals motivate me, and I’m pretty sure they drive high performance and achievement (I’m less sure about others’ long-term motivation/sustainability).
  11. Underdog: I’m casual and generally don’t like hierarchy or rules (though as I’ve matured I’ve come to recognize their usefulness at times!). I love being the underdog (and being part of underdog organizations) and fighting the good fight.
  12. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
  13. Nerdy: I’m super curious and I geek out and get excited about a lot of things.
  14. Tinkering: Underneath all of the years of management and strategy and learning about community building and social change, I’m an engineer! I love playing around with and hearing about technology.
  15. I am a work in progress.

The other parts of my life

I was born in Montreal, but grew up in Toronto as my anglophone, Jewish parents fled for reasons of opportunity and feeling as though they no longer belonged in Quebec in the mid-1970s. I have a younger brother who arrived a few years after we came to Toronto.

We came to Toronto with a cube van full of possessions, and my father set out as an entrepreneur while my mother worked as a sports bar waitress in the evenings to keep us afloat. Eventually my father’s business took off and my mother became an entrepreneur as well (first as a professional clown doing birthday parties and theatre shows, then operating a health clinic focused on nutrition and gastrointestinal health — she was trained as a nurse).

As our family entered the comfortable upper middle-class, my parents started acting more directly on their social values. We always had an extra person or two staying with us (teenagers escaping abusive family situations, homeless people needing a safe place…generally people needing safety or solid foundation to transition their lives), and my dad and mom were always involved in social causes (my father ran as an independent one-issue “Nuclear Disarmament” candidate in a federal election in the mid-1980s).

In addition to Friday night dinner debates with my family on current issues (from a very young age I learned how to argue!), my enduring childhood memories are of competitive sports (gymnastics, until I grew tall; then football, baseball, downhill skiing, sailing) and spending time in the Ontario wilderness (canoe tripping, camping). I was also an avid Lego builder, and loved tinkering with our IBM PC Junior — “Dad, why can’t I have a Commodore 64.” “Because they won’t be around in 30 years, but Microsoft will, and so will the skills you’re learning programming BASIC and FORTRAN” … yup!

All this set the stage for my heading off to the University of Waterloo for Mechanical Engineering and then a Master’s in Biomedical Engineering. Honestly, I didn’t love engineering at University. I was frustrated by the reductionism and specialization (“here are the problem constraints, don’t think about anything else”) and bored by working on problems that had a right or wrong answer. So I spent time on design courses, and took lots of classes outside engineering — political science, philosophy, religion, psychology, business.

Outside of class, varsity sports and getting neat extra-curricular stuff done were the highlight of my time at University. I helped start an early “web 2.0” campus news organization and an open-source co-op student management system (to put to shame the walled-in crap the University was building), and I was in student government. Those experiences were the precursor to Engineers Without Borders.

My evenings and weekends these days are spent with my amazing partner Sari Stillman and our delightful daughter Aliyah Rotman (Roter Stillman) who came into this world in June 2014.

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