Thoughts on Genius
On Tuesday night, we proudly presented the first edition of the Ada Lovelace Woman of the Year in NOLATech Award. Over the course of a few short weeks, we received a truly incredible list of nominees, each legitimately deserving of this award.
Watching this list of amazing women grow has been a privilege, as is the chance to help recognize them for their work. Our nominees have proven to be far more than their titles, impressive as those are. Founder, Professor, Engineer – all these words are indicators of the success these women have earned. But instead of focusing on titles, I'd rather focus on the journey an individual takes to arrive at the exceptional moments that lie behind them.
When I think about inspiration, extrapolation, and the interaction between the two, I find moments of genius that, to me, are among the things we as a species should be most proud of.
Extrapolation – in the sense of inferring something that is unknown from something already known – is important and is a key ingredient in the innovation process. However, extrapolation is fairly common. We extrapolate the “meaning” of certain processes and inventions immediately. One sees a machine that can calculate any particular mathematical function and it is relatively easy to see that this will make it easier to build longer bridges, build straighter roads, figure out the path of artillery, and so forth.
Inspiration – in the sense of a person, place, or experience that makes someone want to do or create something – is also, obviously, a critical part of the innovation process. Without inspiration there cannot be a jump from a screw-oriented gear to the rack and pinion system or from germ theory to vaccinations. Inspiration, the taking in of impressions, ideas, problems, and failed solutions and then having the desire to take the time and effort to create or document a novel new solution, sometimes seems like magic.
But real magic, at least to me, occurs when these two things mix together and somehow create an outcome far greater than the sum of their parts. This is what the Greeks called genius, what we often call vision, and what I wanted to celebrate with the Ada Lovelace Award for Women in Technology in New Orleans.
Vision is a word we use as a stand-in for genius because in our language this has come to mean not an out-of-hand insight, but rather a person of extremely high intelligence.
Ada Lovelace had this kind of vision – or genius. While Charles Babbage could extrapolate the Difference Engine (the early computer he famously designed) from the concept of holding items in one’s memory and using an abacus or similar aid to complete sums quickly, and while he had the inspiration to come up with registers and branches for the Analytical Engine, only Ada Lovelace saw that this machine would be capable of controlling other real-world devices. When you think about it, this is truly a staggering jump – other thinkers saw a machine that could make nautical charts easily; Ada Lovelace saw one that could compose a symphony.
And that sort of vision, genius, or whatever you want to call it, is what New Orleans needs and has needed for the last ten years. Not just extrapolations, like making the connection between our long-term survival and the health of the wetlands. Not just inspirations, like concrete that allows water to pass through it into the soil below to fight soil settling. We need solutions that address all facets of our lives, and these solutions can be developed by anyone. You don't need to be "a genius," you just need to experience a moment of genius. I'd like to see our city foster innovation and celebrate the accomplishements of those who extrapolate and are inspired to act on their ideas. Tuesday's award ceremony was my attempt to do this.
Our three honorees are all women who have displayed inarguable vision through their work with technology. Ashley Guidry's role as an engineer at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility places her firmly on the cutting edge of spaceflight innovation. Staacy Cannon, Founder of Grok + Banter, created a technological suite capable of measuring the previously unmeasurable by giving offline advertisers the ability to analyze reactions to their campaigns. And then, of course, we have our winner: Crystal McDonald. Crystal's vision saw her found and tirelessly (currently away on business, she accepted her award via Skype) develop GoToInterview, a new platform to connect job-seekers to potential employers. GoToInterview provides employers in high-churn industries the ability to see potential hires answering questions on video. We have seen other fantastically forward-thinking companies appear in New Orleans, but very, very few that have so successfully leveraged technology to benefit people who need it most. Crystal may not have invented the video interview, but in the tradition of Ada Lovelace, she saw potential in a technological field that others had missed and then found a way to bring it to light.
Crystal is more than a successful CEO. As impressed as we were with her achievements and GoToInterview's growth, we were blown away by the efforts she makes to support, educate, and improve our city. That passion and investment in New Orleans' future, again requires extrapolation and inspiration, and this type of action is something that we require now more than ever.
I would like to offer my congraulations and profound appreciation to Crystal, Ashley, Staacy, our nominees, and all of the women who help drive this city forward every day.
The first ever Ada Lovelace Award has been an important step in recognizing all that these women (and many others in this city) do. It is my hope that through this award and our daily work of supporting entrepreneurs that New Orleans will propagate and celebrate moments of genius equally and more frequently and that our city will thrive as a hub for innovation.