future

Simple Civility

Two weeks ago, I checked a major item off my life bucket list: running the New York City Marathon.

img_0074Words can’t quite capture the experience of running through the streets of New York City with 50,000+ other runners. What I can say is that running through the five boroughs — from the mass exodus in Staten Island across the Verrazano bridge into Brooklyn (admittedly, my favorite borough), followed by Queens and a stampede of supporters on 1st ave in Manhattan, into the toughest miles in the Bronx, and then concluding with the final stretch along Central Park West — evoked a powerful sense of unity.

Somewhere in the Bronx between miles 21 and 22 when my legs began to give way, I also began to meditate and pass the time by drawing a line of comparison between the race itself and the race of life. (This is what happens when your neurotic brain calms down!)

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Though I am far from seasoned in either race, here are a few racing takeaways that emerged along the path:

  • Pace yourself. You’ll burn out by going full blast too quick, too soon. As an all or nothing type of person, this level of control is something I’m still trying to learn in life.
  • And yet, you’ll inevitably get tired regardless. It’s ok to stop and take a break when you need it. Recognize when to stop because it’s not about crashing and burning; it’s about finishing the long game.
  • Be prepared to lose some shit along the way. I threw out an old hoodie and a jacket as it started to heat up, and allowed my headband to fall to the ground. Some things you’re better off without, for no better reason than to simply lighten the load.
  • Go with the (ebb) and flow. There are various phases along the course: times when you’re riding high and filled with determination, and times when you’re on the major struggle bus near drunken stupor. During miles 3–9 in Brooklyn, I felt like I could run forever, as well as miles 17–19 along 1st avenue in Manhattan. The energy on the streets was infectious; when you see people from all walks of life cheering, you can’t help but feel like the whole city is on your side.
    Reality hits during what I call the ‘desert miles’; these were miles 12–15, while crossing the Pulkalski bridge into Queens, and miles 19–22, while crossing the Willis bridge into the Bronx. The crowd peters out. You’re alone and doing everything in your power to not give up. The going gets really tough.
    We all get by a bit easier with a little help. That said, we don’t always have the luxury of a personal cheering squad which means we ultimately need to rely on our own beating hearts to charge towards the end goal.
  • Get over yourself. Just when you think you’re struggling hard, you’re reminded that everyone else is running the same race while facing a battle of their own. People are overcoming challenges beyond what you could ever imagine. Towards the later stretches of the marathon, I found myself running next to a a group called Achilles International. Not knowing who they were, I was a bit irked when one of the runners ran into me. I think I gave her a look, only to realize that she was blind and guided by a volunteer with Achilles International (awesome organization btw, they pair those with sight with the sight-impaired so that they can participate in marathons and running events). Life is filled with humbling moments like these.
  • Everything is in your head. We are capable of more than we think. Running a marathon is highly mental. During those moments of immense pain and perspiration, the only thing that kept me going was sheer will, not athletic ability. The physical act of putting one foot in front of the other is easy compared to quelling the brain’s desire to quit. Conquer the mind’s restless chatter and truly, anything is within reach.
  • Have fun. A marathon is not something people generally do for leisure. But willpower is in short supply. As with all things in life, if you opt to train for something, you need to do it not because you “have to” but because you “want to”. Develop a strategy to make it fun. It will make the journey a lot more enjoyable.

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The marathon is one of those milestones that puts everything in perspective. I actually wrote this post two weeks ago without publishing, in between the marathon and our presidential election, but decided to post now because its lessons seem particularly trenchant to our current state of affairs.

Two main takeaways:

  1. What a gift it is to be alive and healthy. Training and completing the marathon makes me more cognizant of the gift of the human body and all the elements that allow me to move, particularly my 2 legs, 2 arms, 2 eyes, and healthy lungs.
  2.  Unity is possible. If people of all backgrounds can show up on the streets of New York and cheer a simple act of human endurance and resilience — running — why are we so divisive in other areas of life?
Which leads to one final thought about the topic on everyone’s mind –

 

Though we may not all be on the same page politically, may we aim for simple civility in the days to come. As we enter a potentially transformative time in our nation, let us remember the freedom we are afforded and use it wisely. Fight in the way that matters most, which is inside. And just like the long and winding path on the marathon, press on towards the victorious finish.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 


3 Years in NYC: A Tribute

3 years ago, I stumbled upon a small but cozy restaurant in the Lower East Side that beckoned me with its rich brown decor and aromatic Indian spices.  The owner – let’s call him MasalaWala – welcomed me with a cup of signature Masala Chai and warm naan. This gesture, accompanied by amazing food, was fuel for my hungry heart to continue the relentless job search amid the throes of a jobless winter.

masala walaWhen I officially moved to NYC a few weeks later with a job, I became a regular. Nursing a warm cup of chai, I wrote:

I can’t stop raving about how great NYC is. Call it naive wonder or puppy-eyed love, the novelty of this glorious concrete jungle hasn’t worn off…yet.

Several natives have warned me that when I move here permanently, the dazzle in my eyes will fade as quickly as the fast-talking New Yorker who snaps at missing her train.

In some ways, I’ve morphed into that snappy person…but the dazzle has yet to fade.

In the city that never sleeps, our options are truly endless. Part of this, of course, is branding. New York City, to this day, remains the world’s greatest brand. It may sound a bit goofy, but you need only look up at the skyline to feel like anything can happen.

It can also completely demoralize you with its intense, all-consuming culture.IMG_5683

I moved to New York City, wide-eyed with a lion’s mane of hair much in need of taming. I quickly chopped it off, resembling something like a mushroom head for the next 18 months. “To hell with it!”, I said. I was going for radical transformation.

And that’s what I got. Living in 5 apartments with a dozen different roommates will quickly make you a much more interesting/crazy person. You learn to appreciate your alone time. Between weathering job dismissals, writing furiously to meet deadlines, and navigating bureaucracy, I now know what people mean when they say this city “chews you up and spits you out”.  Yet there’s only more gravel-digging ahead.

I know, because I have yet to set foot in all 5 boroughs. I have yet to learn what it’s like to be committed to a cause larger than myself.

I have yet to truly understand the inequality, strife, and deep-rooted fears that befall many of New York City’s most hampered communities.

Moreover, while my persistence has gotten me thus far in NYC, I am aware that my hard-earned diligence was hardly work compared to those who can’t afford (financially or logistically) to spend time at hip co-working spaces and coffee shops to network while searching for a job. Let this be a reminder to all who are highly-educated, connected, and culturally literate that we have a vast amount of resources on our side, including the most basic: access.

So, on my 3rd anniversary in this great city where anything is possible, I give thanks for all of the above: the many opportunities I have been afforded, the goodwill of those who have believed in me, and the valuable lesson of “struggle”, though it pales with the real struggle of the 21% of New Yorkers who live below the federal poverty line.

I am here to to see what this city will be when every New Yorker is activated to meet their full potential in a truly inclusive economy, and everyone can tap into the vast number of resources available without jumping through impossible hurdles.

I’m here for the imagining…and the becoming.


A Note On #Techies

 “We should interrogate the code of cyberspace as we interrogate the bills of Congress.”

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Last week I joined 70,000 others in Austin for the interactive rodeo known as SXSW, a breeding ground for ideas & creativity. This meant a lot of pedicabs, food trucks, open bar parties, and hashtags.

A lot of my friends have asked what the experience was like. Questions range: What did you learn? What’s the next big startup?  Was it overrun by hipsters? Did you eat a 3D Oreo? It’s like I had been hurdled into the outer reaches of space and back to return & report on the other-worldly activities of those “techies”.

IMG_2891The fascination is understandable. It’s not everywhere you see people wearing Google Glass and dancing with robots like it’s perfectly normal. SXSW represents everything emerging, innovative, and techie….buzz words of the decade.

I’ve decided to share a few thoughts on the conference – both positive and negative – because there is clearly a curiosity. But my commentary is less about the festival itself and more about  tech as a “phenomenon” (spurred by an observation that the term “techie” has been rabidly used in recent months).

Lesson 1. South by Southwest is not so much about innovation in tech as it is about innovation in marketing. 

When did all this nerdy stuff become cool? One word: brands. Years before I even touched a computer, South by Southwest was just a humble little conference fostering relationships between indie filmmakers, bootstrapped technologists, and garage bands.

A purist would say these early builders are the real technologists, the ones who actually built the memory chips that make up each of our computers. Since the dot com era, however, that definition has changed. Marketers have accelerated the mass commodification of “pure” technology with their ability to package previously bulky tech items into hip and accessible tools for all. At SXSW, it’s the marketers who now run the show by connecting with the early adopters whose products they evangelize, and then ultimately attract mainstream attention. We all buy into it.

My personal gripe with today’s loose application of “techie” is that those who self-appoint that term, including myself, often only understand the external aspects of technology- the result of the internal wirings, but not the wirings themselves. As consumers, our understanding is rather limited to the outer ecosystem of online communities, landing pages, and sharing platforms.

But I digress. I guess it doesn’t really matter who “techies” are anymore. We’ve moved into a world of platforms and social feed-based behavior that allows anyone to create without knowing a line of code. Which means that aside from developers and designers, most of us don’t actually spend time building like the Leonardo da Vincis of the dot com era…and don’t need to. Have a computer? Claim your domain!

Which leads to my second point: Tech is not limited to hipsters.

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One of the strangest (and clearly most ingenious) selfies I snapped in Florida several years ago.

A recent phrase I’ve heard to characterize tech’s intruding influence on cities is “hood to hipster”. It implies that technology has resulted in increased gentrification, which the numbers (sadly) do support.

Admittedly, there were a lot of bikes, Warby Parker glasses, and converses at SXSW. And yes, participants in this “brave new world” are often SEO, CMS, Java, and Twitter gurus, overlapping with members of the “#selfie, #hashtag #excessive, Trader Joe’s” demographic.

The problem with describing tech as a strictly hipster phenomenon is that it precludes tech’s reach. The people who are going to adopt something early are often going to be upper-class “hipsters” with the means to. But as technology seeps into more areas of our life, it will inevitably become the underpinning of every industry. Tech is not so much an industry but a lifestyle everybody, regardless of class, will be adapting to.

This is why the public sector’s role in technology is crucial. The only way technology’s benefits can be experienced beyond a select population is when government prioritizes basic infrastructure upgrades that increase access to fast, reliable Internet, while implementing education training programs that make the less technologically-inclined prepared for tech-related jobs.

Chelsea Clinton noted in her keynote at SXSW that the distinction between “technologists” and “policy makers” is a false dichotomy. The “hood to hipster” phrase excuses the responsibility we each have to learn about this new world. There’s no excuse: we are all technologists.

So, what gives?

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The Spotify House at SXSW

Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem”.  Even this accurate depiction of an important tech issue leaves me stuck. Pitting the old tech guard against today’s hungry youth yields nothing but balding folks angrily shaking their fists at millennials, a hardly desirable solution.

I don’t know the answer. One thing I do know: the new code of power lies in technology. Something we can all do, regardless of age, is to increase our tech literacy. Algorithms are the new gatekeepers: they affect our search results, what we read, what is deemed “news”.  That’s enormously powerful! To that end, we should be asking more than just “what is the news?” but “how did this information find me”? Understanding this basic code will set the framework for healthier, more proactive digital lives.

My overall feeling after leaving SXSW is a a mix of overwhelming awe at the explosive advances in tech, coupled with a cynicism that none of these advances are leading us toward a world all that meaningful. But my real angst comes from the frightening prospect that the majority of us, including mild consumers of technology like you and me, aren’t technologically literate enough to understand the algorithms controlling SO MUCH of our daily online lives. How does our current consumption feed future consumption? What is data being used for? When are algorithms harming us? (To learn more about algorithmic literacy, read this.) I also worry about the growing knowledge gap for those with absolutely zero technological prowess.

I’m aware of the irony. I work in technology and the very things I decry are fueled by my own actions: a love for the packaging & commodification of technology, which leads to a voracious appetite for more, which exploits our largest human vulnerabilities, which leads to compulsive behavior.  Yet that’s why I question it, knowing that speaking up is a privilege afforded to those with the luxury of access and with the hope that these questions can improve our evolving relationship with tech.


In 2013

IMG_0088For all its messiness, 2013 was a strangely awe-inspiring year. It was the year I found 3 professions, separately, in 3 very different industries. It was the year I failed, took a leap of faith into full-time writing, and discovered that it wasn’t for me. It was the year I lived in 3 apartments (6, if you count the 3 Air BnBs in San Francisco), started a group, and learned to like brussel sprouts. It was the year I traveled alone, got off Facebook, accepted that I am not Carrie Bradshaw. It was the year I became a public servant.

It was a year of relentless change.

I toasted to the occasion at a New York City bar. Like every other year, smooching couples basked in their “Auld Lang Syne” moment. I took note of those other trusty sidekicks. The buzzing ones. The plastic babies clamoring for our attention, crying “How dare we live in the moment”. This was the year we reflexively gave in, coddling our smartphones shortly after the midnight kiss because the moment is not to be lived; it’s to be created.

The moment has become a customized stream, a fully immersive sensory experience sprouting from multiple devices and directions. The moment is filtered, with selfies never more beautiful, words never more prophetic. Gifted to you, me, everyone – the most democratic of platforms – it’s social.  2013 was the year the megaplatform ruled the Internet, and we, the people, developed our megaphones. The once-scrappy kids on the block (Facebook, Twitter) became the establishment. We created a life by documenting and connecting because our lives are better when shared, if slightly embellished. No longer a phenomenon, the sight is ubiquitous: bouncing thumbs on the subways, streets, and most pervasively, our heads.

I suppose we celebrate the year’s end because it’s proof that we’ve lived and have more to live in the next. But does proof lie in the act or the memory? Now that 2013 is over, I wonder – if I don’t write this post and preserve the moments- will the year’s significance be lost?

These are tough questions that may not be resolved this year, next, or anytime soon. But we can aspire to greater conscientiousness and become regular customers of our own repair, all together now, tapping once, twice, thrice to the beat and eventually finding our balance to this strange but beautiful amorphous dance of life.

2014 will be the year of liberation. Carpe diem.


Hello Again, New York

On Thanksgiving Eve, while most New Yorkers eagerly shuttled out of the city, I befittingly found myself glued to my couch in Alphabet City, alone, milking a bottle of wine. Solitary gulps couldn’t replace my family’s embrace but somewhere between the self-pity and nostalgia, I found a silver lining. This week marks my 2nd year of living in New York. Bottoms up!

20131130-004650.jpgShould the occasion warrant celebration or consolation? In the past month a number of authors have written emotionally wrenching tales about their breakups with the city. “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York At Age 24” likened the city to the overrated “prom king”. Most recently, “The Long Goodbye“- a NYT commentary on well-known writer’s broken love affairs with NYC – prompted me to ask whether it was time I cut the cord soon too.

2 years is not a long time, but it’s enough to begin embodying characteristics unique to a place. Certainly, my expectations of the city have evolved since day 1. I still remember arriving on a bus with an oversize suitcase that could barely fit in the aisle. Scurrying to the dinner I was late for (the beginning of a recurring New York theme) only to have my dinner date keep me waiting for an additional 30 minutes. Within 24 hours,  I had learned an important New York lesson: never wait longer for someone than they will wait for you.

The rest of it reads like a once-poignant-now-trite Thought Catalog riff. But in New York’s defense – or perhaps I’m stuffed with Thanksgiving propaganda at this time of year – I’ve learned lessons which can only be attributed to New York’s hard-knock teaching style. Here are a few:

1. The city moves fast, but you still need to wait at the station.

*applies to more than just commute times.

People can respond to your emails in a heartbeat, but getting anyone to do anything is like moving a mountain. When you’re young, resistance finds you at every corner. You have to pay your dues.

In a literal sense, you need to add at least 20 minutes to a projected commute time because the R or F train will likely be delayed.

The moral is that plans, ambitions, and dreams often get derailed by unforeseen obstacles but usually (God willing) you get to where you need to be. It just takes patience and waiting for the train to come.

2. The city gets smaller, while the world gets bigger.

New York City is the center of the universe and there’s always people to meet.  But as my network has expanded, I’ve experienced a shrinking of the “center”. This simultaneous shrinking and expansion of worlds is interesting. The more people I meet, the fewer degrees of separation I am from other people in the city (and the more I treasure my close circle of friends). Neighborhood establishments become part of the routine and former strangers become friends. New York City essentially becomes one big town and way more manageable.

Then I flip to an article on Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe and never does anything seem farther away.

3. The hero is redefined.

Few places embody beauty, wealth, and status more than New York does.  I arrived here as starstruck as the worst of Bieber groupies.  But after meeting a handful of personal role models- some as impressive as I imagined and others rude as rats – I’ve had to destroy my gods. Working in media taught me that so much of what we see is a marketing blitz and once all the fluff is stripped away, well – celebrities are mere mortals too.

Perhaps because of the preponderance of celebrities in this town, titles and money are a dime in a dozen. What’s harder to find is genuine compassion, a desire to listen, and an ability to think deeply about meaningful issues.  While I’m not immune to the allure of wealth and its impact (we all need to make a living), New York’s in-your-face inequality reveals the inflationary value of certain attributes and a gap in appreciation for the everyday heroes who display value beyond the short-lived hoopla of models, millionaires, and moguls.

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For the past two years, I’ve raced to keep up with NYC’s speed, size, and glitz. It’s kicked my ass. But I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished overall: building a network within the tech and startup community, writing for one of the most-read US digital publications, working for the government of this grand city of cities, and most importantly, learning more everyday about this intricately woven world. While I have acquired certain archetypically New York characteristics, the hardest part about living here hasn’t been about becoming more assertive, professional, or socially savvy. It’s been refining the qualities that often aren’t associated with New York: patience, humility, and compassion. In its own prickly way, New York City has forced me to reconcile its somewhat contradictory nature (movement-stillness, expansion-shrinking, glitz-poverty) in a way that tamer cities simply can’t.  

Saying “Goodbye to All That” is justified. For my friends wondering when I will leave, my answer is not yet. Two years ago, I came to audition. Two years later, I’m still perfecting my routine. I’m still naive enough to believe that, more than anywhere else, New York City is the place for reinvention. Tomorrow, I will say “Hello again, New York” – like I do everyday – and audition for the next month, year, future. The show is yet to begin.


Cross-Pollination

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One of the beauties of the city is its sheer diversity. With more than 3 million foreign-born residents and dozens of vibrant enclaves, New York City’s melting pot is golden lore.

But urban environments are inherently greater than the sum of their individually diverse elements. The advantage of the “melting pot”, arguably, comes less from the stew, and more from the cooks gathered round the brew.

The question then is, how do you rally the cooks? In a place like New York City where so many types of people and industries live,  it should be easy to bump heads across-industry, ethnicity, and income, right? Mix and match, throw a dash of spice, and voila! Cross-pollination.

All possible, but easier said than done. In the span of a day, I could go from work in a government office, to lunch with a friend creating a fashion-tech startup, to a tour of Harlem Biospace (the city’s first affordable biotech incubator), to drinks with a rep at a wine distributor. Across ethnic lines, I have my pick of the pot: dining options in Chinatown, Harlem, Little Italy, or Williamsburg. And across income brackets, there’s no avoiding the homeless person asking for change on the subway.

I could do all of that, but I could also just as easily retreat into a bubble: spending all day at work, occasionally checking Twitter as my portal to the world (90% of tweets on my feed which come from NYT, FT, WSJ, BI [add other elitist news acronym]-reading journalists/techies like myself) and hanging out with my similarly educated, millennial friends after-hours. This happens about 4/5 of my working days.

I’m not saying one scenario is better or worse than the other, but I am saying that one allows for greater exchange of new possibilities. You be the judge of which.

It’s deceivingly easy to be siloed into little cubby holes. Even in a city that prides itself on diversity – by nature of our occupations, orientations, social statuses- it’s natural to find ourselves placed in certain environments, gravitated toward the same types of people, and engaged in conversations that fit neatly into what we already know. This is fine. There’s something to be said about consistency and comfort. But for those who have chosen a city life, ignoring the diversity around us is like having a bunch of fresh ingredients ready for a great meal, and never actually throwing them in the pot to cook. You’re better getting take-out and moving to the suburbs. A true urban environment is made for serendipitous interaction, fusion of opposites, and a little bit of discomfort. We must be intentional about seeking it.

I’ll end with a story that reveals how easy it is to fall victim to our own bubbles. During NYC’s September primary election, a well-known figure in the tech community, Reshma Saujani, ran for the office of Public Advocate. She had started an organization called Girls Who Code and was married to another well-known entrepreneur, Nihal Mehta. She had the backing of major figures including Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who threw a fundraiser for her. I even included her and her husband on a Business Insider list of 16 power couples. So of course, I thought an election win was a sure thing. Everyone on Twitter seemed to think so too.

Well? Apparently I trust Twitter too much. It turns out Reshma didn’t even crack 5% of the vote. Had I bothered to check the polls or venture beyond my Twittersphere/usual tech blogs, I would have seen that the winner, Letitia James, had been ahead in the polls for a while. Now that I work in government, I’m aware of how well-liked Letitia is among government and community circles, making it slightly embarrassing that I had no idea who she was 3 months ago. I also see how few people within government know Reshma, which is also a bit of a shame because her influence through Girls Who Code is significant. Either way, it shows that sometimes, beyond our better judgement, we’re stuck in our little bubbles.

I’m afraid that with the increased emergence of niche-based groups, the population is becoming further fragmented. We stick with what we know. Corporatis in cubed nation, free spirits in their coffee shops. What would our world look like if skills were vetted outside their typical context? Classrooms in restaurants. Bankers in public service. Could be a complete disaster (like the mishmash soup I once created with random leftovers), or a beautiful stew of possibility (when the recipe is meticulously designed to maximize skill sets and tastes.)

Today’s problems cannot be met by government, business, or civil society alone. Yet until we are willing to peek into other worlds, we’ll never know how to create the best mix. We’ll simply remain imagining, instead of living, the possibilities.


Intrapreneurship

I used to be averse to 9-5 jobs.  Who in their right mind would want to call it a day at 5 or 6 pm, and enjoy the rest of their night? People are weird sometimes.

I gravitated to startup culture for its blatant- if slightly overplayed- cheekiness. Work whenever you want! Don’t you dare wear a suit! Take a specially designed American Apparel tee instead.  Even when I didn’t mind donning pencil skirts and heels – and actually, kind of wanted to – something in me admired the irreverence of startup culture.

Underlying everything was my belief that startup people loved their jobs more than corporate ‘sellouts’ did. Startup employees had passion and personal stake that kept them working into the wee hours. While definitely true for some people, particularly founders, the obsessive workaholic drive isn’t a good fit for everyone. It eventually took its toll on me when I found myself unable to think amid side conversations 3 feet to my right, flying ping pong balls inches to my left, and no clear boundaries or stopping points in sight.

Since ‘selling out’ and joining a larger company, I’ve discovered that innovation can still happen in highly controlled environments. In fact, Tim Brown of IDEO says constraints, when set appropriately, drive innovation. Ideas develop based on the strict parameters provided (needs, resources, time, size, impact etc).  They range from simple process tweaks to larger strategic initiatives. Sometimes they exist more as improvements than complete recreations, but it’s still innovation.  Was not the iPhone a mere ‘smart’ improvement from the generic cell phone?

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The Tribe: A monthly gathering of girls who discuss ideas, cultural topics, and our many side projects.

Entrepreneurship takes many forms. I used to think it didn’t count unless you worked at a startup, or bootstrapped your company out of a garage. Many of my friends are involved with side projects. My best friend has a popular fashion blog, another friend designs 3D bracelets. There’s Melissa who writes a vegetarian food blog after hours, and a stellar sister duo creating modern-day versions of global dolls. None of them are dropping out of college or quitting their jobs. Silicon Valley’s ‘fuck it all, wear your hoodie, strike it rich’ narrative is just a tale, not a template for day-to-day entrepreneurship.

The spirit to create lives in all of us, but the conditions (and constraints) needed to thrive vary from person to person.  For now, I’m happy innovating from within.