Memo: The Smartest In The Room

Apophenia is a word that I’ve long considered to be one of the most important in the English language. Both a normal phenomenon and an abnormal phenomenon depending on one’s mental acuity, its connotation is complex. It’s the ability to find meaningful connections between unrelated ideas. Ideas and community are the fuel of this phenomenon.

Apophenia’s role in history is understated. The Age of Enlightenment propelled mankind forward in remarkable ways. At the core of that time period was the invention of the European coffee house. Caffeinated by imported goods and free of the dulls of Renaissance-era alcohols, academic and social ideas took shape in rooms dominated by men who spoke powerfully and dutifully as if it were their singular contribution to society.

The European coffee house, or the “penny university”, democratized information synthesis in ways once exclusive to universities. It promoted conversation, debate, and authorship among active participants and nosy listeners alike. Ideas were valuable. Imagine a ship with a minor leak near the bow. Only a fortified wooden board can provide the stability that the ship needs to endure the tests and rigors of sea. Like hardened planks of sea-worthy wood, Enlightenment-era ideas plugged the hulls of ships constructed by others. One person’s idea completed another’s. It was rarely the smartest person in the room who received the ultimate credit for the end creation. But if you were in that coffee house long enough, you’d likely leave with a creation of your own.

In theory, digital forums are this era’s coffee houses. Revelations once found in the “penny universities” of 18th Century London are digital communities of shared knowledge today. In Nick deWilde’s The Social Architecture of Impactful Communities, he explains:

Individuals typically “hire” communities to accomplish transitions that require human connection. A startup founder who wants to become a better leader applies to Leaders in Tech to get the type of honest feedback needed for professional growth.

This is partly why ideas are valuable: they can serve the function of community. Ideas can solidify into a hardened mass, capable of keeping another ship afloat. Yet, there are endless essays written anchored by the idea that “ideas don’t matter.” These wise writers will go on to explain that if you cannot execute on those ideas, your words or thoughts lack value. These authors espouse the value of execution. Make no mistake, hustle culture rode the same wave. So, I beg to differ.

Consider the late American paleontologist, biologist, and historian of science Stephen Gould:

My talent is making connections. That’s why I’m an essayist. It’s also why my technical work is structured the way it is. How do the parts of the snail shell interact? What are the rates of growth? Can you see a pattern? I’m always trying to see a pattern in this forest and I’m tickled that I can do that. … I can sit down on just about any subject and think of about 20 things that relate to it and they’re not hokey connections.

It took Gould years to realize that this was a skill. Sometimes, the smartest people in the room are ones who think through societal problems, industry shortcomings, or game-changing innovations. These ideas make their way to mainstream news outlets, sizable Twitter feeds, or to industry mavens who repeat soundbites with little need to cite where they’d heard it. And because of these ideas, news outlets earn more clicks, Twitter followings grow, and industry mavens collect compensation for their appearances. So why is it that some ideators need to execute to prove their worth, while others earn perceived value merely because they’ve found an audience?

The ability to harness ideas and turn them into inventions, infrastructure, products, or art is a rare skill that should be valued. This is certain. But the opportunity to do so is not always evenly distributed. Many of the best thinkers are builders in their own rights but for a myriad of reasons, their ideas aren’t always attributed to them.

The communication medium of the era plays a sizable role in how ideas are attributed.

The most notable Greeks were orators. Leaders of the American colonial era wrote voluminous treatises and letters. Alexander Hamilton, one of the most prolific creators in history, wrote 85 articles and essays between 1788 and 1789. The early 1900s saw the rise of radio. Franklin D. Roosevelt transcended the power of addresses made by most of the prior presidents by using the radio to instruct and inspire Americans. In the 1960s the television took center stage. A handsome John F. Kennedy ruled a televised debate while Richard Nixon was the winner to most who were tuned into the radio transmission.

The internet pioneered a new type of thought leader in the early 2000s. Today, we are in the midst of the rise of text-based media, whether by way of Twitter or newsletter. The same methods that once thrived in the coffee houses of Europe live on on platforms like Reddit, Twitter, Substack, Slack, and private forums.

In the spirit of highlighting the smartest in the room, here are a number of business leaders, executives, and consultants within the 2PM ecosystem that have the ideas that move industries forward.

When Naj Austin made the bet on Ethel’s Club in 2018, she should have been able to easily raise money based on the idea that the marginalized deserved a community-minded place to congregate. That same year, The Wing raised $117 million to expand its services to its core demographic, while Austin was essentially scraping by to build on her collection of ideas.

What most impressed me about Austin was her ability to pivot to digital services for the Ethel’s Club community as the pandemic began to disrupt physical retail businesses like hers and The Wing in early 2020. Austin’s agility paid dividends and she is now currently raising for her next venture, Somewhere Good.

You can follow Naj’s ideas on Twitter.

Before Brittany Chavez had a sustainable eCommerce platform to build her marketplace on, she’d already taken her idea of a resource for her community “Shop Latinx” and built an audience around it with her Co-Founder Miles Montes. Their Instagram account has reached over 60,000 fans and customers of what the media calls “Etsy for Latinos.” Halie LeSavage of Morning Brew explained why her Techstars-backed venture could work:

As 2020 keeps reminding us, Gen Z and millennials are adamant about shopping their values. And Latinx shoppers are a powerful consumer group: They’ll drive $1.9+ trillion of U.S. spending by 2023, per Nielsen. [2]

If there is one thing that I have learned about Chavez, it’s that: she’s resilient, she doesn’t stop until her ideas take shape, she welcomes the ideas of others, and she gives the credit where its due. Her collective of 60,000+ consumers and fans will agree.

You can follow Brittany’s ideas on Twitter (and here until Twitter fixes her original account).

I first met Sherrell at the National Association of Black Journalists in Miami, Florida in 2018. Seated with Trapital’s Dan Runcie, we each explained our ideas and what we hoped for our independent media companies to a small room of attendees. At the time, her latest venture The Plug was in its infancy. Today, it is one of the most depended upon industry resources in technology. Consider this report by the Seattle Times from August 2020.

She didn’t see her newsletter becoming a media business unto itself, but The Plug — which takes its name from a colloquial term for someone who knows everyone and “has the hookup on everything,” Dorsey says — took off.

She earned a master’s degree in data journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, focusing on how data can help “tell better stories about underrepresented groups in technology,” Dorsey says, explaining her thesis. [3]

Sherrell is building one of the most pivotal companies in human resources. And though every technology firm now wants to hire her away from her idea-turned-creation, I suspect she will have more impact independently.

You can follow Sherrell’s ideas on Twitter.

Credited with launching the profitable content division at the famed Derris PR agency, Grace Garcia Clarke is one of the most curious and free thinkers in the space where agency and media intersects. Our first interaction was a December 2019 debate within Paul Munford’s Lean Luxe community on the merits of the botched Peloton advertisement and what it would mean for the company’s fortunes.

Formerly an operative at Derris, she’s now independent and highly coveted. Brands tap her for communications, industry research, and her eye for understanding what stodgy businessmen do not. An example of this is her well-researched product rundown for New York Magazine’s The Strategist where she wrangled the opinions of dozens of Generation Z TikTok users to publish one of the publication’s best converting articles.

No products sell faster on TikTok than beauty products, whether it’s a DIY eyebrow lamination kit, men’s shaving powder, or a shower jelly that costs exactly $1. And because the app is dominated by teens, many of these things are easy on the wallet (or the allowance, as it were). To find out what lives up to the hype, we spent hours exchanging hundreds of DMs with TikTok influencers. [4]

When given the autonomy to make decisions for companies that she partners with, they benefit. I should know; she is a frequent collaborator at 2PM.

You can follow Grace’s ideas on Twitter.

Andrea Hernández is a consumer packaged goods oracle. Her work with Snaxshot is the fruits of an idea that she’s long held: an editorialization of the data behind food and CPG trends. A native of San Pedro Sula, Cortés, Honduras, I have watched her audience around Snaxshot begin to transcend its niche. Hernández is also the founder of Mood Food Snacks, so she has a keen insight into the larger market. A recent report by Morning Brew featured her ideas around CPG and distribution through the pandemic and beyond:

We will see the rise of “dark stores” like Amazon, which recently launched their first online only Whole Foods in Brooklyn that will only focus on fulfilling grocery orders made online, and DoorDash, which launched DashMart. [5]

When she writes about CPG, I listen. Her ideas have been incredibly valuable and Snaxshot will grow because of them.

You can follow Andrea’s ideas on Twitter.

This list could go on. The idea of ideas is misunderstood. Whereas the largest audiences of the early-internet era were the victors with the spoils, the newsletter era is surfacing new ideas at the core. The convention of pattern matching is slowly giving way to the merit of the thinker.

Of course, great and monetizable ideas are still filtered and featured by mainstream sources. CNBCVogue and the LA Times will continue to get the credit for the work of smaller audiences. But if there’s one thing that I’ve noticed, it’s that this era has begun to shorten the distance between the originators of keen thoughts and the grand audiences that want to hear them.

In this way, ideas have never been more valuable, because it’s no longer thought to be binary – it never was. There aren’t ideators and executors. Rather, ideas exist along a spectrum where novel thoughts can lead to opportunity. These intangible assets are a currency, now more than ever. And it’s time that we begin to recognize the smartest in the room while they’re still inching along. They won’t be for long.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy | About 2PM


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