Nilofer Merchant believes in the power of the individual. She is a master at turning seemingly “wild” ideas into reality, and showing the rest of us how we can do the same.
She began her career in business 25 years ago as an administrative assistant, quickly rising to division leader, CEO, and even board member of a NASDAQ-traded company. Called the “Jane Bond of Innovation”, she knows how to guide organizations and individuals through impossible odds.
Nilofer was recently interviewed by the Rotman School of Management on her powerful concept of “onlyness” that she developed to encourage a more inclusive version of Innovation and empower people to embrace what makes them unique and make their “dent” in the world.
Below is a segment of her interview, read the whole piece here.
You could actually be considered a poster woman for onlyness. Can you share some of your story?
The book starts out with my personal story. That wasn’t my idea — it came from a colleague who I trust implicitly, who felt it needed to be in there. When I was 18, I was supposed to be part of an arranged marriage. One day I came home to a house full of aunties and uncles who told me, ‘Your life as you know it is now going to be set out in this particular direction’. I had grown up accepting these ideas, but because I had been in the U.S. since I was four and a half, I had one foot firmly in each camp: The Western culture that I lived in every day and the traditional Islamic culture that I returned to every night. In my family’s view, my ‘job’ in the family was to marry well and make sure that my mother was well provided for. I accepted this, but I asked if they could please allow me to get an education first. They refused and were not willing to negotiate.
At that moment, I realized that my family was only seeing me as a silhouette of a person. Their focus was on ‘the Islamic woman’s job’ — not on Nilofer, The Human Being. I explained to my mother that because I was the ‘product’ in this ‘deal’, she couldn’t make the deal without me. I thought I had some leverage; but it turned out, I didn’t. She refused to change her mind, and I would not change mine. I ended up walking out of the house that day — and 30 years later, I have yet to really be accepted back into my family. This experience showed me — in high definition — that when you only look at the silhouette of a person, you missout on a lot.
During college, I went to work at Apple as an administrative assistant. One of the first meetings I was invited to was a brainstorming session. I remember reading up on the topic and coming to the meeting with lots of ideas and questions. It took a minute or two to realize that no one was making eye contact with me. Even though I was invited to the meeting, it was clear they were looking to a few key people in the room to have ideas.
In future meetings I realized that people only paid attention to either the CEO or senior executives — not to any of the lower-ranked people. I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, this company is missing out on so many perspectives by not noticing the capacity inherent in each person’. That’s how I came to coin this term and started to advocate for a more inclusive form of innovation.
Can it really be true that all 7.5 billion+ of us have a shot with our ideas?
When I wrote that sentence — which appears in the last section of the book — someone challenged it. I remember this vividly, because it was somebody I really respect, and they said to me, ‘That is the most audacious idea I’ve ever heard’. I remember thinking, ‘You’re right; it is audacious’. I decided to edit it out of the book. But then, after a night or two had passed, I literally crept down the stairs of my own home as if I was sneaking up to the manuscript and I put the sentence back in.
I’m not saying that everyone will have a shot with their idea, but I am saying that anyone can. It took some courage on my part to reclaim that concept for myself and say, ‘This is why I believe this onlyness construct is so needed’.
When you exclude people of colour, young people and women, something like 65 per cent of the population is not invited to the innovation table. We need a new framework that shifts business back to what it can do, which is create value. And when you include more people, you have a much better chance of achieving that.
In her talks, Nilofer shares her concept of “onlyness” and empowers audiences to take ownership of it to transform their lives.
Interested in learning more about Nilofer and what she can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].