Founder Focus: Intrapreneur, Asha Curran
“You need to meet Asha…You must meet Asha!”
If my memory holds true, these words were my first introduction to the intrapreneurial powerhouse Asha Curran, director of the Center for Innovation & Social Impact at the 92Y in New York City. She spearheads the storied institution’s efforts to broaden the depth and reach of its programming, particularly by leveraging the power of new and social media as well as creative partnerships and innovative collaborations.
Asha’s work with 92Y and beyond
Some of the projects emanating from the Center include the annual Social Good Summit (produced in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, Mashable, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UN Development Programme); the multi-platform political program 92Y American Conversation (92YAmericanConversation.org), and the national day of giving founded and led by 92Y (#GivingTuesday).
Asha is also behind the 92Y’s new Women In Power fellowship program. Women inPower is a dynamic cross-sector fellowship program designed to help high-potential women in corporate, academic and not-for-profit roles advance to the next stage of their career, the C-suite. The inaugural program is providing 21 female leaders in New York City with executive mentorship, educational training and workshops, and membership in an active community of female leaders.
Prior to joining the 92Y, Asha worked in book publishing. She is also a certified childbirth and parenting educator.
Here’s my interview with 92Y’s resident changemaker, Asha Curran.
Q: I consider your role very entrepreneurial, and see you as a bit of an intrapreneur at the 92Y. How would you describe your role?
A: To the extent that it means “someone who starts new things,” then yes, I see my role as both entre- and intrapreneurial. 92Y has a century-and-a-half-long history of innovation–breaking ground in the arts and poetry and music and education and civic engagement and so much more. It’s an entrepreneurial place, so much so that it made sense for us to have an incubator to fast-track new projects, get them out into the marketplace of ideas, learn from them being out there, and that’s what my team does. It depends on being highly collaborative: working with other organizations and people who are intellectually curious and even idealistic about the positive effect that great ideas and movements can have.
Thinking of the programs you’re guiding, such as the New York Venture Fellows initiative, what do you see as the greatest needs for entrepreneurs?
Not so different than the needs of other constituent groups. They need support, mentorship, wisdom, guidance, a network. In my experience, they tend to be driven, hungry, whip-smart, quick-thinking, agile and often courageous. What the system does not necessarily encourage is the integration of a deep and thoughtful social consciousness in the earliest stages of an enterprise. It’s not enough to kick the can down the road and think about sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the changing nature of power. The world is at too urgent an inflection point in all sorts of ways for that. Closing multiple rounds of capital is not more important than thinking about the world we are creating with every decision we make.
Not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur, but in the knowledge economy, being entrepreneurial is an essential career mindset. What can we do to encourage entrepreneurial thinking?
It’s crucial to be willing to go through the tough process of realizing that just because things have always been done a certain way doesn’t mean they need to, or should, continue to be done that way, and to go through that process both as individuals and institutions. There is a tremendous excitement in rapidly prototyping ideas, getting them out there, seeing if they work, learning from it when they don’t, building on it when they do. You’ll learn more from getting your ideas out into the world than you ever will from endlessly circulating them in internal committees.
What makes the New York City startup ecosystem so exciting?
Among other things, the sense of history. New York has been a home for entrepreneurs, and all the hunger and hope they bring to a place, for as long as it has been a place. Everything here has an extra layer of energy: both an edge and a beating heart, and a sense of limitless possibility. Same with the startup ecosystem, which is why we need to both support entrepreneurs and challenge them to become great leaders by many different metrics, not just fiscal ones. New York is multi-dimensional and multifaceted, constantly reinventing itself, and its start up ecosystem should be as well.
Switching to women and leadership, tell us how the Women inPower fellowship program started. Why is it needed in 2016?
Across every sector, from corporate to tech to nonprofit to finance, female leadership at the executive level hovers around a high of 20%. With more women graduating from college (and increasingly graduate school) than men, that disparity at the upper levels is absolutely striking. Many things are happening to cause it, and those things need to be addressed. But simultaneously, the problem itself needs to be urgently remedied. Women inPower offers a cross-sector cohort of female leaders a year of intensive training, coaching, mentorship, and, we hope, the foundations of lifelong support. At the same time, it’s not only about getting more female Chief Officers. It’s about changing the paradigm entirely so that women in the future don’t need such intense scaffolding to have the same chance at success as men. We hope to inspire our participants to be bold and ambitious about creating the landscape of the hopefully near future, when gender parity is a given.
Tell us about the Women inPower fellowship participants. What are your hopes for this inaugural program?
They are an amazing cross-section of women from tech, STEM, and the academic, corporate, nonprofit and foundation worlds. We want to fill their year with opportunities and inspiration. Today we held an intensive workshop where we had them white-boarding, ideating, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, what shaped who they are today, their common goals and challenges. It was intensely personal, very raw, even though it was only the second program of the year. Women are often good at establishing intimacy and warmth very quickly. It’s a talent that should be more prized—and more leveraged—in the professional world. My hope for them is that as they become a community, they are resources for one another this year and, well, forever.
Why are these programs essential?
Until there is gender parity at the uppermost levels of leadership, we need more of these programs, not fewer, and they need to be experimental. What interventions will finally accelerate this process? We don’t know. So we need to try lots and lots of things instead of throwing up our hands. And we need to try to accelerate adoption of what works rather than accepting change that moves in inches. I learned-—from one of our Women inPower fellows!—that at the current rate of change, it would take the same time to achieve gender equality in the UK parliament that it would take a snail to crawl from one end of the Great Wall of China to the other.
What makes a great leader?
I don’t think every great leader needs to share all the same characteristics. A few characteristics that I deeply admire or that I’ve known or observed are intellectual curiosity, fearlessness, and the ability to weave a narrative that gets others feeling like they’re part of something larger than themselves. Lately, I’ve also been thinking about how, among other qualities, a great leader is someone who actively combats his or her own confirmation bias. The peril of being a leader is that you are often surrounded by people who say yes to you a lot. That, on top of the tendency we all have to actively seek out data or information that confirms what we already believe, can isolate a leader from being challenged by herself or by others. It’s valuable to very intentional about asking, “How do I know this to be true?” and to seek out information from contradictory sources. Important for everyone, not only leaders.
Why is constantly innovating important, even if you’re not a startup?
Innovation really just means progress and evolution. It’s hard to stay relevant without progressing and evolving. It’s easy to forget that simple fact if you convince yourself that innovation is just a buzzword.
What does success mean to you?
That old cliche: it’s more about the journey than the destination. It’s measuring myself against a series of questions regularly, like:
- Am I having fun on the journey?
- Is this leading me to progressively greater places?
- Are at least some of my days filled with excitement and new opportunities and challenges?
- Am I being recognized for what I’m achieving?
- Am I helping others?
- Am I consistently pushing myself out of my comfort zone?
- How are my kids doing?
- Are my professional and personal values aligned?
Everyone’s questions are and should be different, of course, but those are some of mine. And the answers vary, but at least they are guideposts for what I need to be working on at any given time.