Thrilling Adventures to Humility

Musings from Yoxi Founder, Sharon Chang

A lot of people have trouble pronouncing Yoxi. When I tell them the correct way [YO-see], the response is often a head scratch plus a question: what does it mean?

I don’t always share the answer. Sometimes, I mischievously make something up on the fly. Perhaps I don’t want anyone to judge the book by its cover, or maybe it’s possible that I am still seeking the meaning myself. Both of these excuses point to the same sentiment Yoxi represents: an awareness that everything depends on context. And, as we know, contexts change.

I thought I had Yoxi all figured out when I started seven years ago. I had a compelling vision to “mainstream social innovation.” Keep in mind that back in 2010 “social innovation” was a fairly obscure term. People often confused it with social media. I remember a conversation with my PR agent when she tried to convince me that social innovation would get lost between social impact and social media, so I should just go with the easily understood term social impact. Yet I didn’t want to conform to the more established lexicon. I was certain that Yoxi cared more about innovation than impact. I launched the company with an ambitious platform for online video competitions in search of innovative ideas to invest in.

After Reinvent Fast Food and Trim the Waste of Fashion, I realized that it’s more important to invest in people than ideas. It clearly wasn’t an earth-shattering revelation. Every seasoned investor will tell you the same thing. Yet I knew that the path to finding true alignment with audacious and committed change-makers wasn’t going to be straightforward, especially if a defining element for me was what I had described as “media ready.” I drew a connection between social innovation and the talent management industry, arguing that social innovators needed to be managed by a new breed of agents and supported by a powerful media infrastructure — a perspective explained in a 2011 Forbes interview. I believed that there was a huge imbalance between the amazing work being done and what actually got effectively propagated as stories that the general public could relate to.

So, the concept of Social Innovation Rockstars was born. I wanted to create a community where aspiring social innovators could help each other, not only to fulfill their ambition to have a positive impact on the world, but also to reconcile the inherent contradiction between altruism and vanity. Rockstars often possess unique talent and big personality. They are original. They are the antithesis of conventional thinking. They are charismatic leaders who instigate disruptive innovation and significant cultural movement. Understanding and owning that power to influence and inspire is essential to driving large-scale change.

I also drew inspiration from my time working with American Idol. In its heyday, the show was a huge cultural phenomenon. For almost a decade, it consistently delivered commercially viable music talent. The true brilliance of the brand lies in the intricate design of its business enterprise. It controlled the talent discovery pipeline, the star-making engine, as well as management, publishing, and distribution rights for long-term monetization. While the world doesn’t really need another pop star, couldn’t we repurpose this successful model for social good?

Creative, passionate social entrepreneurs with world-changing ideas need an effective launch platform — one that doesn’t just preach to the choir. My vision with the Social Innovation Rockstar framing was to leverage mainstream entertainment infrastructure to effectively weave talent, ideas, stories and capital into a self-sustaining ecosystem. By manifesting the pop culture of social innovation and the increasing attention it was garnering, I imagined that we would capture a massive and highly-engaged audience to create both social and economic value.

The reality proved to be much more challenging than my naive hypothesis. Old guards of the media and entertainment industry showed no interest in participating. New platforms with end-to-end control would take a crazy amount of resources to build. Grassroots efforts continued to be highly-fragmented. I watched my grand vision get reduced down to a spark that ultimately did not ignite a fire.

Yet that little spark still felt like a compass. To continue the exploration without breaking the bank overnight, I decided to separate the key elements of my hypothesis so we could experiment with isolated variables. Over the ensuing few years, Yoxi launched SIR.tv, our own directory to profile Social Innovation Rockstars, and BOLD, a content platform to highlight emerging voices in the social innovation landscape. Both of these efforts yielded invaluable learnings and further informed our evolving trajectory as we slowly expanded our investment portfolio.

Pivot. I suppose it would be easy to describe Yoxi’s journey with this concept made popular by Silicon Valley. But I don’t see it that way. I am not searching for a business model. I am not trying to find a product/market fit. I am not targeting success, worshiping failure or even claiming credit for learnings. These changes in positioning and practice are inherently coded in Yoxi’s DNA. I know that my destination is somewhat intangible, but I have an intuitive sense of my true north. And I would be lying to myself if I joined the cult of certainty.

However, let’s not assume that the opposite of certainly is ambiguity. What I want Yoxi to celebrate and embody is a sense of wonder. It begins with insatiable curiosity and marches on with unlimited tolerance for the unknown. We are clear and confident about our process but rightfully uncertain about our destination. Like the Mars Rover, Yoxi’s mission is to explore, not arrive. We explore infinite possibilities to illuminate viable pathways; we don’t spend resources to arrive at conclusions. When Yoxi asks questions, what follows is a series of insightful reframing and honest investigation to help the world ponder more deeply, so we don’t end up with easy answers or status quo solutions.

As I reflect deeply on the past seven years, I recognize the massive shifts in cultural, social and political context. The divisive “us versus them” attitude drives everyone to quick and easy answers. And passion is often used to defend calcified mindset, rather than supporting meaningful debate. The world we live in today does not lack ideology. I would argue that we might even have too much of it. What’s lacking is the humility to question ideology before offering conviction, and the rigor to discern dogma from principle. In a way, Yoxi represents more art than design, more science than engineering. It returns to the spirit and discipline of fundamental research, thus laying the foundation for brilliant innovation to come from a more diverse population. I want our energy to be focused on refining a timeless practice of funding questions instead of finding answers.

We are still searching for the same kind of people to support. We just decided that it’s no longer appropriate to call ourselves an investor and refer to “them” as Social Innovation Rockstars. We are simply fellow explorers — courageous trailblazers, guided by clear vision to create change, not afraid to admit that we don’t know where we are going, until we do. Profound truth is often hidden in plain sight, and we will find it only if we are willing to embark on journeys to the unknown. These journeys are incredibly exciting but also terrifying and arduous, always demanding the flexibility to respond to changing contexts. We hope to offer catalytic camaraderie — meaningful financial, social, and emotional capital to make challenging explorations rewarding and, in the most primitive way, less lonely.

So what does Yoxi mean? Like I said, it depends on the context as we continue to explore. But I know you are not going to let me off the hook this time. Surely we have an origin story and the word has to mean something, right? Well, I’ll offer you two Chinese characters and invite you to figure it out yourself:

遊戲

Let the (right) game begin as we journey forth!

Originally published at https://medium.com on December 22, 2017.

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