From co-founding a digital branding agency to his commitment to lifelong learning, we discover why Mo believes edtech is reshaping the way we see the world, and why we need to effectively communicate its value and develop quality leaders in this space.
Mo is the director of strategy at Skyrocket, a Vancouver-based digital branding agency that he co-founded in 2011. With a mission to transform the relationship companies have with their audiences through creative brand strategy, he usually spends his days brainstorming ideas with potential to turn client companies into brand powerhouses.
When he’s not brainstorming ideas for companies, Mo finds time to remain active in the arts and culture community, through advocacy, board governance and taking in arts experiences. He enjoys advising prominent arts and culture organizations and makes it a point to regularly attend concerts. Mo believes that influencing the culture of a community is the best way to exchange values and, through that, create a shared vision for the future.
LEARN MORE ABOUT MO’S WORK AND CRITICAL LEARNING MOMENTS:
WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT ROLE AND ORGANIZATION AND HOW DOES IT RELATE TO THE WORK WE DO AT MICHELSON RUNWAY?
In my current role as the Director of Strategy at Skyrocket, a Digital Branding Agency, I draw on my past careers in both software engineering and advertising to build moving brand experiences. The world is getting increasingly noisier, so it’s important to distill great ideas and disruptive models down to their essence and communicate that with impact. This is what our contribution will be through Michelson Runway—helping edtech startups effectively communicate and engage audiences with the value they are creating in the world.
WHAT DID YOU DO PREVIOUSLY THAT HAS PREPARED YOU FOR YOUR CURRENT LEADERSHIP ROLE?
I’m constantly learning and happy to be the most ignorant person in the room. I surround myself with highly intelligent people from diverse experiences, locations and cultures. This has lead me down a variety of different paths in life, created opportunities to stretch, and given me experiences in wildly different contexts. All of these different contexts allow me to “connect the dots” in interesting ways and develop solutions for clients that aren’t always apparent to others. All of these contexts have also taught me empathy and cultivated an ability to listen deeply.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED IN THE EDUCATION/EDTECH SPACE; TELL US ABOUT A PIVOTAL EXPERIENCE THAT HELPED GUIDE YOUR CAREER TO WHERE IT IS NOW?
The most pivotal experiences I had in the education space were three-fold: one was taking a trip to India as a youngster and attending village school with distant cousins. Seeing the importance placed on rote memorization instead of critical thinking and meaningful learning had a profound impact on me. I realized at a young age that generations of people were being taught to regurgitate information rather than think for themselves.
Later in the 9th grade, I had the opportunity to engage in a pilot program called the “Autonomous Learner Model”—an experimental classroom setting where we were taught models for knowledge discovery and investigation. For an entire school term, we were let loose to individually explore and discover an area of learning that resonated with us. The following term was spent investigating that area to our heart’s content, culminating in a research presentation at the end of the year. This “experiment” in “edtech” (although no one called it that back then) changed what school meant to me. I never had more fun or learned as much in such a short amount of time as I did in that year of high school.
Lastly, two TED Talks, Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” and Salman Khan’s “Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education,” cemented my belief that future models for education had to be relevant, fluid, and technology driven in order for everyone to fulfill their individual potential. Our current education system, at large, is designed to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution—we are well beyond that point.
HOW IS YOUR WORK CLOSING THE OPPORTUNITY GAP/ACHIEVEMENT GAP?
I can’t say we work directly in closing this gap. However, an appreciation for diversity and inclusion means we are sensitive to projects and clients where we can have this sort of impact. For example, we are currently working with a startup in the interior design space that is also funding community initiatives to reduce homelessness. Our impact comes through the clients we choose to work with.
HOW DO YOU STAY UP TO DATE WITH CURRENT DEVELOPMENTS IN YOUR FIELD?
It’s a well-curated firehose of content. We are constantly learning and we understand that knowledge in technology is churning constantly. So, the current developments aren’t as important as the fundamentals and, for us, the fundamentals lie in developing the qualities for leadership and establishing a culture for how to work in our field. That’s more important than being up on the latest thing.
IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO START YOUR CAREER OVER AGAIN, WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
I would take my time. Impatience drove a lot of my early decision-making. I should have invested more time into the “slow burn” activities, from education to professional development to cultivating complementary competencies such as music. Time is going to pass by anyways and sometimes immediate results aren’t as important as the competencies that you chip away at over time and may take decades to develop.
WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF EQUITY AND HAS YOUR WORK CONTRIBUTED TO MORE EQUITY FOR STUDENTS?
Equity is often confused with equality. I understand equality to mean “an equal share to everyone,” whereas equity means deploying resources in a just manner. Social justice in education would mean deploying resources in a manner that greatly favors the underserved. So, we’re not as excited about improving on the diminishing returns of the current education system. Rather, we are excited about facilitating access, innovation, and investment into education for students who are grossly underserved.
One such example of this is our work in the State of Georgia, with the Get Georgia Reading campaign—a platform for the collaboration of over 100 public and private partners. This work wasn’t specifically in edtech, per se, but it was meant to bolster the advocacy efforts of organizations fighting for equity for students that are victims of the structural failures in that state.
WHAT PROMPTED YOUR INTEREST IN SERVING AS A MENTOR TO EDTECH ENTREPRENEURS AND WHAT SPECIFICALLY EXCITES YOU ABOUT THIS INITIATIVE?
The most exciting thing about this initiative is the inherent promise within edtech itself. Innovating and revolutionizing the quality of—and access to—education is no less than an inflection point in our collective evolution as a species. I’m excited to work with edtech entrepreneurs because their efforts have the potential for exponential effects on our future.
PLEASE SHARE A QUOTE THAT HAS GUIDED YOUR PERSONAL OR PROFESSIONAL PATH.
I tend to read a lot of spiritual poetry and find relevance in much of it. I had this one quote as my email signature for a long time:
“They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold; and I deem them mad because they think my days have a price.” –Khalil Gibran
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ANY ENTREPRENEURS THAT ARE READING?
Good is the enemy of great. Don’t be afraid to empty yourself of everything you have in order to become an empty vessel, capable of being filled with greatness.
WHO IS YOUR ROLE MODEL/MENTOR, AND WHY?
Our identities are complex and I think there’s more opportunity in that complexity than to have a singular role model or mentor. I draw inspiration and wisdom from a variety of sources including the giants of Silicon Valley, human rights champions, Sikh gurus and Sufi saints.
WHAT ADVICE ABOUT LEADERSHIP HAVE YOU GAINED FROM YOUR OWN MENTORS?
Before you can project anything outwards, you must journey inwards. You must develop a deep-rooted understanding of self. So, leadership is actually an exercise in profound self-awareness. Everything after that is just a checklist for communicating effectively (and knowing that in effective communication, listening is more fundamental than talking).
HOW DO YOU DEFINE SUCCESS? WHAT GUIDING PRINCIPLES DO YOU RECOMMEND TO BECOMING A SUCCESSFUL ENTREPRENEUR?
The biggest problem with the world today is that we have reduced the definitions of success to a handful of options, including some combination of wealth and fame. My definition of success is to feel activated in every aspect of my being. Skyrocket was not a “career” choice for me; it was an opportunity to do that thing that makes me feel alive and earn a livelihood through it. There are plenty of ways to make money, but there are fewer ways for each of us to make “meaning”.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE THE TOP THREE SKILLS NEEDED TO BE A SUCCESSFUL ENTREPRENEUR?
- The ability to develop and articulate a vision for the future.
- An intense drive to achieve that vision.
- The adaptability to change in nimble, but thoughtful ways.
WHAT SACRIFICES HAVE YOU MADE TO PURSUE YOUR DREAMS AND/OR TO BECOME SUCCESSFUL?
I don’t spend enough time with family and I often neglect some of my best friends in life. There was a time when I was even sacrificing health, but I discovered the folly of my ways. These days, health is the only thing I don’t compromise.
You also have to sacrifice peace of mind, and just come to terms with that. I stopped feeling bad about my state of being and embraced it. I do not believe in “work life balance,” I believe that any time you are doing something meaningful or mindblowing, your life is inherently out of balance. For me, it’s more of a pendulum than the equilibrium of a scale in perfect balance. I throw my energy behind the direction of the pendulum—whether that’s working tirelessly for days on end, or relaxing after long periods of intense activity.
I’ve also sacrificed the notion of “happiness”. That’s not to say that I’m unhappy, but it’s not the only thing that matters. To be happy, all we need do is find new and interesting ways of making money, and then find new and interesting ways of spending that money. Research has shown that this will release the appropriate amounts of dopamine to keep humans “happy.” However, such an existence is not meaningful. When you’re engaged in work that is meaningful, you are frustrated, struggling, and at times exhausted, because you are always working against the way things are. You know that this is the right work for you if you’re still having the time of your life doing it. I’d rather have a meaningful life than a happy life. These days, I’m stressed out, sometimes exhausted, and having the time of my life. Time is the ultimate sacrifice and this is how I know my days are being well spent.
DESCRIBE ONE FAILURE THAT YOU HAVE TURNED INTO A GROWTH OPPORTUNITY.
Post dot-com boom and bust the long hours and stress of the tech industry really got to me. I was completely burned out and isolated working as a lone remote developer for a California based tech company. I allowed myself the space to “fail” in this career and put my life on a different trajectory. The massive pay cut and lack of self-importance was a shock to the ego and brought on it’s own pit of despair but, over time, it made me fearless. I’m no longer afraid of losing anything, whether that’s money or stature.
WHAT’S YOUR MORNING RITUAL?
I start every morning by working out. I don’t like sliding into my day by gradually arriving at lucidity. I hit the gym really hard for 30 minutes and that wakes up my entire being, getting me ready to work hard and think fast. If you start each day by taking care of yourself, you’re constantly improving your most important tools: your mind and body.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT THUS FAR?
Skyrocket is now the best undertaking of my life. Through our work, we have amplified the impact of dozens of startups and NGOs. I know with every fibre of my being that we (Skyrocket) developed these organizations to be more effective in their work and thus make a greater impact in their spaces than they would have otherwise.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE IN YOUR CAREER LONG-TERM AND WHO DO YOU HOPE TO IMPACT?
In the long-term, I hope to become an expert in the art of new venture creation in social impact spaces. By supporting the right new ventures, my dream is to be a part of ushering in a reboot of our current economic model, such that profits are measured in terms of social, environmental and financial value.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE TAKEN AND OFFERED?
In 1999 I read Seth Godin’s article, “Guillotine or Rack?” and it had a massive impact on me. Of these two medieval devices for execution, if you were to ask a reasonable and rational person how they would like to die whether by the guillotine, being decapitated in a single clean stroke, or the rack, being pulled apart ever so slowly by the limbs until your body explodes, everyone would choose the guillotine—the quick death. Yet, in life, relationships, and work, most people choose the rack and so, they die ever so slowly every day. They will spend years in a dead-end relationship or slowly kill their career. They do this through the small decisions they make every day. Rather than say what’s on their mind, do what they believe to be right, make the hard or unpopular choices, or take a calculated risk, they will play it safe. They will spend 5 or 10 years killing a career rather than risk getting fired today. I encourage everyone around me to choose the guillotine. The worst thing that will happen is that you will lose that job or that relationship that isn’t right for you—it’s a point of freedom. Living by the guillotine frees you to find that thing that’s right, to spend your time in a way that activates your soul, rather than limp through every day never being able to fully embrace who you are and what you believe.
This isn’t just a cute story for me. At our company’s most recent strategic planning retreat, I encouraged everyone to choose the guillotine. I told them that if they did, they may get fired. Or they may not like my response to their choosing the guillotine and choose to leave on their own. Or, their guillotine moment may be a revelation for everyone to witness their incredible truth and understand what an enormous value they bring to the company. In any of these scenarios, they would be free and moving towards becoming the best version of themselves, even if that means we can’t do that together.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT THE CURRENT EDTECH ENVIRONMENT WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Integrate edtech and design-thinking into school systems immediately. Much like the “Autonomous Learner Model” that I experienced in the 9th grade, the opportunity to test and experiment would benefit edtech, and would also go a long way to creating an ethos where we escape the normative modes of education that constrain our current school systems.
PLEASE SHARE ANYTHING ELSE YOU WOULD LIKE US TO HIGHLIGHT AROUND YOUR WORK AND INTERESTS.
Our work is in digital branding. Brand strategy is the alignment of values, purpose, and the audience you hope to engage. Everything else is just aesthetics. A well-branded organization is able to communicate its unique value proposition in a powerful and compelling way.
Through digital branding, Skyrocket works to amplify the impact of our clients. Our role in the world is to empower those who are working to make things better.