Neil Sahota is a futurist and leading expert on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other next generation technologies. Throughout his career Neil has walked the “path of most resistance,” and has never cared about titles or prestige. Rather, he focused on learning and adding value, which often meant taking on “impossible tasks” like helping the United Nations find its inner-entrepreneur and launch the AI for Good initiative. Because of these experiences, Neil has unlocked disruption in different industries via innovative products as well as successfully building new markets.
In addition to working with the UN, Neil is the author of Own the AI Revolution (McGraw Hill). Sahota is also an IBM Master Inventor, former leader of the IBM Watson Group and professor at the University of California at Irvine. His work spans multiple industries, including legal services, healthcare, life sciences, retail, travel, transportation, energy, utilities, automotive, telecommunications, media, and government. His motto is to encourage aspiring entrepreneurs (and intrapreneurs, which are people that create ventures for the organization they work for) that every business has massive untapped potential.
CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP — What meaning do you give this term?
Conscious entrepreneurship is business with a purpose. It is running your enterprise with an awareness of the values and impact the enterprise makes to people and the planet. Everyone has so much work to do, especially entrepreneurs, that we get heads down on accomplishing our tasks and often forget about the big picture. Because we have a culture of “getting stuff done” for so long, that we put impact and values to the backburner. Thankfully, we are seeing the rise of a new mindset, conscious entrepreneurship that is making social enterprise/entrepreneurship the culture again by interweaving values into everything that they do.
CAREER — What led you to your particular career path?
My career path has been driven by the belief that the best way to predict the future is to create it. That’s why I encourage fellow aspiring entrepreneurs that every business has massive untapped potential — the importance is to truly identify and recognize the real opportunities from the get-go. No idea is a bad idea, and all business ideas have endless possibilities. However, a successful business is more than just the idea and building a great product. It is also about people and infrastructure, which places critical importance on how the business interacts with society and the environment. This led me to develop what I call “the full cycle” solution that encompasses people, planet, and profit with my framework TUCBO™ enterprises (Think Different — Understand Different — Create Differently — Be Different — Own Different.) It is a holistic approach that generates successful disruption with people and impact (i.e., conscious entrepreneurship) at the heart of the process.
MENTORS — We all need a little help along the journey. Who has been an invaluable mentor for you? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Early in my career, I learned that the balance of people, process, and technology drives action. However, people are the real challenge because individuals don’t just fit into “buckets” and have lots of varying motivations. I had a mentor Jim Smith who gave me some of the best advice of my career: culture facilitates buy-in and adoption. Getting people on-board with an idea, initiative, product, etc.is critical. However, we also seem to do it as one-offs… often because it becomes a task for us. What Jim taught me was that establishing a corporate culture based on shared values creates a foundation of perpetual adoption. It generates that interlacing of value-driven business with specific impact goals in mind. A culture like this gives people the innate sense of why and the benefits of any endeavor taken. This has been a powerful lesson for me, and one that I’ve taken with me everywhere I go. One of my first steps is to build and champion a values-based culture. When I coach entrepreneurs or even established business executives, I always emphasize Jim’s advice as the secret to success. Business is really about people, so we have to make the investment into culture to reap the rewards.
TO THRIVE — When you see yourself thriving: Do you see yourself opening up opportunities for others along the way to participate in your success, and how?
I really thrive when trying to tackle the “impossible.” For example, I partnered with the United Nations and created and launched their AI for Global Good ecosystem. This meant taking one of the most bureaucratic and politics-driven organizations in the world and helping them find their “inner entrepreneur,” shifting their model into one that operated more quickly and with more agility. It was an enormous risk to take on a first-of-a-kind, global initiative that included organizations which had little prior collaboration experience. I was able to do this because I embrace the “art of the possible” to find the recipe for success. However, no big kitchen has just one chef. It takes a team. This is why I always engage others for help. I tap into people’s strengths to find opportunities that create benefits for everyone involved. To do this effectively, I really work on my relationships with people and organizations so that I understand what they’re goals are, and which prospects would make the most sense for them. In effect, I’ve created a “Neil Ecosystem” where I have a strong, diverse pool of partners to help with any project I take on.
CAUSE — What are the causes close to your heart, and you are supporting right now? Can you share a story about how you got involved? How did it make you feel?
The sustainable development goals (SDGs) are very near and dear to my heart, which is a big reason why I volunteer a good chunk of my time to the United Nations (UN). Part of my work includes the UN’s Innovation Factory which is a program to help global entrepreneurs who have started commercial ventures that also impact the SDGs. We set up the Innovation Factory because I believe that local problems have global solutions. Everyone worries about food security, jobs, disaster recovery, and so forth. By giving these entrepreneurs (from literally around the world) a global stage for visibility, connecting them with mentors and venture capitalists, and providing partners who supply equipment and resources, we are boosting their chances for success as well as helping the world.
THE FUTURE — How do you see the face of entrepreneurship in 5 years? How do companies /brands need to adapt to secure their place in the future?
Entrepreneurship will be a must have skill set in 5 years. It does not mean that everyone will be entrepreneurs, but most people will be intrapreneurs. Understanding how to build a business (unit) will be critical because change is happening faster and faster. Peter Diamandis said, “Uber yourself before you get Kodaked.” In other words, you’d better disrupt yourself before someone else disrupts you. We have seen this repeatedly, and over recent years, some of these disruptions have shocked even the biggest companies. Consider Amazon Care which surprised and shocked the health insurance companies, or Apple acquiring Beats and Shazam to build out its music portfolio. In 5 years, any size company that cannot move fast, innovate, understand how to engage customers, and seriously commit to social good will be at an extreme disadvantage. That’s why conscious entrepreneurship skills will be so critical for people to have and a vital mindset for companies to cultivate.
ADVICE — What kind of advice would you like to give to an aspiring entrepreneur who feels limited due to their background or lack of resources?
No joke, reading my book Own the A.I. Revolution is a great resource for this. It is not just about artificial intelligence but shares my magic formula on how entrepreneurs can overcome their lack of resources. Moreover, it has interviews with several entrepreneurs who faced exactly this challenge to overcome limited resources and skills to build great companies. No one entrepreneur is going to know everything and be able to do everything. Even two or three Founders can make this happen. The old African proverb, it takes a village, is very appropriate. Thankfully, we have so many wonderful entrepreneurial ecosystems that help entrepreneurs from mentorship to funding to finding skilled resources. I always encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to take advantage of these benefits, so they can learn from other people’s best practices and mistakes. I have seen this tremendously increase their chance of success by finding the right mix of people to guide them along the way and hopefully enable these entrepreneurs to make new mistakes rather than repeat failures of the past.
CHALLENGES — Entrepreneurship is very challenging. We each have our own coping mechanism. Mine is humor. What is yours? Can you share a story?
Entrepreneurship is extremely challenging and a very demanding job. Most entrepreneurs (even those experienced with a few startups) that I have helped have underestimated the amount of effort that needs to be put in, especially for fundraising and building a solid corporate culture. (That’s why the stress levels can be daunting.) So, my coping mechanism is problem solving. (That’s a real coping mechanism, just check out this study from UCLA).
It is a very productive tool for work situations, but, ironically, can be counterproductive from a culture viewpoint. A few years ago, I was on the Board of Directors of a startup company. They had an upcoming milestone that would release the last tranche of $750K from their investor. With a new revenue opportunity popping up, they decided to accelerate the work and reach milestone completion sooner. The CEO went to the investor to get the $750K, but there was a problem. The VCs didn’t have the money.Long story short,, the startup would run out of money in three weeks. Panic ensued, but I went into problem solving mode and worked with the Founders to find viable options. After considering several plans, we moved forward with a short-term bridge loan that saved the company.
However, there was a downside to my coping mechanism of problem solving. The employees were terrified about the situation. During the panic attack, they were looking for empathy from the company leadership. My calm, cool demeanor of problem solving didn’t align with their expectations, so they took it as if I were being aloof. Ultimately, through the experience I learned that problem solving as a coping mechanism can work as long as the company’s culture is aligned and the “people challenges” have been thought through.
Connect with Neil Sahota on LinkedIn.
Demee Koch about the MEDIUM interview series on CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP:
Conscious entrepreneurship for me is about building a sustainable business that values and respects the resources used and makes an effort of giving back to society.
I believe we need entrepreneurs to really get involved in the causes close to their heart.
This is why I reach out to entrepreneurs that aim for more than generating profit. With this interview, I aim to share entrepreneurial purpose-led passion to inspire others.
Looking forward to learn from you. Reach out to me via LinkedIn.