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The What if…? Conference, a huge event in a small city

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Columbia, Missouri   |    Saturday, March 22, 2014   |   

What if there was a conference where the audience participated in conversation, brainstorming and problem solving instead of just patiently listening to the keynote? The What if…? Conference, at Columbia, Missouri’s historic Blue Note Theater, did just that by providing an intimate atmosphere for team member, Felicia Rateliff to collaborate with entrepreneurs, educators, tech experts, thought leaders, and status-quo challengers from across the country.

The conference, with around 150 attendees, hosted 20 guest speakers with varied business and personal backgrounds, each giving 8 minute presentations of “What if?” questions, thoughts and solutions. With maximum retention in mind, presentations were designed to be packages of thought provoking material that would stick in the minds of the participants. At first resembling TED Talks, the format of this conference proved to be quite different.

Alex Altomare started off the day with, “What if the next major evolutionary event happens in this century,” explaining how hybrid technology, such as nanotechnology, could be incorporated into life, creating machines that are part machine/part living thing. Alex, co-founder of Betablox, Sparklab KC, and self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur, referenced research he conducted in collaboration with NASA and DARPA, published in the Journal of British Interplanetary Society.

“What if NYC resources were brought to rural America” was presented by Bella Minds founder, Jennifer Shaw. She illustrated how making technology available to in rural areas could put more women into STEM careers. She further explained innovative ways to break through the glass ceiling in tech careers for women. Located in New York City, Bella Minds provides free technology education to women of all ages, in rural locations, outside of regular job hours.

Mosaic School founder, Nancy Tilton presented, “What if more people were happy?” which appeared at first to be a fluffy topic. On the contrary, Nancy delivered a powerful, poignant presentation on how, at just 30 years old, she started a private school based on Agile Learning principles. Her prior experience consisted of teaching in public school just 2 years, where she felt the system “would change her, because she couldn’t change it.” Her points on changing education included basing education on principles valued by business and industry, embracing problem solving, collaboration, and creative thinking.

Collin Bunch, Counselor at University of Missouri Small Business Technology Development Center and organizer of Columbia’s 1 Million Cups, presented, “What if we could quantify wasted human capital and turn it into a resource.” In his powerful talk he stated that, “25% of employees are deliberately doing things to sabotage their employer because they hate their jobs.” and, that the more micromanaging happens in a workplace, the less workers will do without being told, promoting a lack of empathy and buy in.

“What if we changed the way content is shared?” was asked by Audrey Bellis, VP of Marketing for Los Angeles based micro-blogging platform Bellis illustrated her experiences with online harassment via open blog commenting, and gave insights on changing the way blogging is curated. She discussed the recent phenomenon of publicly airing opinions that often are not even related to the content of blog posts, and offered up ideas on how to stop these kinds of problems.

Keynote speaker, Sarah Caldicott, great grand-niece to Thomas Edison and CEO of PowerPatterns, shared Edison’s Midnight Lunch practice. According to detailed journals, Edison would go to his lab late at night, gather his team and discuss problems, ideas, share food, drink and even the occasional sing-along. This practice forged bonds among his coworkers and allowed free thinking, which fueled problem solving for his many inventions.

Sprinkled between the speakers was audience participation time, set in the What if..? method of brainstorming. At intimate 6 person tables, lined with giant sticky note paper and magic markers, groups were given timed sessions for discussing problems presented, open brainstorming, solution creating, and action plan writing. The atmosphere of openness led to animated, focused, and purposeful sharing of thought leadership and change facilitation by groups of people who were previously strangers. People were encouraged to change tables for each brainstorm session. Teams came out with actionable plans for tackling problems like workplace culture, shifting healthcare from reactive to proactive, preventing stress, promoting space exploration, and even creating new ways for government to solve problems. (based on the What if…? brainstorming method, no less!)

A two hour working lunch, complete with toys to play with provided by LittleBits ed-tech company, art displays by local students, and food with vegan and veggie options, provided a completely new kind of networking opportunity. Because of the prior sharing of ideas, participants connected their skills, business resources and products on a level that typically is not achieved upon first conversation. Instant relationships were formed and most went away with many business prospects and friendships.

The cofounders of the What if…? Conference, Matt Murrie and Andrew McHugh, both graduates of Westminster College with Liberal Arts degrees, formed the foundation from a mutual love of learning, self-described as, “A startup that democratizes critical thinking and question asking. We use active curiosity to push innovation forward…asking better questions…we connect diverse groups through our platfor(u)ms to get people talking to “the other.”” They have helped organize “What if” conferences inside public schools, put on What if…? sessions for businesses, and are presently working to add more conferences across the country.

The biggest takeaway from this delightful, insightful event was a resounding, “What if people from all businesses and backgrounds got together to discus problems and promote solutions?” The evening was concluded by free performances by bands Not a Planet and Moon Jr.



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