Maverick 101: How Visionaries Turn Crazy Ideas into Reality

You may say you’re a dreamer, but you’re not the only one. Here’s how other visionaries brought their big, crazy ideas to life.

For every real-life maverick out there, there are a thousand dreamers, people with great ideas about how to make the world a better place but unsure of whether they should try to make them real. If only there were a handbook to show them the way. Now there is. Would-be world-changer: Meet your very own “How-To” guide.

How to Know if You’re the One

So you have an idea. You’ve tossed it around at parties. Your friends think you’re brilliant. (And, of course, you are.) But do you have what it takes to be a successful maverick?

The first thing to ask yourself, says career coach and Have Fun • Do Good blogger Britt Bravo is: Are you obsessed? Does your idea keep you up at night? Has it grabbed hold of you and won’t let you go? Your answer has to be a resounding yes. The life of a maverick is filled with overwhelming obstacles and roadblocks. You need extraordinary stamina and passion to keep going when it looks like the odds are against you.

Next, ask yourself: How much are you willing to give up for your idea? A few years back, journalist Cristi Hegranes struggled to understand the story of a Nepalese woman she was interviewing. In desperation, Hegranes gave the woman her notebook and asked her to write her own story. What came back was an eloquent piece of journalism. The young writer realized that local people could probably tell their own stories as well or better than foreign correspondents. She created the Press Institute for Women in the Developing World to create journalism training programs in Nepal and Mexico. Another institute opens in Rwanda this year.

Hegranes’ work around the clock does not draw a penny from the organization’s budget. Instead, she bartends on weekends to support herself. “I know all these people who have wonderful ideas about how to make the world a better place,” she says, “but when push comes to shove they’re not willing to make personal sacrifices to make it happen.”

While mavericks need drive and determination, they don’t necessarily need a soup-to-nuts roadmap. By definition, mavericks operate in unchartered territories. Few of the people interviewed for this story had concrete plans for how they were going to bring their ideas to life when they started out. Instead, they just strapped on some courage, pinned on some faith and trusted in their own ingenuity to find their way forward.

How to Find the Courage to Leap

Mavericks are paradigm shifters. They challenge conventional wisdom and accepted ways of doing things. Both are good ways to get people — even those who could be and should be your supporters — to tell you your idea will never work. Some even brand you an outright enemy to your purported cause. It takes a brave person to challenge the norm.

Where does that courage come from? Usually, from utter exasperation with the status quo. “I was so sick of going to conferences and hearing people talk and nothing ever happening,” says Emily Pilloton, a furniture designer and writer. Last year, she created Project H Design as a vehicle to help designers create products that improve the lives of people in the developing world.

Strategists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus set off a firestorm in 2004 when they declared that environmentalism was dead. Collectively, the two had three decades’ worth of consulting with environmental organizations under their belt. When it came to climate change, however, their research convinced them that traditional environmental approaches weren’t going to work. The pair was so convinced that the old ways were broken that they took the audacious step of breaking party discipline and declaring their views at a conference of environmental philanthropists.

“Don’t be scared to get a good hate on,” says Shellenberger, who, with Nordhaus, founded The Breakthrough Institute as an incubator for their ideas. “If you’re going to create a big, positive, affirmative vision, you have to be incredibly critical of the status quo.”

How to Turn Naysayers into Supporters

Don’t get alarmed by naysayers, says Kiva founder Matt Flannery. If no one’s telling you how bad your idea is, it’s probably not truly maverick. When Matt and his wife Jessica initially sought advice on how to use the Internet to enable regular folks to provide micro-loans to businesspeople in the developing world, microfinance and philanthropy experts told them it would never work. Philanthropists told them “donors” wouldn’t be interested because loans weren’t truly philanthropic. Venture capitalists told them traditional investors wouldn’t be interested because of the low rates of return.

Two years later, Kiva has become so wildly successful that it often has more people looking to fund projects than people looking for loans. And along the way, Kiva has invented a new type of philanthropist — the lender whose “donation” takes the form of lower investment returns. Today, some of the previous naysayers have become Kiva supporters. “It’s hard to criticize something that’s working,” Flannery says.

When Hegranes founded the Press Institute, she emailed a former colleague who had moved to a foundation underwriting journalism projects. His reply to her was short: “That’s cute. Not going to happen.” When she later bumped into him at a conference, Hegranes invited the man to dinner and talked his ear off about her project. When they were done, he invited her to send him an update in six months. When she did, he told her to update him again in another six months. She decided to update him every 30 days instead. A year into the project, the man was so impressed that his foundation has now become one of the Institute’s regular funders.

How to Break the Rules

You may decide to throw conventional wisdom to the wind, but you’ll probably still have to operate in the old world until it comes around to your way of thinking. In 2002, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius author Dave Eggers created 826 Valencia, a community literacy center in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission district. Eggers and his team knew they had to put the center at street level to encourage kids to wander in after school. But the space they leased was zoned for commercial use. The team put their heads together and came up with the ideal store to pique kids’ interest: pirate gear. In the front of 826 Valencia, patrons can buy all the basics for marauding on the high seas. In the back is a large study room where kids get one-on-one tutoring and take a variety of writing classes.


When Pilloton started Project H, she didn’t know the first thing about grant writing, and there was no time to learn. She needed $25,000 to fund her first project, to deliver Hippo Water Rollers — barrel-shaped containers designed to transport 20 gallons of water each — to a village in South Africa. Instead of struggling with conventional fundraising, she simply leveraged the contacts she’d built working in design and journalism, contacting 500 people she knew and asking them to donate $50 each. The Hippo Rollers were delivered this summer.

How to Become a Media Darling

To change a paradigm, a critical mass of people needs to buy in to your idea. But first, they need to become aware of it. So how do you get the media to spread the word for you?

CalCars is a Bay Area organization using advocacy and demonstration projects to persuade automakers to start building plug-in electric hybrid cars. They’ve succeeded in garnering attention from major media outlets including the New York Times, the Associated Press, Time and USA Today.

From the beginning, they knew the key to piquing the press’s interest was to put talk aside and build a working prototype. But they didn’t wait to finish the vehicle before courting reporters. Instead, in 2004, they began sending a group of journalists periodic updates on their efforts. When they finally had a working version, they offered an exclusive to the New York Times.

The Flannerys caught the media’s attention not just because Kiva was such an intriguing idea but also because they shared the human-interest story behind its inception. The couple was discussing career goals at a pre-engagement counseling class when they realized they had a problem. Matt wanted to work for a tech company in Silicon Valley. Jessica wanted to go to Africa to work in microfinance. Kiva became the intersection of their shared interests. The story, combined with photos of the cute couple, proved irresistibly mediagenic.

How to Amass an Army to Work for You

No matter how great your idea is, you can’t do it alone. Whether you need an army of volunteers, a killer staff or just a posse to show support, recruiting skills are key. In March, Brent Schulkin of CarrotMob set out to prove that you could leverage the purchasing power of groups of consumers to persuade businesses to invest in social goods like energy conservation measures. He managed to get hundreds of people to show up on a gray Saturday morning to do their shopping at a neighborhood convenience store — by making it sound like fun.

“The tradition [in civic engagement] is to say that people have an obligation as citizens to do XYZ,” Schulkin says. “That’s civic engagement framed as a chore.” CarrotMob instead framed its buying spree as a party, going so far as to host a neighborhood concert afterward. “We make it look like it’s more of a social activity — it’s something you and your friends can do together, rather than an errand you do on the way to meeting up with your friends.”

Seattle-based UNITUS uses management consulting and investment banking practices from the business world to help microfinance institutions grow bigger and stronger — and, ultimately, fund more loans. UNITUS’ success depends entirely on the quality of its employees, many of whom it recruits from top Wall Street firms. But not just any social enterprise can induce smart people with high earning potential to agree to massive pay cuts.

The key, says UNITUS’s Kate Cochran, is to set big, ambitious goals. Small goals won’t inspire the kind of passion the most talented people need to give up comfortable lives and keep moving forward through the endless obstacles you face when pioneering a new venture, Cochran says. Big goals will.

How to Make an Impact

You have your idea. You have your supporters. You have your army. But how do you actually get to where you’re headed?

Stay focused, says Simon Berry. Berry, a former British aid worker, spearheads ColaLife, a campaign to get Coca-Cola to use its distribution network in Africa to deliver rehydration salts and help reduce child mortality from diseases like diarrhea. After launching a Facebook campaign earlier this year and getting coverage on the BBC, Berry finally has Coca-Cola’s ear. The multinational plans to do a test run of the idea in East Africa in November.

Berry says he could easily trip up his initiative at this point by trying to talk to Coca-Cola about other issues. “There’s a temptation to think that now that I’ve got their attention, I’ll talk to them about India or their human rights record, but that isn’t what this is about,” he says. “It’s about looking at Coca-Cola and realizing those guys are really good at distribution. And then looking at the problem and saying how can we work together to help reduce this terrible death toll.”

Focus is key, agrees Brett Jenks of Virginia-based Rare Conservation ( Rare has trained 150 local leaders around the world to build grassroots support for conservation initiatives. Each of those leaders is a maverick by him- or herself, trying to get their communities to turn away from long-standing practices like dynamite fishing. The best ones, Jenks says, are people who choose a single problem and focus on it exclusively, rather than trying to tackle too many issues at once.

You also need to be ready to do whatever it takes — even if it means appearing to violate your own principles, says Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars. In 2006, the Big Three automakers were scheduled to appear in Washington to discuss the state of the automotive industry with the country’s leaders. CalCars decided to crash the party with one of their converted plug-in Priuses, as a real-live example of what could be accomplished, if only the automakers got on board.

The organization was criticized for the apparently hypocritical amount of energy used to fly the vehicle cross-country. But there was no choice, Kramer says. They couldn’t take the risk of driving the vehicle over land, and the gains they reaped by putting a fully functional plug-in hybrid right in front of — and sometimes in the hands of — lawmakers far outweighed the momentary backtracking on the energy consumption front. “Now [the lawmakers] say, ‘Why can’t we do this? I saw one of these right here,’” Kramer says.

How to Keep Your Eye on The Prize

Mavericks go through so many twists and turns bringing their ideas to life that sometimes they forget why they started and where they were going. The best way to stay on track? Draft a mission statement, and refer back to it when you feel like you’re losing your bearings.

Pilloton of Project H Design went even further when she posted her mission statement on Core77, an Internet design hub. Now she has a legion of peers ready to hold her accountable if she strays from her stated goals.

Ari Derfel, co-founder of Back to Earth Organic Catering in Berkeley, is currently at work on opening a fully organic restaurant. Running a company that aspires to adhere to sustainable, life-affirming principles in all spheres of its operation (waste is minimized, work weeks are limited to 40 hours ...) is significantly harder than heading up your run-of-the-mill start-up, says Derfel. To remind himself of what he’s working toward, he had the company’s logo tattooed on his arm. It’s like a tribal marking, he says, a reminder of the higher purpose that informs his day-to-day decisions.


Maverick 101 republished courtesy of Whole Life Times magazine.

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