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Nell Merlino – not anti-man, but pro-girl

I’m in Providence, Rhode Island today speaking at BIF-5 – the Business Innovation Factory’s fifth annual storytelling conference. I’ll be doing my best to blog when not on stage.

Bruce Nussbaum from the Parsons School (and formerly of Businessweek) interviews Nestle’s VP of innovation, Helmut Traitler. Traitler was charged with creating $5 billion in incremental revenue, an incredible task even for a big corporation. He’s helped create a new Nestle by embracing open innovation.

He warns us that “open innovation” is a buzzword – “when people don’t know what they’re talking about, they coin buzzwords.” But there’s real value towards opening the innovation process. Too often, someone within Nestle identifies a new market opportunity and then asks product developers to solve technical problems. But this sort of innovation tends to take a long time – too long to seize market opportunities. By opening up the innovation process, companies like Nestle can seize opportunities more quickly.

To explain how open innovation works, he outlines a problem that Nestle has been facing – how to produce ice cream without keeping it cold and solid throughout the lifecycle of the product. The need to keep ice cream cold means it’s very expensive to distributed. “Can we make a foam that feels like ice cream but can ship warm,” and be cooled before selling? This is precisely the sort of question we’d want to solve via open innovation… but if we frame the problem, we’re likely to tip our hand on our business strategy. So we innovate by giving out problems like this in a disguised way, obscured so that they’re generic.

Nell Merlino, the CEO of Count Me In, founded the national Bring Your Daughter to Work movement. She tells us about one of the earliest events they held, in New York City, with the strong cooperation of Mayor Dinkins. The mayor sent a note to 250,000 city employees encouraging them to bring daughters to work, and he held a public event, introducing city government officials to meet a group of seventh grade girls.

The event had heavy press coverage, and the press was scribbling frantically as Bella Abzug, legendarily fierce women’s rights advocate, took the stage to address the girls. She told them about being one of the first of two women in her law school class and about trying a case in court while 8 months pregnant. The first question from the audience: “Did your husband laugh at you when you decided to run for Congress?”

Abzug leaned in close to the girl and said, “One thing we have to talk about today, girls, is how to find the right kind of fella.” Her husband had just died, and she spoke movingly about their partnership… moving a group of cynical journalists to tears. Nell explains that she and Abzug both aren’t anti-men, just pro-girls.

She tells about a daughters to work event at a fairly conservative corporation where the women all wore “pussycat bows”. The event was a little awkward, as one of the girls observed, “Your jobs seem really boring.” She followed up, asking the most powerful woman in the company, “Wasn’t there something else you’d wanted to do when you grew up. The woman responded, “Well, I always wanted to be a nightclub singer.” The girl asked her for a song, and she belted out “The Way We Were.” The story taught Nell “what women were surpressing to fit in in the workplace,” and wondered “what kind of work environments can women create?”

There are now more women employed than men in the US – it wasn’t a healthy path to get there, as the equalization has happened as lots of men lost jobs in the most recent recession. The question of how women will create work environments is a critical one.

Women’s businesses tend to be very small – the vast majority have less than $50,000 in gross revenue. “That’s not a business – you should go get a job.” She’s running a campaign called “Make mine a million”, designed to help women break through barriers and build big, important businesses.

One of those growing businesses focuses on the niche of recruiting African Americans for drug trials. There’s a long history of African American resistance for volunteering for drug trials – Tuskeegee isn’t that far in the past. But a women-run, African-American run company has found a way to do so, employing 150 people and growing quickly. Another business, “Eat My Words” in San Francisco – is a naming firm. She tells us that the office features a pink refrigerator filled with books. They’re enroute to a million in revenue per year.

It’s not always easy. Women, she tells us, are bad at hiring, and “we don’t like looking at the numbers because they tend to defeat the dream.” We need to get over these barriers and build businesses that transform the economy as a whole and for women.

2 thoughts on “Nell Merlino – not anti-man, but pro-girl”

  1. How doe’s one grow a business in such a miserable financial era. I have a great business model in a niche market but I’m restricted to working from home meaning few client accommodations. How does one aquire funding in such a tight financial market?

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