To Change the World, Set an Unreasonable—If Not Impossible—Goal
You don’t need a space shuttle to take a shot at the moon.
That mantra comes courtesy of two entrepreneurs operating at the cutting edge of possibility, Not Impossible Labs CEO Mick Ebeling and Unreasonable CEO Daniel Epstein. The pair appeared at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego on Tuesday to explain how attendees could be change-agents for the world.
It certainly doesn’t require specialized skills, Ebeling said. “We look for things that you see as a human being,” he said, speaking to his company’s projects. “Your qualifications are that you breathe air and pump blood.”
All you need to do, he said, is see an absurdity and ask, why? An “ego-less attack plan” to solve the problem is sure to follow.
For example, Ebeling acknowledged that he had assumed people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurological disease known as ALS, all had access to the computing equipment that gave the late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking his distinct voice and means of communication. That’s not true. Ebeling met a paralyzed graffiti artist in Los Angeles who used “a piece of paper” to communicate.
“I thought, ‘That’s F’d, gotta change that,’” Ebeling said. So his company took cheap sunglasses, taped wire and a camera to them, and turned it around so that it could track his pupil to draw on a screen. “I woke up one day and we were a Time magazine Top 50 Invention of the Year,” he said.
Now the artist can write, communicate, and—best of all—create graffiti. “It’s about channeling what potential a human has and giving them access that they otherwise wouldn’t have had,” Ebeling said.
That dynamic can be replicated in a number of areas if we commit to backing entrepreneurs, Epstein argued. “There are millions of great ideas,” he said. “And in the United States, at least, there’s not a shortage of capital, either. But there’s a dearth of courage.”
Entrepreneurs are not afraid to risk everything they have, and could have, to will something into existence. “That journey is incredibly lonely and incredibly hard—the odds are stacked against you,” Epstein said. That’s why he bets on them. The businesses that Unreasonable supports have raised $2.1 billion and operate in 36 countries. The company supports 180 growth equity CEOs, he added, but “the impact on people”—some 300 million within reach of those 180 entrepreneurs—”is what matters.”
For filmmaker and producer Ebeling, change comes by focusing on a single person. His Not Impossible Labs didn’t have much money to invest in its projects: “For us, you use the tools that you have been blessed with” to tell a compelling story, he said. Don’t try to tell the story of, say, hunger; try to tell the story of a single individual. “We solve a problem for one person,” he said. “It gives people the chance to relate to them.”
Ebeling offered an anecdote. His outfit built a prosthetic arm—and in doing so, stood up the world’s first 3D printing prosthetic lab—for a person in Sudan. By the time he flew back to Los Angeles, fellow villagers had made three more arms. “That’s the help one, help many,” Ebeling said.
Epstein said his company’s patron saint is 19th century playwright George Bernard Shaw, owing to the following passage: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
“George Bernard Shaw is right,” Epstein said. “In the world we live in today, if progress depends on unreasonable people, we can’t afford not to bet on them.”
He added: “Empathy builds empires. That’s one of our beliefs.”
Anyone can make change, Ebeling said—we all have that capacity. “We don’t want to solve the world’s problems; we know that we can’t,” he said of his own company. “We don’t want to inspire people—[that would be] me granting power to you. We want to remind you that you have permission to go do it. It’s not about degrees or diplomas, but potential.”
And you don’t need to develop fancy new equipment to see your vision through. “It doesn’t have to be complicated and confangled,” he said. “It can be very simple.”
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