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Genius doesn’t happen on its own, it needs networks and opportunities to thrive

November 9, 2021, 9:31 PM UTC
Rise has been searching for exceptional 15 to 17-year-olds worldwide with the goal of supporting them for life as they serve others.
Courtesy of Rise

The world is gathering in Glasgow to talk about what we can do to counter and mitigate the effects of climate change. This is an important task. Inevitably, the stories from COP26 focus on which leaders came, which didn’t, and who said what. What they don’t discuss is who didn’t even have the opportunity to make it to the table. They should.

If we’re serious about tackling the world’s hardest problems–from climate change to food insecurity and poverty–we should reach deeper into the world to find talented individuals, build modern networks to empower them, and share technologies and methodologies with each other along the way. There’s plenty of room at the table. Now, let’s invite more people.

Each of us benefits from our own networks, including families, communities, and workplaces. That has also been true of pioneers throughout history. Marie Curie’s father brought home laboratory equipment she experimented with as a child. A teacher named Helen Chesnutt mentored Langston Hughes, encouraging him to attend Columbia. Very few people ever become great alone. They become great because someone sees them early and stands with them.

But we all spot exceptional talent too rarely. For every Marie Curie or Langston Hughes, Albert Einstein or Jennifer Doudna, there are 10 more true originals in every walk of life who don’t get opportunities. The excuses run the gamut. They were too young, too inexperienced, too far away, or maybe just too different. 

To accept those excuses is to continue injustice against those who have typically been excluded but deserve a fair shot. Let’s be clear: Everyone loses out when someone who could have created the next moonshot, from cancer treatments to great works of art, never gets the chance. More than that, modern technology is making it possible not only to find innovators, but also to knit them together in networks that allow them to do more collectively. While great men and women have shaped much of history, great networks don’t wait for one person to act. They form a voluntary system of talent that works continuously to solve problems and scale solutions.

‘It takes a network’

Research shows that experiences during childhood and adolescence, not just test scores, can significantly predict outcomes in life. We need to bet early, bet big, and bet global to identify top talent, build new networks, and give people the opportunity to reach their potential.

Rise, a partnership of Schmidt Futures and the Rhodes Trust, has been doing that by searching for exceptional 15 to 17-year-olds worldwide with the goal of supporting them for life as they serve others. Fifty thousand people from 170 countries applied in our first year, showing how much demand and talent there is out there. On Oct. 25, we announced the first 100 Rise Global Winners. But Rise isn’t a program just for young people. It’s a program for extraordinary people for their entire lives, including supporting them as they grow up and work together in networks to serve others.

The winners’ stories are already inspiring. One Rise winner founded a tutoring center in Kabul but fled his home as the Taliban took the city. He’ll now have support to build a better future. Another is a Ukrainian refugee who used AI to develop an app that interprets sign language. A third prototyped a hydroponic system in Mexico to create a sustainable nutrition supply in food-insecure areas. Throughout the selection process, our finalists already started helping each other in significant ways. What our winners will do together will be even more impressive.

To bring more extraordinary talent to the table so we can solve hard problems together, we need a stronger search function for opportunity and better tools to clear the market for exceptional people who want to serve others. What would it take to put every scholarship, every award available to young people in one place? Many organizations build these sorts of platforms. Why not make them interoperable and easy to search?

We also need better teaming functions for people to help. How many of us would rally to the cause of a young person with a brilliant idea–to help them build a team, or simply to offer a few hours of advice or mentorship?

Third, we need a direct exchange of methodology. Traditional selection processes often fail to identify non-cognitive assets like perseverance, empathy, and calling. So, for Rise we drew upon many tools over many months to assess those. For example, we had a service challenge in which each applicant had to actually do something in the world to help others. These experiments showed what people, regardless of place, can do–not just who they are on paper.

Finally, we also need more rigorous research about how exceptional talent working together can improve society. This could inform a worldwide shift in both the technologies and approaches used to connect talent to opportunity. Most likely, it would require interdisciplinary effort that combines computing, biology, behavioral science, organizational psychology, sociology, and anthropology. 

Great men and women have changed history. The line “it takes a village” has also held true. Now, in the digital age, a better adage might be “it takes a network.”

Eric Braverman is founding CEO of Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative of Eric and Wendy Schmidt, and an alum of Fortune’s “40 under 40 Most Influential Leaders in Business” worldwide in 2010.

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