Why you should care
Because the next Albert Einstein could be right in front of you. Wouldn’t you want to know how to spot him?
When James Manyika, senior partner at McKinsey & Company and director of the McKinsey Global Institute, sifted through this year’s applications for the OZY Genius Awards, the process, he says, was as thrilling as it was frustrating. The competition, sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co., awarded 10 college students up to $10,000 to bring their big ideas of life.
The best bit for Manyika? The chance to learn about fresh, innovative ideas. The frustrating part? Having to select just 10 winners from a pool of roughly 1,000 candidates.
This year’s applicants were evaluated by a panel of distinguished judges, including Manyika, Emerson Collective founder and chair Laurene Powell Jobs, Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric, Google senior executive David Drummond, JPMorgan Chase Chief Marketing Officer Kristin Lemkau, and NPR President and CEO Jarl Mohn. We chatted with Manyika about the process of trying to identify the next Albert Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg or Oprah Winfrey. This interview has been edited for clarity.
If you think you have a big, bold idea, discuss it with somebody who can help you make it real.
James Manyika, senior partner, McKinsey & Company
What criteria were used to select the winners?
James Manyika: There was this broad diversity of interesting, crazy, creative ideas that solve global problems. I would have liked to have seen all of these entrepreneurs get a prize and watch them on their journeys, but … we had to sift through the diverse pool of ideas to find those with the most potential. How do you choose between someone solving problems in our political system and someone solving problems in our education system? They’re both important. We used a set of questions to guide us: How bold is the idea? How important is this issue? How creative is this way of tackling it? Does it look like this solution might actually work?
What was the level of competition like?
Manyika: There was a lot of interest, and that’s the power of competitions: They generate a lot of interest. The competition was quite intense. These were accomplished students on a mission to engage in work that is important and impressive.
Did any students really stand out?
Manyika: One project that stayed on my mind was Vassar sophomore Elise Shea’s Speak to Me. Shea is tackling a problem of our time by creating a project that allows refugees to teach language sessions online and earn $5 per 30-minute session. We forget that many people are traveling across countries and need to navigate different languages, and her solution not only addresses that but also provides an opportunity to refugees. Another project was Stanford junior Steve Rathje’s Proscenium Live, a free festival of live theater in Portland, Oregon. That stood out because you just don’t see enough people proposing big projects in the creative arts.
Was there anything particularly unusual or surprising?
Manyika: One thing that was quite gratifying was the diversity in the group of applicants. We saw American students as well as several who were born and raised overseas; we saw men and women of color and of various socioeconomic backgrounds. There was this richness of diversity that was really terrific.
What were your red flags?
Manyika: Some candidates lacked a solid action plan. Often students had a bold idea that addressed a big topic, but it was unclear how they’d develop the project in month one, two or three, for example. The winners passed this test, of course, but I think it’s what kept some of the other great ideas from reaching the next level. In general, any entrepreneur working to get a big idea off the ground has to have a plan that outlines the project and communicates to potential investors.
How do you spot a winning idea as an investor?
Manyika: First I ask, “How big is the problem you’re tackling?” I want to hear how many people are affected by this problem and how they could stand to benefit from a potential solution. It all needs to sound very compelling. Second, I want to hear about the creative way to solve that problem. Then I want to learn more about the innovator. Can I bet on this person to get the job done? Does he or she have the passion to follow through?
What advice do you offer those with entrepreneurial dreams?
Manyika: I advise people to talk about their project and share their ideas with people who can help them get the project up and running. It’s not wise to have a big, bold idea and not tell anybody about it. What a wasted opportunity! If you think you have a big, bold idea, discuss it with somebody who can help you make it real.