Meet The Disruptors: Erin Michelson Of Summery On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Manage energy, not time. This advice has been game-changing for me since it enables me to harness one of my biggest attributes — my energy. By matching my mental state to the task, I can maximize my productivity. Energy maximization helps me, as a goal-oriented person, to embrace structure and simplicity in order to drive results.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Michelson.

Erin Michelson is a Forbes #Next1000 entrepreneur and recognized as a 2022 AI for Good ESG / AI Innovator by Women in AI North America. As Founder + CEO of Summery, she leverages behavioral science and AI to measure and activate stakeholder values and organizational culture.

Before turning to technology, Erin had a 15-year career in global finance and social impact consulting, working with companies such as Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and American Express. She wrote the book series Adventure Philanthropist, after traveling to more than 100 countries volunteering with humanitarian organizations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

As a solo female non-technical founder, I’ve had an unorthodox path to AI. I had 3 degrees in political science, 10 years in global finance, and a career as a social impact growth strategist before turning to technology. Yet while industries may have changed, there was one constant throughout my career: a deep commitment to social causes and a focus on maximizing our individual and collective impact.

In fact, it is this diverse background and skill set which has made me uniquely qualified to build Summery, an AI-driven data analytic company that quantifies individual values and organizational culture. Our trained models enable executives to anticipate and implement changes in organizational culture, leading to increased retention, engagement, innovation, and brand reputation.

The need for this type of systematic approach to building and evaluating organizational social capital, the ‘S’ in ESG, was reinforced by Harvard Business Review research showing that companies benefit from executives with strong social skills, “including a high level of self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate well, a facility for working with different types of people and groups, and what psychologists call “theory of mind” — the capacity to infer how others are thinking and feeling.”

Our team of scientists and engineers has developed technology that measures individual values — empathy, integrity, innovation, agility, and disruption — at the individual, organizational, and societal levels. Not only can we assess values, but also amplify and streamline social impact values and behavior to strengthen organizational culture.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Executives understand that a healthy culture is critical to attract top talent, foster product or service innovation, and catalyze organizational growth. But until now, there was no way to measure culture. With recent advances in artificial intelligence and technology, we can now quantify a company’s cultural IQ.

Understanding your company’s culture IQ benefits the bottom line by:

  • Acquiring and retaining top talent: In a recent Inc. article on the Great Resignation, recruiters are prompted to articulate a company’s culture during the hiring process by sharing: “This is who we are, and this is who we stand for. You decide if we fit you, too, and let us know.” But why not help the applicant decide if the “fit” is right? Now we can with values-based recruiting technology that assesses culture and value alignment.
  • Assessing ESG risk: Here Deloitte’s Kristen Sullivan discusses the C-suite and Board of Directors’ increased attention to timely reporting of ESG standards. With an objective set of culture metrics, compliance and audit officers can now assess operational, financial, and reputational risk associated with organizational trust and cultural toxicity.
  • Quantifying cultural ROI: An insightful piece by McKinsey’s ESG team highlights the necessity of social capital metrics while underscoring the difference between a company’s purpose and its ESG position. The ability to set an objective, transparent cultural baseline enables executives to measure the progress and investment made in ESG, DEI, and social capital programming.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I don’t know if this is funny ha-ha or just cringe. During my first year as a CEO, I often participated in pitch competitions. It was a good way to get feedback on our product ideas and to practice telling our Summery story.

I loved pitching, and was good at it. I was on a winning streak, but this one competition — I totally bombed. To make matters worse, I was raked over the coals by the judges. When I returned home that evening, I vowed to rework my pitch and speak again at the next opportunity. I answered the first email invite in my inbox: a local San Francisco pancake breakfast hosted by the Kauffman Foundation, one of the country’s largest supporters of entrepreneurship.

A week or so later, only me and one another entrepreneur showed up for the 8:00 am competition. While early mornings meet ups are definitely a tough call for people in the startup world, I wasn’t quite prepared for folks sitting in the audience eating pancakes while still wearing their pjs. Nonetheless, I enthusiastically gave my newly re-worked pitch to the handful of individuals sitting in the room.

At the end of the competition, the event videographer complimented my pitch and asked if he could send it to a friend of his. Without knowing who his friend was, or why he wanted to send it, I agreed. He sent the pitch, and followed up with an introduction for the two of us. His friend happened to work at Salesforce in the area of innovation and culture. It was that introduction that led several months later to Salesforce becoming our first enterprise client.

While I made the mistake of bombing the pitch, I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t give up. What might seem like a setback can turn into an amazing opportunity.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’m fortunate to have many mentors as part of the Extraordinary Women on Boards (EWOB) Network, a community for highly accomplished women actively serving on public and private company Boards of Directors across a wide range of sectors.

These women from around the world convene regularly to learn together, share best practices, and help one another raise their influence in the boardroom. Several members, in particular, are a great source of support and inspiration to me: Laura Deutscher, Lorraine Henrickson, Wanda Lopuch, and Kathleen Murphy.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I love this question because we are literally in the business of quantifying individual values and attributes like empathy, integrity — and disruption! Through our research, we’ve defined a disruptive person as someone who challenges the status quo.

What I like most about this description is that it isn’t our Summery scientists’ definition, but instead a more universal definition that we achieved through crowd-truthing. Crowd-truthing is an open-source framework for machine-human computation based on human semantics. By exponentially increasing the quantity and quality of inputs we can decrease bias and more precisely define the concept of disruption.

We work with our clients to both increase and decrease disruption in their organizational culture. We don’t look at these instances as “good” or “bad” but instead how useful disruption is to the goals of the organization.

  • Increasing disruption: We work with universities across the country. Many of these institutions of higher learning want to encourage disruptive and innovative thinking in their faculty and students. One way we increase disruption is to pair faculty and student mentors with disruptive values with other students who are seeking that attribute. As more individuals display disruptive behavior the culture of the organization evolves.
  • Decreasing disruption: In our work with Fortune 500 companies, we help them look at how disruption can be useful in certain job positions and industries, while not-so-helpful in others. For instance, technology clients often want their product teams to embrace disruption and “push the envelope” as they problem solve and develop system-changing business strategies. Banking and financial service firms, however, may want to decrease disruption, emphasizing the importance of staying within established industry norms and regulations.

Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

1. There is no “right” decision. This piece of advice was shared by a graduate school classmate when I was struggling with a personal decision. Oftentimes we can become paralyzed by weighing all our options and put too heavy a value on not making a mistake rather than optimizing our opportunities. I try to make a decision based on the best information I have at the moment. And then I make another decision.

Later I read World Series of Poker champion Annie Duke’s book “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All The Facts.” Annie’s work has helped me to further move away from the dichotomy of right and wrong and embrace the continuum between the extremes. As I’ve become more comfortable with uncertainty, I’ve been able to think more probabilistically and make better decisions.

2. Put yourself in a position to be lucky. Jason Roberts promotes this advice via his formulation of a “Luck Surface Area.” In essence, by sharing your expertise and passion, you are increasing the chances of luck finding you.

“The amount of serendipity that will occur in your life, your Luck Surface Area, is directly proportional to the degree to which you do something you’re passionate about combined with the total number of people to whom this is effectively communicated.”

3. Manage energy, not time. This advice has been game-changing for me since it enables me to harness one of my biggest attributes — my energy. By matching my mental state to the task, I can maximize my productivity. Energy maximization helps me, as a goal-oriented person, to embrace structure and simplicity in order to drive results.

I think of it like leverage. Leveraging my energy to increase the probability of success. For me this means I do creative work in the morning, calls and meetings mid-day, and process-driven work late afternoon. I also ferociously defend my calendar, limiting calls to 3–4 a day and scheduling time for strategic thinking.

4. “Thank you for being late.” Steve Ketchpel, one of my advisors, said this to me once as I rushed to meet up with him for lunch meeting. Like many entrepreneurs I work with extreme intensity, so Steve’s saying reminds me of the “power of the pause.”

Pausing throughout the day enables us to literally catch our breath, allowing both mind and body a moment to regenerate. For instance, while waiting on a conference call for the others to join, I take that 1–2 minutes to look outside at the garden, take a couple of deep breaths, or listen to the rain.

5. Curate your intellect. I’m a great believer that inspiration comes from getting out from behind your desk and exposing yourself to new ideas. I revere the arts and applaud the courage it takes to be an artist. Here’re a few favorite (easy) ways I expand my horizons.

  • Find new music via the Tiny Desk series.
  • Follow City Arts & Lectures for inspiration. I especially like the episode with ballerina Misty Copeland.
  • Read fiction. Recent favorites include Tommy Orange’s There There and Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I recently read an article by Nathan Baschez on “What kind of company do you want to build? Scale, speed, or freedom: choose two.” Nathan contends that when building a company, every founder needs to prioritize two of these three objectives. As a founder, I see the wisdom in this framework and am currently prioritizing:

Freedom: In our first year, we declined an offer of funding. Instead, I opted to bootstrap the company and go straight to revenue. This flexibility means that my team and I have the option to set our own priorities, including taking an ethical approach to data privacy and working with clients that are aligned with our values.

Scale: Increasing our impact is our current focus. Last year we successfully migrated to a SaaS business model and are expanding our reach through strategic partnerships. We are now pursuing systemic change by working with multinational companies, forming alliances to reach hundreds of colleges in the HigherEd space, and exploring new verticals including building cultural alignment within first responder and faith-based communities.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I enjoy Guy Raz’s “How I Built This” podcast, which I find equal parts business education and inspiration. Take the episode with Payal Kadakia, founder of ClassPass. Payal relays how in the early days there was no technology behind the matching of individuals with exercise classes, instead, she made the matches manually. While it was a time-consuming task, it enabled Payal to observe customer behavior first-hand, helping her gain first-hand knowledge of what her customers wanted.

I’ve taken this lesson to heart and set aside time daily to look closely at how our AI is performing values-based matching of individuals with global giving opportunities, volunteering activities, and learning resources. While we have auto-reporting to discern patterns, my hands-on approach helps me glean insights into customer needs as we continually refine product development and marketing strategies.

Also on my list of favorites is Dolly Parton’s America series. Although I’m not a huge fan of country music, I admire Dolly Parton’s business acumen and creativity. Forever underestimated, Dolly learned early to retain the rights to her music and is now taking steps to ensure that future musicians can sample her songs through a vast database that will pay royalties to her estate after she’s gone.

I’m also inspired by Dolly’s philanthropic commitment. Not only did she donate $1M to fund COVID vaccine research, but she has a steadfast commitment to early childhood education. She founded the Imagination Library, a program that has distributed more than a million books to children from birth until they begin their first year of school.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“For there is always light,

If only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Above is an excerpt from Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” that she recited at the presidential inauguration in 2020. Amanda, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, wrote the missive to convey a message of hope and unity to the country.

Her poetic words continue to inspire me and many Americans to take action and to help create the future we wish to see. Interweaving her poetry with purpose, Amanda notes that her “purpose is to help people and to shed a light on issues that have far too long been in the darkness.”

I share this motivation. I created Summery as a for-profit social impact enterprise to help individuals and organizations first define their sense of purpose and values, and second, to implement these values. For me and my team, helping others is the genesis of our work, not an accompaniment.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I founded Summery after a 2-year sabbatical where I traveled to all 7 continents and 62 countries volunteering with humanitarian organizations. Upon returning I wrote the Adventure Philanthropist book series, which highlighted not only my worldwide adventure but 30 other individuals that were leading fulfilling lives that reflected their values. I wrote the series to inspire others to find professional and personal fulfillment through social impact and philanthropic activities.

It was a grand goal, but it didn’t quite work. While readers liked my book, they let me know that my lifestyle seemed too extreme and folks couldn’t quite see how to incorporate social impact into their everyday lives.

So I was driven to create tools to help people understand and activate their personal values. I recruited an ex-Google engineer to build a prototype of our KindQ™, a behavioral science evidence-based app that provides individuals with a unique value profile based on 1 of 98,304 different combinations of kindness.

Each individual is then matched with three personalized social impact activities to easily activate their values. Each time someone completes a Kind profile, we honor it with a donation to a nonprofit organization reflecting a community’s collective values. The result for an organization or enterprise is greater personal and professional fulfillment for key stakeholders, such as employees, customers, vendors, and investors.

Our data and scientific insights create an organizational baseline that enables executives to measure behaviors and cultural transformation, creating an opportunity for true system change. This is our movement: to inspire individuals and organizations to live their values.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: Erin Michelson

Twitter: @ErinMichelson

Summery’s Insights Blog

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Meet The Disruptors: Erin Michelson Of Summery On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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