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Friday, March 20, 2009

Pushing the "Go Button": Part 1

By Francisco Noguera

Inauguration of a Question Box

A little more than a year ago I made a decision and accepted an offer to come to Washington and work for a project -this website- I had long been fond of. Doing so has exceded my expectations in many ways. It has opened doors, sparked ideas and provided me with opportunities I'm deeply greatful for. The best part of this year has been and continues to be being able to meet wonderful entrepreneurs, obsessed with changing the world. Learning about how they intend to do so is the part I enjoy the most about my work.

Over the last two weeks I've been able to reconnect with some of those people I've met and I'd like to share some reflections about their work and, most importantly, about the decisions they have made to make their visions happen and become the change they want to see in the world. Today I'll write a few lines about one of them, my friend Rose Shuman, and over the weekend I hope to jot down some additional ones about others I've recently had the opportunity to spend time with and see in action, turning their visions into tangible change. 

Interested in technology and its impact on society, Rose tried hard to get an interview with Google.org until she did, about two years ago. Sitting in her hotel room in Palo Alto the night before, she nervously prepared herself to hopefully impress the group in charge of evaluating her candidacy with a really smart idea. That's when she came up with the question of whether the Internet and information could be brought to those least able to access it the way you or I are doing right now. The next day she walked into the interview she articulated the still vague vision of a box through which illiterate people would be able to ask questions and listen to the answers, as long as they were available online. 

Rose ultimately didn't get the job but the Google folks loved the idea and encouraged her to explore it further. She did and the pilot became a project that was later called Question Box. I've written about it before, and so has Boing Boing

I met her last year during a visit she made to Washington, and although she strongly believed in the idea and its potential she was still wary about leaving her job and continued to do work on the project on a part time basis, afraid as is natural of the uncertainties that entrepreneurs face in their early days. She decided to look for help through interns and volunteers, posting her vision and the opening online. The response was extraordinary and she started managing a team of volunteers around the world that helped her figure out different aspects of the project and ways to improve the pilots being implemented in India by that time. 

With the help of people like Jon Gosier interesting opportunities started to arise, like a pilot project with a microfinance organization in Uganda to test the model under cell phones and several improvements to the box model that had been previously implemented in India. A project was suddenly taking unforseen shapes and eventually becoming something with actual enterprising potential.

In spite of these advances, it wasn't until recently that Rose decided to untie the strings and take the deep dive into Question Box. There are still many more questions than answers, of course... is there a proven business model? Does Question Box have the potential to become sustainable and even profitable? What kind of tools can be used by the operators to look up questions and provide answers? How can be the service be explained and advertised so that people get real value out of it? 

All work in progress...

However, talk to her and I dare you not to be taken over by her drive and optimism. She's making new and unexpected connections, meeting new people and allowing herself to be wrapped by the project in a way her previous circumstances didn't allow; she's been invited to conferences like next week's Skoll Forum or the GSVC in April, and waking up to, in her own words, "a new adventure every day". The quote in the title is hers: "When you press the 'Go Button', everything misteriously starts falling into place."

I don't have a definite answer to whether Question Box will become a thriving enterprise that brings information and the Internet to millions of illiterate people around the world. I hope it does but I have no idea. I do know that it is the only question in Rose's mind 24 hours a day now that she took that step, and I also know that she's facing uncertainty with discipline, hard work, a smile in her face and a genuine desire to improve the lives of many and make hers a life of purpose. That drive fascinates me and has kept my mind busy these days, especially after spending some days in Colombia last week with another entrepreneur whose story I'll share later. 

I guess this rather unusual post happened because of some conversations I've had these days which reminded me how much there's to be done out there, how much change there's to be made, and that the time is now for ourselves to become that change. Rose's story is always a good reminder for me. I encourage you to learn more about her project and eventually meet her to capture some of her energy.

You're also probably grappling with the question of whether to push a Go Button yourself soon, and that has a very personal meaning that changes with times. I didn't start a new enterprise but I did push a button last year by deciding to come here. I'm glad I did and am now evaluating what kind of change I want my next Go Button to trigger. I'll keep you posted and also write about other stories and entrepreneurs that have inspired me lately.

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