Friday, April 3, 2009

A Googler Learns that Heart + Head = Hope

I have a confession. Until almost four years ago I had never visited the South, nor did I really ever think I would. You see, I had perceptions about what the South would be like based upon history I had read, movies I had seen and a barrage of media coverage - unfortunately much of which did not always paint the region in the best light. But that all changed on August 29, 2005.

Like millions of others, I watched in horror as home after home, parish after parish, city after city was destroyed and its inhabitants left helpless for days before any aid was to reach them. Despite my previous reservations about the region, what I witnesses compelled me to immediate action and what I experienced as a result, change my perspective on the South and its people forever.

I met people who in the face of atrocities many of us could not conceptualize maintained a sense of dignity, gratitude and determination like no other. I saw cities that, though buried beneath the rubble and devastation, whispered of a long and culturally rich history that was often overshadowed by bleak eras that tainted its true beauty. At that moment I became resolute that these people - these quintessential American cities deserve to be lifted up and rebuilt in order to show the world that we are a nation that thrives in the face of adversity.

Two speakers demonstrated to me that this same determination is alive and well in New Orleans 3 1/2 years after the storms. During his time with us, Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu warned us with a cautionary tale of how New Orleans is in essence the proverbial "canary in the coal mine" - that what happened there, could happen anywhere in America and therefore it is our duty to insure that New Orleans not only returns to its former glory, but surpasses it. I was as equally moved by Dr. Scott Cowen, President of Tulane University, whose actions pre and post Hurricanes Katrina and Rita not only assured the safety and well being of his students and faculty, but of other universities in the region and the city as a whole. For me, he was the embodiment of leadership that is only recounted in oft-told fables. The passion with which these gentlemen spoke about their city gave us all a sense of hope not only for the future of New Orleans, but for the future of all cities across the nation.

Hope was also evident in the 54 students, faculty and corporate teams who joined The Idea Village for a week of unparalleled impact. My primary role during the week was to lend my expertise as a Googler to the students in hopes of providing them with additional tools that would benefit the entrepreneurs as they worked to tackle the daunting tasks ahead. Even I, a seasoned veteran of the company, was pleasantly surprised at the effect tools such as Google Earth, Google Maps and AdWords could have on these small businesses in the hands of these talented individuals. For me it was a firsthand account of how technology truly can change lives for the better.

Hope was a theme that also resonated with the local leaders, business owners, tour guides and gracious hosts many of whom opened their homes and lives to us without reservation. They were quick to recount the tragedy that drew many of us there, but even quicker to thank us for our time and efforts - to remind us that what we were doing was going to provide lasting impact beyond what we could comprehend at that moment. But for the 54 of us, hope truly lay in the entrepreneurs who had dedicated their lives to changing the current climate of their beloved city through their business ventures. As a result of our work, their stories have been recounted in the numerous media sources that will catapult their life’s work onto the national stage but to us they will always be:
  • The young man whose is rapidly building a sustainable flip flop empire, winning hearts and believers along the way;
  • Two guys using the nation's favorite go to food, pizza, as a catalyst for a national dialog around diet, nutrition and a sustainable food system;
  • The attorney who is using the universal language of music to bring awareness to environmental issues - the hotly debated cause of the increasing number of hurricanes in the gulf coast region;
  • The team who, like Google, understands that data/information is power and is looking to make it more widely available to promote housing redevelopment in the region;
  • The team who feel that the green housing revolution is not only for the wealthy, but should be accessible to all regardless of soci-economic status;
  • And the team who understands that a city is comprised of many socio-economic levels and alternative housing options are necessary to attract some of the most vital member of the community

These entrepreneurs are true heroes. They are the ones ones who will work day-in and day-out long after we return home to establish the solid foundation upon which New Orleans will once again rise. They are the ones who will one day "pay it forward" to future entrepreneurs who share that same raw determination and drive that they once possessed, in what we anticipate will soon be a bustling mecca of art, culture and enterprise.

During our last evening, the team lead for Chicago Booth gave a whimsical toast which I will never forget. He compared our week in New Orleans to The Wizard of Oz, complete with Tornadoes (Hurricanes we knew, but Tornadoes?) and even our own Wiz (Thanks to Dr. Baum). For me, his speech brought to mind the last scene of the movie where Dorothy came to the realization that she always had the power to return home as it was always in her heart. Many would think that this San Franciscan left her heart, well, in San Francisco. But if it's true that your home is where your heart is, then I have another confession to make. Mine will forever be in New Orleans.

Tara Canobbio