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Episode 93: Frances Valintine – Embracing automation

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

The Mind Lab and the Tech Futures Lab are redefining professional development and education on tech. They’re giving younger generations practical careers to shoot for. As well as helping those already deep in their careers to upskill. All with a focus on staying  relevant well past retirement age. It’s a massive mission, one that has The Mind Lab about to launch an online learning platform that will bring free tech education to the world.

Valintine knows that education around tech is so much more than just coding. It’s about innovation, risk, and how businesses can not only adapt, but thrive in a tech-centric global marketplace. It’s pushing through people’s reluctance and denial, to develop the leaders and innovators of the future.

 

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Not for me, thanks

Ever felt frustrated by technology or refused to learn something because you don’t like it? Well don’t worry, because according to Valintine, it’s a dialogue she’s seen played out time and time again.

“There’s a weird self-preservation thing we have in our head where we understand technology is changing and will be affecting everyone, but somehow think it won’t affect us personally,” she says.

“It’s a human trait, and a strange characteristic that is prevalent in particularly middle class mid-career people. They think because they’ve done the training and the hard yards they don’t need to do anything different now. People in their late 40s talk about retirement like it’s imminent, but I have to remind them that by the time they retire it’s more likely to be 75 or 80 years old.”

“You need to figure out what will fulfill you after 60.”

Upskilling = imperative

Inevitably, tech is and will continue to affect every part of the workforce. Some fields such as retail and medicine are feeling it already. It’s this rate of change that has the need for upskilling as an urgent one, and not an if, but a when. It’s at this point that Valintine steps in.

“The internet has changed education completely. You can study literally anything online now for free. We’ve shifted accessibility from those with wealth and geographic location to education for the masses.”

In a first-world country it’s easy to wonder why anyone would ever want to study online when they have access to a university education. But for many people online education has opened doors that previously weren’t there. The same can now be applied to younger generations who have grown up alongside iPads and high-speed internet.

“Online education may not be the first option for people who see education as a face to face experience. But if you start talking to young people whose natural environment is online, or to people whose choice is no education, they’re able to login and suddenly be talking to the very best scientists and academics in the world. It just takes a mental shift,” Valintine says.

Embracing change

It can start to sound repetitive, but Valintine says people will be shocked by how quickly things are about to change. Especially over the next three years. People can’t afford to be complacent about tech.

“The world I live in is all about insight and evidence. Give me the evidence so I can collate the insights, then figure out how fast it will happen.”

“We’re going through a period of change that is ten times faster than the industrial revolution. It’s hard to imagine a day when that job isn’t there. A time when you’re replaced by a 24 hour a day robot.”

So who needs the information most? Well, aside from children, it’s those who are influencing them.

“We’re in the middle of a messy debate over what skills we actually need in the workforce, so parents, grandparents and teachers need to establish their views on tech, and then inform those views so a balanced conversation can be had about what careers the children of tomorrow will have.”

As for those already working, adapting is imperative to prevent unemployment.

“Employers are sitting on a gold mine of talent and capability, but if you’re only looking at the return to shareholders then there will be a time when staff become a burden to the business, when they won’t have the relevant skills. If people can upskill and be confident in their role they’re much more likely to try new things and less likely to put a barrier up because they refuse to work with technology.”

“Adults are reluctant learners at first, but something always triggers in their brains and they realize tech is actually pretty cool,” Valintine says.

The Mind Lab

The Mind Lab is a huge part of Valintine’s day-to-day life. She travels to school and spends time in the classrooms with the kids they’re teaching. She's put everything into this organization. Just four years after the launch, it's achieving incredible results.

“I was working in a higher education role when it dawned on me technology was moving, but teachers and students weren’t. The Mind Lab was launched late in 2013 to get kids in front of technology.”

“We were having lots of fun with school groups, but I very quickly learned it’s one thing to take on kids, and a whole other thing to take on the teachers. They’re fearful of what they don’t know, because their entire field is judged on what’s in their head.”

And so The Mind Lab in its current form came to be, an organization offering education to children and their teachers.

Funding publicly-accessible tech

It’s widely known that tech isn’t an easy area to work in on the cheap. But through a complex web of funding, Valintine is making it work.

“Students run The Mind Lab as a social enterprise so it’s a breakeven situation. Students pay a small amount, and the teacher program is funded partially by the school, partially by the government, partially by a philanthropic trust, partially by me and partially by a university. We’ve managed to bring it down to almost no fees, but we’ve also all had to dip into our own pockets to make it happen.”

It’s a big project to be offering for free, but Valintine says she wouldn’t have done it any other way.

“It comes down to my values. We know it needs to be sustainable, so we’re the people the money to put into it, because we can.”

Risk and tech

So how can businesses stuck in the mud get moving? Valintine says risk is key to learning to grow alongside tech for children, teachers, and businesses alike, if only for the reason that without risk there cannot be innovation.

“I like the idea of risk if it’s something I can risk myself. It works because I draw inspiration from the conversations I witness daily between different groups of people,” she says.

“I grew up on a small farm in a rural area where you had to make your own fun. I was really encouraged to take risk, but we don’t have that same risk profile now.”

The other branch of Valintine’s work falls with Tech Futures Lab. This is a business offering high-level tech-based professional development. Re-educating the high-powered executives on what risk-taking looks like in a tech-centric world.

“We offer one-day bootcamps, we have deep dives in blockchain and data science, and we work on a consultancy basis with an organization in the thick of it.”

“To remain successful, businesses need to build a culture where people know innovation is their lifeline. A parallel stream of income needs to be there if your main cash cow disappears,” she says.

“When businesses get comfortable innovation falls away, and the bigger the organization, the harder it is to have that conversation. The hardest conversation to have is usually with the chief financial officer, whose entire role is about managing risk. Then it’s the board chair, because chairpeople are often very successful businesspeople in their own right who aren’t going to admit to the boardroom that what they know is irrelevant, because that in itself is a risky conversation.”

They’re conversations Valintine admits she’s needed broad shoulder for at times. It’s only in the face of hard evidence that people start accepting what she’s saying. It never lands right away, but when it does, she says the switch is almost always a strong one.

The global leaders

The businesses really holding their own right now are all tech-based, and they’re only growing stronger.

“The top five tech companies are the most powerful companies in the world, and they’re constantly looking for different things to invest in. Between 2009 and 2016 the top five tech companies put together 52,000 patents, so they’re going out there to look at every low hanging fruit there is.”

With these big tech companies taking over the market, should we be worried about what a tech-driven world looks like? Should we be fearing new advancements? For Valintine, the simple answer is no.

“I’m such an optimist, so I think this world of consumerism is going to have its day.”

“The sharing economy is becoming such a prevalent idea. We aren’t all going to have driverless vehicles because we’ll be sharing them. Life will be about having a few good things, but sharing experiences. We’re seeing it already in the way young people want to travel and the way they want authentic experiences.”

“While we may feel our life is threatened by these changes, there are a whole lot of people whose lives are getting significantly better. We need to remember that.”

Faking it

She’s built two massively successful businesses in a way that on the outside appears effortless, but Valintine says even she isn’t without her feelings of fear and self-doubt.

“I don’t believe there’s anyone who doesn’t feel like an imposter everyday. I think everyone has that moment,” she says.

“We’re constantly filling in gaps and pedalling underwater because we’re scared of failure. Now, whatever I’m going to do, once I’ve thought it through I tell everyone. Once I say I’m going to do it I’m obligated.”

“It’s so important to share the ‘oops’ moments with everyone. The worst you can do is let things simmer, and keep going only because people expect you to, because it’s not just how you feel about failure, but about how you convey it to people around you. If you think failure has a place, people will be much more forthcoming. There is so much failure in everyone’s life, so you just have to embrace the inner imposter.”

So what’s Valintine’s biggest dream for our increasingly tech-saturated world? Well, it’s not a selfish one, that’s for sure.

“My biggest dream would be for people to have access to new information, and not information that comes from some curated force. I wish for people to find accurate ways to navigate the information overload. That’s what I want.”

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