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Created For and Commissioned By: UCLA
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If You Will It, It Is No Dream

Visionary astronomer Andrea Ghez, environmental pioneer Jaime Nack, and digital storyteller Jeff Burke on turning big ideas into big impact

If You Will It, It Is No Dream
Jaime Nack, cofounder and president, Three Squares (middle) and UCLA professor-in-residence Jeff Burke (right) speak at the 2017 Fast Company Innovation Festival

How do you turn a pipe dream into a pipeline? At a minimum, you need imagination and determination.

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That’s true for UCLA astronomer and MacArthur fellow Andrea Ghez, who successfully modified a reflecting telescope to locate a massive black hole in the center of the galaxy. Her discovery could fundamentally alter our understanding of gravity and physics.

It’s also true for Jaime Nack, the cofounder and president of the environmental consultancy Three Squares (UCLA grad) who is helping define green standards in the events industry. Her work ensures that massive events—from political conventions to the Olympic Games—are environmentally responsible.

And it’s true for Jeff Burke, professor-in-residence and associate dean of technology and innovation at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. A recipient of the Google Focused Award on the Future of Storytelling, Burke uses digital technologies to conduct experiments in theater and performance.

Ghez, Nack, and Burke spoke at the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York City, sharing how they made their dreams realities.

Tip 1: Circuitous routes may be integral to your journey

Both Nack and Ghez say their career paths have been decidedly nonlinear. “There might be some people who are born with a dream to be a doctor or a lawyer, but I think a lot of us walk our way into the path without knowing it,” says Nack. She got her start producing music festivals as an undergraduate, and took a job after graduation as a director of events at an environmental consulting firm.

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“It was the perfect storm of being able to use my background and my skills in event production, but also tie it to impact. And I loved it,” she says. “But I also saw that as an industry, events are extremely wasteful. If we’re producing environmental events, we need to show people that you can actually produce an event in a sustainable fashion.”

Ghez’s route was even less direct. “I wanted to become a ballerina,” she says. “I have a huge passion for it today. But where that fascination led me was into an interest in choreography. I think of choreography as an art of putting together the pieces. Today as a scientist I often think about—it’s basically a choreography of information.”

It was her study of math in college that ultimately led her to astronomy. “It’s the language of science,” she says of math. “So I translated that into a study of physics as a route to studying black holes.”

Tip 2: Surround yourself with good people

UCLA astronomy professor Andrea Ghez

When Ghez was hired at UCLA in 1994, she was one of five new faculty members in the astronomy department. “It’s a big partnership, a whole investment, a whole picture,” she says. “People could come together and do something where the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. There is a sense of ‘boldly go,’ grab those opportunities, don’t get stuck in the traditional way of thinking about things.”

The university environment is crucial for Burke’s work, too. His theatrical experiments depend in part on the open-mindedness of his students, as well as their range of talents. “I think the combination of wanting to work on something new and not being caught in a lot of preexisting thinking makes it great to work with students,” says Burke. “They’re really engaged with shaping what technology will do in the future, and from the point of view of whether they’re artists or engineers.”

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Nack can’t go it alone, either. Convincing hosts and sponsors of multimillion-dollar events to compost food waste requires buy-in at every level, from top government officials to trash collectors. “We have to sweet-talk a lot of people,” she says, “speaking to them in the language that they understand, and that’s something I learned along the way.”

Tip 3: Don’t run from criticism

Criticism is inevitable, but you can use it to adjust your goals and strengthen your approach. That’s what Ghez does.

“Every step of the way was criticism,” she says. “This is how science works—you doubt and you question, ‘What else could it be?’ So I think a huge key piece of innovation is the ability to withstand the criticism and struggling that goes on.”

UCLA professor-in-residence Jeff Burke

Burke says that setbacks are easier to handle when you share work frequently, and have a “big idea” you can look to when you experience a “small failure.” As he explains, “I think a combination of really getting out there and sharing and interacting with people about your work, and maintaining a set of principles that help guide the approach that you’re taking, has been really successful.”

For her part, Nack always carries a copy of William Ury’s The Power of a Positive No, which she credits with teaching her how to build consensus around sustainability initiatives and to change minds. She shares the story of a chef in Canada who balked at the proposition of using locally sourced ingredients.

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“It started out with ‘No, no, no, no changes,’ and so then I started talking to him,” she recalls. “I said, ‘This is my first time in Quebec, tell me a little bit about it. Where should I go to eat? What’s good here?’ And he started talking about his wines and his cheeses and his honeys, and he started naturally opening up and was super prideful about all of the great yummy things that are Quebecois. So I said, ‘What if we did a whole reception featuring all Quebecois food and wine?’ He was like, ‘Oh, of course I can do that!’ ”

Tip 4: Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there

A decade ago, sustainability officers didn’t exist. Few venues had recycling stations, and individual bottles of water were everywhere. “It was the director of catering’s main mission to sell you as many plastic water bottles as possible at four to five dollars per bottle,” Nack explains. “When we would push back and say, ‘No, we want water stations,’ all they saw were dollar signs going away.”

To challenge this wasteful status quo, Nack and others had to get organized. “One of our first steps was actually forming an industry association. I’m part of this group called the Green Meeting Industry Councils, which was folks within the events industry—from the venues to the caterers, the transportation providers—who all had the same passion. Then that industry association really led the effort alongside the [Environmental Protection Agency] to develop standards.”

As for black holes, Ghez had known about them since childhood, but she’d never seen one—no one had. “Black holes are the breakdown of our ideas of space and time,” she says. “Those are wild concepts that really stretch your imagination and your understanding of how to describe the universe.”

Ghez’s imagination helped her “see” the black hole; her determination helped everyone else see it, too.

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This story was created with and commissioned by UCLA.

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