Navigating, Pivoting, Realigning: Impact in the 21st Century

Simbi Foundation’s podcast on leadership and impact is back for a second season. We spoke to its creators, Aaron Friedland and Eli Wyatt, about what they’ve learned since starting the show.

In a year defined by change and uncertainty, Simbi Foundation’s first podcast looked at what it means to be a leader in new and dynamic environments.

Impact in the 21st Century aimed to highlight the stories and insights of some of the world’s most famous innovators, picking up lessons on how to become a changemaker in today’s world.

With the second season of the podcast arriving shortly in your feed, we decided to find out what show creators Aaron Friedland and Eli Wyatt have learned about impact in the 21st century so far.

Our conversation covered the characteristics of a contemporary leader, where changemakers are focusing their energy right now, and how the podcast connects to Simbi Foundation’s aim of supporting the next 3.5 million refugee learners through digital and solar-powered solutions.

When they’re not podcasting, Eli Wyatt is the Director of Research and Development at Simibi Foundation. He also runs the Simbi Foundation Think Tank.

Host Aaron Friedland is Simbi Foundation’s Executive Director. He’s a National Geographic Explorer, Economics Lecturer, and Ph.D. candidate.

**Impact in the 21st Century is back! Stay tuned for our upcoming episode with the inspiring anthropologist, author, photographer, and explorer Wade Davis!

Eli Wyatt, Director of Research and Development, and Aaron Friedland, Executive Director at Simbi Foundation.

Hey Aaron and Eli, thanks for speaking with me.

Aaron: Happy to be here!

Eli: Yep, always a pleasure!

I wanted to ask you about three areas of the show: (1) how you made the podcast, (2) what your guests so far have taught you, and (3) how we can all begin to think about making a positive impact in the 21st century.

E: Ok! Let’s do it.

First, I’d love to know more about the motivations behind the podcast.

A: It all began with a Simbi Foundation event designed to promote positive impact in the 21st century. We wanted to host a night to showcase some of the really great things happening in the world right now that people often don’t see and don’t hear about. We’re so stuck in 24-hour news cycles and doomscrolling that the good stories and amazing things happening every day often pass us by.

We also wanted to share some of the inspiring opportunities we’ve had as an organization to speak with remarkable humans, whether they’re people working for UNHCR, in refugee settlements, leading education, distribution, or displaying unique expertise in their field. We wanted to showcase these people and tell a compelling story about what positive impact in the 21st century looks like.

Thanks to COVID, we ended up hosting the event as a zoom conference. Despite this, and with relatively little marketing, we had a really high success rate in terms of the number of people that joined and stayed for the full duration. Afterward, Eli and I hopped on a call and decided to do this more often — to create a platform for people doing things everybody should know about. And so the idea was kind of born there.

Aaron talks to free climber Alex Honnold in Episode One of the podcast

We thought the name, Impact in the 21st Century, was simple and well-aligned with our organization. Positive impact is one of our North Star metrics. It’s one of the things we look to do the most of, and positive impact is something that we hold really dear to ourselves and the people who we work with.

In terms of the 21st century specifically, there have never been opportunities like there are today, where one small group of people can positively impact the lives of so many.

For example, when WhatsApp was sold to Facebook, I think they had 30 employees. So you’ve got 30 people, building an organization that over 2 billion people are using to communicate. We live in this time where a small group of people and a few dollars are able to make a very large positive impact.

It’s pretty unique to the 21st century. We haven’t seen anything like this before.

Eli, is there anything you want to add about how the show came into being?

E: We were really aiming to highlight some of the good work that’s being done in a time when the media is flooded with negativity. It’s an aim I think many others share with us — I’ve seen a few YouTube channels recently that do similar things, shining a light on positive developments, trying to highlight some of the good work that people are doing around the world.

The 21st century has provided us with the tools and technology to make a huge impact on the world, and we have a responsibility to make that impact as positive as possible. One of the talking points that’s come up in almost every conversation we’ve had so far is this delicate balance of impact and ethics.

For example, with media technology, radio and TV and social media are constantly filling us with information, but how much of that information is helping us to answer key questions or stimulate critical conversations? Balancing the power of technologies is often how I understand ‘impact’ in the 21st century.

Awesome. So the guests you’ve had on the podcast so far — do you see them as having made an impact in these new ways you mention?

A: What’s unique about this podcast is that we’re discussing innovation and excellence and leadership, but we’re wholly values-based. We’re not interested in the hustle, or the celebrity that comes with being an innovator, or with moving fast and breaking things.

If you promote those ideas, what you end up doing is making people who hustle and break things into your heroes. You end up broadcasting their perspectives to thousands of people.

Instead, Eli and I spent a lot of time talking about values — what are the kind of values we want from people on the show. Jane Goodall is a really good example. If everyone in the world was like Jane Goodall, we would live in a pretty good world. And so, you know, she doesn’t have to be the most active person in the 21st century, but she’s inspiring us in the 21st century.

Aaron talks to Neil deGrasse Tyson in Episode Five

We’re looking to celebrate people who have values that align with their organizations and a track record of creating positive and sustainable impact. People who we’d want at our dinner table. Global citizens. Good humans!

E: A lot of the conversations between Aaron and I have been about that question — how do our guests embody positive impact? I think we’ve seen from our first episodes how that can look like a lot of different things. It might be Alex Honnold using his climbing background as a way to promote solar energy. Or David Suzuki, creating a positive impact through being a TV broadcaster, bringing important ecological discussions into people’s living rooms.

I think we’ve seen how positive impact can come from very personal places, too. Like Ndileka Mandela responding to the expectations of her family name and the burden of being Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter. Or Maryanne wolf, doing things very much in her own way, ensuring that students with dyslexia can have better tools to read with. I just think it’s been a really interesting experience to think about how each of these different people has made a unique contribution.

A: What every single one of the guests so far has done is to become educators in their own way. And yet they’re still all very much looking to be educated. Some of them started as educators, others academics, others founders or professional athletes. But they’ve all kind of reached this eclipse of being thought-leaders in the space, being deeply passionate and concerned about a core issue.

Then, they’ve developed a toolkit to share this knowledge with the rest of the world. These are not people who consume information just by watching YouTube videos. They are people who go to the source; who they see a headline, read something, and then dive 12 steps deeper. They get hands-on and really make sure that they understand.

It doesn’t get more hands-on than Alex Honnold. So it seems you’re saying that impact in the 21st century is less about headlines and top-level data, and more about deep personal involvement and direct connections.

So, how can we all begin to think about making this kind of personal positive impact? On that note, do you think it’s possible to make an impact without there being some unintended negative consequences?

Aaron talks to Ndileka Mandela in Episode Three

A: No, I don’t, because I don’t think we’ve developed the models. We struggle to predict the weather two hours from now, let alone predict what a complex series of positive or negative impacts are going to be.

But I do think we can all commit to being a person with positive core values. What I love about all the people we’ve interviewed is that you can see clear themes and commitments running so deeply through their work.

For example, with Neil deGrasse Tyson, you know that tomorrow he isn’t going to sell out and suddenly become someone that doesn’t care about astrophysics. And you know that David Suzuki is going to continually care about climate change and activism.

Even if you can’t fully calculate these people’s exact positive and negative impacts on the world — even if you don’t know entirely what externalities exist — you do know that they themselves are governed by a set of values. You know that they’re turned on, that their mind is always running through these problems; that they go to sleep thinking about how to improve. And that, for me, is positive impact. Act in a consistent, values-based way, and you will make a solidified, sustainable, positive impact.

E: I hope the content that we’re making is helping people to see that they can do these kinds of things in the world around them. As we hear more from these changemakers, we understand that it’s all about continuing to navigate the complexity of our world with an open mind. Maryanne wolf talks deeply about this. It’s kind of ironic that we’re adding to that complexity with yet another podcast series— another source of information — but I think our message is valid.

A: We have no idea what this podcast will look like in six months' time. It’s early days, but even after recoding these first episodes, we’ve learned a lot about creating an environment in which people feel comfortable and uplifted and inspired to talk about their work. It’s something we’ll continue to work very hard on.

We’ve still got a lot to learn in terms of how we conduct interviews and how we create that environment. There’s a lot of different places you could take it. But I think for now, in our infancy, just finding those people who are solving and thinking about problems that we align with is a worthwhile project.

Impact in the 21st Century is back! Stay tuned for our upcoming episode with the inspiring anthropologist, author, photographer, and explorer Wade Davis! Learn more about this podcast at simbifoundation.org

Education means a brighter future. simbifoundation.org.