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5 Minutes With a Visionary: Nilofer Merchant

Thursday, 21 Jun 2012 | 4:54 PM ET

Editor’s note: As part of CNBC’s “20 Under 20: Transforming Tomorrow” TV documentary, we interviewed thought leaders and visionaries who have paved the way for the next generation of entrepreneurs. In a series of Q&As called “5 Minutes with a Visionary,” we discover what has shaped and molded the careers of these innovators.

Who is Nilofer Merchant? As her website reads, she is the “(female) James Bond for Innovation.”

Nilofer Merchant
Photo: Nilofer Merchant
Nilofer Merchant

To garner that title, you have to personally launch over 100 products, netting $18 billion in global sales and found a company called Rubicon Consulting. It also helps to work at Apple and collaborate with innovators at Autodesk,VMware, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, and Yahoo. Merchant has worked not only with Fortune 500s, but also startups. She was the vice president of GoLive, which ultimately was bought by Adobe Systems, and has advised a wide range of social and e-commerce companies. Oh, and she’s also written a book called "The New How: Creating Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy."

Today, Merchant shares her expertise as a lecturer at Stanford and in her columns for The Harvard Business Review, where she writes about social business models. In an email interview, Merchant provided her insights into entrepreneurship and innovation.

Q: What do you consider to be your greatest success as an entrepreneur or business leader?

I’ve had a chance to work on some pretty big things, with some pretty amazing teams of people. And one thing that you realize, regardless of what you are working on, is that until you have a shared purpose, you’ll never actually be aligned. When an organization has a unifying purpose, it overrides territorialism. Everyone owns the whole. Without purpose, everything is procedural.

Q: What innovation in the last 20 years has had the most positive impact on your life?

Social communities. There are so many ways that we can find other people with similar interests and passions, which probably explains why I spend way too much time on Twitter (btw, you can follower her @nilofer). But, it also changes how we create value, who gets to create value, and how work gets done.

The “Social Era” unlocks new doors of both who can contribute and what can be created, and thus changes the very source of power itself.

Q: What current challenge, when resolved, would do the most to change the world?

We’ve got to unlock the power of girls and women in the economy.

Today, women receive 3 percent of venture funding, represent less than 15 percent of corporate board seats, and 10 percent of the CEO spots in the Fortune 500. They represent less than 20 percent of the actors or speakers on stage and are quoted only 15 percent of the time in the press. ... These statistics all add up one thing: We are categorically underutilizing an asset in the economy.

Q: If you had the world's intellectual elite all in one room, what thought-provoking question would you pose for debate?

Well, I wouldn’t ask for debate, I’d ask for dialogue. We seem — as a broad culture — unable to listen to opposing points of view, to things that play to our bias. And I believe that opening up our aperture to one another will let us see where we have more in common, and what we can build on. Until that happens, I worry about our ability to create and solve the many problems we see around us because we can’t even consider alternative points of view.

Q: What individual or innovator has had the biggest impact on society?

I’m still pretty impressed with what the web has enabled. And because I believe it will enable many to participate in the world in ways that weren’t possible before, I’d pick [World Wide Web inventor] Tim Berners-Lee. I also like that he continues to want data to be free, for this enabling technology to truly enable.

Q: You’ve worked both in the startup space and with major companies — what were some of the biggest takeaways from both?

I really do love both. I spend time with startups by teaching at Stanford and with big firms still. But one thing I’ve noticed is each side really has a disdain for the other. In 1909, [the philosopher Joseph] Schumpter said that small companies were more inventive. In 1942, he reversed himself saying that big companies had more incentive to invest in new products. Today, people assume that small companies are creative and big firms are slow and bureaucratic — both are gross over-simplifications.

Small firms have the ability and the necessity to create from scratch. Each time you can do that, you do it better than you did before, so that’s pretty cool. The big companies create scale and manage for quality in a way that typically smaller organizations haven’t been able to. The key is to figure out how to create value in a demanding, ever-changing market.

Editor's Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.

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