Trailblazers: Lee Feldman on starting from scratch at the height of his career

Kate Inglis
January 12th, 2014
Article by: Kate Inglis
Trailblazers: Lee Feldman on starting from scratch at the height of his career

In our ‘Trailblazers’ series, we bring you perspectives on creative leadership, social innovation, and positive change from THNK’s worldwide participant community. Today, writer and strategist Kate Inglis speaks to Lee Feldman, Founder and Partner of THNK Vancouver, about his view on success, unlearning, and being a corporate voice for social good.

 

You started a creative agency in your Kitsilano apartment in Vancouver. Within 10 years, Blast Radius went multinational. What prompted you to make a change after you’d reached such a height?

 

I felt successful in that way that we tend to define success these days, but there was something missing. I felt like I was pushing forward a system that was buckling under its own weight. I was helping brands sell stuff to people who didn’t need (and couldn’t afford) it.

Was the unsustainability of our ‘sell more stuff’ economy a revelation for you? Did you feel like it would get in the way of your work?

Not at first. At one point we were working with the biggest athletic shoe manufacturer in the world, reminding them that athletic greatness has little to do with a pair of shoes. It’s about dedication to hard work and excellence. So I pitched them the idea of a runway, a path to flight—the shoes are the tool, but in order to get into the air, the consumer has to participate. There has to be a core of trying, and not just wearing.

So you pitched—to a downright legendary brand—the idea that consumers aspire to more than material acquisition?

I pitched a program for youth to maximize their connection to the brand ideal by completing challenges that would lift them up scholastically and athletically. They had to sign onto the program, and be devoted to a more positive future.

How did the client respond? And how did their reaction affect you in terms of your work?

The client had fairly typical corporate concerns around money, time, and effort. That’s when I realized that the ideas which gave me the biggest charge were atypical—not solely about marketing communication, but based on the power of brands to drive positive social change. At Blast Radius, I kept coming up with these kind of ideas. Sometimes, clients would embrace it. Other times, it was too much of a stretch. I really do believe that brands, society, individuals, and the environment can all win. It’s possible. And this possibility is what gives me the most fulfillment because its really hard, and really worth it, and that’s fun.

lee-feldman
Brands, society, individuals, and the environment can all win. It’s possible. Click To Tweet

These days, the balancing of people / profits / planet is a huge conversation, and one that has become a point of pressure for big-name companies. How did it become a point of pressure for you? 

I was having hit-and-miss moments with Blast clients, yet I felt very comfortable and calm. Truthfully, the big idea risks were less stressful than trying to maintain a mediocre status quo. Over time, I started accepting that the company I founded, Blast Radius was my raison d’être when I was 29—it had become my pedigree, but I had gone as far as I could with it. I wanted to create a different kind of impact in a way that the business model and client base of Blast just couldn’t accommodate. I knew that the agency I started wouldn’t be the formative accomplishment of my life. I knew there had to be another manifestation beyond Blast.

I met Menno van Dijk, the MD of THNK Amsterdam, during a time when I was starting to get involved in social impact investing. I visited the THNK space the next day, and signed up right then and there for the last open spot in the very first cohort group. This is how I began leaving the company I had started—it was time to do some unlearning, to orchestrate a blank slate for myself and start from the beginning again. THNK was the setting for my renewal.

You sought out a blank slate at a moment that other people would consider a high point. How do you define success?

In 1994, I left my first career at IKEA and backpacked from Vancouver to Peru. I met a designer from Melbourne—one of those influential souls who changes your perspective. It was the first time in my life that I had spent significant time with someone who was artistically, creatively, and professionally fulfilled. He was living inside this flow of new ideas, and he made a living doing it. When I got back from that trip, I enrolled in a digital media program during the very early days of the Internet. While there, I created a prototype for IKEA, recruiting a multidisciplinary team of very talented and motivated people. That’s how Blast Radius was born, but more importantly, that was what shaped my benchmark for success: living your passion and purpose in a way that allows you to build a career and business around doing what you love.

Trailblazers: Lee Feldman's journey starting from scratch at the height of his career
Live your passion and purpose in a way that allows you to build a career around doing what you love. Click To Tweet

From where you stand, what is not success?

The modern idea of success is a trap for individuals and a doom for the planet. As increasing numbers of people define themselves through their consumption—through an accumulation of stuff—we accelerate destruction of the living host organism (the planet) that keeps us alive. The earth simply does not have the carrying capacity to allow everyone to live in that way. And as we become more disconnected from that life source, we encounter more social, societal, and mental health problems.

That’s why I am with THNK. These are the kind of issues and ideas that we’re trying to discuss, unpack and find ways through. It’s an easy out to say “we’ll find another planet,” or “claims of unsustainability are unproven,” or “we can innovate ourselves out of this”. It’s not enough to say, “How can we maintain what’s left?” To me, the real stretch—the thing I would love to channel through THNK—is revival. How can we aspire to not just stop destroying, but heal the planet? Nobody talks about that. I’d like to do more than just save what’s left. There’s a bigger stretch, there’s a greater creative aspiration, and it could very well be the basis for a new economy, a new financial system.

Lee Feldman
Lee Feldman
 Co-Founder & Partner
THNK School of Creative Leadership Vancouver, Rockstart, FITMO
"I’d like to rejuvenate the planet and in turn, us. That’s the real opportunity space."

Healing the planet represents a worldwide cultural shift. Is it possible? 

Yes. A worldwide shift begins with individuals who want more, apply imagination, break, hack, or ignore rules, and inspire others.

During a trip to India, I visited Barefoot College near Jaipur, on the edges of the Rajasthani desert. Without asking permission or staying inside the typical educational structure, this place is teaching highly marginalized people from rural settings in India and Africa—the illiterate and uneducated, the ‘untouchables’, grandmothers—how to bring light, heat, and water to remote villages. The school uses ideograms—like Ikea assembly instructions—so that anyone can piece together a solar panel and attach it to an electrical grid. They are turning marginalized groups into the most valuable members of their communities. They are highly pragmatic, and they create real, long-term impact. They are overcoming centuries of entrenched structures, ineffectual, insincere politics, and watered-down charitable projects. Boom. This is how change happens!

Meanwhile, you’ve got corporations putting a great deal of energy trying to figure out how to sell more stuff to consumers in developing nations. Getting more populations hooked on cheap goods and fast food. That might have been the creative work I would be doing now. I just thought, “if I’m going to invest my creative energy, its not going to be there.” 

Now that people/planet/profit is a more widely accepted ideal, are there brands out there that are ‘selling more soda’, so to speak, but are also doing good work? 

Here’s a great story. A pharmaceutical company had developed a treatment to treat waterborne diseases in tropical places, but they couldn’t figure out how to get their product into the hands of the people who needed it. Then someone said, “What about using Coca-Cola’s distribution network? If they can get a can of pop to the tiniest village in Africa, they can get our medicine there too.” It’s a pretty wild idea—let’s just ask Coke for help—but they did, and Coke said yes, and it’s a quadruple bottom-line. It’s a good-news story for Coke. It’s minimal effort. The pharmaceutical company loves it, and the people need it, and governments don’t have to spend a fortune. It’s such a perfect manifestation and aspiration towards the ideas we develop at THNK. Literally, everyone wins!

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After participating in the very first Executive Leadership program at THNK, Lee decided that he wanted to make THNK’s environment for engineering change into a global moment, to scale it up. THNK Vancouver was launched in 2014.

You went from being a first-cohort participant in Amsterdam to conceiving and being in charge of THNK Vancouver. How did the idea of expanding THNK’s reach come to you? 

By day one or day two in Amsterdam, I was exhausted. I was falling in love with all of my co-participants, and it was an overwhelming rush of knowing this was the place for me. We were digging deep into personal storytelling and the articulation of passion and purpose. We were twisting the very ideas of business and social enterprise design from new angles. And I decided that I wanted to make this environment for engineering change into a global movement. To scale it up. To me, the place to have our second home had to be Canada, and the city had to be Vancouver. Here, there is both an openness to do things differently plus a great hunger to play on the global stage. We are building capacity in technology; we have plenty of small businesses doing interesting things, lots of natural resources; and educated wealthy people continue to relocate here. But what about system-level ideas? What about visionary leadership? How can Canada lead the world? For groundbreaking change to happen at the system level, we need both a symbol of that ambition, as well as a venue and program for it to happen. That’s why we’re here. 

Why not just get an executive MBA? Or take a vacation?

For some people, an executive MBA is a predictable next-step in their career. But when you go somewhere where you’ll be comfortable, where there’s a predictable curriculum and career outcome, you’re not discovering and pushing your edges. You may have introspective or enlightening moments, you may come to some insights and conclusions, but they’re going to come from a very limited part of your brain.

Being comfortable tends to make me uncomfortable. I’m driven to recognize patterns, and I’m really curious about how the future is going to unfold. No matter how it does, the only thing certain is more uncertainty. More change. If you don’t push yourself outside your comfort zones, and learn to thrive amidst big change, you’re going to be more anxious. That anxiousness will block your creative potential. It’s a vicious cycle. Ultimately, it’ll be harder to have a resilient mind and mindset. 

What is the value in unpredictability?

Uncertainty, chaos, and change are environmental elements that separate leaders from followers. Uncertainty wakes us up. Embracing it is a personal revolution. That’s what I live for—aside from my kids, of course. Being comfortable in discomfort is a huge component of creative leadership. THNK prompts people to address uncertainty in a safe place. They learn by doing. Creativity emerges from the raw material of chaos, combined with weird, interesting, unpredictable constraints. We could all use a little more of both, don’t you think?


Lee Feldman is co-founder and partner of the THNK School of Creative Leadership. Prior to this, he founded CycleSpace, co-founded and served as Chief Experience Officer of the digital agency Blast Radius, mentored with Rockstart, was CMO of FITMO and was a design sales consultant for IKEA Business. Lee has been recognized with gold and silver Clios, mentions in Communication Arts Design Annuals and Marketing Magazine’s Top 100, and contributions to numerous global design and awards panels.

Is it time for you to do some “unlearning” like Lee and rejuvenate your business?

Find out if you qualify for the THNK Executive Leadership Program or download the program brochure on the program page.

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