Allow people to change and grow. We must let people learn, improve, and change. If we don’t, we’re saying that how things are now is how we want them to be. For society to evolve, individuals have to do so first.
Aspart of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Amanda Greenberg.
Amanda Greenberg is the co-founder and CEO of Balloon (https://getballoon.com), a platform that solves systemic organizational issues like cognitive bias and group dynamics by transforming how teams interact. Prior to founding Balloon, she was a public health researcher in DC, developing national behavior change campaigns for the EPA, CDC, and DOE. She graduated from Dartmouth College and completed her graduate degree in public health and environmental engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Igrew up in a small town in Ohio called Oxford. My parents were both educators — my dad was a professor of anthropology, and my mom was a science teacher and guidance counselor. With their backgrounds in academia, my parents instilled in me the importance of education, hard work, critical thinking, awareness, and curiosity, as well as the value of family, helping others, and doing the right thing. But perhaps the most significant lesson they taught me was to truly believe that there were no limits to what you can do, as long as you’re willing to work hard and be uncomfortable while you try new things.
I had a wonderful childhood and family life in Ohio, but I knew that the world was vast, and I knew that I had to see what else was out there, so once I graduated high school, I left home and spent the next four years studying at Dartmouth, where I didn’t know a single person. Even though I’m in California now and haven’t lived in Ohio since, I’m still rooted in Midwestern values.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Yes, there is — in fact, there’s two!
The first is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. It’s a non-fiction, science-backed look into what makes people do the things they do, and I think it’s an absolute must-read. It explains how human beings are innately driven to be autonomous and engaged, and how understanding that drive is the key to achieving more in every way. Drive greatly impacted how I work, how I lead, and now, how I parent.
The other book is Educated by Tara Westover. Hands down, it’s one of the best books that I’ve ever read. It’s a fascinating memoir that touches on themes of evolution, choices, family, love, money, the complexity of life, and ultimately, education. Westover captures universal, powerful truths; for example, one that really struck me was how the more people you meet and the more knowledge you gain, the more you realize how much you don’t know and possibly never will. She does a stunning job of exploring how education can, at times, be a journey of disillusionment or even loneliness as you gain new perspectives that separate you from your past and make you question the circumstances of your life. It’s an extremely illuminating read.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Actually, when I find a quote that I really like — usually one that offers some new perspective — I’ll write it on a sticky note and store it in my wallet, bag, a drawer, or the car…and it will stay there for years. Seriously, years. Then, I’ll stumble upon these quotes after I’ve completely forgotten about them, and I get that new perspective all over again. It helps me to check in with myself and reprioritize what’s important.
But two quotes, both on sticky notes lost somewhere in the depths of my purse, have been constants for the past decade:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.” — Henry David Thoreau.
“I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” — Kurt Vonnegut.
Both reminders to take risks and go for it, always.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leaders are defining new ways to lead in this “new normal.” Now more than ever, leadership is an endless search for knowledge and for true, honest, accurate insights, and a leader is someone who is inclusive and creates psychologically safe spaces for unheard voices, all so that these insights can surface. The need for clarity, vulnerability, and transparency has never been more important, so true leadership comes from those who prioritize those conditions for whomever or whatever they’re leading.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I remind myself just how lucky I am to be alive and to have opportunities. When I focus on gratitude, all of it is fun. Truly, all of it, even the parts that are stressful and challenging. It’s fun to be alive, to learn, to create, to grow. Getting into that mental space really helps me tackle the difficult parts.
I also always make sure I talk things through with someone I trust before going into some high-stakes space. For me, that person is almost always Noah, my incredible co-founder and husband. Getting someone else’s input on big decisions is critical to my preparation. Noah and I approach things very differently, which is what makes us such a strong team. I always know that the outcome will be stronger when Noah and I collaborate because we challenge each other and our assumptions.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
As a nation, we are experiencing several systemic crises and going through a massive, collective reprogramming. We are witnessing and experiencing tragic, systemic health disparities and social inequities that have put members of racial and ethnic minority groups at a greatly increased risk of getting — and suffering from particularly severe symptoms of — COVID-19. We are also seeing the violent consequences of a broken, unfair, and unjust system with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and the countless others before them.
Both of the pandemics that are at the forefront of the national conversation — COVID-19 and anti-Black racism — are public health issues. Before founding Balloon, I was a public health researcher in Washington, D.C. Over the course of several years, I developed national behavior-change campaigns for the CDC, EPA, and DOE. My background gave me a uniquely keen eye when it comes to looking at systemic discrimination. In fact, that perspective is what catalyzed me to found Balloon in the first place.
People, especially those from marginalized communities, need to be heard, and their voices need to be amplified. When leaders don’t listen, acknowledge, and act accordingly, that’s how you get crises like the ones we see today.
When it comes to concrete next steps, I think that we need to teach more systems-thinking in schools. It’s become glaringly obvious that people don’t understand public health and systemic racism, and many people won’t act until they truly understand why people are asking them to do so. Then, hopefully, we’ll see substantial, lasting change.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I’m the co-founder and CEO of Balloon, which is a platform that solves systemic organizational issues like cognitive biases and group dynamics by transforming how teams interact. Our platform is the first to enable insights to move freely through the organization — not based on where they came from but on their merit. In this way, Balloon helps companies harness their true potential, by allowing leaders to ask their team questions and anonymously collect and discuss ideas, feedback, and insights. After completion, participants can reveal their names to give credit where it’s due. Our app is used by Fortune 50 companies, fast-growing startups, and professional sports teams alike.
Not only does Balloon help cut down on meeting time and the noise that comes from those meetings, but it also helps to amplify unheard voices. Creating psychologically safe spaces that ensure that all voices are heard, respected, and included in various areas of an organization, from product development and strategic planning to operations and leadership roundtables. Recently, we’ve seen our customers use Balloon to identify actions that they want to take against systemic racism, inside and outside their organizations. As a public health researcher, I worked on how to engage communities in environmental health decision-making. These learnings and the emphasis on a holistic, systemic, research-driven approach helped to set the foundation for Balloon.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
The research supporting that argument is overwhelming. It tells us that diverse teams drive better business decisions, higher retention and team engagement, stronger outcomes and innovations, and higher revenues. Companies miss huge opportunities by ignoring this data, and they’re not able to answer questions like, ”Who are you building for?” and “Who are your customers, and how do you reach them?”
Ultimately, different perspectives and experiences drive more innovation because you can see a problem from different angles.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Aggressively address biases with technology in the workplace. As individuals, we must actively make space for all voices to be heard, included in decisions, and recognized for their contributions. As institutions, companies and governments must do so through policy and legislation.
- Universal healthcare. I believe that this is the foundation for an equitable society and a basic human right. For most Americans, healthcare is tied to employment. Record unemployment has resulted in millions of people losing their coverage in the middle of a global health crisis. The possibility of the eventual collapse of private health insurance is very real.
- Fund more Black and underrepresented founders. Black founders receive roughly 1% of VC funding, which is absurd. Technology is supposed to solve our most pressing challenges, but it’s an industry that hasn’t welcomed, funded, or supported founders from all backgrounds. I hope that we’re really seeing durable shifts here, and I know that funds and individuals that invest in Black and underrepresented — or underestimated, as Arlan Hamilton says! — founders will see bigger returns and bigger opportunities. There have been a lot of mentoring/advising programs set up, but at the end of the day, nothing moves the dial more than funding.
- Campaign finance reform and anti-corruption legislation. Our government and electoral system are strongly influenced by big money, from organizations and wealthy individuals through lobbying and PACs. Unfortunately, those without money and access have less influence and representation. By getting money out of politics, candidates seeking office will do so looking to govern and better represent the constituents that elected them
- Allow people to change and grow. We must let people learn, improve, and change. If we don’t, we’re saying that how things are now is how we want them to be. For society to evolve, individuals have to do so first.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Yes. I’m eternally optimistic, and I believe in the power of people. Right now, when the world feels like it is spinning out of control in new, scary ways, optimism can be really hard to maintain. But as a mother, I have to be optimistic about the future, or else I shouldn’t have brought more humans into the world. My boys — and all children — deserve optimistic adults and leaders who work hard to make things better for them. We are going through a massive reprogramming as a nation and world. Realities are being revealed, and we are learning and growing.
We need strong leadership, and we need it now. With the right leaders, I believe that we can do it.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Well, right now, I want to share a meal with every single person just for some human contact outside of our household! I don’t think that I’ll ever again take for granted the gift of togetherness.
Aside from that, I’d say Mindy Kaling and/or Oprah! Do I even need to explain why?!
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow me at my personal Twitter, @akgreenberg, but I’m also active on our company social media, which is @balloonplatform on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.