In early May, one of Enplug’s investors, Ben Parr, reached out to me and asked if I was interested in a free trip to London. I said, Of course! Ben was asked to nominate people to be part of the inaugural UnGrounded Initiative trip. I am extremely grateful that he nominated me as this was one of the most rewarding “vacations” I have ever been on. During the 11-hour flight, our goal was to propose new global innovations such as new programs to expand STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. After we land, everyone attends the United Nations G8 Innovation Summit together and the winning ideas from the flight are presented.
British Airways sponsored this UnGrounded trip for 100 entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers, techies to fly together on one plane for 11 hours from San Francisco to London. They covered our roundtrip flights, 5-star hotel stay in London, food, etc…Thanks BA!
The caliber of people I was with during UnGrounded was phenomenal. I got to hang out and meet everyone from California’s Lieutenant Governor to the founder of Craigslist to Virgin’s founder Richard Branson to the person who created iTunes. Here’s a glimpse of our agenda during these 3 days:
Day 1: Wednesday, June 12. The Flight Adventure
My day started at 5am since I had to fly from LA to SF in time for the 10am. I was quite exhausted since I had just flown in from Japan (was there for a few days) the day before. Registration started at 10am at the shwanky Clift Hotel in San Francisco. British Airways flight attendants were there to greet us at the hotel door and handed us a bag of goodies including an eco-friendly tote bag, snacks, UnGrounded booklet with everyone’s bios, and British mementors (magnets, pens, notebook). Then, we were all shuffled into a banquet room to hear talks from the organizers.
After remarks from the UnGrounded organizers, we also heard a short talk from California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. After about an hour of talks, we all left for a buffet on the other side of the hotel. During lunch, we split up into four groups. Each group works on one specific “challenge”. My group of 25 people was given the challenge of finding way to expand STEM education.
We spent the next hour and half with our group of 25 to brainstorm projects or initiatives that can expand STEM education. Some ideas we came up with include:
- Building a chain of cafes where engineers, entrepreneurs, designers go to hang out
- Starting an online course that combines games to teach STEM to elementary school kids
- A music video to inspire STEM learning
Just when things we getting heated and people were getting defensive about their ideas, it was time for us to board the shuttle to the airport. On the shuttle ride alone, I met amazing people such as a math genius woman who started a design firm, a London Business School professor, and a guy who has started half a dozen successful tech companies. When we arrived at San Francisco International Airport, there were welcome banners and dedicated British Airways flight attendants to greet us.
British Airways dedicated one full 747 double decker plane for the 130 people participating in the UnGrounded flight. They split the plane into the four Challenge groups (I was in the Expanding STEM group). Luckily, our group occupied the business first class area of the plane. This meant that I also got to do the priority line during security (I love enjoying the little perks we get in life). We still had a few hours before our plane took off so that of course meant one thing: chilling in the British Airways executive airport lounge. There, they had lots of food and an open bar for us to test our limits. During this mingling session, we met our British Airways flight crew, which we learned were hand picked by the airline as the best crew members to assist us during the 11 hours up in the air. After the flight, my standard for what flight attendants are like will never be achieved again-these flight crew were indeed top of the line.
5pm quickly rolled around and we began boarding this historical flight. I was seated in their business class, where the seat extends into a bed and they give you a nice little toiletry bag with socks, eyemask, lotions, and toothbrush kit. Now, what happens when you put 130 of the most techie people you can find onto a flight together? Well, you certainly don’t expect them to turn off their smartphones, laptops, or iPads. In fact, we were all standing up, walking around talking with one another, when the plane began moving towards the runway. At takeoff, I look to my neighbor who is CEO of a mobile-ad tech company and he is typing away on his laptop. Rules clearly do not apply today.
Maximizing our time on the flight, the UnGrounded organizers immediately had us working on the first challenge on the flight: a tech crossword puzzle/trivia game. We were to form groups of 3 and race against the other 40 teams in completing the crossword puzzle. This geeky crossword included trivia like: 1) The state that you can type on one line of a QWERTY keyboard. Answer: Alaska. 2) ______-pi : desktop : laptop : computer Answer: raspberry. (I was proud to get that one for my team). 3) The most STEM focused country. Answer: South Korea. My team consisted of a partner at Google Ventures and the head of Google Campus. Together, we placed in the top 5 in the crossword challenge. I’m still waiting to receive our prize though 😛
Next on the agenda for the flight is the main challenge. We were told to form groups based on ideas. I sat next to my friend Brian Wong, CEO of Kiip. He already had an idea that I thought was great. We formed a team of 6 by just getting the people sitting around us. While everyone else was pitching ideas to each other and trying to finalize the idea to work on, our team got right down to business in drafting a business plan around our idea. I love designing things so I proposed drawing a series of mini-posters and then printing them out (most people on the flight didn’t know that there were printers. We made sure to know all the resources we had and maximized it.).
Our proposal is called INIT (like In It). INIT is a label that reveals the STEM technologies that live in products from clothes to consumer electronics; acts as a “nutritional panel” for what’s inside. By celebrating these less visible aspects of the product, INIT piques curiosity about STEM, teaches about the technology under the hood, and attracts more STEM participation. You can see more about it here: http://ungroundedthinking.com/post/53138240006/overview-init-is-a-label-that-reveals-the-stem
Some additional articles pulished about INIT:
Our slogan was “INIT to Win It.” The prize for the winning team is Gold Status on British Airways, which includes perks like:
- Complimentary spa treatments
- First class lounge access
- Automatic upgrades
- Priority check-in
The crew handed out five red stickers for each person. We get to vote on the ideas. The winning idea from each four category will get Gold Status. Our team was probably the loundest-yelling “Are you INIT?? Cuz we’re INIT!! INIT to Win It!!” Thank you everyone for putting up with our cheesy lines. Everyone walked up and down the aisles to hear the 25 teams pitch their ideas. Even during strong turbulence, we were never asked to sit in our seat and “buckle up.” As I said before, the usual flight rules did not apply.
After an hour or so of harassing people for stickers, it was time for our 2.5 hour nap. The crew lowered the lights and suddenly, the inside of the plane (still splattered with posters, red stickers, and post-it notes), felt like a normal international flight. I was starving for sleep so I knocked out quickly.
We were awaken by the sweet smell of bread. The crew was serving our breakfast. More exciting than the food was the announcement of the four winners. Yup, we got Gold Status 🙂
Following our landing, we were shuttled to the famous Langham Hotel. It looks like a gorgeous castle. The 5-star hotel was decadently decorated and felt like I was walking in a palace.
That night, we visited the House of Lords and met British politicians. I just wanted to sleep. But no, I can’t. This is my first time in London. Must-Make-The-Most-Out-Of-It.
I met up with a friend working in London and we went out for dinner, drinks, and sight-seeing in the middle of the night. The Langham is in City Center so we were walking distance from many famous streets. I was impressed by how many people were walking around at night. The streets were as lively as ever.
Arriving back at my hotel at 2am-ish, I had about 5 hours to crash. No time to waste! Finally, the 1st day was over. Technically, it was 2 days because sometime on the plane, we crossed over to Thursday, but it all merged into one day.
Day 2: Friday, June 14. The G8 Innovation Summit. Prime Minister David Cameron. Partying.
Today was filled with networking, attending the G8 Innovation Summit where the winning ideas of the flight would be presented, and meeting tech celebrities. The hotel room came with free breakfast so of course I was going to take full advantage of free food at this luxurious hotel. The elite dining room had a buffet style breakfast and the server gave me options to have basically anything I wanted to be cooked to order. Well, in that case, I ordered: two eggs sunny-side up, bacon, more bacon, sausage, toast, and some more bacon.
Embarrassingly, I missed the shuttle to the main event. I asked the concierge if they knew where the conference was being held. The response: No, sorry Madam. The agenda we were given also didn’t say where the conference was being held. A search online didn’t reveal the location either-probably because they didn’t want people to crash it. Well, what to do? I vaguely remembered that British Airways gave us a magazine during the trip and one of the articles talked about the G8 Innovation Summit. I dashed up to my room, dug through my suitcase, and flipped through the magazine until I found the article. Aha! It said the event was held at “The Crystal.” I immediately Googled “The Crystal London.” Apparently, there are a lot of crystals in London. There was one that stood out: it was a beautiful center by Siemens. It looks like this:
I suppose if they’re going to host the G8 Innovation Summit, they’d find the most beautiful and modern venue. This certainly fit the bill, but who knows if it was THE Crystal. I took the chance and called a cab. He said it would be a 40-minute long trip. That means it would probably cost 50 or so pounds = $75. To lessen the disappointment that I might be spending $75 and not get to the right place, I reasoned with myself that if this wasn’t the right place, I would be taking a nice little tour of London.
When I arrived, there were a lot of security. Score! This must be the right place. And so the conference begins. The architecture and design of The Crystal is just as distinct as from the outside. I’d like my future house to look like this…
The coolest thing about this conference is that it was tiny. There were maybe 200 people there-all distinguished folks that I would die to meet. All of whom were now sitting next to me. I got to meet so many inspiration people.
After meeting everyone from Olympic gold medalists to Nobel Prize winners, we went to hang out some more at the Royal Academy of Arts. There, we met many members of the UK Trade and Investment Department. After less than an hour, people were a little networked-out, including myself. I left for the hotel to head to dinner and for another night out!
Myself and about half a dozen other conference attendees went to find a place to eat. We walked through the “Red light district” and hung out a very cool restaurant/bar called Sketch. It was extremely interesting. The entire restaurant is like an artshow. When you first enter, there are the red sniper dots moving around every where (thus the name, Sketch, I think). The bathrooms are probably the coolest stalls I have ever seen. Each individual stall is a big egg and you have to walk in the egg for the toilet. Inside, there is an electronic voice that talks to you.
Next on the lineup is eating. Many restaurants were closed and we didn’t want any bar food so we ate at the first place we found a thai restaurant called Tum Tum in the SoHo district. It’ actually quite well known in the area. The food was great and very affordable (average entree was about $8). I met up with some more of my friends later. We went to a few bars before ending the night dancing at a club called Verve. 3am return to the hotel. Day 2 complete.
Day 3: Saturday, June 15. Being a homebody.
I literally spent the entire day being a homebody: emails, work, reading. In the evening, my friend from South Africa, who is working in London, hosted a dinner for me. I got to meet 5 other awesome South Africans who he went to school with. They were extremely kind and a lot of fun to eat with. It was certainly a wonderful way to conclude my trip in London: in the company of good food and great friends.