An inspiring story, spiced up with facts and real role models. A micro novel on sustainability, innovation, and diversity in technology.
By Alex Ruby. Editor: Niall Sellar
Louisa got off the phone. It had been an exhausting call. Again. Once in a while she had these and afterwards, she always asked herself why she bothered. She had spoken to one of her childhood friends. Years ago, as kids, they had been inseparable. As they grew older, their lives developed in different directions and they started to drift apart.
During these calls, she always felt attacked. Her friend questioned everything she did. Louisa started justifying, explaining. She didn’t even know what made her do it. Probably because a part of her wanted back their old relationship that had been shaped by mutual affirmation. Normally, she wouldn’t even have been around to take this call.
But her travel plans were on hold. Until when, nobody knew. She had been looking forward to flying over to Toronto so much after reading about this city months ago. A trip to Canada was high on her bucket list. Flight and apartment had all been booked. Then the pandemic had struck, and the world went into lockdown. Most parts of it, anyway.
At first, she had been devastated. Starting in mid-March she had been confined to her apartment for several weeks, with the exception of running errands that were deemed essential. At least she had a nice backyard to go outside for a break. Louisa had always loved to live out in the country and had come to appreciate it even more.
At the beginning not being able to see her family and friends had been torture. Dining out on the weekend or sipping coffee with her best friends on lazy Sundays were fond memories that she longed to renew. Chats on social media were no surrogate. Hour-long video calls were awkward at first but eventually turned into fun, minus the hugs and high-fives. In-between, the web and TV became constant companions.
News tickers provided updates and potential countermeasures seemingly every minute. Constantly following up on them caused anxiety. After a few weeks she decided to check them less often and focus on major announcements. Her mood lifted instantly. There was so much confusion about this new corona virus that you didn’t know whom you could trust.
The terminology added to the confusion. The root cause which scientists referred to as pathogen was called SARS-CoV-2, a new member of the corona virus family. People who contracted the virus got sick with a disease dubbed COVID-19. Maybe it was like a flu. But it could cause a lot more harm. For some it was deadly. Others again didn’t show any symptoms at all.
Initial reports said that mainly elderly people were at risk and those who already suffered from another illness or had a weak immune system. Children and young people were less likely to show a severe progression. Blood type also seemed to play a role. But nobody knew much. Everyone was groping in the dark.
Looking at countries that had been more successful in reducing the reproduction rate, one thing was clear: in order to contain the disease, one needed to restrict movement and contact. Interestingly enough, most countries that had been successful in preventing major outbreaks were led by women. Germany was one of those countries.
Step by step, Louisa adapted to what was referred to as the new normal. She kept her distance when running errands, had a mask in almost every jacket and purse, and made a habit of washing her hands often and thoroughly. Soap was said to be more effective in dissolving, and thus neutralizing, the virus than over-the-counter disinfectants that contained less than sixty percent alcohol.
When the lockdown started, most of public life seemed to be on hold. Companies unaffected by the sudden decline of market demand sent their employees home to work. Others established reduced working hours, a measure subsidized by the government. Kindergartens, schools, and universities had to close all together. Just like restaurants, bars, and clubs; even the zoo.
Louisa had begun her interior design studies last year. The start of the second term was postponed by several weeks. Two months after the lockdown things started to become easier as confinement rules were revised. The first reunion with her family was celebrated in style: an all-day long barbeque feast on which the sun conferred its full approval.
Soon after, small groups of people not related to each other were allowed to meet again at outdoor bars and restaurants. Louisa’s hometown had been spared from severe cases and had no new ones to report. Everybody both breathed a sigh of relief and continued to be on their guard. Only a small fraction of people had been tested. The chance of someone carrying the virus without showing symptoms lingered on.
To minimize the risk, wearing a mask in public indoor spaces remained mandatory. And almost everybody in her town showed respect by wearing one. Soon, lectures resumed, shifting online. It had taken a while to get used to working from home, but now it was OK. In addition to her studies on interior design, Louisa and her fellow students were tasked with researching current technical trends in the industry.
As a creative mind, this was not something that came naturally. Where to start? The internet was a vast space and if you didn’t know exactly what to look for you could easily get lost.
One morning, Louisa received a surprise call. This time, it was an encouraging one. Her aunt, Alex, was a speaker at one of the world’s largest technology conferences and she had a guest ticket for her. Louisa was excited because when most people thought of interior design only few connected it with technology. The majority imagined luxuriously styled villas, airy lofts, and snug country homes.
Convenience and climate change, however, called for technology to make homes smart. Interior design per definition was the art and science of creating a healthy and appealing environment for inhabitants of a defined space. Sensors, software, and actuators were just as important as the effective use of space or aesthetic considerations: electrically operated windows and shades that adjusted automatically to in-house air quality and the position of the sun.
Ambient temperatures that could be set and controlled individually by room and time of day to cater to each person’s preference. Operating washing machines and dish washers or charging electrical vehicles in off-peak times balanced the electric grid’s load, benefiting both residents’ budgets and their environment.
Checking the conference’s website, speakers and schedule, Louisa was captivated at once and didn’t have to think twice about accepting the ticket. In early March, she learned, the organizers had taken the unprecedented step of moving the entire event online, thus ensuring that people could take part safely from home.
No mean feat, given that 32,000 attendees from over 140 countries would be keen to watch 634 curated speakers. For startups, participation in the conference could mean a break-through. Given the pandemic situation, venture capital and big spenders were harder to find. 850 investors would be roaming the event’s virtual exhibition halls in the hope of exploring funding possibilities and increasing their portfolio.
This heavily technology-focused world was new to Louisa and she was keen to dive in. It would give her a chance, she was certain, to surprise her professor. The event was usually hosted in Toronto, which she took to be a good omen. That’s why the schedule was six hours behind Central European Time.
By early afternoon on the first day, Louisa was all set: mobile app downloaded to plan her schedule and network with attendees or companies; web app logged-in to view video meetings, interviews and Q&A sessions or press conferences; laptop fully charged and set at a comfortable viewing angle; water and snacks at the ready. Navigating the vast array of topics had been overwhelming at first.
There were many talks related to the current situation and how companies and their employees had adjusted to working remotely or shifting gears in their digital transformation projects. Forced to juggle her schedule with tasks related to her studies, Louisa chose to focus on topics around sustainability, or on people whose stories had pricked her interest.
The first inspiration Louisa got was out of this world, literally. Alyssa was a young woman from Louisiana. She called Mars her “home” and there was a strong chance that she would be the first woman to get there. Her story was extraordinary. At the age of three when she had watched a cartoon about a mission to Mars, Alyssa planted the seed for her passion.
People had been to the Moon, but it would be her generation to go to Mars. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, she had clung tenaciously to her dream. Ballet lessons and soccer games were fine, but not want she wanted from life. Taking it one step at a time, at 12 years of age Alyssa was the youngest person to have attended all NASA camps.
This won her an invitation to speak on a live panel discussion on NASA TV. All of a sudden, she was on screen with an astronaut and people with doctorates, throwing around ideas about how future missions to Mars might look. Alyssa continued along her path, preparing for a future when her dream would finally become reality.
She ticked all 14 NASA Visitor Centers off her list. Studied school subjects in four different languages – you never knew where your fellow Mars mission buddy might be from… At an age where most teenagers were eager to receive the keys to their first car, Alyssa instead created a means of driving her dream forward: she graduated the Advanced Possum Academy, which made her a trainee astronaut.
Along the way she had also picked up a scuba diving license. Because, just like on Mars, under water you didn’t have oxygen unless you brought your own. Then there was her private aircraft pilot license. When her busy schedule allowed, she took to the skies for a short recreational break. Now she was focusing on her Astrobiology studies.
Astronauts were not mere drivers of a space shuttle, charged with chauffeuring people to Mars. Space tourism sounded like fun to some, but it was not sustainable. To set up camp on this far away planet, you needed scientists to explore a way of living and how to maintain the natural habitat. Alyssa was drawn to questions of a medical or environmental nature.
Were there bacteria in the water on Mars that could help earthlings fight off pandemics such as the current one? How could plants be grown up there? What local resources could be utilized? A mission to Mars held in store adventures like EVAs (extravehicular activities), provided the radiation levels astronauts were exposed to could be dealt with. But it also called for mastering household chores like changing domestic air filters.
The plan of some Silicon Valley moguls said there was a decade to figure it all out. Alyssa had pursued her dream for almost two decades now. It would be another ten years at least before she could set foot on her home planet. Louisa wondered how one person could have so much patience. The secret was the same as for everyone, no matter the dream: define smaller goals along the way and move from milestone to milestone. Alyssa admitted that time management was a real challenge.
There was just so much to learn – from necessary to interesting to fascinating topics. Having inspiring role models helped to keep the fire burning. Former NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus who had spent 157 days in space was one. Another was William Parsons, a former Director of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Always one to reach for the stars, Alyssa had been eager to meet with him. By chance, a friend of her dad knew him from high-school and made the introduction.
She wanted to use her knowledge and plan ahead for the next generation. Alyssa believed that everybody was equal and a global citizen and that the most important thing, besides following your dream, was to help others. She had started the Blueberry Foundation, the goal of which was to send more young people to space camps. So far, 125 people aged 12-18 had benefited according to Alyssa. It was not a question of if but when we would start living on Mars, she was certain. It would be her generation to kick things off in space.
Louisa was intrigued. Thoughts were whirling about in her head like an atmospheric storm. What would it be like to live on Mars? How did you build inhabitable space? Recently, she had heard that a mixture of human pee, more exactly the part called urea, and the Moon’s rock powder seemed to make a good mix. All you needed was a 3D printer to bring your building material into shape. Maybe that would work on the red planet as well?
Then, what about its interior? What would you need to consider? After all, you would need a place that radiated some comfort. Louisa loved to surround herself with plants. What kind of plants would survive up there? Could you keep pets? Since the 1950s, animals like dogs and monkeys had been sent into space to research the effect of weightlessness on biological functions. Astronauts had also researched a myriad of critters and flying animals like wasps, bees or butterflies, or fish to understand the impact of microgravity.
A while ago Louisa had gone to a drugstore with her sister to find something to combat silverfish. Curious as she was Louisa had researched the pesky species and been amazed to discover that these little creatures could live up to eight years. That was four times as long as hamsters. She wondered what kind of inspiration the survival mechanisms of silverfish could provide for life on Mars. Bionics was an area that always grabbed her attention.
Louisa glanced at her snacks as she took a sip of tea. You also had to eat on Mars. Grocery deliveries at the touch of an app were out of the question. How could you grow and harvest food up there? A startup had recently sent Bluefin tuna cells to the ISS for astronauts to experiment with the lab-grown fish. It all sounded like something straight from a sci-fi novel.
She made a mental note to search for more ideas and projects in that area. Louisa was not certain if she ever wanted to go to Mars. In her mind she would be confined to a limited space most of the time and not be able to meet many people. Just like in this bloody pandemic! Although she enjoyed the creative silence when she was alone at home, she needed people around her.
She still had some time before the next session on her schedule started. Louisa decided to use the “mingle” function on the conference app. The app’s algorithm brought together people who shared an interest in the same fields. Sustainability was one of the areas Louisa had chosen. Growing up in the countryside, re-using and recycling had first grabbed her attention in her early teens.
Her grandmother, with whom she had spent a lot of time, continued to have a big influence. In her granny’s teenage years, there had not been such an abundance of choice in products. To-go products, with the exception of bananas or apples, were on nobody’s radar. When you went on a hiking trip or for a recreational swimming day at a nearby lake or river, you’d prepare some sandwiches and pack them in bees-wax paper. Drinks would be filled in bottles that you brought back home.
Inspired by the wisdom of her grandmother, reducing waste and aiming for a sustainable lifestyle was high on Louisa’s list. Up until now, she hadn’t done a great deal of international traveling but, besides visiting Toronto, was already dreaming of heading to more exotic climes. Her yearning was spurred by picture-perfect posts on social media – showing seemingly endless white sand beaches and crystal-clear oceans that lured you into the water, whether to cool off from the heat or take care of that tipsy feeling after one or two early afternoon cocktails.
Reality, however, was rapidly showing these pictures to be an illusion. Gazillions of single-use plastics were thrown away each day. Huge patches of disposable items floated on oceans, endangered sea animals, and washed up on shores. Bottles mingled with bags; coffee-to-go cups convened with take-out trays; food wrappers forgathered with straws. It was a fight no single party could win; rather, one that would take many fine minds working in unison.
Louisa learned that Emma Rose, with whom she was mingling now, was one such mind. This amiable woman in her early thirties had had many Aha-moments. Her mission was to save maritime life. A mermaid at heart, she had started cleaning up beaches dressed as a mythical aquatic creature in her college days. Louisa smiled as an image formed in her head. As someone who loved to find out more about human behavior, Emma had taken on neuroscience studies with the aim of becoming a medical professional. But life had other plans in store.
Instead of helping to cure people she went on to find solutions that would help cure the planet’s waste disease. After completing a master’s degree from Harvard in Environmental Management and Sustainability, she started to work on ways to drastically reduce waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Pollution Prevention department. After four years she knew there was more out there waiting for her.
A trip to Thailand spurred her ambition for change. Louisa was intrigued to learn more; her mental image of that country was one of virgin white beaches and turquoise swimming pleasures. But Emma had a different story to tell. Thousands of single-use plastic straws littered the beaches. She told Louisa that she knew instantly her goal needed to be to eliminate waste – not just reduce it.
A chance meeting with a like-minded colleague helped to unleash her inner entrepreneurial mermaid. Louisa could not help but be impressed with Emma’s courage. Continuing modestly, Emma shared how, in late 2017, she had become CEO and co-founder of a company that developed a reusable straw. It was not your typical glass or metal straw. Those were OK, but were either too delicate to handle and made a mess when they broke, or were simply inconvenient to carry around.
The solution was a collapsible, yet durable, straw with a soft touch to your lips. It fitted – including a telescopic cleaning brush – into a small case that could easily be attached to your key chain. The tide began to turn when Seattle, home to major tech companies, made the decision to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils in food service.
Emma and her company launched a Kickstarter campaign containing a hilarious video. Louisa made a mental note to check it out later. Their sense of humor hit a nerve, beamed Emma. An intermezzo at Shark Tank followed. One shark raised his fin and splashed around with an offer. But Emma’s goal was to do lengths. She decided that sharks and mermaids were not made to swim together into the sunset and live happily ever after. Never mind, worse things happen at sea, she laughed.
Her business was picked up by a wave that grew ever stronger until their campaign yielded one hundred times the amount they had originally asked for. But there was no time to sit back, sip champagne and celebrate the success, she sighed. Suddenly, they had to deliver 100,000 straws to their supporters in six months.
Louisa was keen to know what happened next. She couldn’t begin to grasp all the various individual tasks that were necessary to accomplish that. Emma said she read hundreds of articles about mistakes that others had made, filtering out lessons as she went. She listened to podcasts for inspiration. How did they build a strong foundation for the company? Louisa wondered.
Emma told her that she hired a business coach and tapped into her network for advice. Where did they find a team so fast? At first, Emma said, she did what she thought was obvious. She hired everyone who wanted to help – mostly family and friends. Not everybody turned out to be the right match. It was a tough lesson, but a good one.
After that, they developed a hiring process. Took to LinkedIn and social media. In her team’s experience, women were more creative in finding solutions to challenges related to reducing waste or increasing sustainability. Emma cast her net to build a team whose quality, in turn, determined the quality of the company. Their humorous and entertaining brand voice attracted the right people because it gave them the purpose they had been searching for.
With success came offers to sell the company. Emma told Louisa that she and her team had declined. They were not fishing for investors either. Their most exciting moment so far was when something Emma had dreamed about came true: an outdoor gear company launched the sale of their product in 180 stores. Louisa also learned that their straws had been sold to customers in over 100 countries. An impressive number, Emma agreed with a laugh.
The amount of people who “sucked responsibly” – as the product slogan went – was growing constantly. Louisa was curious about what came next. She couldn’t imagine Emma simply resting on her success. On the contrary: new products were lined up; a bigger straw for boba drinks or bubble teas; a foldable fork and spork; reusable wipes. And this was not the end of the horizon for the mermaid.
Emma saw waste as a design flaw. Whenever she had to throw away something, she thought about how to redesign it and reduce or eliminate waste. Louisa was fascinated by this view. It added another important layer to product design, which was still too often centered around the use case and customers. Certainly, sustainability was attracting more attention.
But often the focus was simply on sourcing sustainable material; consuming low energy during production; and packaging or shipping with as little impact as possible. She could have continued to speak with Emma for hours, but the mingling was timed and came to an end.
With her next session almost half an hour away, Louisa decided to order one of the foldable straws. It would be a great demonstration object to show to her professor and fellow students. She was certain that none of them had heard about this before and she loved the feeling of being able to share something new with others.
Some time ago she had worked with a publisher on the visual design of their latest spy novel. The book was full of real information about electric vehicles and IT security and had made her an expert in her circle of friends. They had been deeply impressed, and it had given her sweet satisfaction to be more knowledgeable than her then-boyfriend and his car-loving bros.
Louisa’s next session was aired on the radio channel. It was a pre-recorded panel discussion with two founders. Brian’s and Ethan’s topics had universal appeal: personal care products and clothes. Louisa’s aunt moderated the discussion and Louisa couldn’t help feeling a little proud about personally knowing one of the speakers.
She found it quite interesting that Brian had founded his company after a similar experience to Emma’s. A few years ago, in-between jobs, he had left his New York home for a vacation in Thailand, taking scuba diving lessons. Instead of plunging into the waters of paradise he found himself surrounded by single-use plastic. It made him so sad that he decided to focus on how he could start changing things for the better.
Early in 2018, he founded a company that redesigned daily personal care products. It was time for a fresh approach. Things like deodorants, mouthwash, shampoos, and soap typically came in plastic containers that, once empty, ended in the trash. But there were better solutions. Mouthwash was contained in little tablets that dissolved in water.
Shampoo and soap made solely with natural ingredients were packaged as concentrated bars. Even the dish to store these bars was produced from something that nature provided: a sedimentary rock formed by fossilized phytoplankton. Floss came in refillable containers. Yards of biodegradable silk thread infused with vegan wax were wrapped on a sugarcane-based spool that could easily be swapped. Pure essential oils added flavor.
Deodorant containers were designed to be repeatedly reloaded with a clean mix of plant and mineral based ingredients – an all-natural bacteria killer that didn’t need aluminum. Brian’s company and their customers had saved 11,000 pounds of single-use plastic since its inception. Although not a huge number in global terms, it was something that made them proud. They were still a young firm and already they were contributing to the war on waste creation.
As was the firm of his panel partner. Ethan had started a clothing company in Canada some ten years ago. No specific wake-up call for him; rather, he had been driven by the desire to build something on his own. One day, he decided to leave his business consulting job and start working on different ideas together with a friend.
Ethan had a diverse background. He had studied acting and dance but also computer engineering. This provided him and his friend with many ideas. One centered around men in their social circles who were open to advice on how to dress better. The result, in 2010, was a clothing brand tailored to timeless essentials.
Their design was influenced by two things: the changing nature of the weather in Canada; and the form and type of clothes which allowed people to follow their individual style. Ethan’s company made it a core value to create clothing that had a minimal impact on the planet during production and a long-lasting life, so customers could wear it over and over again without loss of quality.
They had also set themselves solid goals for the next couple of years to remove virgin plastic and polyester from their supply chain, to implement carbon offset programs and to raise their use of renewable energies. Louisa knew many people who loved clothes and made a habit of going on a weekly shopping spree just to have enough outfits to show off on their Instagram channels.
As most people didn’t have a huge budget, fashion discounters that offered cheap celebrity-style clothes had spread like wildfire in the past decade. But Louisa had seen too many reports about slave-like conditions in far-away factories and huge landfills full of unsold clothes to join that particular group of people. While she also liked to look her best, she had been brought up knowing it was better to go high quality less often. For a few years now, she had been paying more attention to where clothes came from and what they were made of.
Brian and Ethan both agreed that information was a powerful tool to influence consumer behaviors; especially sharing information about a company’s commitment regarding sustainability and their achievements in reducing waste. With the rise of social media, companies could raise awareness by creating communities and communicating directly with their customers.
Transparency was key. Information needed to be presented in a way that was simple and easy to understand. Metrics empowered people to better judge their decisions. When facts where shared in a form that spoke to their senses the information started to trend. Why? Because people were proud to share with others the good things they had learned. That’s when things moved in the right direction and became contagious.
The predominant fashion and personal care product industries were massive. Supply chains had been built on increasing profit while reducing prices in a highly competitive market. The effort required to change these systems was huge. Customers needed to be aware that their buying behavior had a tremendous impact. That a change towards more sustainable products and production together with less waste required all hands on deck.
While going zero waste was highly desirable, it was difficult to achieve and ran the risk of discouraging people. Brian aimed to improve things one step at a time and thus be an example for others. Louisa had tried once to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle and found it a real struggle. She could absolutely relate to Brian. However, there were areas where such an approach was possible.
Ethan’s company was aiming for zero waste. They were focusing on reusable materials not only for making clothes but also for product tags and shopping bags. Shipping bags were compostable. Shops were outfitted with recycled or up-cycled furniture. They were maximizing efforts to reduce carbon emissions related to their business. They were using part of their profits to plant trees by working with organizations like Earth Day Canada and One Tree Planted.
Louisa loved the idea of reusing and up-cycling furniture. She looked around her apartment. Most of her cabinets and cupboards were made of solid wood. Investing in cheap pieces had never been appealing to her, since most of them didn’t survive a relocation. Surrounding herself with natural materials made her feel more in touch with nature.
She thought about what she could change. Louise enjoyed creating concepts in her mind and drafting them out on paper. But her creative soul didn’t stop there. She also knew how to put her ideas into practice. Working hands-on gave her a satisfying feeling of achievement. It took her mind off the daily to-do list and provided a work-life balance.
Using the back yard as an outdoor workshop was an additional treat. Being shaded by old trees, fresh air and the twittering of birds boosted her ambition. When her landlord had taken down a diseased tree, she had insisted that he plant a new one.
It inspired her that Brian’s company had become carbon neutral at the end of 2019, offsetting carbon emissions by helping to restore forests. They worked with a group of California-based engineers and scientists. The group, named Pachama, connected forest project developers with carbon offset buyers. One project Brian’s company supported was the Manoa REDD+ project in Brazil; the other was closer to home, the Hudson Farm Improved Forest Management project in New Jersey.
Companies were responsible for their actions and could gain additional support from consumers when they provided transparency on how they held themselves accountable. That was why Ethan’s firm worked with certifying bodies like B Lab, a non-profit organization. During the B Corporation certification process, they evaluated companies and their overall positive impact.
It wasn’t just about products or services. The assessment included how a company dealt with its employees, eco-system, and customers, and what impact the company’s actions had on the environment. Besides making all this transparent to the public, companies could only get certified if their board of directors pledged to keep a balance between profit and purpose. Ethan’s company had received its certification in 2019.
Louisa did a quick check on the internet. So far, there were 34 B Corp certified companies in Germany. Worldwide, there were more than 3,000 with the first 82 certified in 2007. The percentage of people and companies concerned about the future of the planet was growing. She had the feeling that sustainability was past the state of being a buzzword.
As a kid she had been drawn to all the different shampoos and soaps that came in thousands of stimulating scents. Plastic containers with creamy contents smelling like candy, cocktails, or summer sun-downers had lined the bathtub. Next to it had sat a single bar of soap that her grandmother used. A few years later, Louisa had ditched her collection for good and switched to bars of soap.
There was so much to learn from the older generation. She knew many people who had started to make reusing and recycling a priority in their lifestyle. But it was not only up to consumers. While it was good to see that a growing number of companies was working on solutions to reduce the carbon footprint and the impact consumers had, it didn’t seem to be enough.
Louisa recalled a controversial report which had stated that the world was controlled by fewer than 200 companies and investors. They, especially, needed to change their way of doing business to incorporate sustainable and ethical behaviors. But it seemed that in the ‘big game’ they were the bank, and therefore always on the winning side.
Louisa scrolled through the next sessions and her eye was instantly drawn to one that sounded intriguing. It was about a person called Molly who had apparently played some kind of game. Funny how your subconscious worked, Louisa smiled, recalling her thought of moments before. She loved to play board or cards games with her family and friends and had once read a novel called GAME.
Molly had a fascinating story to tell, so fascinating, in fact, that her memoir had even been turned into a movie. The film had first been shown at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. In 2018 it had received an Academy Award nomination in the category Best Adapted Screenplay. Molly, a woman in her early forties, came across as cordial, kind, and reflective; someone who deserved respect for emerging more or less unscathed from the devastating situation in which she had found herself in.
Molly recalled how growing up she had felt the pressure to emulate her family of high achievers. Father a psychologist and professor. Mother a ski instructor and professional fly-fisher. One of her brothers a Harvard educated surgeon, the other a professional American football player and two time American Olympic skier. So, Molly planned on a career in the legal profession combined with skiing. Things turned out rather unexpectedly.
During her qualifying run for the Olympics an injury on the ski course stopped her in her tracks. In hindsight, she felt like life had given her a chance to reduce the pressure and relax a bit. Maybe even turn a little renegade. A year off before graduating from university seemed like a good idea. She moved from her home in Colorado to Los Angeles. To stay afloat, she started waitressing in restaurants.
One thing led to another and one day she found herself in an incredibly exciting place. A night club on the sunset strip in Hollywood dubbed “The Viper Room” where a game of poker was being played. Why was it so compelling? Not because of the game, but because of the people. They were all high-flyers in their field: actors, studio bosses, bankers, financial and tech moguls. Being there was fascinating.
Serving drinks to them allowed her to learn things you couldn’t just pick up on the street. So much information was shared among the players. Thoughts flying around. Getting to know people like them could provide her with access to capital and power. Her ambition-trained mind didn’t stop there. Molly envisioned running poker games herself, having the power to decide which of the rich and famous were allowed to play, making tons of money on the go. When she had earned enough, she thought, she would simply stop.
But like many plans, the reality was somewhat different. Molly started organizing her own games and attracted players that almost everybody knew. At the time she didn’t realize she was plunging headlong into a rabbit hole. Despite their star power, the celebrities and politicians she surrounded herself with shared several negative character traits.
When they were on the losing end, their desire to recoup their losses or exponentially increase their winnings made them irrational. Egos got in the way. They could no longer reflect logically, and their emotions got out of hand. One time, Molly recalled, someone lost one-hundred million dollars. It had been a game stretched over two nights and included some billionaires.
Louisa felt like she was in a movie when she heard this. It sounded so surreal. But everything this woman revealed in the session had really happened. By the age Louisa was now, Molly had made an enormous amount of money. She once bought a Bentley, paying in cash. Alongside Los Angeles, she created a second pillar of her gambling empire in New York.
The staff in luxury hotels, where she rented presidential suites for games, knew her by name. And she had created all this power and money from nothing. Setting out and taking decision after decision along the way, not knowing where all these micro choices would eventually lead. On the crest of her success things suddenly took a turn for the worse. Another experience she shared made Louisa’s skin crawl.
A guy from the Italian mafia had threatened Molly, coming to her apartment and sticking a gun in her mouth. He wanted to force her to give them a share of her business. And when she thought things couldn’t get any worse, the FBI knocked on her door. The outlook? Years in prison and insanely high fines.
Molly acknowledged that it took moments like these to find out who you really were. And she was certainly not somebody who would abandon herself to limbo. The proof was that she was currently sitting in her mother’s home all happy and healthy, smiling and talking freely, sharing her experiences without constraints as she took part in this session.
What had helped her in the years that followed her downfall was meditation. Her passion for it was clearly visible. It helped to clear the mind, to stay focused on solutions rather than giving in to fear; and to make the right choices – even if these choices were tough to make. After she’d published her story in a book, there was another battle to fight.
The tabloids did what they did most of the time, focusing on the information they thought should be written about a woman: her appearance, whom she dated, how she got her way with people. Their reports didn’t in any way reflect her more than seven years as founder and owner of one of the world’s largest poker businesses. So Molly had to find a way to counter this and re-brand herself for the public.
She found the solution after speaking with a screenwriter she admired. She convinced him to turn her book into a movie. Despite his initial hesitation, she also convinced him to work with her closely to ensure the story would be told properly with all the shades in-between black and white. After all, she was his only reliable source of information on what had really happened to her.
Besides hearing this intriguing story, Louisa took something else from listening to Molly. It was important to stay in control of your life. Ever since she was very young, she had been different. The exotic bird of the family. She had always loved to do something creative. Some family members and friends had often asked, and some still did, if she didn’t want to do something “normal”. But what was normal? For her, being creative was what defined her and what came naturally.
She’d stuck to her passion. After school she’d trained as a visual designer at a large furniture store. During these years she had also taken an interest in fashion. Soon she realized that most parts of that industry were too superficial for her, changing way too fast with new collections hitting the market on a monthly basis. Unsold clothes were sent back to the warehouse and you could only guess what happened to them. That was not sustainable for her.
Louisa had researched other fields connected to creativity. One thing that was important for her was that the spaces she lived, worked, or otherwise spent time in made her feel comfortable. Now she was on her way to becoming an interior designer. Her professors emphasized the importance of gaining subject-specific knowledge and the vocabulary that came with it. They also encouraged students to stick to their ideas and defend them with detailed explanations. It made you take different vantage points – just as clients had different views and expectations. How else could you convince them?
Attending the conference had turned out to be another valuable lesson. All the people she listened to during this conference gave her affirmation. They strongly believed in what they did. They stuck to their plans and tried everything to make things work. If a challenge presented itself, they looked for ways to find a solution.
They surrounded themselves with people who shared their values. That didn’t mean everybody always shared the same opinion, but they were open to respectful discussions that served the whole team and brought them one step further towards their mutual goal. All these people confirmed, without knowing it, that she was making the right professional choice.
Exhausted, but happy and grateful, she closed the computer. Louisa made a secret vow to keep people who brought her down at bay, or out of her life completely. Then she called her aunt.