As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Milestone Labs’ ODED SHORER, Co-Founder & CEO, and MICHAL KABATZNIK, Co-Founder & COO.
Oded Shorer, co-founder of Milestone Labs, is a multidisciplinary designer, educator, and entrepreneur with more than 15 years of experience turning strong ideas into tangible products and solutions. In his work as a UX, visual, and industrial designer, Oded has brought dozens of products to market in a variety of areas, including art direction in the early stage of instant messaging and the latest innovation and technology of medical devices. Since 2009, Oded has run Milestone Studio, a concept to product industrial design consultancy based in Brooklyn, New York. He serves as a CRIT adviser for Cornell Tech’s Startup Studio and as a mentor to incubators and accelerator programs ELabNYC and Break Through Tech New York’s Summer Guild. Oded holds a degree in Industrial and Product Design from the Istituto Europeo di Design in Italy.
Michal Kabatznik, co-founder of Milestone Labs, is a connector and creator with over a dozen years of experience forging multidisciplinary partnerships across different sectors and helping close the gap between business and impact. Prior to Milestone Labs, Michal was on the founding team of TOM:Tikkun Olam Makers, a non-profit that connects the worlds of technology and disability to create prototypes of solutions. As Head of Global Operations, she led TOM’s global growth from one to over 35 international communities. Before launching TOM, Michal managed a humanitarian aid project in Northern Japan after the tsunami and earthquake of 2011. Previously, Michal guided non-profit organizations to come up with innovative funding models through her work in resource development and marketing for a variety of organizations in both Israel and the United States. Based in Tel Aviv, Israel, she holds a B.A. from the University of Maryland and an M.A. from Tel Aviv University.
Milestone Labs is an international social impact innovation consulting firm that works closely with universities, corporations, and the public sector and specializes in cross-sector collaborations that result in tangible impact and social change. Milestone Labs helps organizations push the boundaries of innovation to create sustainable, scalable solutions to unmet social needs, and to solve human problems around the world. Milestone Labs “was born of a simple idea and shared frustration, we’ve seen so much time and energy invested in incredible social innovation conferences and events, but we are always left with the same lingering question: What happens the day after??
We came to call this the ‘day after’ syndrome — events with such lofty social goals just end with no meaningful follow-up or continued development and, therefore, no real impact. Milestone is our way of addressing this — harnessing our proprietary methodologies, we work with companies and organizations on how they can create lasting social change through their work.
Past and present Milestone clients include Amdocs, the NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, Ultimaker, Weill Cornell, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Blythedale Children’s Hospital, CornellTech, NYC FIRST, Beit Issue Shapiro, Mediterranean Tower Ventures, Pratt Institute and more.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are both very busy people. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
We started Milestone Labs about two years ago, although we’d met through a different professional framework years before. During our previous time working together, we went out for a drink one night after a long day of meetings. As the conversation (and the drinks) flowed, we realized that we were both deeply frustrated by the same elements of our work, the organization had incredible potential but was focusing only on the publicity elements of social impact. Management was standing on stages around the world and discussing lofty goals like the fact that we were “changing the lives of 250 million people globally” when we knew that the numbers were way off and were not achieving the impact we claimed we were. Together, we lamented how so much of the social innovation/impact space focused on slogans and broad statements without the numbers and measurable impact to back it up. We decided to focus on “social innovation with sustainable impact” — programs and projects with clear goals and implementation plans put in place from day one, ensuring that we went beyond the slogans and created lasting, measurable impact. Although it would take another year or so for us to make things official, the first seeds of Milestone Labs were planted that very night.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Like any start up, when we first got going, there were several false starts as we honed our focus area. The stories from the beginning could fill a book! One story, in particular, stands out as it helped remind us of the importance of the human-centered approach and solidified one of our core values (nothing about us, without us).
A few years ago, we led a hackathon focused on developing solutions for people living with disabilities. Our “client” was a woman in her mid 50’s (we’ll call her Mary), who had recently experienced a stroke and had lost most function on the left side of her body. It is also important to note that Mary was blind since birth. The team gathered and interviewed her and learned about her needs; we were all focused on coming up with a device to make her life easier and to give her more independence. Our initial brainstorm resulted in an idea for a wearable device that would help detect indoor obstacles whenever she was in a new environment (her cane only covered a limited area). We dove deep into the development process, working with some brilliant individuals around the clock to come up with a prototype centered around a “hacked” baseball cap packed with wires and sensors that actually worked!
After showing off our prototype to the other teams and the judges, we had a moment to sit with Mary over a cup of tea. Mary thanked us profusely for our hard work and shared that while she loved the cap, she has been blind since birth and feels comfortable finding her way in the world as she is. She spent her life taking the bus, cooking, taking care of her children and completed more day-to-day activities. Mary confided in us that the stroke she had recently experienced completely changed her life, and her daily routine, basic tasks she used to take for granted, were now incredibly taxing. She missed the simple pleasures, like her morning yogurt, which she could no longer eat independently. As her left had no longer fully functioned, Mary was unable to hold her yogurt stable while using her other hand to grasp a spoon and feed herself. She told us, “I know it sounds silly, but a solution for this problem will impact my life so much more than any of this amazing technology you guys just came up with.” We realized how wrong we had been and that our perceived notions of what she needed drowned out her actual needs. Designers know that empathy is an incredibly important tool, but sometimes, we lose track and overlook the person — the individual for whom we are creating. It took us a couple of hours to come up with the solution to improve her yogurt experience — we designed the yogurt stabilizer that very afternoon, and 3D printed it on the spot. Following up with Mary after the event, we were pleased to discover she had gone back to enjoying her breakfast on her own.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Michal Kabatznik: I was given the book, “Originals” by Adam Grant just as I was starting my entrepreneurial journey. I read it cover to cover in a matter of days and still find myself coming back to select passages and quotes. Reading about the stories behind some of the biggest entrepreneurial successes reminds me that starting something new, whether trying to disrupt an established industry, or a new type of business model is never smooth sailing and that I will constantly get rejection, but this reality pushes me to persevere. Another book I find myself returning to is “Design Meets Disability” by Graham Pullin. While I am not a designer myself, I spent several years working closely with designers and have experience in the disability space. This book shows that by integrating good design, a medical device can become a fashionable accessory (i.e., eyeglasses). It shifts my perspective and always reminds me to look at things from different angles and think about the human at the center. For similar reasons, I enjoy reading historical biographies and understanding the human side of some of the biggest figures of our time. Our work takes a human-centered approach, so I always want to learn more about the human and what makes him/her tick. The most famous figures often aren’t what they seem.
Oded Shorer: One of the books that influenced the entire design industry and the development of design- thinking methodologies is, “Design of Everyday Things” by the great Don Norman. It was one of the first books to examine the user’s experience and the logic behind our cognitive perceptions when interacting with an object. I read the book in my early days as a young industrial designer, and it helped me to dig even deeper towards the philosophy of the user’s experience and focus on empathy while developing consumer products.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
We agreed upon our motto and tagline very early on, “social innovation with sustainable impact.” Our initial goal was to ensure that any and all social innovation activities led to sustainable and measurable impact. We aim to connect those who live with social challenges (NGOs government programs, etc.) with the skills to create solutions that address those same challenges. Our goal is to integrate social issues into higher education curricula and to work with companies on how they can integrate social needs into their core business.
Our business started from our shared frustration, seeing more and more social innovation processes with great social intentions ending and fading away with no sustainable follow-up and measurable impact. This spark drove us to join forces and try and do it differently. Our take on social impact starts from the perspective of the user; this allows us to gain empathy and a deep understanding of the challenges we want to address and help solve. Our purpose-driven business methodology includes the implementation, follow-up, and measurement elements of the innovation process from day one.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
The main guiding principle for our work is “Nothing About Us Without Us” — we believe in including those who live and work with challenges on a daily basis. By working directly with our users, we’re able to expand horizons, foster empathy, and get real-time feedback, leading to creative solutions for real people.
Not only do these core values apply to being inclusive with our work, but they are also values we observe with each other. Running a business is incredibly challenging, especially when co-founders live an ocean from each other. Our number one principle for staying sane is open communication. We are constantly in touch via WhatsApp, email, and on the phone at all hours of the day and night. We make it a point to update each other on everything, even on the less comfortable matters that cause friction. It’s not always seamless, but by talking things through and being open and honest with each other, we’ve overcome obstacles, and it’s led to a better working relationship and, as a result, a stronger company.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced
We started Milestone Labs while living continents apart (Oded is based in NYC, and Michal is in Tel Aviv), so we are used to working together remotely. We both live international lifestyles, traveling between the two cities with our closest family spread between both places. Since COVID-19 started, we have not been able to see our families and don’t know when travel will resume safely. Our children’s schools closed a month and a half ago, and balancing homeschooling with work in small apartments has been a challenge, and there is an inherent worry for our older family members who are at-risk.
We’ve both been working hard at prioritizing tasks and balancing work/school with leisure and self-care time. In recent weeks, we have entered an interesting new phase, Tel Aviv and Israel as a whole have started to re-open with new daily COVID cases in the single digits. It’s been fascinating to see how businesses in Tel Aviv have re-emerged while still keeping some form of social distance guidelines in place. We are looking to see how we can utilize having a leg in both places to help our US-based clients learn from our Israel-based ones.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like many others, our work has shifted during the pandemic. As a startup, our company’s financial situation is always at the forefront of our minds, and during COVID-19, many clients froze their contracts, and we have had to stop processes in the middle. We have hunkered down and lowered our expenses to the bare minimum and applied for the relevant government grants to help us get through this time. Beyond the financial stresses and uncertainty brought on by the virus, we recognize that the way we do business will change in the foreseeable future. Many key elements of our business are based around gatherings and working closely with at-risk populations, and that will have to be done differently.
At Milestone Labs, we pride ourselves on our innovative methodology and our approach that utilizes a multidisciplinary outlook to create solutions for real challenges. We’re taking advantage of this unique moment in time to test our methods on ourselves. The challenge now is, how can we not only survive but thrive in the post-COVID-19 world?
We are examining every element of our business and seeing how we can adapt and pivot both our activities and our services. We are asking ourselves questions like, what new needs will emerge from this pandemic? What will no longer be relevant? As the entire world deals with the virus, we are seeing a rise in empathy and in companies and organizations pivoting to help with community and social needs. This compassion validates what we have been saying since the very beginning — business and impact go together hand in hand, and we believe this trend will continue after the pandemic. On a more practical level, we are taking advantage of moving our gatherings from in-person to online and including more international collaborations that would not have been possible. The digital platforms allow us to gather groups that never would have met otherwise, and we’re excited to see what creative solutions will emerge. In all that we are doing, we aim to work with the uncertainty as much as possible, rather than fight against it.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Oded Shorer: One of the most potent side effects of this pandemic is that social distancing is depriving us of human interaction, of our basic need to feel, touch, and be touched. This deprivation is especially hard for those isolating alone, or for kids who now realize that the way they played and interacted with their friends is no longer allowed. While video conferencing has made this time easier, it is not the same as in-person interactions.
A positive side I am seeing is an increase in empathy for those in our family unit and our communities. We are looking out for others, especially at-risk populations and essential workers. This unprecedented global pandemic has also united and connected us like never before as we are all in this together. Everyone’s feelings are right on the surface, and it’s okay to let it out, to cry, to laugh, to scream. The release of pent up emotion is often cathartic. In New York City, the daily 7 PM celebration of frontline workers not only recognizes this population but provides an opportunity for people to release emotion.
I find it helpful to stay creative — to develop new things, play music, hold sing-alongs, draw, play together, smile, and tell jokes. Most importantly, we are staying close, letting each other feel that we are a strong and protected unit. Technology has also been a great help for us, and thanks to our various screens, we have a place to run away to clear our minds, and just let go.
As much as I believe in technology and online communication, I am also trying to keep up human interaction wherever possible. One of the most therapeutic acts is to go for a walk (while keeping to social distancing guidelines!). Be outside in the sunshine if you can, see others from a safe distance, sit on a bench and read your book, take a deep breath (with your mask on) and try and be in the moment.
Michal Kabatznik: Uncertainty and fear have been hanging over all that we do in the last few months. One of the main ways I’ve been fighting these unsettling feelings is by staying in close touch with family and loved ones. The amount of time I spend on video calls has increased exponentially, and a nice side effect has been that I have deepened relationships and rekindled dormant friendships during this time. To stay sane, I suggest setting up a routine and sticking with it, like getting dressed in the morning (even if it’s changing from pajamas to other sweatpants), and having a dedicated space for work with clear starting and ending hours. Sunshine and vitamin D are also important in keeping my mood up, so I try to spend some time every day outdoors, even if it’s just sitting on my balcony. I also find calm in exercise and cooking, so I recommend that to everyone as well, even if it’s just a quick 20-minute workout a simple meal. Regarding the news, often discouraging, I am focusing on the stories of people coming together to help, and on the feel-good stories that put a smile on your face (search “Penguins set free in the aquarium” on YouTube, and you won’t be sorry!).
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We truly believe, as we’ve seen with every crisis throughout history, that adaptation followed by growth is the only path for recovery. Experience proves that it’s not necessarily the strong that survive, but those who adapt fastest to the changing reality. This lesson is an important one we all should remember, as individuals and as business owners.
Crisis breeds innovation and invites reinvention — “everybody will have to think outside the box because there is no box,” said New York State Governor Cuomo. Those who will survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world will take risks and try new things. We know that people will crave a sense of safety and reassurance. The workplace will play a key role as the way we work changes once again. There is a real opportunity for organizations to lead and set the tone for the post-pandemic age. Now is the time for true corporate social responsibility, for organizations to stand behind their values, their employees, and their communities. The new normal will require agility, flexibility, patience, and communication. “Business as usual” will look different than it did before, and there are ways organizations can prepare.
- Adaptation and Re-evaluation. A major opportunity we anticipate is that corporations and organizations will need to be agile and lean. While maintaining their core missions and values, organizations will need to re-evaluate their assets and offerings and adapt them to the needs of the new reality. For example, many companies shifted part of their production capabilities to produce PPE and other new essentials like hand sanitizer. Will corporations that shifted abandon these new products entirely? Or will they become a part of the company, ensuring consumers and frontline workers have access to products that will remain an essential part of our lives for the foreseeable future?
- Breaking the Silos. As we emerge from isolation and work together to create our new normal, it will require creative thinking, openness, and new approaches. Cross-sector partnerships will be crucial as we send children back to school, resuscitate the economy, and keep the virus away. Non-profit organizations, the corporate sector, and the government each have an important role to play in their respective fields, but when an innovative approach is taken, it becomes apparent that the sum is greater than the parts and there is potential for real, exponential impact. We can learn from the successes of public-private partnerships in other countries (i.e., Taiwan and South Korea), fighting the virus, ensuring frontline workers have PPE, and applying the same ideas to our day-after strategies. There is a real opportunity for corporations to work directly with non-profit organizations to deeply understand the needs of their communities, and government can shift procurement policies to benefit small businesses. All cross-sector collaborations benefit the greater good and will help us get back on our feet faster.
- Aim for Profit and Impact, not Profit vs. Impact. As we know, the conversation on profit vs. impact has shifted in recent years — the mindset that businesses focus solely on profit and NGOs exclusively make an impact has been fading and will be upended after the pandemic. As we emerge from a crisis that affected us all, the post-pandemic era will be the tipping point into the expanded age of social impact businesses where the mainstream will catch up to the social innovation sector. The Coronavirus has accelerated the urgency of all social issues, from labor and homelessness to healthcare and the environment. Corporations will no longer be able to boast of their social bonafides through lip service alone, and community engagement and real impact measurement will become standard practice globally as the world continues to focus on real issues that unite us. Communities and consumers will be paying attention, remembering who reached out, connected, and gave back, and they will be loyal with their wallets, actions, and impacts.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
It’s important to keep perspective, nothing in life is permanent, and we are constantly evolving and will continue to grow. As human beings, we adapt and change, and we can get used to things incredibly quickly. It’s important to think of change in the long-term and to look at history to gain some perspective, things that were once perfectly normal and ordinary, now seem unreal. Remember when you could walk someone to the gate at the airport, or when you could smoke on an airplane?
Rather than permanent changes, we believe that there will be adjustments and modifications to existing behaviors. Businesses will take more creative approaches to meet social distancing guidelines. For example, gyms can create reservation systems to limit the number of people working out at time, restaurants and bars can lower the count of chairs and tables, and shopping malls can take customers’ temperatures as they enter. While change can feel daunting, we must all take a deep breath and remember that we are strong and resilient!
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We have spent the quarantine period evaluating our offerings and services and seeing what is still relevant, what needs to be adapted, and what is entirely irrelevant. We have created digital versions of our activities and are excited about the global collaboration opportunities that working online allows. We believe there will be a continued interest in community involvement and that businesses will continue the tendency, heightened during the pandemic, to lean toward social impact in their work.
Being mindful of our costs and that many companies will continue to keep austerity measures in place for the foreseeable future, we’ve streamlined our services and broken them down to distinct modules, ensuring that clients get exactly what they need. Our work will focus more on how to integrate social impact into the core business of a company and not just as a “nice to have” addition. Milestone is also working with a variety of organizations and helping them adapt their workforce to the new normal in the workplace and seeing how they can ensure their services and offerings are well-positioned to thrive in a post-COVID-19 world.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
We truly believe that agility and innovation are the keys to a successful future. Any and all companies can integrate this into their DNA, if it’s not there already, to ensure they thrive in the post-COVID world and are ready if there is a second wave. Agility and innovation are good business practices for any company looking to change, and we believe that it is an important element of company culture, pandemic or not! We encourage everyone to stay alert, stay flexible, and keep an open mind. Know what you’ve got, what your skills are, and what you excel at; this is your foundation and will be your building blocks for success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A quote that has guided me for years now is, “Not all who wander are lost” by J. R. R. Tolkein. I interpret it as taking the wandering, and sometimes unexpected path does not mean you are less driven or less focused, but rather that you are open to experiences and unexpected twists and turns. Looking back on my career journey so far, I got to where I am quite unexpectedly. My dream at age 20 was to be a diplomat, and while things have worked out very differently, I couldn’t be happier. I think I use this quote to remind me to say yes to new and sometimes scary opportunities because you never know where they will lead you.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Readers are welcome to follow our LinkedIn page for Milestone Labs or check out our website, www.milestone-labs.com! We look forward to staying connected with you and answering any questions you have.