Finding and Developing Good Ideas • Dr. Cecilia Conrad, CEO of Lever for Change • s02e06

Finding and Developing Good Ideas • Dr. Cecilia Conrad, CEO of Lever for Change • s02e06

Dr. Cecilia Conrad's work is finding and developing good ideas, formerly as the Managing Director of the MacArthur Fellowships, and now as the CEO of Lever for Change, an affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation..


What would you do with $800,000 that came with no strings attached? This actually happens to about two dozen MacArthur Fellows every year.

Or better yet, a grant of $100 million, like MacArthur gave away in its 100 and Change program? It sounds exhilarating, but what if getting the money depended on you having a good idea for how to use it?

Dr. Cecilia Conrad's work is finding and developing good ideas, formerly as the Managing Director of the MacArthur Fellowships, and now as the CEO of Lever for Change, an affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In these roles, she's led the effort to: find and support the most creative people in the US, fund and support the organizations making big impacts on the world, and change how big philanthropy is done today.

In this episode we'll learn Dr. Conrad's insights from the secret selectors of MacArthur fellows, what it's like being one of the few Black women in Economics, and what it was like growing up in Dallas during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Most of all, we'll learn about the how to find and develop the overlooked great ideas that waiting to be discovered.

About Our Guest

Cecilia A. Conrad, Ph.D. is Senior Advisor, Collaborative Philanthropy and MacArthur Fellows and CEO of Lever for Change.

Dr. Conrad was formerly a Managing Director at the MacArthur Foundation, where she led the Fellows program and steered the cross-Foundation team that created MacArthur’s 100&Change—an athematic, open call competition that periodically makes a single $100 million grant to help solve a critical problem of our time. She continues to manage the 100&Change competition.

Before joining the Foundation in January 2013, Conrad had a distinguished career as both a professor and an administrator at Pomona College in Claremont, CA. She held the Stedman Sumner Chair in Economics and is currently a Professor of Economics, Emerita. She served as Associate Dean of the College (2004-2007), as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College (2009-2012), and as Acting President (Fall 2012). From 2007-2009, she was interim Vice President and Dean of the Faculty at Scripps College.

Before joining the faculty at Pomona College, Dr. Conrad served on the faculties of Barnard College and Duke University. She was also an economist at the Federal Trade Commission and a visiting scholar at The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Dr. Conrad received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Wellesley College and her Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University.

Useful Links

The MacArthur Fellowship Program

The Lever for Change Foundation

The 100 & Change program

Dr. Conrad explains the MacArthur Fellows program at MIT (YouTube)

Wikipedia's list of all MacArthur Fellows

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[00:00:00] Aaron - Interview: And listening to the MIT talk that you gave, this is from about four years ago. There's a YouTube video

[00:00:05] Dr. Conrad: Oh, about the Fellows program?

[00:00:06] Aaron - Interview: About the fellows program. I was like, that is so cool.

[00:00:10] Dr. Conrad: Well, it sounds like you have had jobs nearly as cool as mine. Not as cool because mine is the coolest in the world. But it sounds like yours comes close.

[00:00:19] Aaron - Narration: Hi I, Aaron Miller. And this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life and career with meaning, integrity, and impact. This is season two, episode six, Finding and Growing Good Ideas. This episode of How To Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The Business Ethics Field Guide.

[00:00:43] How to Help is still a small podcast, and so I hope you'll take a moment to give us a rating with Apple Podcasts or to share an episode on social media with your friends. I can't tell you how much it means to us. It really is the best way for this podcast to grow. If you're right now hearing your first episode of the show, I hope that by the end you want to give us a glowing review. Thank you for listening.

[00:01:08] Imagine waking up on a typical morning. You get yourself some breakfast, you shower, and get ready for your day. If you have kids, you maybe get them off to school. These days you might be working from home, so you start to settle in and get to work. You notice that earlier while you were in the shower, someone called your cell phone from a number that you don't recognize, and they didn't leave a message.

[00:01:38] You don't think anything of it. But now the same number is calling you again. You ignore it, knowing that it's probably a telemarketer or something like that. Your phone also notes that the call is coming from a Chicago area code. You wonder, "Do I know anyone in Chicago?" This time though, they call you back right away.

[00:01:59] With a sigh you answer, half expecting a recorded voice to tell you that you've been selected for a free weekend getaway at a new development of timeshare condos or something like that. Instead, a woman with an irrepressibly cheerful voice introduces herself.

[00:02:18] "My name is Cecilia Conrad, and I'm the Managing Director of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Program. I'm happy to tell you that you've been selected as a MacArthur Fellow."

[00:02:31] She goes on to explain that this fellowship is in recognition of your remarkably creative work and that it comes with an award of $800,000, paid out quarterly over the next five years. There are no strings attached, not even an obligation to report back on how you'd use the money.

[00:02:49] They will, however, include your name, photo, and bio in their annual announcement of MacArthur Fellows, basically telling the world that they consider you one of the most intelligent and creative people working in the United States. You'll be joining a list of famous names like: the musician, Lynn Manuel Miranda; the psychologist, Angela Duckworth; the author, Ibram X Kendi; and Tim Burners Lee, who invented the World Wide Web.

[00:03:21] Aaron - Interview: As the director of the fellowship program, you had the unique responsibility of calling fellows to notify them that they had been awarded this amazing and life changing fellowship. Can you kind of describe the moment of that phone call and do you have any favorite stories about what that was like?

[00:03:37] Dr. Conrad: It's the best part. It's really exciting. It's our whole team now participates in it. So when I came in as a director, tradition was the director would make the call and our team would kind of sit around the table and we would all listen in. After a couple years of doing that, I started inviting other team members to be the ones who made the call.

[00:03:53] As I said before, fellows are almost always surprised. Sometimes we've asked, you know, "Are you someplace where you can have a confidential conversation?" That's usually our second sentence, and the fellow will say, "Oh, I'm on. I'm driving on the highway." "Well, would you please get off the highway and park before we tell you what we're going to have to tell?"

[00:04:12] There's a famous story. My predecessor knew someone had just had a baby and they said, "Are you holding your new baby? Please put the baby down." As a way of making sure that they don't really lose it.

[00:04:21] There's sometimes the reactions fall into stunned silence. So much so that you have to ask, "Are you still there? Are you okay?" There's the ones who are convinced that we are a joke. One musician kept saying, "Is this Joe? Or "Joe, or, this is a terrible joke to play on me." Kept going on and on about that. There's tears. There's a sort of, you know, hysteria and then these moments of sanity. One of our fellows was excited and exclaiming and just really, you know, overjoyed and then all of a sudden in a completely calm voice said, "I think I'm going to buy a new dress."

[00:04:57] So, those kinds of things are just, it's, it's fun.

[00:05:02] Aaron - Narration: The experiences just described happen to around two dozen people every year. The professions include everything from mathematicians to musicians, from poets to physicians. This year's crop includes an ornithologist, a criminologist, and an astrodynamicist. As diverse as they all are in profession and life experience, they all have certain things in common.

[00:05:28] Dr. Conrad: They are generally really humble people. And so many of them just are, are taken aback and they start to question why them. So when we describe for them the process, the fact that this is not coming from us per se, picking them, we're guiding a process and it's really a statement from their colleagues, from their field that they are viewed as someone who's exceptionally creative, that kind of helps them start to grapple with no, they haven't made a mistake. Although, they tell me they still think that even years later that we made a mistake. I don't think we have.

[00:06:05] Aaron - Narration: My guest today is Dr. Cecilia Conrad. She's a Stanford trained economist, the former managing director of the MacArthur Fellowship Program, and current CEO of MacArthur's Lever for Change Foundation. In addition to decades of experience in higher education and philanthropy, she's become an expert and learning how to find and cultivate good ideas.

[00:06:30] Finding those ideas is no easy task. Many refer to these fellowships as genius grants, but the Foundation isn't looking for genius per se. What they're trying to find is exceptional creativity. There are patterns to how this emerges, common experiences that cultivate good ideas.

[00:06:51] Dr. Conrad: Yes, we're looking for exceptional creativity. So I call it the Big C creativity. And what we've observed is that it sometimes emerges from people who've had almost some sort of dislocation experience. They might be people who have switched between one discipline and another, and are in the new discipline and they see something and it recalls something that they'd seen before. And they make this connection that nobody else thought about.

[00:07:19] So it's frequently about drawing connections that are unexpected. It could be that they are someone who has moved from one country to another and brings a different kind of lens or perspective to how you see a problem and what possible solutions there might be to it.

[00:07:35] There are people who are testing boundaries and also are willing to, to possibly fail. And I think that's, that's one of the areas that we really hope that the fellowship gives people some freedom to do. So what we do when we pick a fellow is we say, "All right, here's an unrestricted award and you can do whatever you want and we're not going to ask you to report back."

[00:07:55] Many of them do, even without us asking. But the hope is that some of what they do just may not turn out that well. And that's okay. You should have some freedom to do that.

[00:08:04] So we're looking for people who are striving to make the world better. And better, here, I'll say is including making the world happier, or making the world aesthetically more beautiful, all of those things would, would fall under this category of creativity.

[00:08:20] Aaron - Narration: We're going to learn more about Dr. Conrad later in the episode, but first I want us to explore more deeply how the MacArthur Foundation finds and chooses its fellows. It's here that I'll say that there's no point in aspiring to a MacArthur Fellowship. While the foundation is very open about the process, it maintains strict secrecy about the participants and the potential fellows whom it's considering.

[00:08:46] Dr. Conrad: THe selection committee is secret. Your membership on it is secret. We ask people who nominate to keep it a secret. We ask people who we ask to evaluate to keep it a secret. What's really amazing to me about the program is how thoroughly people keep the secret. There are people who haven't, but most of the time when we call a fellow and tell them that they have been named a MacArthur Fellow, they are really surprised they have not had that information leaked to them.

[00:09:13] So it, it, I think, is a measure of the respect people have for the program. It would also be a little cruel to tell people, you know, they're looking at you because then they'd be waiting every time we'd made an announcement. So I'm hoping people recognize that and that helps them keep the secret.

[00:09:27] Aaron - Narration: Why be so secret about it? What does the foundation accomplish by keeping quiet about the candidates?

[00:09:34] Dr. Conrad: We have all the secretiveness because we really want people to think about taking some risk. We're looking for people who have shown examples of exceptional creativity and have the potential for more in the future. And that means we want them to take risk, and that means that they may not be doing whatever is considered the mainstream or the cannon.

[00:09:54] They may be challenging the cannon in the field there that they're in. We find that people are much more willing to kind of acknowledge that, "Hey, this is a really new, exciting idea," when they're doing it in confidence.

[00:10:06] Aaron - Narration: And how do you find the most creative people in such a wide range of fields?

[00:10:12] Dr. Conrad: It, it's, it's an exciting program to be part of because we, as the, the staff always have to push ourselves because people are sometimes working in spaces we don't know anything about, and we have to understand what constitutes creativity in this particular space.

[00:10:28] Aaron - Narration: So how are people nominated? It turns out the foundation has built one of the most robust and impressive listening systems in the world. It gets constant feedback and direction from a network of secret nominators who live across the country and work in all kinds of industries.

[00:10:47] Dr. Conrad: Yeah, the nomination process is an important part of our process.

[00:10:51] So we each month try to identify a new group of people to invite to nominate. And nominators can nominate as many as they want. Many nominate one. Many tell us they don't have an idea at the moment. So that also happens.

[00:11:05] We try to find people who we think are at the nodes of networks who are in a position to be able to see what's new and exciting that's happening. We try to do that across all domains and fields. We try to do it across geographies. That's sometimes a little more difficult because just because you go to one geography doesn't mean the nominator is going to nominate from that geography. But, but that's something we're really mindful of because in the end, we want to construct a class that really captures the breadth of creativity in the United States.

[00:11:36] So we ask a new group every month as the nomination invitation stays open for a particular period of time. We churn that group in order to constantly make sure that we are finding who else is out there that we've missed. So we have a, a staff member who's just dedicated to trying to find the next nominators to invite.

[00:11:55] It's kind of a fun part of the process because we're out and about. We're attending conferences. We're watching. You know, one of the things that's been nice about the Covid world, that there's more content on the Internet, so we don't even have to go places and can kind of lurk in conferences and workshops to find people who we might want to invite as nominators.

[00:12:11] But that is the critical first step, is getting a diverse and broad group of nominators who give us names. Then after we've gotten those names, we reach out to people adjacent to the nominee. Further away from the nominee in a field that might use some of the nominees work.

[00:12:27] Aaron - Narration: This is obviously an exhaustive process. It's that way because their purpose isn't just a spot high achievers who have already done their great work. The goal instead is to find the next great creative geniuses.

[00:12:42] Dr. Conrad: We try to construct a file that really you can think of as having concentric circles really close in, really far out to get assessments of creativity.

[00:12:51] The thing we have to really push people on is that this is not a Nobel Prize, right? We're not looking for lifetime achievement. And sometimes it's hard because there are people we've missed that I look and go, "Gosh, they should have been a fellow way back when."

[00:13:05] We're looking ideally for people who are just like...if you think about a parabola and you're just reaching the top, or I guess I said parabola, that's my math background. You think about a hill, and we're tell not quite at the top of the hill. That's what we want. We want somebody just at the top of the hill and where maybe the Fellowship can accelerate what's going to happen next.

[00:13:23] Aaron - Narration: In addition to a network of nominators, the foundation also has a highly secretive selection committee, the members of which come from a wide range of backgrounds. It's in this role that Dr. Conrad first started working with the MacArthur Foundation. I have to say, it sounds like one of the most interesting jobs that a person could have.

[00:13:43] Dr. Conrad: Before each meeting, there's a big box that comes about a month before the meeting. And it's a box of materials. No, it's no longer a box. Now we send you a list for you to order your own electronic versions, but we used to send a box and, and that box would have stuff on opera, something on, you know, advanced analytical geometry. So you would be reading all this material, so you would learn from that process.

[00:14:07] But I think if you had the experience of being a critical reader and a critical thinker, when you read those evaluation letters, you can kind of start to understand what are they saying about what is--that's what you're looking for--what is the creativity in this work and how does it fit into the world in general?

[00:14:21] So that is a skill set they help you develop through the the committee work. It's like being in a really amazing seminar.

[00:14:28] Aaron - Interview: I love it. I have to say, after I heard you kind of describe that in another interview, the, I thought to myself, I get that people aspire to be MacArthur fellows, even though there's no way really to aspire to that because of how nomination works, but I just thought, man, the cool job is being on the selection committee.

[00:14:45] Dr. Conrad: You're right.

[00:14:48] Aaron - Interview: If I was given the choice, like if the two were sitting in front of me and it was just like, pick the one you want, Aaron, I would pick the selection committee a hundred times out of a hundred. It sounds so cool.

[00:14:56] Dr. Conrad: It's true, and one of the fun things is when I was on the secret selection committee, I sometimes tell people, I think this is how I ended up in the dean role, because I would be talking to fellow faculty at Pomona--and let's face economists don't have the reputation for being, what's the word I want?

[00:15:11] Well, you know, we're sometimes called the dismal.

[00:15:14] Aaron - Interview: The dismal science.

[00:15:15] Dr. Conrad: Dismal science. So people were always like a little taken aback walking with a colleague. And we were talking about this playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks, and, and actually the, the play I was talking about has just had a revival on Broadway called Topdog/Underdog. I brought this play up with this English professor who I knew was interested in this type of work. She was so stunned. "You've heard of her, like, oh my gosh, who are you? How have you heard of her?" It was great.

[00:15:41] And then another time I was walking to school with a physicist and I said to him, "You know what I'm trying to understand, I'm trying to understand what is this quantum computing business?" And he, he was looking... again, it really can make you just expand your horizons, probably more so than anything or time since when you were in college and you're learning stuff for the first time, and except in this case you're not going to have to pass an exam.

[00:16:01] Aaron - Narration: The kind of fellows who have been chosen over the years has shifted. Over time, the award has become a lens into what seems to matter most. For example, there were no computational virologists chosen in the 1981 inaugural class of fellows, but there was one last year, Dr. Trevor Bradford.

[00:16:21] Dr. Conrad: We always are paying attention to all the different dimensions one can look at in terms of the class. So we might adjust how many nominators we ask from what space based on where the classes have been. But in terms of topic areas, that process, that system itself organically adjusts, because if exciting creativity is happening in a particular space, we're going to get more nominations from that. If people have top of mind, and we can kind of see this in the pool of nominations that come in, that when we had Covid, we saw a lot more nominations about public health than about fighting viral diseases.

[00:16:58] When there's an issue around racial equity, we see more nominations come in in that space, so there's a way in which, relying on, essentially a kind of form of a participatory process. We're relying on people out there in the world to tell us where, or at least in the US to tell us where the creativity is happening.

[00:17:17] We're going to be responsive, even without consciously being responsive. So we don't start out and say, we want to give a nominee in who's strengthening democracy. I'll just use that as an example. We don't start out with that at all, but sometimes that will show up based on what kinds of nominations come in.

[00:17:35] Aaron - Interview: When you look at fellows, when you look at what makes them amazing, when you look at what makes them grant-worthy, when you look at what they've done after they've received their fellowships and what they've been able to accomplish because of the freedom that it provides, you know, what lessons can all of us take from the life experiences of these fellows?

[00:17:52] Dr. Conrad: So I'll go back to something I said earlier about the fact that I've noticed that this creativity tends to happen at the intersteces of things, right? And what I find is that sometimes we are, particularly when we're first starting out, we think that paths have to be linear. And that's not typically where the big creativity is emerging.

[00:18:13] It's emerging from, from non-linear paths. I remember one fellow who is now a neuroscientist, who was, I think an English literature major until close to senior year, and they had to fulfill a distribution requirement, and took this course, which later led to neurosciences as her field. So we should be open to those opportunities and try them.

[00:18:34] It's, it's not always possible. We all have to balance risk that we may have other responsibilities that may limit our ability to take risk. But, but when it's possible, I think it's important to take that, cause that's frequently, even if it doesn't leave you to being a MacArthur fellow, I think that's where people find their passions and their vocations as opposed to their careers.

[00:18:53] So one of the things that I think more of us, and I, I tell myself that, and I sort of did it when I left academia for this, that it's important to open that space for ourselves.

[00:19:04] Aaron - Narration: This advice to try new things and to take some risks is advice that Dr. Conrad has lived by herself. Let's take some time to get to know her better and her background.

[00:19:15] She was raised in Dallas, Texas during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

[00:19:20] Aaron - Interview: You had parents who were really active in advocating for Civil Rights, and I was wondering if you could maybe share some of your memories from that time growing up?

[00:19:27] Dr. Conrad: Yes, certainly. My parents are interesting. My mother grew up in Illinois and so was relatively new to the South when we moved there in 1955.

[00:19:35] My father was from Louisiana and the reason why we came to Dallas was that he was a surgeon, but hospitals in Louisiana wouldn't allow him access to practice his surgery. And the Catholic hospital in Dallas had decided just the year before to open up privileges for Black physicians. So that's what brought them to Dallas.

[00:19:56] But it's also important because one of the things my father explained to me was that neither one of them were really dependent on the private businesses or the white sort of power structure within the city for their income. And my father said that meant that they had some independence that they could exercise that other people in our community couldn't and felt that it was their responsibility to take a leadership role because they had that freedom, that independence.

[00:20:24] So early on, it was just, participating and going to rallies and being parts of conversations and watching my mother sit in at a bus station dressed to the nines in, in the suit--she was a great seamstress--the suit she had made for herself with matching handbag and shoes. And I remember looking at it thinking, I wasn't sure that if they did serve her, she would eat the food, but we never got to that point.

[00:20:47] But just being conscious of that is something that was part of what our family did. It was part of who we were.

[00:20:53] My father ended up running for our school board in Dallas. This would've been when I was in around junior high. He ran. For office. It was, he was the first black elected in a citywide election in Dallas, and that had to take place through a runoff. But that experience itself was eye-opening because of the mobilization work that my mother really led. And also just the kinds of phone calls we would get and the encounters with people who were not pleased about the idea of an African-American being on the school board.

[00:21:26] So that's kind of the family legacy sort of taught me that I, I had to figure out a career where I was going to be contributing to my community, to making the world a better place. And that's kind of how I ended up in economics.

[00:21:39] Aaron - Narration: If you're not familiar with the field, you might not know that the great majority of economists are white men. This meant entering a field that made her background and perspective quite unique.

[00:21:50] Dr. Conrad: I'm going to confess to you that my initial thought was, was I wanted to be an engineer. I was very good in math. It was, I loved math and it was, it was clear I was good in math. And I had this interest in public policy, what we now call social justice issues.

[00:22:04] And, but I, I thought I wanted to be an engineer. But I, I had a family friend who was an engineer for one of the oil companies who sort of dissuaded me. He said, well, and I'm sure he, he meant this in the best way. He said, well, it's hard enough to be a woman in engineering or to be a black in engineering, but to be a black woman in engineering would be just really, really difficult. He just didn't think the time was right and somehow that got a little bit into my psyche. B

[00:22:32] ut around this time--and really now we're talking 1968 and all of the things were happening kept me glued to the news--but one of the things that we probably don't remember is when they were negotiating one of the Brenton Woods's International Monetary Agreement. That was my first encounter with people who were called economists. I thought, what is this? This is something I don't know anything about. I started to understand that it was about issues such as economic growth, but also the distribution of income and wealth.

[00:22:58] But I didn't know any economists, and that probably helped because no one told me that there weren't any women and there weren't very many blacks and that, in fact, it's probably worse than engineering. I didn't really discover that until really after college, because I went to Wellesley where I was lucky enough to to, you know, have this amazing economics department where there were, my fellow students, were all women and many of the faculty were. And no one ever breathed that this wasn't a possible career path for us.

[00:23:25] So it wasn't until graduate school when I founded myself as one of two people, one of two women, and one of two black students in my entering class, that it hit me that it was going to be lonely.

[00:23:35] Aaron - Narration: Dr. Conrad earned her PhD in economics from Stanford University and began teaching at Duke, followed then by a career mostly in small liberal arts colleges. Her research started in a mainstream topic regulation, but her passions and interests eventually led her to break ground in overlooked issues like race and gender.

[00:23:57] Dr. Conrad: It took me a bit of time to give myself permission to focus in on the topics that were really near and dear to my heart, that could go back to the early days of what prompted me to be interested in economics, the economic status of the black community, issues of poverty and, and issues of gender.

[00:24:15] And those, initially, I, I sort of stayed clear of them and so my early work was more in the area of regulatory economics. But even when I was working on those, the model, the underlying modeling I was thinking of in terms of possible applications to understanding how labor markets work and, and how imperfect information can affect what outcomes turn out.

[00:24:36] I, eventually I ended up becoming and editing a special volume of Feminist Economics called "Race, Gender, Color, and Caste" that was about Intersectionality, a concept that was being developed in sociology and some other spaces and sort of transferring. What, how does that help us think about how the economics, how economics works, how labor markets work, how households work, which was an area that we were starting to think a bit about.

[00:25:03] I got interested in affirmative action really as an outgrowth of my interest in regulatory economics because you can think of affirmative action, particularly the affirmative action that was mandated as part of federal contracting as a form of regulation. And understanding what the arguments for were for that regulation and how it worked, kind of something else that attracted my attention, where I saw the parallels.

[00:25:26] Eventually, I got involved in the discussion about affirmative action in higher ed. I was asked to, to do some analysis of what the impact of Prop 209 might be. This was very early before, you know, around the time when it was being debated and after there had been a a special resolution limiting race is a consideration in UC admissions.

[00:25:48] So it was a great opportunity to kind of stand back as an economist and ask really the allocation decision. We always think of economics as studying how scarce resources get allocated among competing uses, right? One of the resource allocations decisions is if I'm going to allocate spaces from a public perspective, where is the greatest benefit yielded and, and that's the kind of approach I try to take to think about that issue, which of course is now going to be back again.

[00:26:14] Aaron - Narration: Dr. Conrad's interest in overlooked research questions isn't the only thing that reflects the spirit of the MacArthur Fellowship grants. She also has a love for teaching and seeing students develop into better versions of themselves, not unlike how the foundation is supporting fellows to help them flourish.

[00:26:32] Dr. Conrad: I discovered that I loved teaching. I've spent some time reflecting on what I love the most.

[00:26:37] First, I have to acknowledge that I like talking. I like being in front of people. I'm a bit of a performer, but I don't really have any acting talent or standup comedy talent. But you can be just sort of humorous and sort of good at acting and really succeed in a classroom if you have the energy and the passion for it. So that, that was one thing I realized.

[00:26:56] Aaron - Interview: Sort of humorous is I think how my students would describe me.

[00:27:00] Dr. Conrad: Sometimes, you know, painfully humorous, perhaps. So I love that. I loved the sense, I loved watching people expand their thinking.

[00:27:10] One of the things I always love to do is in my intro class, the beginning, I take a sort of little survey about people's attitudes about things, and certainly one of the ones that stands in mind was around the time that NAFTA was being debated. And many of the students who would consider themselves sort of progressive were very much, you know, anti-free trade. But it's a far more complex thing than a simple yes or no on free trade, particularly if you think about it from the perspectives of all the, you know, different people, the farmer, the customer, the consumer, the everybody that's involved.

[00:27:40] And so by the end of the semester, I really felt excited if I found that students had much more complex ideas about free trade then they started the semester. And that kind of watching that evolution of thought just really felt powerful to me.

[00:27:54] I also just love, it turns out, I get aof joy vicariously from other people's success. So that was the other thing that I really enjoy about the energy you get from having people who have completely new perspectives, who are seeing the world differently from you, who ask different questions, who get upset about things that you've forgotten to get upset about because you've just kind of suppressed them for so long. That's just amazing kind of experience. So I loved it. I loved it very much.

[00:28:22] Aaron - Narration: Dr. Conrad gained a great deal of operational expertise by serving in academic administrative roles. These are often thankless positions in universities, but necessary ones to make an institution run smoothly.

[00:28:37] Dr. Conrad: I moved into academic administration first because it was an opportunity to increase my pay while my son was going to college. That's what started it. We had a rotating associate dean kind of role where you could rotate in and you'd do it for a few years and then you would rotate out.

[00:28:53] But once I got in there though, I realized that this was a different level of doing some of the things I really enjoyed about teaching. Partly I also, I was in charge of the student faculty undergraduate research program, so there was that opportunity there to support students and to see them thrive.

[00:29:09] But also to support young, particularly the younger faculty, the opportunity to kind of help younger faculty find their way, get their research program started, work on their teaching, help to create the infrastructure to support them. That turned out to be really gratifying.

[00:29:24] So I started to think, Hmm, maybe this administration is not the dark side after all. And that's what led me into becoming eventually the dean at Scripps as an interim. And then coming back to pomona.

[00:29:35] Aaron - Narration: None of this work directly predicts a career move to leading the MacArthur Fellows program. How did she end up making that leap into philanthropy? After being invited to serve on the Secret Selection Committee for a few years, the time came to make a bigger jump.

[00:29:52] Dr. Conrad: I came to this moment where I realized that I loved my work in academia. I loved Pomona. I was Chief Academic Officer. That's a very stressful job if you want to do it well, and if you want to do it in a way that relies on consensus building and engaging people and not become sort of some kind of top down manager, which is not somebody I am.

[00:30:13] So I started thinking, I'm not going to want to do this forever. What should I think about next? And I could have gone back to the faculty, because I was a tenured member of the faculty. I thought, I'm not so sure that's good for the institution to have me sitting around like, you know, back there, even if I was quiet, when there's a new dean in place. So I wasn't so sure that was a good idea.

[00:30:36] I interviewed for some college presidencies and realized that that was taking me a little bit too far away from what I really loved. I loved the problem solving. I loved the sort of one-on-one work with faculty and with students, and so I sort of moved away from that idea as well. I started to think about foundations and partly because I knew someone who was a, had moved from being a chief academic officer to joining a foundation, and had talked with them the excitement that they enjoyed about it. So, so that was great.

[00:31:03] And I thought, I've got some time, you know, down the road I'll do this. And I, I got a phone call about this opportunity at MacArthur to run the MacArthur Fellows Program. Iconic program. It was sort of a dream job because I had, and I'm allowed to say this now, I had been a member of the secret selection committee past, so I knew about the job.

[00:31:26] The person who called me, had called me almost a year before about this position, and at that time I wasn't really even remotely thinking about leaving academia. She had asked for suggestions and I'd given her suggestions. So it's a year later, she calls again and I say, "Oh. Yeah. You know, Let me give you some more names. I, I'm, I'm a little surprised it's such a hard position to fill. It's kind of a shame because it would be a dream job for me, but I'm certain I'm not the kind of person you're looking for."

[00:31:55] And her response was, "Well, I don't know, maybe you are the kind of person that we're looking for, just as an aside."

[00:32:01] I have a history of not catching on when people are asking me if I'm interested in a job. The same thing happened when I left Barnard and went to Pomona. I missed that that's what they were asking for at least three calls before they had to just come out and say it. So I was missing this, this message that maybe I should apply.

[00:32:18] And I recognized that in some ways this particular opportunity, it captured everything I loved about what I was doing. And then more, plus, you weren't having to tell people "No," really, because you only call people and tell them "Yes." You don't, they don't know if you were looking at them and, and, and they weren't selected. So I thought, ah, you know, this job doesn't come open that often. I'm going to have to to do that. So I ended up flying out for an interview.

[00:32:41] It was an interview I did not think had gone well. And I was on the train here going out on the blue line out to O'Hare and I got a phone call from the search consultant saying, "Oh, they love you." So it was this kind of amazing moment where I really had to make a decision there that I had thought was hypothetical and off into the future, but it felt as if this was the moment to make a change.

[00:33:04] I think I had been at that, at largely liberal arts colleges I spent--my first job was at Duke, but after that, all small liberal arts colleges--for 30 years. I had seen just about every job, maybe even done almost every job there except do admissions.

[00:33:22] I felt very comfortable and highly knowledgeable, and maybe too knowledgeable. Maybe I was getting to a place where I thought I knew everything, and that's a dangerous place I think, for anyone to be if you want to kinda keep your brain operating and alive. So I decided to make that leap and we moved out to Chicago in the middle of a January.

[00:33:42] Aaron - Interview: Oh, that's rough timing.

[00:33:44] Dr. Conrad: From southern California. Just, just to make that clear. We packed up our car and it was somewhere in between when we got out and looked at each other, my husband and I, and said, we're moving to winter.

[00:33:57] Aaron - Narration: Let's take a break here for a word from our sponsor.

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[00:34:56] Dr. Conrad has recently moved on to a new endeavor running the Lever for Change Foundation as its CEO. This is a new MacArthur initiative to innovate how foundations find and select grant recipients that are trying to solve the world's thorniest problems. This all began with a creative funding experiment called 100 and Change, where MacArthur awarded a hundred million dollars to a cause chosen by the applicants rather than by the foundation itself.

[00:35:26] Dr. Conrad: It's sort of interesting because I, I was still relatively new in the field of philanthropy and that naivete I think ended up with me working on and helping to create this new project. Because I didn't really, and this is where I go back to sometimes creativity comes because you are sort of bringing something from someplace else and don't realize the rules in your field or discipline might say, oh no, you can't do that.

[00:35:48] Our president at the time, Julia Stasch, wanted to, as an acknowledgement of the foundation's humility, find an area where we would invest a substantial amount of resources equivalent to what we might do in a big bet of one of our programs to solve a problem, to address a problem that was not something we had chosen.

[00:36:06] We were making decisions about where we were going to focus our attention. She wanted to open this up to voices outside the foundation. So she posed that as the problem. And we had a small group internally that created this 100 and Change, which was a large scale competition or challenge, open call. It was open to anyone in the world, any team in the world. They had to be non-profits or for, it had to be an organization. And basically we said, "Tell us what you would do at a hundred million."

[00:36:32] We didn't constrain the problem or the type of solution. We just invited submissions and they, they were ultimately going to be evaluated by an external panel. So we were taking that participatory approach from fellows and bringing that over. The big distinction is that this process was entirely transparent as compared to fellows. Partly because we felt that transparency would really help communicate openness, that this wasn't some rigged system, that everyone would be able to see what the rules were, see who the panelists were, who would evaluate.

[00:37:02] So that was the idea behind it. We did 100 and Change. We've done it twice now.

[00:37:08] Aaron - Narration: The first 100 and change award went to the Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee, in a joint effort to help the early childhood development of refugee children in the wake of the Syrian crisis. The result is an Arabic version of Sesame Street with customized characters and content, fit to the lives and children who watch it. To date, over 5 million children in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq have watched the show. An impact study in Jordan revealed that 92% of caregivers felt that their children learned and used the emotional regulation tools taught by the show to help them manage toxic stress.

[00:37:50] Dr. Conrad: After the first 100 and Change, we started getting phone calls, and the phone calls were coming from other donor, who were saying, essentially, this whole idea of doing a big open call is something we don't feel like we can do humanely because we want to be able to respond to people who submit--and with our 100 and Change, everyone got some kind of feedback from us on their application-- we want to do that. It just seems really difficult, but we really want to know what's out there that we are not seeing will you share?

[00:38:20] So we were willing to share our data and we did that and we started sharing our data. And from sharing the data, we started seeing more money flowing to projects that had not been the grant recipient for MacArthur projects that were in our top 200 or more recently, our top 100.

[00:38:34] We started seeing funding flowing to them. So we saw this opportunity and that's how we ended up creating Lever for Change, is that ,what if we worked with funders who were particularly--and most of them are interested in specific topics, they're not as open as a hundred and change. So you work with a funder who say is interested in durable futures for refugees. Launch and run one of these open calls and we identify a group of top projects, again, advised by external panels of experts, people in the field, and then the donor picks what they want to fund, and then we get those projects in front of other donors. And what if we do that over and over again? What could happen?

[00:39:14] And so that's what Lever for Change became. And I'll just take a moment to brag because it's still kind of new. So we're excited. You know, two weeks ago we announced that we had helped to drive $1 billion through 11 challenges. And what for me is exciting is that over half of that funding is coming from this work we're doing what I call the secondary market. The work we're doing with the projects, getting them in front of other donors. We've vetted these projects, the teams have put together amazing ideas. They're ready. So donors who are looking to make some big grants, we've got opportunities. And so that's just really, you can see that's invigorating for me. I love it.

[00:39:50] Aaron - Interview: And what I love about this approach is this is much more outward focused and engaging. "What are the needs? And let's figure this out together," rather than saying, "We're going to sit quietly in these offices and then if you hear back from us." Hopefully it's with good news.

[00:40:04] Dr. Conrad: Yeah, it's important to open the door because there's so many organizations out there, so many people out there who aren't part of the insider network and may not get seen otherwise or heard. It's one of the eye opening things for me when I left academia and moved into philanthropy was to realize how many, how many times I probably wasted time on a grant application.

[00:40:24] Aaron - Interview: Yeah.

[00:40:25] Dr. Conrad: Not recognizing that it really wasn't going to be competitive because I didn't know the program officer didn't know that I was supposed to know the program officer.

[00:40:35] Aaron - Narration: Lever for Change is upending some decades old limiting patterns that are found in philanthropy today. It's far more open and collaborative than what you find in most foundations. It's also setting much higher standards for measuring the impact of the work that it funds. Most philanthropy still today doesn't actually go towards programs that have demonstrated impact for good. Lever for Change and MacArthur require that impact measurement be present in all of their work.

[00:41:06] Dr. Conrad: So we look at several different metrics of impact, first for ourselves and then also for the organizations. In every one of our challenges, we ask the organizations to define for us what it is they're going to define as impact and how they're going to track and measure it. And every one of the challenges the organizations have budgeted for having a third-party kind of evaluator work with them on doing that.

[00:41:28] We embrace and, and you know, some people might yank my economics credentials for doing this, but we embrace a variety of, of forms of data. But we are really looking for a kind of feedback loop, because you're trying to understand whether you're actually having the impact that you want to have and, and, and what are some of the things that are you doing that are generating that impact, particularly when you're trying to scale impact?

[00:41:51] Our impulse, and I used to do this when I was a a professor or when I was in an academic administrator, your impulse is to throw everything you can at the problem because the problem is so important and critical and you want to solve. But you also have to understand that in the end, scaling is frequently going to be under resource constraints. So you need to figure out what it is that you did that actually made the difference.

[00:42:13] And so I think when we frame thinking about that kind of activity in those ways, it helps organizations who want to do understand the importance of also kind of assessing as they're doing. So that's one of the things we try to do.

[00:42:27] I'll say we also though, have comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. And I think that's the other part, because not all impact is going to necessarily show up right away. You may have to wait a long time to see the long term consequences of this early childhood intervention, right, in the Syrian refugee region.

[00:42:44] So you have to ask yourself, are you willing to rely on maybe some short term indicators? Are you willing to, in some sense, take a little bit of a leap of faith in order to potentially address something that is a critically important issue and problem. So there's a bit of also embracing the fact that we may not always be able to, to put a number or a specific thing on impact for quite some time.

[00:43:06] Aaron - Interview: So what are some of the lessons that you've been learning, that you think other large funders should know, with Lever For Change? You're trying new things and you're learning new lessons. What are some of the takeaways that you wish all big funders were keeping in mind?

[00:43:18] Dr. Conrad: So I think the first, it's a labor intensive process to have an open, open call. But I think creating some space periodically where you're doing that, where you're really conscious of the need to find out what you don't know, what you can't see would be number one.

[00:43:33] Number two is that we are modeling, and I think there's generally a move in the field transfer of agency from the funder to the organizations. In our challenges, we pose kind of a big question. What are you going to do to reduce racial inequity? We don't say, "Here we're looking for an organization that is doing workforce training for, for technology skills in order to reduce racial equity."

[00:44:01] We're leaving the organizations free to tell us how they would approach this particular issue or our problem. So we are transferring agency and, and organizations tell us this is like liberating. So I'd say transferring agency to the organizations in the field who are doing the work would be another big piece to this.

[00:44:21] information sharing, and this is becoming more of a thing in philanthropy, but I think there was a way in which each foundation kind guarded the information about, you know, what organizations had they considered for funding. And now there is a, a move of foundations collaborating with each other, sharing information. Because if you've got a great project and you just didn't have enough budget for that project, why not see if we can't get other funders involved, why not bring other people to the table?

[00:44:48] Aaron - Interview: In fact, the Bold Solutions Network is a good example of this.

[00:44:51] Dr. Conrad: That's our goal. So every time we run a challenge, we take the best ideas. We have them available in a publicly searchable database, the Bold Solutions Network. They're pre-vetted, they're ready to go. We ask them, what would you do with less amounts of money? So a funder can look and see. But even beyond that, we have a database of all the submissions from all of our challenges, which is well over 5,000 projects now.

[00:45:12] And if a funder comes to us and says, "I want to fund something big in Wichita Falls, Texas," we can go through our database and tell them, "Here are the things we've gotten from Wichita Falls, Texas." And we're willing to do that. We're really trying to make sure that these projects get seen and potentially get funded.

[00:45:30] Aaron - Narration: As you know, if you've heard my other episodes, I like to have my guests reflect on their lives, their work, and the lessons that they've learned. I asked Dr. Conrad to share about the people who have shaped her path, and how we can all get better at finding and developing new ideas.

[00:45:47] Aaron - Interview: Who are the other people that have shaped your passions and interests and career path? And we talked about your parents before, but you know, are there any other people that come to mind that sort of played a key role in where you've come to?

[00:45:58] Dr. Conrad: Oh, I have just been extraordinarily lucky. So one is my godmother. My godmother was a woman named Mabel Curtis in St. Louis. I was born in, in St. Louis, Missouri. Mabel Curtis had this extraordinary life. She spent some time working with the League of Nations, so she was somebody who just had this global perspective. She was also a lover of the arts. She started a community art center there. So she gave me this kind of view of a world and model of how you can exist in the world. That was important to me.

[00:46:30] My aunt, my father's sister was a math teacher, so you know, women in math was, you know, in our family genes. And, and she went over on a trip in the Holy Land, as she wrote op-eds in the newspaper constantly. These are all people who showed a kind of model for me of being an active participant in society, of being an active citizen.

[00:46:51] And there were many, I mean, I could, I can name many, many others in that kind of universe of the family. I have a great uncle, actually, I have several uncles who were Tuskegee airmen. But one of my great uncles who just recently passed away was Charles McGee, who was named a brigadier general just a few years ago and passed away at 102 last year. So that was somebody else who I just saw. Here's a path, here's someone who had this amazing set of ethics and patriotism and work hard kind of model.

[00:47:21] So I was surrounded by a lot of people like that. I was an only child and so I got dragged places a lot. I would get to be places maybe I, I maybe people would think wasn't appropriate, but I got to listen in on a lot of conversations and it was great.

[00:47:33] Aaron - Narration: As a kind of like a, a closing thought, how do we get better at learning how to spot good ideas?

[00:47:39] Dr. Conrad: Ah, wow. That's a great question. My thought is, you were asking it was, well then I should be rich, shouldn't I? I mean, I should, you should have been doing this in investing. I have been investing, but not in things that are going to yield a market return.

[00:47:55] So the part of it is a kind of listening. I try to listen hard. I think this is a skill I developed in the classroom because sometimes you'll ask a question and a student will answer it. And if it's not exactly what you were expecting, you might have a tendency to just say, okay, this student doesn't know what they're talking about. They're wrong. But I rarely find that an answer is completely wrong, that usually the student has spotted something and is thinking about the problem in a way that's different from the way you originally framed it.

[00:48:27] But maybe sometimes you want people who don't think like economist to look at an economics problem because they'll see some piece of it that you wouldn't have spotted and that could lead to new ideas.

[00:48:37] So I think it, it's the listening and also, expecting that the perspective that someone is bringing has value to it, and so that you're understanding what the kernel of the new idea is. What is the way that they're thinking about something that's different? I think that is a critical piece for me. I've worked with people where sometimes they'll raise an issue and everybody in the room is like, what is that person talking about? And I will be doing that too. But later on, about an hour later, I go "Ah. I see what they were trying to say."

[00:49:07] And just kind of being open to that fact that there's good ideas that can emerge from everywhere.

[00:49:13] Aaron - Narration: It almost sounds silly to say it because it's so simple, but the key to finding and developing good ideas is to be an excellent listener. If you reflect on what we've learned about Dr. Conrad and the MacArthur Foundation, you'll see that they've turned listening closely into a science. The intensive process for choosing MacArthur Fellows demonstrates this, as do the innovative approaches to the 100 and Change program and the Lever for Change Foundation.

[00:49:43] But finding good ideas also means listening to the people who might otherwise be ignored. We've built entire systems around making sure that some people are not heard, so that others can get all the attention. But when you're in the business of finding and developing good ideas like Dr. Conrad and MacArthur are, you can't just listen to the voices that everyone else is hearing. Like Dr. Suess' Horton the elephant, you have to have ears for the quiet, amazing voices who can change the way you see the world.

[00:50:18] Abundant thanks to Dr. Cecillia Conrad. I hope you got a sense of what an intelligent, warm, and interesting person she is. She has the energy and clarity of someone who's doing the job she was meant to do. I'm grateful that she took the time to share her life and her insights with us. You can learn more about her work using the links in her show notes, and by visiting and

[00:50:43] In the next episode, we'll be listening to the delightful and fascinating Ashish Gadnis. He's a serial entrepreneur who came from poverty in India to someone who has built and sold multiple successful ventures. He's currently the CEO and co-founder of BanQu, a company dedicated to adding transparency to the products you buy every day by using blockchain technology in our supply chains. Imagine being able to know who grew the fruit that you're eating or what's actually happening to the bottle you put in the recycling bin. These are the kinds of problems BanQu is tackling, and it will be a fascinating episode.

[00:51:22] If you enjoy How to Help, please take a moment to give us a positive review in your podcast app. It helps us immensely in reaching more listeners. And if you have a favorite episode, will you share it on social media? It means a lot to us.

[00:51:36] If you want to stay up to date with the podcast and my other work, subscribe to the How to Help email newsletter, where I share ideas for how to have more meaning in your life and in your work. You can subscribe or read the archives

[00:51:52] This episode was written and recorded by me. Our production team for this season has included Ty Bingham yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who also mixes our audio. Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club. If you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and discount code in our show notes.

[00:52:11] Finally, as always, thank you so much for listening. I'm Aaron Miller, and this has been How to Help.


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Written by

Aaron Miller

Aaron Miller

Provo, UT