Life transformation: Profiles in courage
July 12, 2016
Inforum 2016 featured more than 1,000 events, work sessions, learning academies, and confabs, all related to the digital work life. All except one, that is. And this special session will no doubt be regarded as the most poignant by the hundreds of attendees that packed a large hall to listen.
Sponsored by the Women’s Infor Network (WIN), the session featured four women and their remarkable, inspirational, and at times edgy stories. Infor COO Pam Murphy hosted the session titled “Tipping Points: Diverse perspectives on change.”
Neri Oxman – clothing designer, architect, MIT professor
She throws off the energy of a 10-year-old and the wisdom of a septuagenarian sage. Her designs are featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, and elsewhere. But the work she is heading at MIT’s vaunted Media Lab target the remaking of entire industries. She seems incapable of thinking within the box.
The essence of her pioneering work comes down to “inspired, informed, engineered, and designed by nature.” So Oxman looks at a skyscraper and asks why all the steel holding it up is of the same dimension and strength, when different parts of the building are subject to different stresses.
“Think of your bones,” she implores. Some are big, others small, some tapered. Nature figured out what the bones need to be based on function. There’s no waste. Skyscrapers are loaded with excess, unneeded, expensive steel.
“Think of your skin,” she implores. It is thin on your face, thicker on your back — differences dictated by whether the skin functions as a filter or a barrier.
Thinking such as this is driving Oxman and her Media Lab team to explore uncharted ground in 3D printing. The idea is to create differentiated shapes that are beyond the capabilities of mass-production steel mills.
But the 3D materials are inherently toxic to the environment. So Oxman is driving her team to explore alternatives, such as combining the world’s two most common substances (after water) to create bio-based materials. The substances are various forms of cellulose and chitin, derived from items such as shellfish carcasses.
“Imagine someday finishing your coffee and just throwing it on the ground, knowing when it rains, it will biodegrade very rapidly and nourish the soil.”
Her team even figured out a way to harvest silk without killing the silkworms that produce it. Essentially, they created an environment where the worms spin silk in a flat blanket rather than in a cocoon. You remove the worms, harvest the silk, rinse and repeat.
“I dream of a new age where nature and nurture meet.”
Lara Logan — journalist and war correspondent
In 2011, while covering the Arab Spring uprising in Cairo, Logan was surrounded by a hostile crowd, taunted, and then raped. “For 42 minutes,” by her account. The resulting hospitalizations from that trauma lasted years. Yet she continues as a journalist, despite the deaths (mostly murders) of more than 100 fellow journalists worldwide last year.
“It didn’t take courage on my part to continue,” she said. “The more you try to stop us, the more we want to do our jobs. We have to fight for that First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.”
Logan is driven by the enormous, often ghastly wrongs she continues to witness. She is baffled by the relative “lack of conversation about the human context of these things,” disdaining the political context in which conversations often take place about atrocities throughout the world.
In the Middle East, where Logan really earned her chops, she talked about a recent project in which she interviewed several girls and women who had fallen victim to ISIS terror. They included an 8-year-old who had been raped daily for 18 months, and a young mother who witnessed the murder of her two infants only to be given to the murderer as a prize and then raped herself. “Go on, ask them if they think enough is being done,” she pleads. “The answer is obvious.”
Nontombi Naomi Tutu — human rights worker
Tutu grew up under apartheid in South Africa. She said the messages to her and all black South Africans went like this: You are nothing. You descended from people who accomplished nothing. You are worthless. You actually are worth less than Indian children, mixed-race children. You are the bottom of the barrel.
But her community — her parents, relatives, clergy, and teachers — had a different message. Despite what you are told and what you have witnessed, apartheid is a lie. You are an amazing gift. And by the way, education is the way forward.
To emphasize that, the community elders would parade around Tutu’s report cards for everyone to see — good, bad or ugly. “I would think at times, why bother with math? I’m only going to do domestic work. But they felt otherwise.”
Today Tutu is one of the world’s most sought-after speakers on race, gender, and human rights. She said she remains guided by several proverbs taught to her as a girl, such as: In the time of flood, the wise build bridges; the foolish build walls. “I don’t mean that as a political statement,” she said. “Rather in crisis, the wise reach out and find ways to build alliances.”
Karina Hollekim — daredevil skier and BASE jumper
Hollekim calls herself an ordinary girl who did extraordinary things. Like BASE jumping off cliffs, skiing down seemingly unskiable virgin slopes, and jumping from airplanes. Only once her chute didn’t open properly. She hit the ground, and didn’t wake up for two days, her body from her hips down crushed with 25 fractures. She lost over a gallon of blood.
What followed was an 18-month hospitalization, 20 surgeries, removal of 5 inches of her femur bone. All 92 pounds of tall, formerly muscular woman was “chained to a wheelchair, every dream gone. I was told I’d never walk again.”
Quitting would have been easy to rationalize. But by taking pride in each minor accomplishment — finishing her breakfast, getting out of bed early, going to bed instead of wasting time Internet surfing — Hollekim started to exorcise all the negative energy that had possessed her since the accident.
Within six months, she learned to put on her own socks again. In two years, she took her first new halting steps. With six years, the present day mother of a 2-year-old was skiing again.
“Remember, your only real failure if is you never try.”