• David Grammig

What Young Innovators Have In Common With Astronauts - An Interview With Nancy Conrad

A former teacher, Nancy has become a recognized leader in transformative education and named one of the top 100 leaders in STEM education, serving as a featured speaker at national and international conferences. Her presentations include TED,  MIT, and, the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She also presented at the Global Diversity Leadership Conference at Harvard University and the National Modeling and Simulation Coalition conference in Washington, D.C. Nancy has also testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology detailing how the Conrad Foundation exemplifies the use of partnership to improve education. She is the wife of late astronaut Pete Conrad, who during the Apollo 12 mission became the third man to walk on the Moon.

Nancy, what a tremendous pleasure speaking to an inspiring woman like you. Enlighten us, what’s your vision for the Conrad Challenge?

The Conrad Challenge is inspired by the rich legacy of my late husband Pete Conrad, the Commander of Apollo 12, the third man to walk on the moon, and his passion for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Creating the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs is the Conrad Foundation’s contribution to the future.

Students between the ages of 13-18 are invited to combine education, innovation and entrepreneurship to solve challenges with global impact in the following categories, including, but not limited to: aerospace, energy, cyber security, health, smoke free world and education technology. Guided by teachers and industry experts, the competition becomes a master class in collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication. Participants in the Conrad Challenge develop the skills needed to thrive in the 21st century workforce.

What can entrepreneurs and innovators, young or old, learn from astronauts?

The 50th anniversary of the lunar landing invites us all to recall how disruptive, daring, and bold it was for humans to land on the surface of the Moon.

The journey required vision, the courage to take a risk, the leadership, and the critical thinking skills to accomplish this audacious goal. These qualities are the bedrock of ingenuity... they are at the core of innovation, entrepreneurship and they are the seeds of economic growth...

What do young innovators do differently compared to professionals with years or even decades of experience?

The Internet has invited all of us to open our minds to seeing the world as the astronauts did: a fragile blue planet, suspended in a black velvet sky... a world without borders, a world without boundaries. Today’s young innovators have known no other worldview. Their minds are open not only in terms of gender, but also race and culture. And while the revolutionary climate we are experiencing right now is mind boggling: the internet of things, AI, VR, drones, gene editing, electronic medicine, autonomous vehicles, next generation rockets, a trip to the moon, a trip to Mars, new sources of clean energy...it is these young innovators with their inclusive world view who are the drivers of change. There's no denying it. We're in an era of radical change that may well transform the way our world works.

How do you finance this amazing undertaking?

I funded the first two years of the Foundation with the belief that if I didn’t have skin in the game, I shouldn't be in the game. It outgrew me within 2 years and my children were about to put me up for adoption... I was spending their money. To sustain the efforts of the Foundation I utilized what I thought was the best business plan I had ever seen. It is how we got to the moon: leadership, funding, government, industry, academia and collaboration. Four hundred thousand men and women collaborated to accomplish the moonshot. I am the leadership, I was the funding, I reached out to industry, government and academia and we collaborate with organizations that have a wide population of students. We bring them the program, and in turn, they bring us the students. Over the years, we have worked with multiple companies and with two foundations.

Who would be the natural partner for the Conrad Challenge?

- Any family that wants to perpetuate the entrepreneurial spirit of the founder

- Any company that wants to create and sustain an innovative workforce

- Any country that wants to create a solutions based innovative and entrepreneurial mindset

- Any individual who wants to see and honor the interconnectivity of humanity

What makes privately owned family businesses more attractive than big stock-listed MNC’s?

Not unlike our efforts at the Conrad Foundation, family businesses have the opportunity to leave a living legacy and to sustain and build on the vision of the founder. To me, this can be the most meaningful part of family business.

Family business can be more entrepreneurial, move faster, and on occasion, more cost effectively. Because it is privately held, the family business has the opportunity to participate in long term, strategic thinking rather than following the short- term demands of the stock market.

In publically held companies, typically there is a constant worry about the price of the stock and the concern about quarterly reports.

Except for the philanthropic aspect - what can a family expect to gain by supporting the Conrad Challenge?

Fundamentally we have been taught there are two ways of thinking: I inside of the box and outside of the box. The Conrad Challenge has a unique perspective. We invite students not only to learn to think outside of thebox...we ask them to solve the world’s most difficult challenges as though there simply is no box. To create their solutions, our students and their teachers are offered access to the No Box Tool Box®, a collaboration framework that is a guide for understanding and accomplishing innovative and entrepreneurial solutions. We provide the spark for our students and we can provide a spark for not only business but also the next gen of family business.

What if everyone could have this opportunity? What if everyone could contribute to innovation and growth in their communities, their companies and their families?

What if we could replicate the system that took us to the moon to create a whole generation of young innovators?

What if just like Apollo, we could aggregate resources to reach a common vision, bringing together leadership, funding, government, industry and collaboration to create the new Innovation Generation?

This just might be the launch pad for the Apollo effect for education, and it just may lead us to a bumper crop of breakthrough innovations and economic growth worldwide.

Thank you so much for speaking to us and for sharing your story. All the best for you and the Conrad Challenge. Keep up the good work!

Nancy Conrad Chairman Conrad Foundation


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