Interview: Leetha Filderman

Leetha Filderman is the President/COO of PopTech, a global community of innovators working to expand the edge of change through a fellows program, labs, and conferences. She asks herself great questions, makes time to play in her great garden, and lives in the Great State of Maine.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?

The role that I most importantly play is that of a connector and, for some, a mentor. That is where I can make the most impact. When I look at my personal commitments and the mission of PopTech, there’s a lot of consistency between my worldview and what the organization does.

PopTech’s mission is to accelerate the impact of world-changing people, projects, and ideas. We identify emerging leaders and provide forums for them to share their work. Through the PopTech Fellows program, we have made a deep commitment to train emerging innovators, entrepreneurs, and scientists, enabling them to maximize the effectiveness of their work.

Our Holy Grail is the orchestration of collaboration between the individuals and organizations that make-up the PopTech community – we truly believe we can accomplish more together than as individuals.

What does it take to build community?

If you want to build a community that is capable of impact and reciprocity - where you have a lot going back and forth – you have to establish trusting relationships with members. Another key ingredient to community-building is a commitment to shared values and aspirations. These are the basic foundational elements to a thriving community.

Why do you think we find change so hard?

It’s scary. When you go through periods of change, even ones you provoke, [where] you want to make a change, there’s always a certain level of apprehension. The notion of things being different and therefore not comfortable or predictable is anxiety-provoking.

It’s important to remember that humans are pretty resilient and adaptable. We go through a multitude of changes even in the span of a single day, and most of those we adjust to quickly and we probably aren’t even completely aware that we’re making adjustments and adaptions.

I see large-scale change as the vehicle by which we grow. When viewed in that light, change becomes less anxiety-provoking. I read somewhere that if all you do is reread the same book – i.e. the book of your life – you’re never going to move beyond a certain point. You have to really push yourself to embrace change.

How can we embrace change?

I embrace change by thinking, “I want to learn something new. I want to try something new. I want to reach out to somebody and find out what they’re doing.” What often inspires our own individual change is looking at the work of others.

What excites you?

When things work. It’s that moment when you’re working on something that’s very difficult or challenging and it suddenly all clicks. At PopTech, we spend a huge amount of time exploring issues and challenges with groups of partners. You always have that moment where it clicks for everyone – it all falls into place. That is magical.

What are some of the best questions we can ask ourselves?

The biggest question I generally ask myself is: How can I bring more value? What does it take to be a thoughtful contributor?

Another one is: Why is it important to be a constant learner and a constant experiencer? How do I push myself to [be] that? Another one would be: Why is curiosity an invaluable character trait?

The people I’ve most deeply admired throughout my life have been people who were constantly curious. They have asked more questions than they have ever answered. They wanted to know what made things tick. They explored. They were constantly questioning the world around them.

When I think about some of my favorite books, [they] revolve around this central character that’s always pushing the limits and asking all the hard questions – they are explorers of the world.

What do you think about when you’re stuck in traffic?

I live in Maine, so there aren’t a lot of traffic jams. The equivalent of traffic jams is the six-hour drive to anywhere. So, for me, it’s not so much what I muse about when I’m stuck in traffic, it’s more like where do my thoughts go when I’m driving.

You slip into a whole other mental state when you’re driving, particularly when you’re by yourself. That is usually when I realize I have spent the last 20 miles trying to figure out how I’m going to solve some strategic problem.

I listen to music when I’m driving, and I’ll find myself listening to the lyrics of a song, which I often won’t hear if I’m listening to music at a party. Sometimes, there’s just a certain string of lyrics, and [I’ll] say, “Huh. That’s really interesting,” and the concept behind those lyrics might influence something I do later.

How do you manage resistance, be it internal or external?

I have a strong belief that you can generally get through resistance and hurdles through diplomacy, strong interpersonal relationships that you can leverage, and a solid dose of compromise. I find the opposite behavior – of being resistant or adversarial – seems to up the ante and curtails the ability to naturally cycle through a constructive process.

What’s your favorite way to play?

I absolutely love my garden, which in Maine is a short-term thing. The secondary piece of that is I absolutely love to cook. So, the garden and the cooking are symbiotic.

I’m not what I would call a creative person in the visual arts sense. I don’t know how to paint and I can play “Chopsticks” on the piano and that’s the extent of my musical skills. For me, the gardening and cooking become my way of finding a path to explore through artistic expression.

You get to share it with other people, too. It’s one of the things I love about living in Maine. People still have land and they whittle out time in the summer – because the summer’s so short – to grow things and make things and share the fruits of your labors with others. You get a double benefit – an ability to be creative and an opportunity to be generous. Bonus!

When was the last time you saw lightning?

If you want to know the best lightning I ever saw, it was at the Johannesburg airport in February of 1998. I was standing in the airport terminal with all those big windows, which provided a front-row seat to this massive storm with bolts of lightning coming down from all over the sky. The clouds were so dark, it went from daylight to being nighttime.

It was probably the only time I didn’t complain about missing a flight, for two reasons. Number one: the awesome beauty of seeing the lightning. And number two: I didn’t want to be in an airplane during that storm.

What’s the best kept secret of being an adult?

I think there are two things. You end up having more confidence, which is great. And you come to a realization one day that you might have a bit of wisdom to share with others.

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