This is the sixth of a series of conversations originally published on the Time website, authored by myself and Nicha Ratana, with transformational leaders who will be storytellers at the BIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI, on Sept. 17-18
How many people end business meetings with an “I love you” and a hug? Venture capitalist and former AT&T Labs scientist Deb Mills-Scofield does.
To Mills-Scofield, to do business is to negotiate diverse personalities to get things done — and she has the gift for it. “The broader, deeper, and more diverse your network, the bigger the impact you can make on the world,” she says.
She explains her network this way: Her consultancy, Mills-Scofield LLC, is her livelihood and passion; venture capital firm, Glengary, where she is a partner, is her way of giving back. She helps entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground by connecting them with clients and collaborators who are hungry for innovation. Furthermore, she mentors a small army of students at her alma mater, Brown University, introducing them to opportunities where they can help “kick things up a bit.”
Each connection Mills-Scofield makes is an iteration of her business philosophy, which is as old-school as it gets: she believes, simply, in “paying it forward.”
“Your network is not about you. A network is to be shared,” she maintains. “Networking is about people: seeing what makes them tick, and connecting them to someone to help them.”
She admits to being selective in networking, but her criterion is humble: “I only help people who are willing to help others.”
Mills-Scofield grew up in Rumson, NJ. She and her sister attended public school, but every Tuesday, her mother took them into Manhattan to visit the museums. The girls were also encouraged to take another day off every week — to stay home and play.
“Right from the get-go,” Mills-Scofield says, “my model for education was that it is a personal responsibility.”
At Brown, she created one of the country’s first undergraduate majors in cognitive science. She went on to work for Bell Labs, where she was responsible for engineering the most lucrative messaging-system patent in the history of AT&T Lucent.
Long before corporate America started to sloganeer its rebellion, before “Work is Personal” and “All Business is Social,” Deb Mills-Scofield did business the only way that made sense to her — with curiosity and compassion. She called herself a “troublemaker.”
“Part of what I bring when I’m consulting is the fact that I care about you as a person, and not as your function,” she says.
In conversation, Mills-Scofield asserts a motherly kind of authority. She is frank but affectionate; she genuinely asks after your family. She doesn’t miss anything.
Her consultancy helps companies humanize their practice. “Any business that wants a return on investment needs to focus on how it impacts its community,” she says.
Mills-Scofield urges CEOs to put themselves in their customer’s shoes. “Have you ever tried to buy from yourself? Have you ever called your own customer service line?” she asks them. She teaches leaders to trust their employees’ desire to learn and create. “Treat them like adults!” she insists. “Give them the autonomy to innovate.”
Fundamentally, she believes that management’s job is to exercise “stewardship” over the organization, not control. “Business strategy is a living, breathing thing,” Mills-Scofield claims, “It’s not a plaque on a shelf, which is where most companies have gone wrong.”
When Mills-Scofield visits the Brown campus in the fall, she will hold her “office hours” in the cozy kitchen of the student community service center. Over the years, the guidance she has offered her “kids,” as she calls them, has made her a household name within the institution.
This September, she looks forward to introducing her mentees to one of the greatest resources within her network: the Collaborative Innovation Summit hosted annually by the nonprofit Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI.
In 2009, Mills-Scofield connected with Saul Kaplan, BIF’s founder, to encourage a student’s interest in local business innovation. She and Kaplan struck up a friendship, founded on their belief in the better nature of business, and he invited her to speak at the BIF Summit.
“We desperately need to see real examples of world-changing innovation and the “ordinary” people who come together to create it,” Mills-Scofield says.
“I call the BIF Summit a ‘wedding.’ It is better than any other conference at creating connections among strangers at a profoundly human level, because it provides the space — physical, emotional, and intellectual — for you to challenge yourself to think differently, surrounded by other people who are willing to take the risk with you.”
“I came to the BIF-6 Summit, and my network has never been the same since,” she says. “It’s a gift. I’ve been to every one and I can’t wait to go to BIF10.”
The BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit combines 30 brilliant storytellers with more than 400 innovation junkies in a two-day storytelling jam, featuring tales of personal discovery and transformation that spark real connection and “random collisions of unusual suspects.”