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What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Literature and the Arts


Top to bottom: Sofiane Sylve, "Finally, A Breakthrough" by Katherine B. Young, Aaron Edsinger.

Panel Highlights Common Creative Process for Artists and Technologists

Top to bottom: Sofiane Sylve, "Finally, A Breakthrough" by Katherine B. Young, Aaron Edsinger.On December 2, a ballerina, a surgeon, a music professor, a robotics scientist and an entrepreneur sat down together at Stanford to discuss what they had in common.

In What Can Scientists Learn from Ballet?, a panel discussion moderated by computer scientist and former ballerina Sylvie Leotin, they sought to explore the differences with which innovators of different backgrounds define creativity. Through conversation, the speakers seek to organically arrive at a common understanding.

The SiCa sponsored event garnered substantial interest from artists and scientists alike.

“There is a booming interest in the potential for cross-pollination between artists, humanists and entrepreneurs,” she says.

Leotin, a Stanford alumna and engineer who has worked in product and marketing management in Silicon Valley for 20 years, recently founded CAST Labs, an initiative that seeks to draw connections between art and science in the space of innovation.

The project, she says, derives from her desire to draw on and make use of the commonalities between these two worlds, both of which she has lived in.

“When I started Tech Atelier Blog, which is interested in understanding how founders find product resonance, I soon realized that I had some insights drawing from my background in the arts,” says Leotin. “I was thinking differently from my peers and from other engineers.”

In one blog entry, titled “What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Dostoevsky”, she discusses how it is necessary for entrepreneurs to see the world through the customer’s eyes in order to form a meaningful understanding of them, and how literature is able to aid this process.

“Delving into the heads of others (aka customers) is not something that comes readily to engineers, lacking the humanist training of liberal arts majors,” she writes.

“[Dostoevsky] takes us deep inside the mind of his characters, and sheds light on what motivates human behavior. For entrepreneurs, those lessons can be invaluable.”

Artistic Endeavors Foster Insights into the Consumer Psyche

A more visceral understanding of the human psyche, the panelists note, might also derive from the actual practices of artistry, such as painting or dance. These avenues allow us more frequent use of the right side of the brain, which houses the more creative and reflective aspects of our character.

Kay B. Young – an artist and former surgeon – spoke during the panel on how frequent use of these modes of thought can help offer direction in the more scientific aspects of our life.

And as panelist Duncan Davidson, a venture capitalist, notes, this cross-disciplinary collaboration of the mind can have significant practical outcomes. In any start-up or entrepreneurial venture, he argues, it is the final stages of development in which the creator’s artistry arrives, and it is usually the insights that emerge from these stages that make the difference between the standard and the perfected product.

“Most entrepreneurs get the product 90% right and feel satisfied,” he says. “The great entrepreneurs, like great artists, push for the final 10% that makes all the difference.”

Stanford alumnus Aaron Edsinger, also on the panel, spent time as a visual performance artist before starting his research in robotics. What he brings to the table, he says, is his creativity.

Sylvie Leotin addresses the audience at the “What Can Scientists Learn from Ballet?” event.“In my wandering career I've staged guerrilla robotic performance theater on the streets of San Francisco, designed humanoid robots at MIT, and launched robotic start-ups,” he says.

“Although these activities could be individually labeled art, technology, or business, to me they are all part of the same creative endeavor.”

Also featured in the discussion where Stanford assistant professor of music Ge Wang, who spoke of the potential for an understanding of the humanities in academic research. Art, he says, while not necessarily providing the answers, help us to enhance and reevaluate the questions we are asking.

Along with Sofiane Sylve, a principal dancer for the San Francisco Ballet, the panelists argue that as two sides of the same coin there is great potential in the interaction between art and science.

While providing no definitive answers on how this cross-pollination might be harnessed practically, the panelists nevertheless provide an insightful first step into what will in all likelihood become an increasingly relevant discussion.

Leotin envisions a future in which artists are increasingly viewed not as incongruous but as integral collaborators in the spheres of new product development and innovation.

 “I hope, through this event and future events, to create a dialogue that will ultimately serve to cultivate artistry and creativity in corporate cultures,” she says.