Creating Meaningful Stardom: An Interview with Yoxi’s Sharon Chang

Posted on 20. Oct, 2011 by in Business & Policy, Design & Culture, Entrepreneurship, Interviews

Sharon Chang, Founder of Yoxi

Yoxi is an organization that elevates social entrepreneurs by leveraging their expertise for global business opportunities. It was founded in 2010 by Sharon Chang, former Chief Creative Officer at 19 Entertainment, the company behind mega-hit shows American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance.

Sharon Chang is kind of a big deal. Sure, she was Chief Creative Officer at 19 and has worked on multi-million dollar ad campaigns for the world’s largest brands, and is one of the youngest members on the Board of Trustees at NYU (along with, eh hem, Fred Wilson). But none of that is what impresses me the most. The thing that is absolutely staggering about this young woman in her professional prime, is that she has gathered her considerable abilities – business acumen, creative force, social influence, and the list goes on – and has directed them toward a simple and noble goal: making the world a better place, and with a razor sharp ability to execute at the highest level. She is betting on a very exciting framework that she articulates in the interview below, and the best part for those of us working to create change in sustainability and social entrepreneurship? She’s right.

Seeking Social Innovation Rockstars

Yoxi aims to discover, nurture and elevate social entrepreneurs – what Sharon calls, “Social Innovation Rockstars” – via mass-media, business-focused campaigns. Through collaborations with companies that focus on Shared Value opportunities, these Social Innovation Rockstars get visibility to amplify their message by using the global platforms of forward-thinking corporations.   Sharon has seen first-hand all of the energy, creativity and tenacity that goes into making entertainment and sports stars, and now she wants to turn her attention and media prowess toward more pressing matters, like creating a more equitable, safe and sustainable economy for our planet. How does Yoxi do it? To start, by changing the rules of the game from the ground up.

Sharon says, “We find amazing people doing work we admire, and we ask, ‘How can we best accelerate their efforts via powerful stories that will reach a mass audience?’ Good marketing agencies know how to create campaigns that best fit their clients, and good political campaigns know how to tailor their approach to put their candidate in the best light, to increase his or her chances of success. That’s what we try to do for the entrepreneurs we work with who are creating social good, to maximize their chance of success.”

What follows are the best parts of the delightful conversation I had with Sharon last week.

How do you choose the people you work with?

Sometimes it’s based on their track record, but sometimes it’s about their ingenuity or their principles. It’s really not about the idea itself. As an investor, I always look at the people. Nine times out of ten, the idea they’re working on right now isn’t going to work. What’s important is the driving force behind their ideas. I want to know who they are and why they do the work they do. Ideas are born and they die all the time. The people behind these ideas are more important.

We also look for people who are charismatic and willing to put themselves out there to promote their meaningful work. If we discover them, it means their work has done something to attract attention.  These are the people we want to groom and nurture, since they have an established platform and a voice.  Or if they’re introduced to us and don’t have a presence, we can elevate their mission and persona via our network. It’s almost like we’re acting as their talent agent – we connect them to brands and investors, provide them with any number of media deliverables, and it’s all centered around the story of their transformation as people and entrepreneurs. We want to increase their visibility, and through that their influence.

What’s more important in a leader, influence or great ideas?

Being influential is more important. Influence is the secret sauce to fostering high-impact collaboration. People don’t realize that the paradigm has shifted and we’re now in a post-information age. The ratio of the number of good ideas out there to the number of people trying to execute them is changing rapidly. You used to hear a really good idea come along every once in a blue moon, whereas now you hear great ideas every other minute, and there are hundreds of thousands of people trying to execute on those ideas. Ideas are a dime a dozen.

Ideas are a dime a dozen

What really matters is if you have the ability to motivate the right people to organize around a single idea and take it from just a spark to a fully executed product, while building a sophisticated, engaging story around it. I think it’s very important for all of us to stay open-minded and humble enough to work with other people’s ideas as well.

You were intimately involved with American idol.  What did you learn?

American Idol taught me a lot about how to find talent, elevate them, work with them. We knew how to create stars out of nothing. I’d like to begin from a different starting point, and redirect this energy toward something more pressing. When the best practice of talent management is applied to a strong sense of purpose, we will create stars who can change the world.

To be successful, you have to operate on multiple levels of talent discovery. Running competitions is only one of the tools we use at Yoxi. People come to us through different channels, including relationships with incubators, business leaders, design and creative teams, investors, and our relationships with higher education institutions.

Stardom across industries

The reality is that stardom operates by the same principles across industries, whether it’s the music and entertainment industry or the story of a successful startup entrepreneur. Talent aside, unique personality traits, unusual circumstances, a strong belief in their work, willingness to fail, curiosity and tenacity are a few of the many qualities that will help people cut through a long arduous process and leapfrog forward.

Those are the qualities we look for in a person, and we teach them to tell their story in dynamic and intimate ways. We often tell them, “You probably don’t have the perfect approach to the project, or the right idea, or even a complete idea right now, but if you can convince the world to invest in you, that’s powerful.”

What in the green space has that much power to motivate people to watch, compete, get involved?

I am personally obsessed with an “energy revolution”. The challenge is that the energy sector is so enterprise-driven. When you talk about smart grids and highly sophisticated new products, it’s hard for most people to relate. However, I believe there is a lot of potential for consumer participation if we look at localized initiatives. I would love to capture community projects around the world that may go on to inspire institutional change. These solutions may not be sophisticated enough to scale up, but they provide seeds for massive innovation because they are born out of real local challenges. A bottom-up approach to drive energy transformation could be amazing.

TTWOF T-Shirt Collage

Right now you’re in the midst of a competition called “Trimming the Waste of Fashion.” What happens when a team wins a Yoxi competition?

With our Reinvent Fast Food competition, we did what we called “100 Days of Action” with our winners. We sent a team to work with them in San Francisco and created a mini-documentary to chronicle their journey. Using filmmaking as a technique to drive results is very effective because being on camera not only helps them to focus on telling their story to the world, it also puts the right amount of pressure on them to perform, to meet deadlines. It’s a motivational vehicle.

After our latest competition, Trim the Waste of Fashion, we’ve begun to refine our approach to working with our competition winners. We will take an even more active role in shaping their success; we’re moving from just discovering Social Innovation Rockstars to creating social innovation rockstars!

What does yoxi mean?

Naming is always hard. We wanted something that was visually striking, short, and meaningful. Yoxi sounds a little bit like the Chinese word for “game.” I have the most fundamental level of fascination with games, not in terms of artificially constructed video games, but in terms of the set of rules that govern the way we live and do business.

This points to some of the strategic thinking behind Yoxi. It’s about redesigning relationships. I’d like to see companies take a proactive role in redefining their relationships to stakeholders, customers and the world at large. This is why we help companies leverage Shared Value via our Social Innovation Rockstars.

Redefining Relationships

How are you changing the rules of the game?

People think that being a non-profit means you don’t have to make money, and you don’t have to execute at the highest level of efficiency or creativity. Often people think of non-profit messages as being pedantic, guilt-driven and it turns into this boring sort of PSA. But the reality is that as a non-profit, the only difference is that you don’t have to answer to your shareholders in the same way, quarter after quarter. There doesn’t need to be this dividing line between non-profits and for-profits. At the end of the day it’s about creativity and what you can do with it. With more creativity you can create more efficiency, and with more efficiency you can create more sustainability.

Often the questions people ask are not contextualized in the right way. We say, Let’s aim for the best work we can create, rather than being restricted by institutional boundaries that we as human beings created. Ultimately, we can change this whole system we call society, because we designed it.

People also typically have an “us versus them” attitude in regards to companies and social entrepreneurs.  The older mentality used to be that it was okay to highlight social change for campaign-focused Corporate Social Responsibility efforts.  We’re changing the game because we believe in deep collaboration between social entrepreneurs and brands. Business challenges are seen as great opportunities to create Shared Value.

How are you using social media?

We’re excited about social media because it’s an incredible tool that allows you to connect with literally anyone, at all levels. It’s provides a more democratic platform than we’ve seen before. Brands have to work to establish a more authentic connection with their customers. Pressure can now come from the bottom up, not just the top down. We want to stay positive.

We’re using social media to create an alliance network of people who think positively. We want to take a playful attitude. Let’s play! Changing the world should be fun, you should be excited to get up and be part of something like that every morning.

Why do you care about sustainability?

Sustainability doesn’t just apply to our physical environment. It’s an attitude. That’s why I care about a whole range of social issues. We only have one planet, and population growth is only accelerating. You see movements around the world, from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street. I think it’s a good thing that people are getting out there and expressing their frustration. People know that the system is broken, but often they don’t know how to drive change. I think it’s important for everyone to do a little more self-reflection. It’s so much more powerful to fight FOR something than against something. I hope we can all start to understand our own interconnectedness.

What kind of system do entrepreneurs need to get on the same page and into a new paradigm? Do points-based systems like LEED work, and can they be extrapolated to other industries, or do we need something else?

Points-based systems motivate people extrinsically and temporarily. If we use them too much we risk operating on the wrong assumptions. More isn’t better. Once you fill a glass with water, it overflows, and the water is wasted. The same is true of money. We need systems that will motivate people for the long haul, in a sustainable way.

Entrepreneurs also need to understand the critical importance of collaboration.  I talked before about the excessive number of ideas available today.  It’s when an entrepreneur works with stakeholders to execute their idea that they’ll be successful.  That’s why we focus on pairing Social Innovation Rockstars with companies who have problems to be solved or opportunities to be leveraged – when the Rockstar’s expertise is the means that makes visible change, that’s when they’ll reach the next level.

Collaboration is critical


Follow-up question: What kind of cultural shift do we need to make this happen?

Innovation is not about setting new trend, rather, it’s about setting disruptive change in motion. Our current culture focuses too much on “high-speed progress” and “disposable lifestyle”. We need to slow down and connect our work to real human needs. Progress for the sake of making progress isn’t enough. We need to direct our energy towards achievements beyond personal gains. I feel the biggest shift we need to see is how we define value. Our understanding of value ultimately drives our behavior.

We also need to get specific.  “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is great, but it doesn’t motivate real change.  When Social Innovation helps transform the notion of value for a company and all it’s stakeholders, it motivates real change.

Do all consumer-facing businesses need an entertainment component?

Absolutely. But let’s first define entertainment. Our existing entertainment industry doesn’t necessarily do a good job justifying the use of entertainment. I want to go to the most raw and basic definition. To me, entertainment is important because it’s a form of giving. When you devote yourself to entertaining someone, you extend hospitality and generosity – you work to make others happy.

Following that logic, ALL businesses should pay attention to entertainment so they can serve their customers in genuine ways that inspire and delight.

Entertainment is important because it's a form of giving.

Do you believe in crowdsourcing, or in a group of a few committed individuals changing the world?

I believe in curated crowdsourcing. That means finding the most democratic ways to “listen to the crowd”, then using a highly sophisticated process to filter, synthesize, and distill a wide range of opinions and needs so we can arrive at focused efforts to drive change.

How is yoxi partnering with OG this year?

We are a sponsor. We think OG is doing amazing work to bring stakeholders together to drive change. We want to find synergistic ways for the two organizations to amplify each other’s work.

We’re also doing a series of video interviews with key speakers, sponsors and attendees.  We wanted to combine our focus on storytelling with the leaders bringing opportunity to the business world.

Watch the final wrap-up video for “Trimming the Waste of Fasion,” Yoxi’s latest competition:

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Trim the Waste of Fashion Wrap Up Video- iPhone version

This post was written by guest blog contributor Gaia Dempsey, Co-Founder & Managing Partner at Demeter Interactive. Gaia loves doing interviews that connect to the heart of a person, uncover their core values, and reveal the power that drives them to do what they do. She has a background in writing, marketing, and PR and lives in Los Angeles.

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21 Responses to “Creating Meaningful Stardom: An Interview with Yoxi’s Sharon Chang”

  1. Lorgues_Holiday_Rental

    28. Mar, 2013

    Why can’t people in our government be honest? We were taught by our parents that “honesty is the best policy.” I guess that value has been lost somewhere along the way in the last 30 years or more………………Shame.

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