Alec Ross invented his own title, Senior Advisor for Innovation, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hired him to lead “a little innovation cell” inside her department. He’d just finished developing the digital strategies of Sen. Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign, so the title marked an improvement from what they called him around Clinton’s office – “the Obama guy.”
Tuesday night, Ross told a University Hall classroom full of College Democrats that networks are replacing hierarchies in almost every country on Earth – in political campaigns, media companies and grassroots startups alike. With this shift, Ross said, young people must understand social media in ways their predecessors never will.
“I need one of those Internet people,” Ross said Clinton told him before she gave him the job in her department.
While working for Clinton, Ross said he used networking strategies to reduce cartel violence in northern Mexico by empowering everyday citizens to speak up. People had avoided reporting violence for fear that the cartels would assault them, but Ross and his team developed an encrypted text messaging service that citizens could use to anonymously report violence to police. He raised over $40 million in two weeks for Haiti earthquake relief by inventing a system whereby people could donate ten dollars by texting “Haiti” to a short number.
“$40 million dollars in $10 increments – zero cost to the taxpayer, $19 cost to me,” Ross said. “Had to put the short code on a credit card.”
With the rise of these networks, he said, people have influence today that would’ve previously required backing from more powerful agencies.
“The NSA so overreached because they were trying to exert control in a world that is inherently less controlled,” Ross said. “The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak.”
He concluded his speech with three pieces of advice.
“There are no self-made men or women,” Ross said. “You’ve got to assiduously cultivate a network of mentors.”
He said people new to the world of politics need work ethic, intelligence and political competence, but their most important asset would be a collection of people watching out for them. He also encouraged men to be wary of purely masculine leadership styles.
“Be conscious of the gender bias that is so baked into our workforce,” he said. Ross’s team was majority female, and he said rather than dictate their professional temperaments, he wanted to allow the “culture of Hillary’s office” to infuse his office.
“Don’t fear failure,” he said. He also quoted Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
Ross told the students to innovate with “a spirit of audacity.” And he offered a piece of advice Clinton had given him.
“Alec, if you aren’t taking incoming fire, you’re bombing the wrong targets.”