Untold Innovation: A few minutes with Gaby Rudd
By: Dani Clark
This year at Untold Content, we’re focusing on stories of Untold Innovation. As a firm committed to innovation storytelling from thought leaders across organizations and sectors, we have embarked on a journey to uncover stories of innovative thinking that are galvanizing change and growth in four main industries: tech, medical, science and human impact. We’ve asked you to nominate thought leaders in your field who are driving innovation, and you continue to deliver!
Our next innovation story comes from Gaby Rudd, Head of Partnerships at 17a. Our interview invites readers to expand their view of innovation to include the public sector. Gaby walks us through her innovation process and how a focus on pilot testing and data collection can make all the difference. So, take a moment to direct your innovative thinking toward our interview with Innovator of the Month, Gaby Rudd.
P.S. Keep sending in those nominations of others for us to highlight in our Untold Innovation series. You can complete our nomination form or email us with their information.
Gaby Rudd‘s Innovation Story
Former Director of Operations at the Brandery and current Head of Partnerships at 17a. Gaby is a creative self-starter focused on designing and running external outreach and internal systems that are powering 17a’s growth. From her experience working at the Brandery, a nationally ranked accelerator, and then moving on to work for a public sector strategy firm, she has only continued to hone her passion for designing programs and shaping organizations to have real impact from the ground up.
UC: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your field of specialty?
GR: It’s really tech and human impact—we focus on leveraging innovative technology to improve public service delivery.
UC: Where does your personal innovation story begin?
GR: My innovation origin story begins with the University of Cincinnati. I attended the College Conservatory of Music (CCM) where I focused on everything production related (eg. audio, video, photography, illustration, UI&UX, and web design). During this time most of my energy was going directly into honing my skills in Adobe’ programs such as Premiere, Photoshop, and Illustrator. Throughout my time in school, I grew more and more interested in entrepreneurship and began taking classes in business and product development. I found that one of my favorite things to do is understand someone’s pain-points and be able to prototype products that are a viable solution to the problem they are having.
After graduating, I applied to The Brandery and ended up getting that job just two days later—it felt like it was all really coming together. I was ecstatic! In that role I assisted growing our cohort’s brands and businesses by connecting them to mentors, creative agencies, and potential investors. While doing that work I ended up meeting Annie, who had just moved back home to Cincinnati to grow 17a. 17a is a strategy firm focused on improving public service delivery. We work on program design and frontier innovation projects in areas like addiction services, the justice system, economic development, and other public problem domains like that.
One cool thing is that each of these fields are connected to the other, so through our work we find those threads and follow them! From the start, Annie was so passionate, and I was thinking to myself the whole time, “Okay, I know nothing about the public sector, but I love innovation and feel like this could be really impactful.” So, I ended up joining the 17a team—I was actually the first employee. Now we’re a team of six! It’s been great. I see so many intelligent people in the innovation space creating cool things like hoverboards, but using that same kind of innovative thinking and creativity in public service delivery is more interesting to me. I’m passionate about innovation that positively impacts the community.
UC: What are the impacts of your innovation on the field at large?
GR: A big part of our work is developing novel approaches to solving public problems—that could include developing a new tool or designing a new program. We bring a lot of core innovation principles from the traditional start-up world into areas that have not seen them before, and it’s fun. More than that, it’s impactful. As a team, we’re really focused on syncing up on ideas together, which makes us better problem-solvers. For example, we use structured problem-solving sessions to take an idea from one member of the team and build off of it together. Our innovations come from that collaborative place.
For the past couple years now, we’ve been working in addiction services. The work began through a project we did for a venture capital fund. The venture capital fund was interested in developing an investment thesis for the addiction services space and we did that work to develop their approach and really learn the space. This was at the same time that the Opioid Epidemic was gathering national attention.
As we dug in, we learned about the many frustratingly large gaps that exist in addiction recovery services today. It was also clear that new tools and technologies could address some of those gaps, but that effort to bring innovation into the addiction services space often failed because of the way innovation investments worked.
To solve that problem, 17a launched a nonprofit called Realworks. Realworks is funded by addiction treatment providers and hospital systems here in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The group of providers works together to share pain points and we use them to identify areas for innovation; from there we partner with tech companies who offer solutions, and then launch short pilots to gather data-backed insights.
This is a big part of how we approach innovation: understanding frontline issues, pilot testing solutions and using data to mature service delivery.
UC: Could you give me an example of one of your tech pilots?
GR: Absolutely– I’ll talk about one that was in the addiction space. Evidence shows that peer mentors have a big influence on someone’s success in long term recovery. Peer mentors are people who are in long term recovery–they work with people who are in early recovery and are able to understand what the challenges of early recovery are like because they have been there before.
We know peer mentors have a big impact; but we also know that there are a lot of gaps in how peer mentors are integrated into the treatment ecosystem—there are a lot of ways they can be better supported as peers, and better linked to people who need them.
We wanted to run a pilot to figure out if there was a better way to match peer mentors to patients in early recovery. We also thought there might be improvements to make in how peer mentors get support like training resources, job opportunities and the ability to communicate with each other.
We knew some groups were working on technology to improve the role of peer mentors in healthcare—so we decided to run a prize competition to find a company that could pilot with us in addiction services. Through that, we ended up connecting with a company called Inquisit Health. Inquisit Health had already created software to improve the role of peer mentors in the treatment of diseases like diabetes and HIV. They had been successful in those areas and we decided to work with them to develop a tool for peer mentors in addiction services. That work was through a pilot.
Another key part of the pilot was running focus groups with peer mentors, to better understand their experiences and design something that would be useful to them. To be totally honest, I feel pretty close to this one as both of my parents are in recovery. And given that background, I understand the problem pretty well, but using focus groups to inform pilot design has still been incredibly informative.
It was so interesting doing focus groups about what kind of criteria matter in matching a peer mentor to someone in early recovery. We asked things like, “Does age matter in a peer relationship? What about common groups in areas like homelife or hobbies?” We learned a lot of unexpected things about what people care about in their own relationships as peer mentors. It was the perfect information to couple with the evidence we had and the technology platform Inquisit Health could deploy.
These are some of the common ingredients of our pilots—a known gap, evidence about potential impact, technology players that know what they are doing and the voice of the end user.
It’s also important to note that potential harm that can be caused with any new technology. We tend to err on the side of extreme caution if there is the potential to cause harm to a vulnerable population. For the peer mentor pilot, the biggest questions for risk management came down to how we would ensure the quality and authenticity of peer mentors that would be allowed to use the platform. E.g., would we background check anyone who wanted to join? Would background checking potential peer mentors somehow cause more harm than good? The way we decided to manage that risk was by implementing the pilot in different phases— during phase one, people needed to be invited by verified by current members of the network or by administrators at addiction treatment providers. We also decided to focus phase one on creating resources and a community to support peer mentors directly and to hold on matching anyone.
The work we do with Realworks in the addiction space is a little different than the work that we do at 17a as a whole. We typically get pulled onto projects with other firms to do systems design work in many different arenas like economic development, criminal justice or Medicaid. But with our work in the addiction space, it’s been specifically focused on running tech pilots that could be used in adjacent markets.
UC: My next question moves away from the work itself and into how it’s represented. What role do you feel that storytelling plays in innovation? Could you describe the importance of storytelling to your own work?
GR: It’s really important to transform small stories about individual problems that connect to big societal problems into compelling narratives. Like I said, in the addiction space, it was critical to hear the stories of people in recovery and get their input on our work.
UC: What advice would you give to future innovators?
GR: It would be to focus on what you’re passionate about and not just the money your product or service can make you. For innovators, at least in my experience, ideas happen all the time. You have to actually decide what’s important to you and focus your ideas there. That’s where you’ll do the best work. I’d ask yourself questions like, “Are you willing to go the extra mile with the idea that you’ve come up with? Are you prepared to use your own energy and time and resources to get that idea off the ground?” Being really committed to your ideas makes a difference. When I started caring about public problems and how my skills could be used in that space, my work became so much more than a 9 to 5 job. Burnout is real—do what you care about!
Thanks for reading Gaby’s innovation story. You can read more about our Untold Innovation Stories series in our Untold Innovation Stories kickoff post.
*Interviews are not endorsements of individuals or businesses.