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Curiosity is the spark behind every leading innovation. Without it, we never would have harnessed electricity, rocketed to the moon or developed a Covid-19 vaccine in record time. But while it’s easy enough to come up with a good idea — they’re everywhere — the ones that revolutionize entire industries and professions require us to keep our eyes open to the challenges right in front of us in our daily lives and then ask, “How can I change that? How can I make things better? How can I use my curiosity for good?”
That’s precisely what I discovered as I made the move from full-time professor in the Department of Medicine at McMaster University to entrepreneur, co-founding Acuity Insights, formerly Altus Assessments, a Toronto-based company that now employs 150 people. It all started with an assessment that challenged the concept that being book smart was all it took to be a good doctor, nurse, teacher or business person. The test measures social intelligence and professionalism that is used alongside measures of knowledge — and we’ve found that the more holistically we can assess someone, the more we are able to understand and support them.
I saw a problem and realized there was a potential for a game-changing innovation. We have now broadened to a full scope of products for higher education programs that connect key data across the learner journey from application to graduation, providing key data points to inform decisions. Acuity is partnered with over 530 higher education programs worldwide.
And my experience shows that almost anyone can spot an opportunity in their day job and turn it into a viable business. Here are five things you can do when opportunity knocks so you can knock that new venture out of the park:
1. Watch out for workarounds
You know how when we leave a pile of books on the floor, the longer they remain there, it becomes easier to walk around them? As time goes on, we forget they’re even there because we’ve become so accustomed to finding an alternate route.
The spark for my business started with the realization that an ineffective workaround — depending on letters of reference and personal statements when assessing students’ applications — just wasn’t cutting it. They were inherently biased. Medical schools, my own included, needed to do better when accepting students. Being an excellent doctor is more than academic scores, high grades or knowledge. It’s about how you apply that knowledge to serve your patient using communication skills, empathy, collaboration, professionalism and ethics.
So, we did our due diligence: We spent over five years collecting data and refining the assessment tool to make sure we were measuring what mattered. Then other programs and institutions started to become interested in what we were doing, too. But we wondered: Can we give them access to our innovative software? Should we monetize it? Soon after, I realized our groundbreaking business idea locked in the ivory tower was ready for the real world.
2. Listen to yourself
Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out what we’re most passionate about, particularly if we’re juggling a lot of priorities. To zero in on the one idea that might hold your interest and enthusiasm long-term, you need to listen to yourself. If, years ago, I’d recorded myself talking about the need to revolutionize medical school assessments, I’m sure I would have realized that it was a true passion.
So, talk to a friend or someone in your network about your project. Do you light up? Become more animated? Feel free? These clues could be the launch pad for turning a side hustle into a new career and maybe even revolutionizing your industry in the process.
3. Notice where you’re spending your extra time
How are you spending your extra time even when you don’t have time to give? Do you feel passionate about a side project and can’t stop tinkering with it? Do you tend to lean in at certain meetings or ask more questions about specific topics? Pay attention to what drives you.
The leap from a highly respected career in academia to the wild unknown of startups wasn’t easy, though. For years, I put in long hours at the university as a professor before working even longer hours at night and on weekends on the business. I was at a tipping point and realized if I wanted to make a difference, I had to swap my priorities. I eventually traded in a secure career in academia for the full-throttle existence as an entrepreneur when I was seven months pregnant, building Acuity Insights with my co-founder, Harold Reiter, a radiation oncologist with an equally demanding job. Because I was able to follow my curiosity, I never gave up, even when it was hard.
4. Prepare for pushback
When I first decided to leave my full-time university career for the corporate world, I sent an email out to colleagues to tell them — and some of them accidentally cc’d me on their responses to others about my decision. That was an eye-opener; but I understand that many of them may not have considered a profession outside of academia. But later at conferences, I was able to share with them why I was so passionate and excited. I could tell them my “why.” I had realized my “why” wasn’t tied to my profession — it was about how I could make the largest impact.
If you experience pushback about a change in your career, reach out to people who have made the same leap or are working in an area you want to move toward to learn about the barriers and opportunities you might face. And don’t forget to take some time and dig into your own “why.” Knowing what truly drives you will keep you working toward your goals.
5. Get unstuck
If you had told me a decade ago that I would become a VP and co-founder of a business, I wouldn’t have believed you. I thought I didn’t have the right skill set. Sometimes we assume we can only do the role we’re currently in and have a very set idea about what’s possible for us. But as someone entrenched in an industry, you probably bring a valuable perspective and expertise to a broader problem. There are a lot of people with sales, marketing and accounting degrees who can be hired. But innovators bring vision. Understand that, and get out of your own way. And with time, your vision, curiosity and passion will spark innovation in those around you, too.
Pay attention to what’s going on around you at work — and what fires you up — to uncover the next industry-changing business idea. Because when it comes to forging a new professional path, passion and curiosity rule.