By Ryan Boog
Today’s guest is Shaz Khan. He is a member of the Board of Directors for Project Frontburnr and a member of the Global Shapers arm of the World Economic Forum. He has worked at Facebook, designed a smartwatch, had work shown in Popular Science magazine, sold patents, and has facilitated a handful of record and license deals in the music industry. And helps out with pizza shops. Oh, I probably left out 20 other things. In case you didn’t notice, he’s kind of a young superman.
You’re involved in all sorts of cool projects. Can you tell our readers about yourself and what you do professionally?
I'm a thinker! An engineer by trade that sort of spun off into business development, creative think tanks, and a consortium of music and engineering-related endeavors. I’ve started a handful of businesses, some in the realm of industrial cybersecurity, some in songwriter management, and I’ve got a team working on a project in the dating world that we hope to launch soon. If I have an idea that I’m passionate about, I make sure I’m working with a team of people who know how to execute.
Tell us more about the mission of the World Economic Forum, and the concept of “hubs,” which I see you’re involved with, as you spoke at Macalester College in Minneapolis earlier this year as part of a “hub collaboration.”
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has a large-scale vision of “a better world”. By accessing the collective resources, power, and association of its membership and organization, it looks to solve real-world issues in several sectors by putting together the right people to a) bring up critical issues and b) discuss/scale solutions. WEF has two sub-organizations. One is known as the "Young Global Leaders" (YGL), a group of 30- to 40-year-olds who operate in a more focused capacity, bringing their own demographic experience, concerns, and solutions to the roundtable discussion. The second is the Global Shapers, a group of 20-30-year-olds who do the same for their demographic. That’s where I come in. The Shapers are spread across 200 Hubs across almost every country in the world. We are essentially a global think-tank. Each sector of the Forum brings a unique perspective to matters of importance, and collectively allows each member to share their knowledge and apply their expertise to fulfill a need, as we define them, for the betterment of others. For example, if I had a clean water proposition for an ailing sub-economy in a third world country, I could easily get ahold of a Shaper or a YGL in that country, and we would immediately be on a Skype conference, or having a face-to-face meeting. The potential is massive.
You’re pretty involved with new technologies, and you’ve had the chance to test out Google Glass. How useful is it - would you buy a pair?
That is a very good question. I did buy a pair, but you won’t see me wearing them out. I don’t like being that guy! Actually, that pair of Glasses is currently in use by a client of mine in the music industry for a pretty cool music video concept he is working on. One of my passions is using undeveloped technologies in new ways. That’s how innovation happens, you take something that is normally meant for use in X, and you modify it a little bit and use it for Y. Then someone takes the Y-concept and adjusts it again and you have Y squared that leads to Z, which revolutionizes something somewhere. I know I’m being abstract. I’m kind of a nerd. But you knew that.
Now, as far as the usefulness of Glass. I want to be clear. Right now, Glass is making use of some pretty cool technology, but it’s nothing new. Call it a glorified visual Siri with limited capability. However, I am not discounting it as an innovative product. Someone has to break the norm and do something new, so while Glass may not be useful to my everyday life right now (it’s more of a ‘cool toy’), the implications are very real and important. This is a technology that will lead developers to apply the technology (X) to new industries (Y) and produce a new standard for the way we do things (Z). That type of change doesn’t happen overnight. We need companies like Google to challenge the status quo. After all, everything we take for granted today was once outlandish. Computers untethered us from paperwork and made us efficient at a desk. Cell phones untethered us from our desk and made us efficient on-the-go. Wearable technology untethers us from our phones and has the potential to make us efficient without effort. So, it’s not about what the technology does today that makes Glass critical; it’s what it can do for us in the future. It’s about opening that door.
The sophistication and personalization of technology, evident through better mobile devices, the prevalence of social media, and the rise of Internet users around the world, create new opportunities for businesses and professionals to innovate. But a lot of people are uncomfortable with innovation. How important is it, in your eyes, for people to take risks and try new things - for the sake of their customers and getting an “edge” on the competition?
Well, we didn’t land on the moon by continuing to build bicycles. So, in regard to advancing norms and technologies, if that’s what you’re into... it is important. However, companies need to maintain their customers. Going too far with the ‘innovative edge’ has the potential to scare consumers. This is the reason we innovate in stages over a period of time. It’s really up to a company and its business model, to determine the delicate balance between cutting-edge and cookie-cutter. Timing is a huge part of it. I think that’s where the marketing team comes in handy. If you can rightfully (and certainly not deceptively) tell someone your story about why you are doing what you’re doing, and why your product or service exists, that builds an understanding and trust that far outweighs how you are building your product, and even what the product is. Again, 20 years ago, would you have imagined buying a phone from a computer manufacturer, a la Apple? Give people something to believe in and the worthwhile risks will reveal themselves.
You seem to achieve everything you set out to do at a high level. What makes you tick? Can you put into words what give you the hunger that makes you do what you do?
It’s simple: possibility. As children, we have brilliantly vivid imaginations. Kids do things they probably shouldn’t have done because, well, they feel like it... they want to see if they can; only to learn the lesson...either don’t do it again or do it differently next time. And they keep at this process of learning. Then they get older. We plug ourselves into a society that tells us what is proper and risk-averse, and we follow that path at the cost of doing what our hearts tell us, at the cost of learning. Essentially, we stop being children because the possibility alone is no longer motivating. I guess I never really grew up. I still dream of possibility. I still want to learn. If it can be and I’m passionate about it, I’ll give it a shot. Every failure is knowledge gained for some other success. It’s something you’ll hear from a lot of entrepreneurs. I still dream, and I can’t stop. Though, I am taking an extended leave from “doing” anything right now. I need some me time!
Being in which building gave you more of a sense of accomplishment: The White House or Facebook?
The White House, definitely. It’s got its own ring to it. When I was a kid, I used to see the White House on TV hoping one day I would visit or meet the President. To actually be invited there, to be face to face with so many talented executors, and have a meaningful dialogue with them, was extremely fulfilling. I’ll admit the exclusivity of the venue had a lot to do with the sense of accomplishment, too. I’ve had multiple conversations with the Chief Technology Officer of the United States. It was very surreal. The White House is one of the few places on Earth that embodies the executive power of modern civilization - the type of power that can effectively call upon any number of groups of people to congregate for a specific purpose - and when they call, everybody shows up!
Obviously you fly a lot. Rumor has it you have flown to New York just for a slice of pizza, but do you have a favorite mode of transportation... subway, double-decker bus, bike, plane, segway?
Ha! The slice of pizza thing was an inside joke that a friend of mine (thanks, Nick) spread because I was leaving the city not long after I arrived; I was in NYC for a lunch meeting.
I don’t think I have a favorite mode of transportation. Well, my feet. I like to walk. Any vehicle that takes longer than 4 hours to arrive at a destination is troublesome for me. International flights are taxing on my body and sleep schedule, so I tend to stay in one place when I’m not flying. I’ll drive a short distance to get around when I’m home, but I like to be stationary. PS - I cannot stand trains (subways). I always get lost!
What’s one thing you failed at? Did you take anything good out of it?
Oh, I could give you 50 things I’ve failed at. One of them was a SIM card-enabled clothing line for women, to enable ladies to take phone calls in, let’s say, their evening gown, without having to carry around a clutch or clunky phone. Long before that, I attempted to manage a nightclub. That didn’t work well either. For the small handful of successful endeavors I’ve been on, there are probably 10 that I’ve failed at for a variety of reasons, but of course, I took lessons from each. Classic case statement: “if I knew then what I know now, I would __”.
Never give up on your dreams, even if people laugh at them or make fun of you.
What cool new projects are you working on that we can tell our readers about?
PayLoveForward will be launching in September 2013. I will be giving away $10,000 to someone in Minnesota for a specific act of kindness. You can read about it when we go live!
Thanks to Shaz for a great interview, and thank you for participating in our 8 questions interview series.