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From our Fellows: To be innovative, tell your story like a song

The Sisters of Charity Foundation (SOCF) of Cleveland’s fellowship, known as The Innovation Mission, is a powerful opportunity for accomplished professionals to advance their innovative ideas to change the trajectory of poverty in Cleveland. The five professionals we selected for The Innovation Mission began the fellowship in November 2017. We will be sharing their journey over the course of 18 months.

Now about halfway into the fellowship, we have asked each fellow to reflect on how they are learning the process of innovation. In this installment, Penny Smith, CEO of Alegria Technologies, highlights her biggest takeaways so far.


Innovation is exciting. It gives us the power to look at things differently, to see a problem and possible solutions through different lenses. In The Innovation Mission, we’re trying to find new ways to tackle poverty, and my project is focused on investing in workforce development technology and policy to influence low-income fathers and bolster child support to combat child poverty.

Low-income families have historically been viewed and supported through social services – organizations designed to help families get the care they need, but often while dealing with cutbacks and the need to thinly spread resources.

My project takes the more innovative tack of bypassing social services and helping low-income families eventually support themselves, by setting up workforce development programs for fathers who have faced barriers to getting a job – whether they have a criminal record, transportation difficulties, or have simply never been exposed to the best possible jobs for their skill set.

By the end of this process, I am aiming to secure funding from investors to help bring my project to life, and I’m learning just how important it is that I am able to tell a good story. Until my work in The Innovation Mission, I thought that innovation was all about having a unique idea, and turning that into an effective solution. While that’s a huge part of it, without the element of storytelling, a great idea may never have the chance to be implemented.

Storytelling has proven to be a powerful way to engage diverse stakeholders for support. When I pose the question, “How do we know what we want to be when we grow up?”, I can begin to unfold a story of how several different families may approach the question.

Telling this story is like a good song. My story needs to include all of the elements of a good song so that listeners will stay tuned – and not change the station.

So when I ask that first question, everyone can come together to reflect on their own story. Some may be fathers who remember dinner table conversations about careers with their own parents, others may think of their own struggles with employment. Stories will call up these memories and help the audience process the information in a way that sets the stage for my hook.

A song needs a great hook. Without it, listeners might stop paying attention, and I want my audience to be captivated, to listen all the way through.

In my case, the hook is recognizing low-income fathers’ ability (or inability) to pay child support. Most of us understand how this could impact the entire family, but the majority are likely not in favor of supporting someone they may see as “lazy” or a “deadbeat.” To stop this argument before it starts, I head into the verses, which explain the need to help people understand what they are good at and how to select a career. Then the chorus – which is the part they’ll remember, and walk home humming – says that for programs with uneven career planning services, technology and policy innovation can help those who do not have careers, eventually providing those low-income fathers with the funds they need to support their families.

I love music, so it’s easy for me to think about telling my innovative story as a song, but you can think of it through any frame that works for you; maybe it’s like a fairy tale, or a Law & Order episode. But when it comes to being innovative, you could have a brilliant idea, but it’s not going to be heard until you tell the right story.


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Penny Smith

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