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Brains on a Plane: Innovation at 30,000 Feet


It was a flight that gave new meaning to the term “business class.”

More than 100 industry leaders with pedigrees from places like Google, Craigslist, Stanford and Intuit, packed into a plane flying from San Francisco to London to try and accelerate global innovation. And among them, a twenty-something college senior who was not just along for the ride.

Cassidy Williams, a QuickBooks Online engineering intern at Intuit, earned her way onto the flight. She codes for fun. She creates websites, plays the guitar and speaks Spanish. And if that’s not already an impressive list of skills, the computer science senior from Iowa State University can add “innovator at 30,000 feet” to her list of accomplishments.

UnGroundedIntuitWilliams was selected by British Airways and its partners to participate in UnGrounded, the airline’s inaugural Innovation Lab in the Sky. She was the only undergrad to join an impressive list of luminaries, which included Intuit’s Hugh Molotsi, head of the Intuit Labs incubator, to collaboratively look for ways to spur skills in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM, and accelerate innovation.

This wasn’t your typical flight. No Wi-Fi. No movies. No extra bag of peanuts. The cabin for the private 11 hour flight became an innovation lab. Four teams armed with plenty of sticky notes. Design firm IDEO was also on board to help come up with ways to foster creativity among the passengers, most of whom were strangers.

“At first, I was incredibly intimidated by all the big names on the plane,” said Williams. “Slowly, that feeling went away because we were all united in a common goal: improving the future of STEM.”

Williams’ group of seven, Team Altitude, explored how to get more women interested in STEM. Women make up 56 percent of college graduates, but represent only 35 percent of the tech workforce, a statistic that Williams’ team wants to change.

“It’s disappointing that the ratio is so off, but I’m optimistic that we can move the needle and foster women in STEM careers,” added Williams.UnGroundedTeam

Working alongside CEOs, strategists and partners, Williams helped create, an online community designed to advise, advocate and accelerate women in STEM-related jobs around the world. Their concept earned the most votes during in-flight judging among the four teams, and after landing in London, the ideas were presented to United Nations’ ITU Secretary General Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré at the DNA Summit, in association with the G8 Innovation Conference. Team Altitude hopes to maintain the site and social presence long term.

While exhausting yet stimulating, Williams cherishes the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – thanking the National Center for Women & Information Technology which nominated her –and offers four tips when it comes to innovation:

  • Brainstorm on a level playing field. When you are brainstorming with a team, ignore job titles. Great ideas come from anywhere and anyone.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s a sign of curiosity and can yield great rewards.
  • Step outside of your comfort zone. During the flight, Williams was one of two designated “Content Gurus” responsible for helping teams with any and all graphic design requests. It was a rapid fire, high-pressure hour, but an opportunity to collaborate across teams and refine her graphic design skills.
  • Innovate without distractions. No Wi-Fi and 30,000 feet in the air with no ability to step out of the room forced the teams to immerse themselves in brainstorming. Find and nurture your own innovation lab.

Photos: Top: Hugh Molotsi, head of Intuit Labs and Cassidy Williams, Intuit engineering intern, participate in Britsh Airways’ UnGrounded flight. Bottom: Team Altitude brainstorming aboard British Airways’ UnGrounded flight (above right).



Holly Perez

Holly loves helping people better manage their money with her work with Quicken and Mint. You can also find her chasing after good bargains and her two boys.

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