Synchronicity, the #PowerofTribe and #MakingaDentintheUniverse: A Message from CEO Robin Smith

My life has been a series of little dares. I think, at the end of the day, most of us can agree that that’s primarily what each of our lives is made up of. These ‘little dares’ are the bones; the foundation upon which the sinew of our decision (or indecision) builds itself in our adult lives, and that’s okay – it works. It’s what keeps the ecospheric cogs well-oiled so that the machine of life runs mostly well.

None of us has an especially prescient knowledge that this is how our lives are built, until and unless we’re thrust into larger situations which force from us larger choices to act or not. I’ve come to realize what a tender mercy it is that the import of those situations is often lost on us until after we’ve already begun making those decisions.

I found myself at this crossroads – a place I never would’ve imagined I’d arrive – back in June of this year.  As Managing Editor of a regional multimedia publication, I’d taken on the challenge of writing a story covering the NASA Tech Transfer Program. Through surprisingly exceptional collaboration efforts on behalf of administrators of this program, what started as a goal of writing a single story became an entire series of profiles. From National Executive of the NASA Tech Transfer Program Dan Lockney to numerous Regional Directors of the Program, including Terry Taylor out of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, I found each and every contact not only open, but truly enthusiastic about their shared mission in developing a better system for commercialization of NASA patents.

In doing these interviews, I had, in my way, realized a personal dream to ‘work with NASA’, even if it was in the remotest sense of the concept. I was exhilarated, excited; proud of having accomplished a goal I never would have considered if I hadn’t been ready to take a tiny step outside my comfort zone.

A conversation with a very dear friend forced the next step.

I’ve known Tricia Curreri for fifteen years. Just a kid in many ways when she and I met, she was actually fresh out of college, more than ten years my junior and, at the time, my boss at a law firm. No matter: I am a person for whom respect is earned not given, and she earned mine for her fearlessness (and even more importantly, for her character} almost instantly. In the years since we’ve left the firm, she has become an esteemed friend. We’ve never completely lost touch, even if that meant keeping up via social media and meeting only once a year for a catch-up lunch.

The subjects of conversation for this year’s lunch, held at the end of May, were of my freshly-minted series with NASA and the untimely passing of her brother, Dan Fredinburg, at the age of 33 and just more than a year prior in the series of April 2015 Mt. Everest earthquakes which took the lives of many brilliant people. I’d stumbled across a Facebook post Tricia had made on the first anniversary of his passing:


It took my breath away, this post. Not because he was, at the time or in my mind, a ‘rockstar’ – I actually didn’t know a lot about Dan at the time – but rather because I was, for the first time in fifteen years, seeing this fiercely vulnerable, brave, beautiful side of a friend for whom I’d already had such genuine respect anyway (I also have a brother of my own for whom I reserve a certain level of hero-worship), so it was important to me to know more about the person who brought this out in her.

My hope was to do a written piece on Dan – to honor who he was and the imprint he’d left as a human being as opposed to the product or icon I could see potential for him becoming. Tricia being who she is and me knowing her as I do, I came fully prepared to be vetted with considerable scrutiny before being allowed the opportunity. Tricia did not disappoint.

I breathed my first real sigh of relief when, about 45 minutes into our lunch and with my enthusiastic descriptions of the experience of the NASA interviews beginning to make me a little self-conscious, Tricia smiled and said, “You know, Dan would’ve loved this conversation. Space, gadgets, making things better…multitasking a million things at once…those were his things.”

I knew in that moment that I had what was, to me, a highly valuable profile opportunity. But I could also feel pieces of some thought I couldn’t quite yet fully formulate niggling at the back of my brain.

Through research, I found Dan Fredinburg to be this brilliant, profoundly inspired individual who’d only just begun to figure out how to filter all of that kinetic energy, supernova brilliance and a level of notoriety which seemed to seek him far more than he sought it into doing good, even as he did well. I learned that to #LiveDan was to be fearless: to try something you’d always wanted to but never dreamed you actually could; to take chances with the greatest hope that some of them might make some dent in the Universe.

A week or so later, I had a conversation with my friend and partner Stephen Gantz.

“Y’know, we haven’t really worked on anything together for a while. We should change that,” he said.

The cogs inside my head groaned into action. I called him a few days later, “So I have this idea about doing a NASA Tech Transfer Challenge…”

That’s how NextPhase Foundation was born. How we’ve evolved in just these few short months never ceases to amaze and humble me, and I wake up every morning knowing that even as we’re still growing and finding our way, we’re on a remarkable track.

We’re working with NASA to stimulate public interest in commercializing some of the most bleeding edge technologies one could wrap his or her mind around and stimulate high tech entrepreneurial growth.

We’re working with some of the greatest minds in existence across many nations in government, industry, education and philanthropy, building an engaged and inspired network of support for real growth with a conscious eye on inclusivity.

And we’re working with The Dan Fredinburg Foundation to develop programs and build bridges to STEAM education provision for kids who have the depth and the inspiration, but might not otherwise ever have the means to nurture those, very effectively extending the reach of that network of support to the most vulnerable of us all.

I’ve told the story so many times now of how I was a girl living on a farm in the South in the 1970s, but that all I ever really wanted was to be an astronaut and no one – not my family, not my educational system  – had a clue what to do with that, because it’s true.

I’ve spoken of the importance of building your tribe because I know that, without them, some of us might never make it. I’m living proof and I’m nothing special in that respect.

Maybe for the first time in my life, I took my risk. I’m learning that to #LiveDan doesn’t abide a theory without an equally fierce commitment to practice, and what has come of it is NextPhase Foundation. I would never have had the guts without my Tribe, and my Tribe never fully formed until I was completely ready to take on whatever that meant.

When you’re ready, we’re here. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what life has thrown at you to slow you down or scare you away. What matters is your passion for invention and STEAM, your fearlessness and determination to succeed, and your willingness to continue learning and growing.

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