SkyART: Mining for Genius in the Inner City

Tim CookIt’s not like Tim Cook is running Apple into the ground. For the time being anyway, the company is more than holding its own.

But let’s never forget, Tim Cook remains a classic right brainer. Tim Cook is not a creator, or a visionary, or much of a dreamer. As he’s proven time and time again since the death of his almost mythic predecessor, Tim Cook is one who likes to color within the lines, and Tim Cook is a man who focuses on things he can see, touch and, in particular, tally.

He’s a corporate leader, in other words, concerned less with creating new breakthrough products for Apple than riding the momentum of the ones already on his shelves.

Steve Jobs 2That was the utter brilliance of Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was apparently prickly as all get-go. Steve Jobs could be demanding, and distant, and abrupt, and a little quixotic. But Steve Jobs was creative. And Steve Jobs was a man with a right brain as well-developed, inquisitive and in full blossom as, perhaps, any corporate leader in the history of American business.

For that reason, and unlike Tim Cook, Jobs biggest priority at Apple was not sales and marketing. It was new product development and breakthrough innovation, both of them wrapped in an alluring combination of ease-of-use and sleekness-of-design.

Because Steve Jobs knew that with those things as Apple’s North Star, sales and marketing would always follow.

In my sector (and for good reason, mind you) many have been consumed of late with what has become an acronym so popular it now threatens to eclipse the word it replicates. To many, STEM now means Science, Technology, Engineering and Math even more than it means the neck of a flower blossom or a small protrusion from a tree limb.

MFG 4.0To such people, STEM has become their North Star, their one laser-like focus to which all others ultimately pay fealty.

But what STEM fails to take into account is simple, unapologetic and irrepressible creativity; creativity in function, creativity in design, and creativity in integration.

Because, like it or not, STEM is solely a left-brain phenomenon. STEM, taken alone, is more about numbers than it is ideas, concepts, or possibilities. And while STEM, taken alone, might develop a complex algorithm capable of calculating the incalculable, STEM will never be able to paint the Mona Lisa or compose Beethoven’s Fifth.

I believe wholeheartedly in the balance between the development of any child’s right and left brain, both of them in equal measure. I believe that focusing on STEM is critical in today’s educational environment, but no more so that teaching a child to not simply play an instrument or maybe draw a picture, but to appreciate and find beauty in the art those two disciplines make possible.

Kids MfgBecause life has taught me that’s where genius lies, in the matrix of those two sides of the human brain. Genius, far more often than not, dwells in the mind of a child whose right brain is just as developed and stimulated as his left. That’s the matrix (and the educational system, in fact) that produced both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

That’s why I have become an ardent supporter of an ambitious but otherwise unassuming program in my hometown called SkyART. SkyART is an initiative designed to bring visual arts training to at-risk young men and women in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Because, as is always the case in any poor (or dangerously underfunded) public school, the very first thing to go is the arts department.

SkyARTAnd, for my money, there is no surer way to keep the insidious cycle of poverty that grips so many of our cities intact than to create generations of poor students who’ve never been schooled in the arts; a educational philosophy designed to teach our poorest children creative thinking, creative questioning and, most importantly, creative problem-solving.

This week, my company hosted a couple groups of students who toured our shop and spoke with employees about what they do for a living. They weren’t necessarily kids from SkyART. They were just school-age kids from the city whose eyes we’re trying to open, if only a touch, to the joys and wonders of a job in what has rapidly become America’s most exciting (and, frankly, misunderstood) sector.

And we had them in because we wanted to show them proof that, when it comes to skill development, career growth, and job opportunities, these days manufacturing takes a back seat to no sector in the economy.

SkyART 2But having those students in put me in mind of SkyART, and reminded me of why I initially became so enamored with it and began to support it so fervently. So, while this essay may read like a shameless plug for the program, it’s really just a heartfelt explanation for why a bold initiative designed to expose the arts to poor kids has become so near and dear to my heart (and, for that matter, near and dear to my business).

Kids Mfg 2Because SkyART (and other programs like it) dares to teach creativity to young minds thirsty for a sip of it; minds who might otherwise never be exposed to creativity’s uncanny role in the process of changing lives, creating new products and, in the end, solving society’s most vexing problems.

STEM is critical, make no mistake – especially in my world. But focusing on STEM at the exclusion of the arts is like trying to teach a child to run a race on one leg – and then fully expecting him or her to win it.

Steve JobsCreativity, on the other hand, is a mental acuity that when combined with the power of STEM can one day (and often when one least expects it) blossom into full blown genius.

And – particularly when it comes to the development, design, and manufacturing of industrial products, such as those my shop sets out to create everyday – I’ll take Steve Jobs over Tim Cook every time.

(To learn more about SkyART, or to support the program, please click here.)

 

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