Three Things We Can All Learn from Google's Evolution

I run a small non-profit, but I see three big lessons for little organizations like ours -- as well as for the young men and women we serve -- in the evolution announced on Monday by one of the most innovative organizations on the planet -- the high-tech giant Google.

LESSON ONE: Focusing on "doing one thing really, really well" is a great way to organize a team's efforts to be successful. Done right, the results of such focused efforts can lead to more than one big innovation.

Google's famous mandate to do "one thing really, really well" has led it to become the dominant leader in internet search -- and it has also led Google to expand its powerful capacity for innovation into areas as diverse as self-driving cars, pharmaceuticals and venture capital.

You don't have to be a high-tech company to organize yourself for success.

In my small non-profit, the one thing we have focused on obsessively is helping young Greek Americans connect with learning opportunities, mentors and leaders. That narrow focus made it possible for our little start-up to take the lead in connecting young Greek Americans to an ever-expanding list of internships and amazing mentors. It also led us to pioneer ground-breaking programs like our Master Classes with Leaders, Athens Fellowships, Reinventing Greece Media Project, the Greeks Give Back Challenge -- and now our STEM-focused Archimedes Scholarships.

Of course, when we opened our doors back in 2006, we didn't know exactly how we'd be able to help thousands of students connect with all these different opportunities, but we knew that if we stayed focused on our mission, we'd succeed -- and we knew at least two ways we'd be able to gauge our success:
• If the alumni of our programs turned around and started helping the students coming up the ladder just behind them; and,
• If the young men and women we helped went on to become leaders themselves.

Well, by several different measures -- whether it's the number of our alumni becoming mentors themselves, graduates taking the lead and helping to open up internships to current students, taking leadership roles in larger organizations, or even getting elected to public office -- our little non-profit has become the little engine that could.

LESSON TWO: If you're comfortable where you are, you're falling behind.

In a memo from Google co-founder Larry Page about the company's reorganization, as quoted by Conor Dougherty in the New York Times, Page tells employees that, "We've long believed that over time companies tend to get comfortable doing the same thing, just making incremental changes. But in the technology industry, where revolutionary ideas drive the next big growth areas, you need to be a bit uncomfortable to stay relevant."

Ten years ago, when I started asking what we could do to help young Greek Americans, quite a few folks asked me why I wanted to take the trouble to start something new, when there were plenty of big, established groups around.

My answer was simple: those groups are reaching the kids who are already "in the box." There are many, many more out there who aren't being reached. My question was: How do we reach the majority who aren't connected?

Because we were lean, fresh and free to do as we saw fit, we could take risks on ideas no one else in our community could commit to, as a kind of lab testing the latest gizmo. How would offering classes on youtube work? How about mentoring networks? Virtual internships? Google hangouts? Crowdfunding for campus groups? Public service competitions? Promoting young women pursuing STEM careers?

In fact, we had no prior experience with any of these ideas, so each time failure was a real possibility. But we also had a lot less to lose than a traditional, more established organization might have, so the risk was smaller. And the reward in each case was straightforward enough: we learned what worked, and added them to the list of ways we can help young Greek Americans succeed.

I can guarantee that the next big step we take will again take us out of our comfort zone -- and it will be something a larger, more entrenched bureaucracy wouldn't want us to even try.

LESSON THREE: Leaders can emerge from unexpected places.

You might be surprised to learn that the chief executive of one of America's biggest high-tech companies grew up in a household that didn't have a telephone, a television or a car.

Sundar Pichai started off in what most of would call a fairly humble background, growing up in a small town in India. After earning a degree in engineering from the not-so-famous Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, he set off for the U.S., on a path that took him to Stanford, Wharton, McKinsey & Co. and finally to Google, where he became a product manager, working on efforts like Google's web-browser, Chrome.

On Monday, he became the chief executive of the new company called Google, Inc. -- as part of the restructuring that Page has described as a way to continue to build Google's core business "while also getting the next generation of big bets off the ground."

Getting the next generation of big bets off the ground just happens to be our mission, too.

One thing we know is that no one knows for sure where the next generation of our community's success stories will come from. But we can guess that they won't all come from "inside the box" -- well-connected, well-to-do, with recognizably Greek names and a 100% Greek background.

It may be that we see it that way because nearly every one of the founders of our initiative -- including some of the most accomplished leaders to have emerged from the Greek American community in the past 50 years -- came from humble beginnings, most of us growing up working in a family-run coffee shop or restaurant.

Or it could be because so many of the young men and women we meet, as they work their way up in business, in public service, or as young entrepreneurs, are strivers who -- whatever their background -- are ready to take on the world, and put their own stamp on it -- not the previous generation's -- and make it a better place.

Sound typically Greek? Well, yes. But "outside the box"? Almost always.