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2017 Edmund Hillary Fellowship profiles: Topaz Adizes

Recipients of the 2017 Edmund Hillary Fellowship have been announced. To mark the enormous achievement - a three-year fellowship programme offered for up to 100 high-calibre international entrepreneurs, investors and startup teams and 20 Kiwis to incubate and support innovative businesses that have the potential for a global impact - we're profiling some of the fellows. Up next is Topaz Adizes.

First of all, can you tell us a little about your background?

Born and raised in California to immigrant parents, I always felt a little bit as an outsider which I think gave me a unique purview to watching people’s behavior. I studied Philosophy at UC Berkeley and Oxford, and after graduating, saved up money and bought a one-way ticket to Australia to travel and “find myself.” What I realized is there was no one to find, but rather someone to create.

I ended up living in Sweden as COO of a tech incubator, and after 18 months moved to New York to pursue my passion in filmmaking and telling stories about humanity. New York seemed like the right place to be as it is a city vibrant with many expressions of humanity at the highest level. Fashion, architecture, politics, advertising, media, education to name a few.

I taught myself the craft of filmmaking and all its aspects by doing. I didn’t attend university, but instead spent all my time making work and learning from others including Ridley Scott, P.T. Anderson and Steven Spielberg. I would say a key turning point really came for me two months after one of my short films premiered at the Cannes film festival. I mistakenly placed the film on Vimeo without a password, and it was picked up as short of the week. Within the week I had nearly 400k views.

Clearly this made me think. "What game am I in? Am I in the game of getting people to see my film in a meditative state on a large canvas, which is what theatrical cinema is? Or am I in the game of injecting ideas into the mainstream? After all, I had just had over 400k people view my film in a week without any real effort. No PR budget, no lengthy marketing campaign. Instead, due to the digital platform and community of Vimeo, my work was shared and engaged with a large number of people in a short amount of time with little effort and no financial expenditure.

Thus digital platforms and technology are incredibly powerful tools to disseminate ideas and to create experiences that move people. That led me to where I am now, using digital media to explore the shifting spectrum of human connection. Four years ago I founded the-Emmy award winning studio The Skin Deep which creates interactive, user-centric experiences focused solely on human connection.

What global challenge(s) are you driven to solve? Tell us about your work. What are you doing that is different to others in your field? How are you pushing boundaries?

We’ve seen disruption in a number of different fields, and they’re all important and game-changing, but the most disruptive force that no one’s talking about is how these breakthrough technologies are going to disrupt human connection. There is a profound fundamental shift in the emotional experience of human life that is happening, and no one is really speaking about it or exploring it. This article speaks about it in more depth.

Our purview is on the emotional experience of being human and how that is dramatically and some would argue, traumatically, happening. The fact is we are living in an incredible inflection point in human history, and yet no one is really exploring the emotional shift. Generation-to-generation we are changing but we aren’t really paying attention to these shifts.

As the nature of relationships and interaction changes at a rapid pace, I believe it is essential that we bring attention to this transformation so that we can choose how it is we want to connect with ourselves and others. The old cinema formats aren’t effective in that regard. Digital technologies offer us a new opportunity to engage with one another in, believe it or not, more profound ways. At The Skin Deep we’re looking into how interactive design and digital technology can be used to help catalogue, facilitate, and bring awareness to this historical shift.

Photo credit: Andi Crown

What initially made you want to bring your work to New Zealand?

One of the initial driving forces is the nature, the physical space that New Zealand occupies. New Zealand has a constant and deep affinity to nature, whether you’re in Wellington city walking up into the town belt on Mount Victoria, or on empty mountainside in the Southern Alps. New Zealand has such powerful, beautiful geography that can breed ideas that just don't happen in the concrete of city life. For me that is a massive draw.

However, on an equally profound level, I believe there are some important values in Māori culture that my work can be informed by, and can be important for everybody to learn from.

Technology has shifted the way we connect on such a massive scale that we are changing the way we operate. There are some things that were unimaginable even 15 years ago. i.e If I told you 15 years ago that the biggest hotel company (Airbnb) in the world didn’t own one property you would laugh in my face. Or the biggest cab company (Uberdidn’t own one taxi. And now with the development of blockchain technologies, the ways in which we are sharing ownership and perceived value is also undergoing a profound shift.

These are all indicators, in my opinion, of the fundamental shift in consciousness for humanity as a whole. And in this shift we are looking for answers in terms of how we should communicate, what values should we prioritize, etc.

I believe a lot of the answers exist in the cultures and customs of our indigenous cultures. The Māori culture speaks to my heart and I have the humble conviction that there are lessons embedded in there which can inspire a better, more heartfelt future for all of humanity.

Can you tell us a bit about the process of applying for the Global Impact Visa through the Edmund Hillary Fellowship? What was it like to go through and be selected?

The best part about it were the conversations we had during the interviews including how they interviewed my 6 references. The EHF team really dug into my character, what drove me, and what I hope to contribute to the world. That way of working to find the deeper motivations of a person is unique to the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, and fundamental to how they select the right Fellows.

What’s so amazing about the Edmund Hillary Fellowship is there is no real concrete requirement. Most people inquire, “wait don’t I have to do something, deliver something?” and their philosophy is not to be prescriptive. They’re choosing people who do things, and trusting that they will. They’re not choosing people that are ticking off the boxes, they’re choosing motivated individuals focused on creating a positive global impact and taking on social challenges. These are the people that constantly strive as best they can to make the world a better place - I know it sounds cliché, but from my experience already, I know there’s going to be something very special emerging from this cohort, and all the cohorts to come.

I’m humbled and excited to be a part of it.

Photo credit: Andi Crown

What are the key areas of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship that you think you will gain value from? Why do you think the Edmund Hillary Fellowship is a valuable programme for New Zealand?

Across Europe and the United States we have many accelerators and opportunities to work with other businesses in a very linear way. It’s a model that’s based on transactions, what I can do for you and what you can do for me. Often times it’s missing a distinct ‘human’ element.

There’s something special happening when you have very talented committed people come together, who are connecting on a human level. The Edmund Hillary Fellowship is creating a space for highly successful people to put all egos aside and get to truly understand each other and how they can translate value to one another. This, I believe, enables possibility for greater things to happen than ever could otherwise.

Photo credit: Andi Crown

What has been the most surprising thing about New Zealand’s innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem?

Because it’s a small country, you can get decision makers in a room very quickly. So it’s a great country for prototyping, as everybody is pretty open to try new things. I think that’s a wonderful thing, to be able to test out new models, paradigms, and mechanisms very quickly, see if they work, and then scale. That’s so unique to New Zealand. Not to mention the people are just downright incredible.

What do you think the future holds for you and your work here?

The next step for {The And} is to build user-generated digital catalogue of human relationships from across the globe.

To do this we’re going to train people how to host {THE AND} format, setting them up with the skills to go back to their countries and communities to capture their unique stories. We plan to host these trainings and retreats in New Zealand Aotearoa.

From there we will build new experiences, rooted in human connection, inspired by our learnings in New Zealand Aotearoa.

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