Season 3 Episode 3
Sam Rad, futurist, anthropologist, entrepreneur

Sam Rad (Samantha Radocchia) is a lifelong student of humanity — a futurist, anthropologist, and entrepreneur. She is the founder of Radical Next, a meta-media studio creating transformative stories, experiences, and media productions that shape a positive future. Her upcoming book by the same name, “Radical Next: Thriving in Times of Radical Change” explores how “radical next ideas” and technologies will transform societies in the decades to come.

In this episode, Sam Rad shares her profound insights on how emerging technologies are transforming societies and how business owners can thrive — even amidst an ever-evolving landscape of radical innovation. 

Understanding the convergence of technology and society

Chris Allen: All right. Well, I want to welcome the fabulous Sam Rad to The Entrepreneur’s Studio.

Sam Rad: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Chris: Thanks for coming. I know you’ve spent a lot of time across the world speaking about some very interesting things that you’ll talk to us about today.

Sam: Happy to share it all. I’m happy to be here in the center of the United States, back home. It’s good. I think I circumvented the globe this week. Here I am. Back in the middle.

Chris: Back in the middle. Your expertise spans a wide range, and this is the interesting part — it’s entrepreneurship, technology, anthropology, and the future. Maybe share how these different interests intersect for your work and how you made these connections to make it a career.

Sam: It’s tough, because my career makes sense in hindsight. When I was progressing through it, I seemed crazy, usually a bit ahead. Truth be told, when I was in undergrad and university, I thought I’d wanted to study neuroscience or something, but I’m not a scientist. I’m a storyteller, and I just always loved watching people. So it made sense for me to find an academic discipline to study that involved professional people watching. I am that slightly creepy person who’s creating narratives for every person I see in the airport. And I did a bit of theater and writing — as well as fiction.

So I grew up during this time when the internet was new, social networks were just starting to come online, and I was noticing, even in classes, this shift from an analog reality. So going from taking notes on paper to a digital reality where people were bringing, not cell phones yet, but maybe a laptop and just watching these people.

So I went to the department wanting to study the anthropology of the internet. I don’t want to go off to some jungle and observe people. I want to do this in the digital world. Go travel there. They’re like, “What do you mean by travel to the digital world?” It was a little tough to convince departments of what I was seeing. Ultimately, I found a one-to-one comparison of the equivalent of if I were to go again to some remote village and live there for six months, and it was a virtual community, a virtual world called Second Life. This was 2008-2009.

Chris: Wow.

Sam: So I lived there for six months. Obviously I still was here as a human body, but I did anything from the aspects of life you would study as an anthropologist. So there was an in-world economy, with an in-world currency, which was called the Linden Dollar.

And I needed money, so I made these digital T-shirts and I sold them in this world for the in-world currency. And I’m like, “OK, I can buy stuff, go to a concert.” I saw Fatboy Slim in concert with that money, and I thought this is real for all purposes. But this was very early and we’re now talking like 15 years ago.

I don’t know what happened. At some point through this research, I also was like, “I want to start a tech company. I must’ve been completely insane. I was studying theater at the time and writing plays about the future and decided I’m just going to build the future instead. And that was about a 10-year side journey for companies later where I’ve always felt this tension as both an entrepreneur but also a researcher of, “Do I build the future or do I tell the stories that shape it?”

So I kept going back in. I built a few companies early on in artificial intelligence, one that was early in blockchains. My research was in these immersive realities and simulations. So I would keep getting to a point as an entrepreneur where I was like, “I don’t think I can make the change in the world that I would like to, like a positive impact.” At least for me, I’m not speaking for others taking that approach. It was just because of the way the business models would be structured. But it was a really serendipitous path, this journey of really being fascinated with humanity and the human condition and the impacts of these emerging technologies, of course in our era, the digital technologies. But if we look through the course of human history, I go through history in my talks. So we have these revolutions, the Stone Age, the Mesolithic era where we learn to harness fire and stone tools. We moved into writing and communication and they have all lasted until now. So really it’s always just been this fascination with the convergence of technology and society.

Chris: How did you discover that you’re not a scientist, but a storyteller? What was the moment where you were like, “This is who I am?”

Sam: I was born with that knowledge. If you could meet my late grandfather, this man was larger than life, and he had lots of grandchildren. There were 20 of us, and he would just be telling us a story. He wasn’t great at fact checking, I would say, but for me, I’ve always had a bit of a creative impulse. Again, both from writing my own fiction or writing plays or trying to help people understand. It’s the creative impulse. We all have it. I believe every human has a creative impulse.

Sam: I’ll tell you, I had a drone, an early drone, like a DJI Mavic, the first one. I named her Deborah, and took her on journeys with me. I was like, “I’m going to program her to be my Star Wars sidekick.”

Chris: There you go.

Sam: I shouldn’t personify, but I personify technology as well. And I was like—

Chris: Why shouldn’t you do that?

Sam: I think we should. We can talk about that. I got into a huge fight with someone on a stage publicly about this.

Chris: You have hecklers?

Sam: No, this was a stage tackling environment. It was a panel and it was like, “You and her are the opposite.” I’m like Miss Student of Humanity. And she was like, “It’s a system. Do not personify it.” And I didn’t want to be a jerk and be like, “They’ll come after you first in the Terminator future.”

Chris: Deborah is coming after you.

Sam: No, Deborah will be on my side. Deborah will be like, “You rescued me from a cow patch in Iceland. I was shooting the Northern Lights and she went down because the wind was too much and I went on a mission with my brother to recover her. It was like a four-hour mission in the dead of night. So I care.

Chris: There you go.

Sam: There was good footage. Let’s be real. I was like, “I’m not losing a week of footage.”

Chris: Yeah, yeah. OK. Well that makes sense. Tell me about Deborah.

Sam: I’ll tell you about virtual Sam Rad, Deborah, my whole virtual family over here. We all, as human beings, have a creative impulse. And that’s something I’m really passionate about, working with people to find their authentic expression and to fully embody that. So for me, it is quite clear in my family, as perhaps a lineage of storytelling. I can imagine many, many generations ago, just like the ones who carried the oral tradition, but with a little flair. Let’s be real. I need to keep myself in check with my stories. So it was something I always gravitated towards. I’d write stories. It was very imaginative, I’d perform them on stage or direct plays. And again, it wasn’t really a side journey, but I went on this journey of building technology companies and through each one I realized that the part that I liked most was the storytelling.

Whether you want to call that marketing or positioning or literally my first company, I filmed the whole thing. And it turned into a reality TV series. I thought I was making a documentary about building a company post-2008 financial crisis. I was a documentarian. I thought I’d be a foreign correspondent. I thought I was going into journalism.

Next thing you know, I’m building companies and documenting them. So again, it was a series of smaller insights of seeing really where my own impulse was. Then also knowing that my role here — again, I do believe we as individuals have a role of service to humanity and societies. I realized I could make a bigger impact on shaping the future by telling stories that empower people to build that future and then release it freely. So instead of me trying to own that very small swim lane, either by building a company or investing in a company or advising it or consulting, but actually just freely giving and empowering others.

It took a lot of personal development work and non-attachment stuff as we want to own and control. So it was a mix of things. It wasn’t so much knowing, “Oh, I’m a storyteller. This is my place on this planet.” It was, “Yeah, I know I like this. I know the impacts it has when I do it.” And again, everyone has their own beautiful expression. But for me, there was also a bit of tension where it was like, “I do this, but then how do I own or control the process?” And letting go of that was, I think, the point where I realized I was able to have a bigger impact on empowering others as opposed to necessarily empowering my success and my journey. I had to let that go.

Empowering the public to overcome fear and embrace uncertainty

Chris: That seems like you had a journey of discovery and all these different pursuits. I definitely want to circle back and talk about what got in the way with the business aspect and what roadblocks made you decide to take an alternative path. But what’s the path you’re on today, right now, to empower others? What path and trajectory are you on today to make that contribution to society?

Sam: It’s going to take on a lot of forms. Again, as a linguist, as a storyteller, I think words are incredibly powerful. So I’m very selective of how I try to describe this. I’ve categorized it as meta media, so beyond multimedia. To capture not only formats of storytelling that could be traditional, let’s say written or spoken or video formats or immersive experiences. So like virtual reality, augmented realities, but actually things that go beyond it, in the ways I work with people. I’ve been known to run events on stages involving different frequencies of sound and music and in ways, actually almost like a guided visualization to share in collective envisioning of the infinite possible realities we can shape for the future and aligning to one, because we have so many narratives of fear and discord, particularly in the mainstream media.

So for me, I know for sure the way I’ve aligned to includes narratives that shape a positive viewpoint on what’s to come and empowers others to do that for themselves. In an ideal world, people will not need me to come in and do this, but almost guide themselves to feel that comfort with uncertainty. And through that, actually find more certainty on their path. But quite literally, I have some books coming out, probably a number of media formats and storytelling. And again, I try not to control the process so much of the way that it comes out because I do a lot of public speaking so I’m often on the road, on tour, with people in presence, whether that’s 10, 100, 1,000, or 10,000 people.

I do a lot of one-to-many work where it’s just getting a group of people all on the same wavelength and it’s beautiful. I would say five years ago I’d stand — and say, it’s like 1,000 people — maybe I would feel a resonance with one of 1,000. Because I can feel it, right? I’ve been trying to tap in, I’m trying to get us all here.

Then it was 50%. I’m traveling around the world, and this isn’t just US-centric. Recently, I’ve been feeling both fear and uncertainty for the future, naturally. But also I’m feeling almost 100% connection and resonance and a willingness to embrace newer ideas or the shaping of what’s to come. I’ll give an example. I was very early in these mindsets of decentralization or blockchains. It was really scary to talk about because of what people were hearing in between the lines of what I was saying, because this was just a natural evolution of this world, the way we form trust with other human beings.

So again, as an archeologist, anthropologist of both past, present, and future, in the past we were analog. We were face-to-face. So if you sold me something, I’d give you money or I’d have a ledger with an IOU and know where to find you and deal with it if something goes wrong. Then we move into this globalized context where we now have trust proxies, institutions, banks, governments, education systems.

2008 I think was a very big example of seeing some gaps in that system. I’m not saying there’s not a place for that system, I’m just saying that it was clear there were gaps and we see it across the board.

Chris: When they’re shaking, everybody’s shaking.

Sam: Everyone was shaking. Then you’re seeing, let’s say even media or social media, and then a distrust of things like fake news. Then you’re starting to see it now as we’ve evolved technologically and we have things like artificial intelligence, deep fakes. You’re like, “What do I trust? Nothing.” So blockchains or the Bitcoin white paper, written after 2008, so around 2009, was an early response to saying, “OK, these institutions or trust proxies don’t make sense. We need an alternative.” But that wasn’t the end. So I was talking about it. People were like, “Who’s this crazy person saying there’s going to be things that come next, new business models, new ways of forming this community, this trust.” People are there now. So now I’m focused on what’s next. There’s no end game. 

Chris: There’s just deeper... it’s got to evolve. One of the things I think is really interesting about what happened is that with these institutions, everything was behind the veil. You couldn’t see past the glass. And blockchain brought visibility.

Sam: I’ll give an example that resonates for me at this moment, and I think will probably make sense to a lot of people. Intellectual property. So there’s my likeness, hello. My voice, my being, my writing, all of this stuff as a storyteller, that is put out into the grand abyss. So we have entire institutions, legal systems, protocols, patents, trademarks, these systems in place that make an assumption about the idea of private property or ownership. But they did not account for the fact that tomorrow, if someone wanted to take this podcast and take my voice and take my likeness and make a hundred other podcasts and then draft a book based on our conversation to sell back to me a day later, and then make a whole AI-generated TV series right away. Again, this is happening now.

Right. It didn’t account for that. So for my own thing, and again, as I already told you, I’ve learned to let go of non-attachment, but when I think of the way companies are formed, we built entire business models around it, entire companies around these mindsets, and they simply cannot. That doesn’t work anymore. Or we need to change the regulations or the ways we think about it.

These are the kinds of things I’m thinking about. It’s not in some destructive manner, saying, “Oh, do away with traditional institutions.” There’s a place for all of them. And there should be. But it’s also that, all of us, on every level of society, individuals, collectives, institutions, governments, groups of governments, need to also be thinking about the accelerating and radically shifting landscape we find ourselves in and recognize that maybe these models don’t work. So again, IP or non-disclosure agreements, I signed these contracts over many, many years of building businesses. I’m a business person as well, an entrepreneur. I am fairly aware of how contracts work, and intellectual property, I have a number of patents, I’ve managed legal teams. And I’m sitting here and I’m like, “I won’t sign this. It doesn’t make sense.”

How does it make sense when a concept is tomorrow? ChatGPT has been trained on the collective intelligence of all of humanity in a language that I’m using that is probably used by 10 million other people because they’ve been fed the same thing and we’ve fed it the same thing. How do I sign this contract? Then people think I’m crazy and they’re like, “How dare you?” But I think I’m the person who will say the things we’re thinking. That’s my role. If I can do it in a way that’s a little bit more gentle, through fun stories, I tell whimsical stories often. I tell a story of collecting these special rocks as a child with my brothers to essentially critique the global financial system. They’re like, “Why?” “Oh, it’s so cute.” And people laugh and I’m like, “Yeah, it’s cute. But if I stood up on stage and sat here and just did doom and gloom stuff, that’s not as powerful.”

Chris: Are you going to tell us that story?

Sam: Everyone has a story of collecting rocks. Did you collect things as a kid ever?

Chris: Absolutely.

Sam: Did you find anything cool?

Chris: I collected rocks.

Sam: Rocks? Good. This is why I tell this story. I have two brothers, and we played outside, like kids did then. And there were these rocks we’d find in the backyard in the woods that were striped black and white, really pretty. We called them zebra rocks. So we started collecting them and had them in our rooms and used them as currency. If my brother wanted to sell me his CD from his closet, we’d play store too.

And this expanded. It was like the whole neighborhood of kids. There were like six, then 10, then 20. And I tell this story, embellished, of course, of the expanded economy of it, of lemonade stands and ice cream trucks and all of that. But no, there was a time I went into my brother’s room and told the story of finding these other rocks he had taken out of circulation and was hoarding under his bed and was fixing the price and loaning them to a girl down the street because he had a crush. And then again, the joke that he fled never to be seen again. Sometimes I extend the metaphor if I need to bring it into cryptocurrencies.

Chris: Totally.

Sam: Zebra coin comes back in 2017. But I think that story was more of an extended analogy, just from, again, this example I’ve told you of face-to-face trust, local economies, extended out into more global systems. I suppose the argument isn’t necessarily corruption, it’s more that there are gaps and it’s more about where do we choose to place that trust? But that’s just an example. It’s a fairly whimsical story that most people can relate to. Growing up, for me, this was a very real, passionate story. I don’t have one with me, but I usually carry one in my pocket.

Chris: A zebra rock?

Sam: Yeah, I forget the actual name. I figured out what these crystals are, they’re cool.

Chris: I never used my rocks as currency, but I get where you’re going with that.

Sam: Didn’t you use something though? Did you ever trade objects with people? Tamagotchi?

Chris: Totally, there were sneakers.

Sam: Yeah, sneakers.

Chris: Then you wouldn’t have the same size as people, and then it was weird. But—

Sam: The barter system. It clearly doesn’t work. See, we took it a step farther. We evolved in our little childhood economy.

Chris: I think one of the things you talked about is the contribution you wanted to give to the world and what you felt was a part of your purpose. You started these companies and there was something in the way. So talk about building a company and coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t for you. What was the crux, the moment where you were like, “This stuff is in the way and I need to make a different contribution?”

Sam: That’s a great question too, because I am an entrepreneur and business person as much as I am a storyteller to my core. I grew up as a child of a family business. So multi-generational immigrants came to the country, built a business, passed it onto the kids, and expanded it. Before my generation, that was what was done. I grew up with this mentality of a fairly traditional way of building things, of scaling a business. My dad, who’s given me a lot of business advice, couldn’t comprehend the idea of investors. It’s like, you take a loan, you work, you pay it back. A business must be profitable from the beginning. So these are the values I have been raised with, and I still align with those values. 

Of course, anytime there’s a financial or energetic exchange, it’s sort of a business. So I’m not sitting here like, “I don’t do it.” And I don’t close the door to the possibilities of what is to come in the future. Though I did have a moment where I said, “I’m never doing this again,” and I can kind of hit rewind now.

So on my entrepreneurial journey, they were all technology startups, but I built the first one with the mindset of this very lean family business mindset. I’m thinking in my head, this will be a 20-year journey for me, 30 years, or for the rest of my life. I was naive. I didn’t realize the purpose of building those companies was to flip it in five years, and my goal was to build a billion-dollar unicorn. Once I realized that was the game I was supposed to be playing, I was like, “OK, I’ll play this game.”

Then there were two venture-backed companies, the middle one was sort of an experiment. There were two more after that had the traditional Silicon Valley mindset of going fast and taking on a lot of investor capital. The pressure for the first one was that it would not be considered a success and there was no return until it became a billion-dollar company. The pressure for my most recent, and last startup was to be a decacorn. The board gave me a goal of building a $10 billion company. Not to say that that’s not possible, but that’s the way the funds are structured, like “Bet on a ton of things and hope that one succeeds for that return. The rest, it doesn’t matter.”

I felt a little like we were devoting our lives to this. I built teams as if they were a family. And many people say, “Don’t call them family. They’re not. They’re coworkers.” Fine. Maybe I don’t call them family, but these are human beings I care very deeply about as a leader.

Chris: It can be something different.

Sam: I do care. No, look. I went through a number of very eye-opening, shocking decision-making processes as a founder, and as a leader. And I’ve been in a number of roles. The first one was CEO, then CTO, then Chief Product Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, back to CEO. I’ve done it all, trying to be like, “Which one is for me?” And in all of those experiences, of course I was very deeply involved, personally hiring every person who ended up on our team, creating the culture, and being deeply connected.

And in the second to last one, we went through what I wouldn’t call a hostile takeover, but the natural course of a company shifting and went through laying off most of the team with me being the last to go because I was standing for something different and it would’ve been unhealthy for the new culture they were building. It was just heartbreaking for me. I thought, “OK, if I need these skills, almost like sociopathic skills to succeed, this is not what I want to do.”

This was also around the same time when I was realizing there were different models. Even if you’re just building, again, a sustainable business with the values that had been instilled in me, like a family business, that doesn’t mean you can’t scale it and make it a massive company. There were also new models I had been researching again in the blockchain, Web3, or decentralized space. I was always way more interested in the idea of community and organizational development from that space than the currency. So if you look past things like trading monkeys and Bitcoin, there are a lot of really interesting experiments on the societal level of how we can structure and govern people in new ways, like decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), and even the governance or lack thereof of something like a Bitcoin.

So I’m sitting there and like, “Yeah, maybe we can do new ways of collective value creation, whether you call that a company or something else.” And I experiment with those. I’ve been anonymously involved in quite a few of them just either contributing or observing. I even do this in my community of fellow speakers, educators, writers. We bring together a network and amplify all of our messages while staying in our own individual areas of interest, but also building a collective. How do we structure that — both legally within the existing system, but also what are the protocols in place to, I don’t know, share value, attribute rights to something, send payment workflows? So again, my door’s not closed to collective value creation with other people, companies, and entrepreneurship.

My personal belief system is that the model of this very American startup Silicon Valley thing, I don’t know if I should say… I’m going to say it out loud I guess. This is the first time I’m saying it aloud — I don’t think it’s going to work anymore. I think we’ve already seen these trends playing out, and it might just be another cycle, but placing big bets on things and just expecting returns in that asset class, I’m not knocking on entrepreneurship. I think that’s the lifeblood of this country and many other countries. We need to absolutely find ways to support entrepreneurs. That is, what I would say is my number one focus on how we will make it through these transitions that are coming both technologically, perhaps geopolitically and more. But there needs to be new ways to support entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship and innovation.

Chris: You’re talking about the investment models of angel to venture to private equity?

Sam: Yeah. I don’t have an answer like, “Oh, here’s the plan. And this is the new model,” but there needs to be a different model just for the wellbeing of people as well. I think it stifles innovation and creativity, especially when, again, if you’re thinking of it from an investor perspective of, “I’m placing bets on a hundred companies, one will succeed.” I want a proven model. I’m not going to place a bet on something completely out there and crazy. I’m not going to place a bet on a team that’s innovating with some new organizational structure. Let’s look at the past 20 years. OK, there were all of these, it was Uber for this, the ride-share, that whole economy. And I talk about where that came from in many of my talks, it was the opening of data, geolocation data and Google Maps.

But that was a 10-year process where it was so easy to place bets on Uber for toothbrushes. I don’t know, like, literally just fill in the blank. Or the same thing with the subscription box model. And that came about just because advertising was cheap on social networks. Casper Mattress was the first one, I think they were doing these things. And I think that’s helpful to take an innovative idea and then scale it. But I think we’re missing out on finding a way to support things that are different. And we’re going into an era which I call the Age of Acceleration. I won’t say I coined it. It was, actually, Thomas Friedman who used this language in 2007 in a speech. So I try to cite where I can, though I haven’t found out yet who said, “This is where we are.”

Chris: Yeah, who’s the source, the originator?

Sam: The collective consciousness zeitgeist. But it’s taken me five years to try to create a bucket for this progression we find ourselves in now. If it was the Information Age, and the Industrial Revolution was before that, again, I go through history. I also have a few that are coming next that I reveal behind closed doors. It’s just this moment we find ourselves in now where it does feel like that point on the exponential curve where the convergence of these technologies, particularly in this moment, this discussion around artificial intelligence, but also the supercharged energy when you start talking about quantum computing and the fuel on that fire. Then again, things like my research, immersive realities where there could be five of me doing five different things in different places right now, this starts to get a little, I would say, destabilizing for people, and certainly for the structures we have in place.

It’s so easy when, let’s say, I’ll close a talk, and I’m like, “Three takeaways for the future. Adaptability.” We say these words, we say “adaptability”. We’ll say “agile workforce”.

The importance of adaptability, optimism, and personal development 

Chris: This would be the fastest anyone will ever have had to adapt in human existence.

Sam: Every day there is something, and something that might’ve taken 10 years, it’s now 10 days. It could be 10 minutes. Again, I could be doing this right now, and this is going to the cloud, and I am going to listen to a Spotify song because I love music. And there will be a song that is generated with lyrics based on this conversation that’s tuning into the feeling I’m having.

So one, how do you live in that reality as a human being? How do you build businesses in that environment while also being empathetic to the world we’re in and this feeling of moving quickly without completely just either shutting down or giving up? Because that’s not the answer. But we need to, let’s say on a macro level, support structures that account for this and support adaptability, both with entrepreneurship, and not placing bets on proven models. Proven models will not work. 

So it’s about where to look at those new models, but also to support your own process, the work, the personal development. I like to tie in a lot of personal development with leadership because it’s important. If you don’t start here, self and center, how can you possibly do that with a team, or again, beyond?

A lot of the people I work with, again, groups, whether it’s onstage or in a leadership team or a company, are really focused on that, and just developing the skills, and the confidence in oneself to be able to navigate and trust that it’s all OK. It’s just that the change feels fast.

So I think it’s this — I wrote it down in my journal the other day after I had just done a really intense workshop with people. Again, my work comes from a place of positivity and optimism. I don’t need to go in and instill fear that exists. I feel it and transmute it to optimism, and again, hope to empower people to change fear into opportunity.

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