Lisa Witter, a self-proclaimed “impatient optimist” is the co-founder and executive chair of Apolitical, a global peer-to-peer learning platform used by public servants in 170+ countries, aimed at accelerating the transformation of government around the world. Apolitical was named one of Fast Company’s most innovative companies in 2018.
Lisa is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader who co-chairs the Forum’s Council on Agile Governance and served for six years on the Brain and Behavior Council. She’s a serial entrepreneur, author and former public servant with extensive experience in politics, policy and behavioral science. She’s also founded several political training institutes. She was most recently named co-chair of the London Design Biennale and Chatham House’s 2021 Roundtable on Society.
Lisa is American but lives in Berlin, Germany. Growing up, she remembers being a competitive athlete with the nickname “animal” for her strength and determination. She also went to church every Sunday. She attributes her religious upbringing to giving her a sense of service that taught her to be a part of something bigger than herself. Her “love of winning, strategy and helping people at scale” led her to a career in politics.
Lisa acknowledges that the role of women and women’s leadership have been common themes throughout her career. “I was born in 1973 and that was around the first year of Title IX implementation,” she says. Thus, Title IX’s promise of gender equality was ingrained in Lisa’s psyche. As she excelled in high school sports and landed the varsity basketball team, she began to question the existence of the popular “Dad’s night” held for the boys’ basketball team. She was promised the event would alternate between the boys’ and girls’ teams each year. That didn’t happen. During her senior year, Lisa quit the team for two weeks in protest, inspiring other members of her team to demand equality. This is when Lisa says she really began to value the importance of the role women play in our lives. “It’s not so much about anger at all,” she says. “If half of the world’s potential isn’t tapped…that’s not good for men, either.”
[Women’s involvement] is really about tapping human potential.
“[Women’s involvement] is really about tapping human potential,” she says. “It’s good for all of us if we have women engaged in a big way.”
Apolitical was birthed from Lisa’s love of politics and behavioral science. Her experience building political training institutes around the world matched her co-founder Robyn Scott’s love for building “scalable [and] impactful tech businesses.” She describes the company as operating in layers as a free peer-to-peer learning network where Apolitical provides learning opportunities for whoever is interested in joining. Topics cover everything from citizen engagement to women’s empowerment and racial justice. She aims to provide content that people want to hear, not just from the experts, hence the peer sharing model.
The next step for Apolitical, Lisa says, is to roll out a paid subscription model for just $150 per year to access courses that she says are essential for anyone in public service that will run project management, leadership and communication. From there, Apolitical will use advanced technology and AI to help public servants find what they need, when they need it – something, she says, would have been of great use during the coronavirus crisis.
We have to make government smarter.
“We have real aspirations to be a billion-dollar business,” Lisa exclaims, but clarifies that she’s not just in it for the money. “I mean having money is nice but it’s really [to] make government smarter.”
I ask Lisa about how her business relates to refugees. After all, the refugee crisis is still one of the top issues in government across the world, especially in Germany, where over a million refugees were welcomed during the past few years. “This is just the new normal,” she says. “I mean we’re really trying to help government solve wicked problems and everyone is having to deal with refugees.” Lisa has worked on this new normal by getting involved in projects focused on early childhood development. One of these projects was hosted by the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, analyzing how refugee children develop coming from early traumatizing situations and helping governments “understand which policies can support proper development…into successful integration into society.”
What’s been the biggest challenge [is] addressing social issues…and how you overcome them.” She says she focuses on two aspects in this regard, both related to the brain and behavioral science. This is where she says taking a “holistic” view is most effective.
“Let’s take the situation around empowering women,” she says.”You go, ‘okay, empowering women. To solve this problem we need to give them more rights.’ Hmm, well maybe not. Yes, they need more rights, but maybe [the problem] is around culture or maybe it’s even deeper…around the dynamics between men and women. [It could be about] gender transformational policies versus just giving them laws or access to education,” she says.
People get really enamored with silver bullet solutions…Oftentimes you need to do really dull and boring stuff to improve people’s lives.
“People get really enamored with silver bullet solutions. But unless you do things with a systems approach, it’s not going to work. Oftentimes what you need to do is really dull and boring stuff to improve people’s lives and implement better policy and programs. Maybe getting the spreadsheet right is the most important thing, it’s not a roll-out of a $100 million-dollar package.”
But relating back to her behavioral science background, Lisa acknowledges that wanting quick fixes is all but abnormal. “The brain wants problems solved quickly because you don’t want to die. But social change takes a while because humans take a while to change. They take even longer to change if you don’t develop good approaches.” So one important approach, she says, is understanding how new habits are formed. Then implementing policy to match them.
I think every business now needs to have some sort of social impact in mind.
When Lisa looks to the future, she sees a bright one for male and female entrepreneurs. “I think every business now needs to have some sort of social impact in mind. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to solve homelessness or something,” she says. Businesses can create can integrate social and environmental issues in their products and services, and the way they hire and perform.
But she is also aware of the problems that arise when those who wish to thrive in business do not feel supported or represented in their industries. This is why she says that women should be willing to put themselves and their stories out there, abiding by one of her favorite quotes by one of her mentors, Marie Wilson, the founder of the White House Project – “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
If refugees don’t see someone that looks like them out there being an entrepreneur, it’s harder to be one.
Lisa also acknowledges the truth of this saying as it relates to refugees. “If refugees don’t see someone that looks like them out there being an entrepreneur, it’s harder to be one,” she says. “I just see lots of opportunity to turn a horrible situation with people leaving their homes under the worst circumstances…their lives have been about risk. They didn’t choose it but they have built up some risk tolerance so I see that as a really good opportunity.”
The strategic suspension of humility for the sake of humanity.
As she moves forward in all of her endeavors, Lisa leaves me with a phrase she loves – “the strategic suspension of humility for the sake of humanity.” In other words, know when to step forward with humility. “Authentic humility really attracts trust and that’s what we need to move forward and make a better world.”