Andy Stefanovich looks to get people and companies to think creatively
June 4, 2012
Richmond, Va. -- On a warm Boston day two months ago, Andy Stefanovich stood on the steps of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education surrounded by the who's who of Richmond's business and government community.
Then Stefanovich, sans microphone, began shouting like a carnival barker about what makes the Richmond region special and forcing some of Richmond's top names — a university president, corporate attorneys, company executives and government leaders — to join in the commotion.
"I purposely create moments of anxiety," said Stefanovich, 46, an executive with the global branding firm Prophet and a partner with local venture-capital group New Richmond Ventures LLC. "Because when the experience and moment isn't what it needs to be for people, I get frustrated."
While the performance might have been out of place on the hallowed campus and atypical for the buttoned up business and government luminaries, it was just another day for Stefanovich, a self-proclaimed provocateur who eschews convention while trying to create a new way of thinking for cities, startups, and Fortune 500 companies around the world.
"The whole idea of being at Harvard, one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, on the stately marble steps, projecting to the world visions and passions for changing Richmond felt right. Hopefully everyone that stood up there felt a little bit of 'I'm expressing myself in a very import way, in a very important moment and I want to memorialize it.' "
Those who know Stefanovich weren't surprised to see him on the steps pulling people out of their comfort zones to work on developing new ideas.
"Andy is fiery. He loves to create and debate and challenge and build," said Catherine Strotmeyer, an innovation specialist at Prophet. "You have to jump into conversations and discussions with him ready to think on your feet and be open to exploring all kinds of possibilities."
As an executive with Prophet, Stefanovich regularly takes his act to the boardrooms of corporations like General Electric, candy maker Mars and retailer The Gap. He also is a fixture at community events in his adopted hometown of Richmond and has lectured at Yale University, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College.
Locally, he sits on several community organizations and is a relentless cheerleader for raising Richmond's stock. He works with local startups and is helping lead the charge to transform the city into a creative capital.
While he is often loud and sometimes alienates those in his audience, Stefanovich said his shtick is designed to challenge conventional thinking to inspire clients and community leaders to approach situations from entirely different angles.
"I can tell you that the most effective way to unleash innovation is through inspiration. Inspiration fuels creativity, and creative thinkers innovate. That's it," Stefanovich wrote in the introduction to his 2011 book "Look at More: A Proven Approach to Innovation, Growth, and Change."
Kim Scheeler, president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Chamber, said that, for some, Stefanovich is like good scotch: "an acquired taste."
"The Andy you see in personal conversations is different than the Andy you see on stage," Scheeler said.
"I find him to be a tremendous collaborator and someone who's great to brainstorm with," he said. "He'll push, question, cajole and drive you to achieve way more than you thought was possible. Even if you think you're already stepping out, he'll add to where you're going and move the marker further out."
The pushing doesn't always go well and he frustrates people, Scheeler said.
"But, if you recognize that and put him to work in the right situations, you can minimize that frustration," Scheeler said. "Andy isn't just a plug-and-play tool. You have to be thoughtful about where you engage him to get the most out of the experience."
Stefanovich's approach is rooted in the simple lessons his parents taught him: embrace your individuality and passion.
"Being conservative and traditional and quiet is not me. I'm loud and obnoxious and Serbian and emotional," he said. "Being myself is really a natural place to be."
Stefanovich, who came to Richmond about 22 years ago when he was 24 years old, credits his parents for giving him the freedom to find happiness on his terms.
"You can't imagine how much of a gift they gave me," he said.
His parent's influence is a major topic in Stefanovich's life and one he's been forced to re-examine in the past year or so.
Stefanovich, who calls his mother and father the greatest influences of his life, is still reeling from their deaths within less than two years of each other. (His mother passed away in April; his father died in August 2010.)
Their passing "has been an amazing learning journey around how much of a gift they gave me in terms of liberating yourself and liberating others, and imagining the world as yours to make your own and not let the world happen to you," he said.
Stefanovich's parents met as 19-year-olds in Indiana and were married 59 years.
The pair encouraged their children to be independent thinkers and to find their way in the world. (Stefanovich has an older brother and older sister.)
"My dad, when he dropped me off at college in 1984, put his arm on my shoulder and said 'Andy, we're not the sharpest stick in the bunch. I'm a first generation immigrant and you're only the third Stefanovich to ever go to college. Ninety percent of what you learn here in the next four years won't be in the classroom, it'll just be experiencing the world and meeting people and enjoying yourself,' " he said.
Stefanovich took his father's advice to heart.
He spent the next four years at Miami University in Ohio playing soccer, meeting his wife and having a very good time. He graduated with a 2.2 grade-point average. But, according to his world view, experience is more important than academic accomplishment and that approach has served him well over the years.
Stefanovich started the company that would give his ideas — and passions — a platform, in 1990 with his sister Christine, who already lived here.
The firm, then called Opus Event Marketing, originally focused on putting on events for corporations. But over the years, it became a creative marketing firm that worked with clients across the country, including Colgate-Palmolive Co. and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
It became Play in 1999.
By 2008, Play was looking to reach a larger global audience and the company sold itself to San Francisco-based Prophet. In addition to Richmond and San Francisco, Prophet has offices in several cities around the globe, including London, Berlin and New York.
"All my community stuff is a significant part of the world I exist in, but Prophet is my day-to-day job," said Stefanovich, whose title is chief curator and provocateur.
"Prophet is just this amazing company that, with a 40-person existence here in town, is doing some of the most progressive alternative stuff in Richmond. It's really 40 globe-trotting consultants that are working on the biggest consulting projects around the world, for the biggest companies on the most wicked challenges."
Prophet's mission, and Stefanovich's leadership, was put on full display earlier this year when the firm went on its biennial corporate retreat.
Strotmeyer, Prophet's innovation specialist, said the global firm likes to bring its employees together every other year for a few days of team building and learning.
"Prophet's mission is focused on liberating ideas, inspiring people and driving impact. As we thought about how we wanted to use our time together this year, we decided to take advantage of a unique opportunity to practice what we preach as a team and engage in collaborative, creative problem solving around a significant growth challenge," she said.
The company's leadership team, including Stefanovich, decided to hold the retreat in Iceland, which saw its economy collapse in 2008. Strotmeyer said once Iceland was selected, Prophet reached out to government officials there "to find out if there were key opportunities or growth challenges that would benefit from our collective problem solving."
The firm was put in contact with Promote Iceland, an organization tasked with helping to boost the country's reputation and increase tourism. Over three days, the Prophet team, using a series of exercises and meetings, put together 24 concepts ranging in scope from economic models to branding that it then pitched to Promote Iceland.
Stefanovich was instrumental in the endeavor, Strotmeyer said.
"In addition to being an on-site provocateur who pushed and challenged thinking as we developed concepts in Iceland, Andy was one of the key people behind the idea of using the firm-wide gathering as an opportunity to work on a real-world challenge for the country," she said.
In the end, Promote Iceland chose six concepts it is moving forward with, including creating educational platforms around sustainable energy practices and rethinking distribution channels for Iceland's top industry, fishing.
"If he wasn't good, he wouldn't be getting the business he's getting," James E. Ukrop, former chairman of Ukrop's Super Markets Inc. and First Market Bank and now a board member at Union First Market Bankshares, said of Stefanovich.
The two men have known each other for several years and work together on New Richmond Ventures, a local venture-capital group. Stefanovich credits Ukrop with pushing him to become more involved in the community.
"He's traveled around the world with these large companies doing what he does, trying to open their minds and getting them to think in a different way. To me he's a national brand," Ukrop said.
But the chamber's Scheeler said much of what Stefanovich accomplishes goes unseen.
"Because of the way he works, it's less of him making a significant difference and more of him driving others to perform better," he said. "One of the things I like about Andy is he doesn't feel the need to be the 'guy who did x' but more of the guy behind the scenes making things happen better, faster or in a way that's far beyond initial expectations."
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