B115: 5 things I learned at SXSW 2022

By March 22, 2022The Simplifiers Podcast

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I’m so thrilled to share with you my top 5 things that I learned at SXSW 2022!  Man, it was such a brilliant conference and I’m so pleased that I was invited to speak at this event. My workshop called, “Why Your Grandma’s Podcast is Better Than Yours” was a total success with a full house and many people stayed 20 minutes over the end time, hungry for more. As a public speaker and workshop facilitator, for me it was EVERYTHING. 

As Laura Lorek of the Silicon Hills News said online, “being in a pandemic for over two years and then being at SXSW for 10 days – I feel like I went from hiding in a cave to performing live on stage at the Grand Ole Opry!” Yup, I felt that, 100%. We’ve all been tucked away in our little pockets and cocoons for so, so long and it just felt brilliant to re-emerge once again.

Here are my top 5 things I learned at SXSW 2022:

1) Re-emergence is happening right now – take the leap.

Every year during the month of October, SXSW does something called the PanelPicker® – which is their user-generated session proposal platform to crowdsource ideas of great speakers, panelists and workshops that they could feature at the festival in the year ahead.

So, flashback to October 2021 and let’s be real… my life was in a pretty YUCK place, given that I was simultaneously grappling with a very stressful divorce and also my 80 year old mother was in the hospital due to a broken femur. Life was pretty bleak and keeping my hope up was my A-1, most important, paramount task that took obscene amounts of journaling, prayer, exercise and intentional, real self-care on my part to just keep level headed through it all.  

So when the SXSW PanelPicker® call for entries came across my desk that month, I could have easily let it pass me by. I could’ve made an excuse that I was too busy, or too exhausted, or too whatever to put any effort into it. 

But I didn’t. 

I distinctly remembered my deep, inner wisdom kicking in and telling me, “no Mary… this is important. Carve out time, brainstorm the topics that you could speak on that’ll bring value to people… and do the thing. Future Mary needs this.”

And I did. In like, a big way… I really needed it. So, I put in the work and submitted it.  Later on, people voted on it and I got asked to speak at SXSW.

Now, I could’ve easily binge watched another lame reality TV show online or kept numb to the outside world with a variety of vices and instant gratification that only made me sluggish, bloated, apathetic or all of the above.

Or I could actually take a BOLD leap into making my own reality better, for future me.

So, I suppose my first takeaway is this… what can you do NOW that’ll enrich your life in 5-6 months from now? What Bold Asks can you make out into the world now to sow the seeds that are gonna harvest in October later this year? Maybe it’s… 

  • Asking someone to lunch, or 
  • Getting a certification that’ll open doors for future (better) job opportunities, or
  • Getting out of your house and meeting people by volunteering in your local community, or
  • Voting in your local elections, or
  • Sparking a conversation with a friendly stranger at a live music show tonight, or maybe even…
  • Applying to speak at one of your favorite IRL conferences that you used to attend in pre-pandemic days?

Let’s be real… Amazing, profound, transformative things will NOT happen in your life unless you make a Bold Ask and put yourself out there. And friends, I can tell you straight from the frontlines of SXSW… re-emergence is happening all around us, right now. People are get back in person. There is no better time than now to #dothething.

Beto O'Rourke

Meeting my future Texas governor, Beto O’Rourke at SXSW 2022

2) Smaller is better – more chances to go deeper.

So in 2019, I’m told that 73k people attended the SXSW conference over the course of 13 days in Austin, Texas. Now, the last time I attended the conference was way back in 2014 when there were only 44,500 registrants. This was just before I moved to the UK.

While I was away, the conference grew in a massive way, which is great for them and great for the local economy but sometimes when a thing goes BIG, it’s hard to hold onto the original magic you had once before. And no, this isn’t one of those rants like “Oh well, back in my day, we had… and it was so much better.” (haha!) 

But here’s the thing… ALL of your favorite IRL (in real life) conferences, festivals and events are going through the same exact thing that SXSW did this year. SX just happens to be the trailblazer, the guiding light for others getting back to meeting IRL.

Truth is, I loved the fact that this year’s festival felt smaller. 

In a lot of ways, it was a 1000x times better. For me, it created opportunities to have deep conversations with new people that I met each day without feeling rushed or getting lost in the crowds of people.  I made great contacts. I embraced serendipity by mustering up the courage to talk to new people while standing in line to get into venues. I held renegade #letstacoboutit lunches with strangers and facilitated deep conversations on things that are super fascinating to me in the realm of the Future of Work. And ultimately, I made deep connections that I know will turn into rich relationships and future collaborations. So all of it… was totally worth it!


#LetsTacoBoutIt – curated conversations + tacos at SXSW 2022 on the Future of Work

So my takeaway number 2 is to not be scared that it’ll be smaller or that it’s not going to be the same as it once was before Covid. Sure, plan out a general road map of the sessions that you’d like to attend daily, but hold it loosely because the real opportunity (in my mind) are the people you meet while you’re there and the daily adventures and rampages you could take together.  We humans are made to thrive in community… not alone. And the real ROI comes from nurturing these relationships and having a bit of fun together.

So, given that… I encourage you to look over your calendar from 2019 and make a note of the 4-5 festivals, conferences, and live events that you used to attend and see when their next event is. 

  • Plug that date into your calendar. 
  • Buy that early bird ticket now. 
  • Map it out and ask for time off from work. 
  • Do the thing, knowing that these events are going to be much, much smaller than years’ past and that ACTUALLY means better opportunities for deeper conversations with trailblazers just like yourself who are KEEN to get back to meeting people IRL.

Also, it’s worth mentioning… a lot of these event organizers really need our financial support via ticket sales and sponsorship right now, so they too can get back up on their feet after this pandemic. So supporting them with our wallets means that they get back to providing us impeccable programming, attracting top speakers and musicians to perform, and creating these transformational event experiences in the future for all of us. It’s a win-win for everyone, really.

Okay now, let’s shift gears.

3) Space tourism and holograms are a real thing and more accessible than you think.

I loved walking the floor of the SXSW Creative Industries Expo this year. There were so many innovative companies from all around the world, doing demos of their new tech and software. But one thing I kept seeing and hearing people talk about was space tourism and exploration. There’s a new player in the space travel game and they are called World View, with a tagline of this: “Explore the edge of space and soar to the upper stratosphere. Gaze upon the stars and our planet like never before.” 

World View

World View – the affordable way to travel to space

For $50k USD, you get to take a 6-8 hour journey into space that is absolutely breathtaking and it’s all done in an 8-passenger + 2 crew member pod. You ascend for 2-3 hours (note: the pod is attached to a giant stratospheric balloon) and rise up to a little over 100,000 feet above the Earth. They say that you will see the blackness of space without issues with zero gravity. It’s a “gentle enough space journey that even your grandparent could take the trip!” Pretty cool stuff, really. 

In addition, you have a 5-day experience at a boutique hotel, located at the launch site… which will be built at each of the 7 wonders of the world, starting with the Grand Canyon as the first location. I did the simulation, it was spectacular and while other space tourism companies out there are offering trips at the $2-3 million price point, this one is certainly more affordable, all around. They were even taking reservations for the 2024 flights at SXSW for only $500 down…

World View

Peek inside the World View space pod simulator – SXSW 2022

So takeaway number 3 is this… space tourism is totally a real thing and way more accessible than you think. It’s amazing to look back at how we humans innovate things from science fiction to reality so fast. Another company I was completely impressed with at SXSW was Proto, which provides 4k hologram booths that beam a person to any location around the world to interact with them. 

Blown away doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt when I saw this new tech in action. 


Proto Hologram – seen at SXSW 2022

So okay, it’s not human teleportation (yet) but what they do is film people on one end and then beam it over into a human-side display box that looks and feels 3-D. Really, truly. In addition, they can add on an assortment of Snapchat style filters to the display… say you want to add a cat on someone’s head or turn your VP into an anime character. Boom, a flip of a switch and it’s done!

 I could see this technology being used for running highly effective leadership meetings when (let’s say) the CEO is in Dubai and the rest of the C-suite are located in LA… That’s no problem, just beam her in and it feels like she is right in the room with you, without a delay. Absolutely impressive and Proto is one that I’ll be watching in the year to come.

Remember, social media only began back in 2008, and look at us now. Seeing World View’s executive team full of powerhouse names from NASA to Boeing and Proto’s leadership team backed by CEO David Nussbaum and VC funding from Tim Draper (who was behind Tesla, Skype, and Switch), I have no doubt that what both companies are building will be a huge success. I mean, c’mon… who doesn’t want to go to space and who doesn’t want to become a hologram??!

Friends, if you can dream it, it’s likely already in the works right now.

4) Simplifying NFTs with a brick analogy

Okay, so let’s talk NFTs because before SXSW this year, I personally could not wrap my brain around it. I mean c’mon, it’s just freakin’ clip art, right?? Well, luckily I have super smart friends in Austin who could simplify it down for me. Like my friend, Alissa… a true “Woman in Crypto” expert who shared this brilliant analogy with me:

Take for example a non-profit like a performing arts theater that’s running a fundraising campaign to build a new building. In this campaign, they are selling personalized bricks that they lay down on the path leading up to the box office out front. Each brick is one-of-a-kind and there are a limited number of these bricks available for sale. So, let’s say a person buys a brick for $1000 (or whatever) and that one particular brick is theirs forever.

There’s the glory and the clout of saying, “hey I own this brick that’s part of my favorite theatre. You can go see it too… but it’s all mine.”

Well, the exact same thing is at play with buying and selling NFTs. It’s digital artwork (like a drawing, music, or a graphic) that is available for purchase and totally one-of-a-kind. It’s considered a “non-fungible token.” All that means basically is that it’s unique and can’t be replaced with something else.  (side note, it has NOTHING to do with fungi and mushrooms!)

Note: Most NFTs are part of the Ethereum blockchain (which is basically like the ledger that keeps the details of when these NFTs are bought and sold).

Make sense? And pause for a hot sec… So at this point in the analogy and a few drinks in, I ask the “Captain Obvious” question of…

“Ummm Alissa… what stops people from right-click-save or screenshotting your super valuable clip art NFT??!”

Not much… right now. 

But keep in mind that if you buy this NFT, you have 100% ownership of the work. To put it a different way… anyone can buy a Monet print… but only ONE person can own the original. And just like the clout (or flex) you get by saying, “I own that brick outside of that super awesome theater,” the same applies here.

So, why is all of this important?

Well, it gives artists a new way to sell their work, especially since there really isn’t a marketplace online for digital graphic designers to sell their digital stickers and fine art. Also, if you’re a buyer, you own that art, which means you can set it as your profile picture, use the track as a music bed on your next piece of content that you push out onto YouTube or simply have the bragging rights that you own this art and have a blockchain entry to back it up. Plus, it’s highly likely that NFT assets will go up in value as this becomes more of a mainstream thing… which means, cha-ching, potential profit!

Read more on NFTs here – an excellent article by Mitchell Clark of The Verge who also does a great job at simplifying it all down in plain English. 

Now, last thing I’ll mention about NFTs is this. There seems to be a massive trend towards bunnies… as in, a lot of the NFTs I saw at SXSW were drawings of bunnies. I don’t get it either… I guess kittens are out and bunnies are in. And Dolly Parton has some NFTs as well.  

On to number 5, my final takeaway…

5) Let’s talk about belonging and return-to-work initiatives 

Time for a palette cleanse after all that NFT talk… here’s the BIGGEST thing that I got so excited about at SXSW 2022: all of the super smart people having deep conversations on how brands are cultivating Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, while equally executing their “return-to-work” initiatives across their campuses and locations. 

How do you do this successfully in a hybrid working environment? 

With the pandemic, so many workers in white-collar jobs and at tech brands went 100% remote. Now here we are two years later, these companies and brands of all sizes (big and small) are trying to navigate how to bring their teams back for cohesion and create a sense of togetherness, without sacrificing (too much) of all the flexibility we gained while working from home.

For example, is it better to have blanket “hybrid working” guidelines across the board, regardless of a person’s job role and location (as in, “starting April 1st, you can only work from home 5 days a month”) as a way to keep it equal for everyone? 

Or is it better to customize how, when, and where people work based on the employee’s individual needs, wants and desires? Yet, you run the risk of it seeming unfair to say, two people in the exact same role. Does that bring a team together (and help them get stuff done) or does that inequity slowly tear them apart, over time? 

Ruchika Tulshyan

Ruchika Tulshyan – simplifying down Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging – SXSW 2022

I talked to many people about this and came to see how this is a REAL issue for larger corporations trying to make wise decisions in such (I’ll say it, even though it’s totally a cliche now) uncertain times. 

Return-to-work initiatives to get people back IRL into the offices have been pushed back and pushed back with no locked-in deadlines or milestone dates for a lot of brands. 


In short, the omicron variant threw a wrench into things a few months ago. And without any sort of firm deadlines or (in some cases) zero reassuring communications outwards to their teams, many are left feeling uneasy about the future ahead. 

  • Will I need to change my life around again because I’m being forced to commute into the city 45 minutes each way, starting next month? 
  • Will I have to put real pants on again soon? 

Or on the flip side for those that miss the water cooler moments and IRL working that they had in 2019… those folks are left wondering,

  • YIKES – will my company ditch the in-person office completely and will I ever see my team face-to-face ever again? 

It’s a conundrum to say the least.

Keith Ferrazzi

Kian Gohor + Keith Ferrazzi – talk about competing in the NEW world of work – SXSW 2022

Back in November 2021, the Pew Research Center reported that 4.5 million workers in the US quit their job that month. Why? Many of these people (especially in hospitality, health care, and logistics) desire more flexibility, are grappling with ongoing health concerns, and want to take advantage of the strong candidate’s job market… meaning, the power is in the worker’s court (not the employers) right now and they want to find the right job with the right pay and the right flexibility on how/where/when they work (remote, hybrid, IRL)… and are totally willing to BOUNCE until the find the best company that actually gets it RIGHT.

In my mind, it’s not the Great Resignation… it’s the Great Re-Shuffle! 

Workers want better and companies need to recognize this fact or they risk losing their top talent to their greatest competitors, which can be devastating to the bottomline. Some say it takes upwards of $50k USD in company time and resources to fill an open position, handle onboarding and training to get them up to speed. There’s no time (or money) to lose here with so many open positions that companies are desperately needing to fill, like yesterday.

The biggest takeaway that I cemented in at SXSW this year through my conversations is that… 

Companies need to make the shift in their brain AWAY from tracking hours spent on the clock and instead track deliverables. 

Is your worker getting the job done? Are they creating that report, hitting those sales numbers, completing the tickets in the cue, and ultimately, doing the thing? If yes, great… let them work when and where and how they want to, in order to get the job done. And if not, reassess both 1-1 with them and as a team, where needed.


How do you instill belonging + togetherness within your teams? – SXSW 2022

And then, as it relates to creating strong company culture that fosters a true sense of belonging and togetherness, I think there are two main factors to consider:

  • Think of your corporate offices as a “Connection Hub” – it’s evolved into the place for creative brainstorm meetings and occasional standup meetings now… long gone are the days of cube farms and clocking in and out with your timecard. 
    • Create zones where workers can migrate throughout the day, depending on the type of work they really need to accomplish…
      • For example, a spot for quiet concentration over there, a conference room that sparks creativity and play over here… so on and so forth. 
      • Ask your team through surveys what they really want and need: Do you need a dedicated desk? A locker? A place to put your troll doll and that picture of your dog? 
      • Some might say yes… others will say, heck no! 
      • Pivot, adjust, and adapt accordingly.
  • Now, on the other hand… if your entire company has gone 100% remote and relinquished the in-person office all together… The biggest thing to consider is this: Humans are made intrinsically to be in face-to-face community with other humans. We love hugs, fist bumps, and coming together over lunch and at the proverbial water cooler. 
    • Serendipity happens in those hallway moments where two people can chat quickly, connect and make decisions with minimal friction. 
    • That’s hard to replicate on Zoom.
    • Even the most introverted ones of us all like to have small blips of togetherness in IRL, as well. So, if there’s no physical office space, make sure you are planning IRL happy hours, lunches together, team retreats,  meetup huddles at local co-working spots, and more throughout the year. 
    • Sprinkle them in, here and there and budget for this expense accordingly as part of your People & Culture department. Something as simple as saying, “hey, we are meeting at XYZ co-working space all day on Thursday. No formal meetings, just sitting together and work on stuff side-by-side… and maybe grabbing lunch together at noon, do you wanna join us?” – this could do WONDERS for your company culture and cultivating a sense of belonging like you wouldn’t believe.

Mary Baird

Mary Baird – click here to connect with me on LinkedIn!

I’m so fascinated by this challenge that brands and their People & Culture departments are facing right now. Given my 11+ years experience producing live events (both internal team retreats and external brand activations) for big companies like Google, Facebook, Intel, and Microsoft… I know that having someone who understands how to produce, plan and execute transformational live events (both mega big and super small) could be an incredible asset in solving this challenge of belonging.

Now, mix that with my 7+ years of executive coaching, public speaking and training teams, I left SXSW with a real fire in my belly burning bright that I’d like to shift my focus towards this type of work next.

Hold the phone – BIG announcement from Mary Baird

Therefore, I’m publicly announcing right here and right now that I’m throwing my hat into the ring and opening myself up to employment inside the right company that could use my expertise in all of this… specifically tackling the challenge of how to cultivate belonging in teams without sacrificing flexibility in how and where they work, either remotely, IRL, or hybrid mix in between.

This is a very exciting announcement, given I’ve been at the helm of The Simplifiers for 18 years now. But I’ve got this overwhelming sense that this is the time to make a change, do something different with my career, and jump back in.

Hire Mary in your People & Culture Department!

The Simplifiers Podcast will (of course) still live on and keep going strong. The team and I have an incredible season planned ahead!

But I’m already having great conversations with recruiters and major companies about employment opportunities and maybe even consulting opportunities to help their teams.(So, watch this space!)

And hey, if you or someone you know works inside the People & Culture department at a tech brand and are struggling with this very challenge of cultivating TRUE belonging in a hybrid working environment, please reach out and connect with me on LinkedIn. Let’s spark a conversation!

It’s exciting times and I really hope to find the right fit at the right company to make a positive impact on the world in the weeks ahead.

One final whisper

And just one final whisper, just from me to you, dear friend… come in closer.

I hope this episode inspired you to get back out there and attend one or two IRL conferences in the year ahead. And I realize that this can be super scary and daunting. I actually practiced “people-ing” in the weeks leading up to having to people at SXSW. 

And of course, I’m being safe, wearing masks, taking precautions and I’m triple-vaxxed so my 5G is through the roof. Because, science.

So if you’re the same as me, I just want to whisper in your ear a little love and encouragement… 

  • Friend, it’s time to re-emerge. 
  • It’s time to come back out into the world.
  • Make Bold Asks for what you want, what you need… and what you desire.
  • It’s time to get back IRL with others, and share ideas, get inspired, and have a bit of fun together to replenish your love tank.

It’s time. You’re ready.

And the world is ready to experience your brilliance once again.

You can do this, I believe in you.

It’s time to SIMPLIFY.

If this thought of the day inspired you…

Don’t forget to hit that SUBSCRIBE button (in your podcast player) to get more of this awesome goodness coming to you each and every week.

This month, we are focused on the concept of re-emergence, inspiring each of us to take the great leap, get one step closer to true, deep connection and simplify our lives in new, profound ways. Therefore, if you’ve got specific ideas or questions you’d like us to cover on the podcast, reach out and DM me on Instagram at @thesimplifiers and spark a conversation.

Thank you!

Show credits: Suzen Marie, our Podcast Editor and Jeffrey Lynn, our Video Editor. Aubri Nowowiejski, Chris Justice, and George Mills, our advisory board. Big love to Dennis Coleman and Kristen Kurtis, as well. And I’m your host, Mary Baird.  Thank you so much for listening and telling your peeps about us.

As always friends, keep things simple.

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Hire Mary as your accountability coach and squash any excuses you’ve had in the past when you set a goal and didn’t succeed. Gain a running partner in Mary!
Sometimes what you need is a shift in mindset, so you can (actually) implement the action steps that Mary provides. Big change takes simple shifts, Mary shows you the way.

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