Geeks on a Plane: My UnGrounded Experience

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The startup economy has seen how innovation can transform workplaces, cultivate culture and inspire purpose. We are also seeing how innovation can take many forms and be transferred to diverse, mobile environments. The travel industry is on the verge of major change and one emerging trend is bringing travelers, entrepreneurs, designers, technologists, academics, venture capitalists, and mentors together on buses, trains, and boats, you name it – maybe next is space shuttles – to co-create and problem solve (see two more examples below of innovative mobile incubators). Thanks to the support of American Airlines awesome innovator’s initiative, I was fortunate enough to be part of an incredibly exciting journey called Ungrounded, British Airway’s first incubator in the sky.


British Airways brought together 100 innovators, founders, venture capitalists, and tech pioneers aboard it’s first UnGrounded in-flight challenge from San Fran to London. The 10 hour flight was designed to accelerate global innovation by exploring the misalignment between where STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) talent exists and where opportunity lies and in doing so connecting tech talent with big problems. Easy right?

Two defining factors:

1. No wifi available

2. You cannot leave

Before arriving at the San Francisco airport, we were divided into four teams (Team Altitude, Team Ground Control, Team Transatlantic and Team Wingspan) to tackle different aspects of the STEM skills gap: women in technology, expanding STEM, growing STEM in emerging economies and meeting U.S. demand for STEM talent globally.

I was on Team Altitude aimed to figure out how to better foster women in STEM fields and address the issues that might be preventing women from pursuing STEM opportunities.


Women make up 56% of college graduates, but represent only 35% of the tech workforce. Research has shown that annual revenues of women-run companies are 12 percent higher than their male counterparts and achieve 35 percent more return on equity.



We all met at the Clift Hotel in San Fran and were greeted with travel bags and our in-flight toolkit from BA Flight attendants. The kickoff started with an introduction from Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California, Simon Talling-Smith, Executive VP of Americas at British Airways and the IDEO team to explain the vision, mission, plan and rules of brainstorming on the flight.


  • Lunch and discussion of topic area in small groups guided by IDEO facilitator


  • Brainstorm around selected questions
  • Vote to select ideas to build on during the flight



The plan:

  • Refine concepts
  • Sketch a business plan including value proposition, user journey, business model and prototype.
  • Pitch project to audience and vote on best idea.

After getting over the initial shock of being surrounded by tech legends, being in business class and being offered everything from champagne to scallops, we jumped into the warm up activities including the most amazing STEM Crossword Puzzle. The perfect geeky warm up. It included clues like “A theory that extends particle physics from point particles to elongated objects”, “The only state that can be typed in one row of keys on a QWERTY keyboard” or my favorite, “A gem of a programming language”, one of the few I managed to get without a little co-creation. Need to work on my codified crossword puzzles! Take a shot at completing it here.


Next, Team Altitude split into five teams each tackling a different aspect of fostering women in STEM, we took on how fashion, music and pop-culture can engage girls and young millennial women in STEM fields. We also wanted to add a bit more of the coolness factor for learning to code.

The concept we came up with was to create a global iconic brand to give a visual identity to STEM and increase the attractiveness and awareness of STEM disciplines similar to how (RED) is globally recognized as brand to end AIDS or the breast cancer ribbon.

Product Red Logo



  • Rebranding STEM for young women by creating an iconic fashion line designed and promoted by tech-forward companies and celebrities.
  • Young women complete coding challenges to earn currency that translates into buying power within the clothing line.
  • Sponsoring companies fund the currency that participants earn through completing the challenges.

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See some of the other ideas here.

After we finished our business models, the airplane turned into an “idea gallery” filled with all of our posters explaining the different pitches. A panel of judges including Craig Newman, Founder of Craigslist, former Barack Obama adviser Van Jones, Google VP Megan Smith, Tod Lutwak, Partner at Andreesson Horowtiz among others went around hearing pitches and teams eager to receive a large gold sticker. In addition to the judges, we were given small red dots to go around and vote on various projects.

After a few hours, the loud speakers came on announcing the four winners from each team out of the 22 ideas that were pitched. Despite our best efforts, we did not make it to the final round for Team Altitude. However, the solution chosen to represent Team Altitude was AdviseHer, an online mentorship community for girls, which ended up winning the entire competition. Ours made it to top seven ideas!

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The other three winning teams included:

Beacon in a Backpack, my personal favorite, which is a a STEM toolkit, solar powered backpack that provides wifi hotspots that backpackers can deliver to remote communities they encounter while traveling. These travelers then become STEM ambassadors helping people engage more with technology around the world.

INIT, which will create a label that reveals the STEM technologies that live in products from clothes to consumer electronics; acts as a “nutritional panel” for what’s inside. I personally enjoyed the jingle this team sang if you voted for them on the plane.

Certify.me, a web platform that connects business-ready STEM talent to potential employers via a global, standardized-quality assessment.


After little to no sleep, we landed in London, where we attended the G8 Innovation Summit (which included speakers like Richard Branson and Prime Minister David Cameron!) as well as the DNA Summit, a meeting that connects the best minds in the world to progress talk into action. During the DNA Summit, the four winning teams presented their solutions. AdviseHer took the cake as the UnGrounded solution and will receive support and funding from the UN and other partners.



To summarize, the lessons I learned and knowledge I gained during a hackathon from 30,000 feet has made UnGrounded a flight of a lifetime. Huge congratulations and thank you to American Airlines for allowing me to participate and to British Airways for jumping on the idea of innovation in the sky. I believe this flight will transform the way we travel to maximize connectivity, productivity and innovation to help entrepreneurs, creatives and startups truly get to where they are going. Or as California Lieutenant governor said, “Virgin, eat your heart out.”

1. Co-create and Collaborate.

The technology community is a hotbed of collaboration, which is unlike any other field. There is a pay it forward mentality to help the next tech leaders and an understanding that collaboration is the highest form of competition.

2. No egos here

Jeans, hoddies and relaxed as ever the passengers were truly engaged to solve probelms throughout the journey. One of the first people I met, Mark from Waze, which was acquired by Google a few days earlier for 1.3 billion or Craig Newmark of Craigslist, the

3. Don’t let technology take away the human element

With the advances of technology, we have to remember the human factor and I fear my generation is losing touch with the physical world. By removing access to Internet and requiring passengers to collaborate face-to-face, it reminded us of the true value of working together as human beings.

Additionally, here are two other examples of exciting mobile incubators are:


A radical experiment in global entrepreneurship to combat the greatest challenges of our time.
20 Mentors. 100 days. 1 ship. 13 countries. 11 ventures. 1 belief that entrepreneurship will change the world. See the video here.


will take millennials on a crowd-funded 10 day, 10 city transcontinental train aiming for travelers to grow as leaders, add to their entrepreneurial and design skill sets, and co-create new ideas with fellow riders all while exploring America’s new frontiers. See the amazing video here.

To find out more about UnGrounded, visit the website.

A few other articles about the initiative.

  1. TechCrunch articleBritish Airways’ In-Flight Hackathon Spawns Solutions To The Engineering Crunch
  2. IndependentSilicon Valley’s finest minds to brainstorm ideas on the ‘humanitarian super highway’ in the sky en route to London
  3. USA TodayTech’s best and brightest minds tackle STEM challenge