When failure is the story: Atlanta event aims to eliminate stigma

Amir Farokhi’s brush with failure happened in 2009, when he ran for a citywide seat on the Atlanta City Council.

The lawyer-turned-candidate woke up the day after the runoff election with no job and a stretch of empty days before him.

“I never even thought about losing,” said Farokhi, 38, now director of strategy at BrightHouse, an Atlanta-based business consulting firm. “I wasn’t prepared for it. Everything you do is focused on winning — from knocking on doors to asking people to donate to the campaign or help by volunteering.”

Chris Hill, 34, has a similar story. Hill, who wanted to show his family that he didn’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer to be successful, came home to Georgia to open a barbecue and bourbon-themed restaurant with his brother. The day they went to look at a potential space, their investor told them he was pulling out. Later, his brother announced that he and his wife were expecting, so he wouldn’t be able to be part of the venture, either.

“It was back to the drawing board,” said Hill, a graduate of the Westminster Schools and the University of Alabama, who still plans to open a restaurant.

The chef-author said he “had worked so hard. It was like hitting a brick wall.”

The business world is littered with such stories, and one company is taking those tales of setbacks on the road.

Farokhi and Hill will share their stories during Failure:Lab Atlanta, an event designed to remove the stigma associated with failure and setbacks, either personal or professional. The event, to be held Thursday at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts, will feature storytellers baring all about the mistakes and failures they’ve encountered, along with audience participation and entertainment.

Scheduled storytellers include Steven Carse, CEO of King of Pops; Brownell Landrum, founder of DrawSuccess; Dawn Montgomery-Greene, founder of Fans Favorite Fan; and Stacey Osiecki, founder and former CEO of Parlore. Entertainers will include Wesley Cook, the Pussywillows and Michael Tolcher.

What the organizers of Failure:Lab are not looking for are solutions or celebration — at least, not from the storytellers. After they hear the stories, the audience is encouraged to share their thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #failurelab.

“There’s a mantra in the tech world that if you don’t fail, you’re not succeeding,” said Mike Mudrey, organizer of Failure:Lab Atlanta. “We want to leave out the cliches about success. What we do want is for people to be blatantly honest. Some of best conversations have been built around successful people talking about their mistakes and their regrets in an open and honest way.”

“There’s no talk of lessons learned or who’s to blame — just the story of what went wrong,” said Jordan O’Neil, one of the co-founders of the Michigan-based company that started the concept of Failure:Lab. “By talking about failure, the audience can begin a dialogue about how the local community can help foster success. Failure then takes its rightful place as the crucial first step to success.”

His company licenses Failure:Lab events throughout the world. More than a dozen are planned so far this year.

About four years ago, O’Neil attended an event in Detroit for young movers and shakers where a 73-year-old man walked up to the mic. He said he wanted to share a story about how he had failed. He had a successful career, making a ton of money, and was living in Europe with his family. His dream, however, was to own a restaurant offering live music in Louisiana.

He pursued the dream and, within two years, everything fell apart. The business went under, he lost his home, his marriage crumbled and there was a family tragedy. He had failed as a businessman, husband and father. He walked to the side of the stage, and O’Neil said it was clear he was trying to regain his composure. The audience sat enthralled.

Then, he came back and started to share the lessons that brought back his confidence. To O’Neil, the moment was lost.

“He should have just dropped the mic.”

O’Neil and his partners hit on the idea of bringing in storytellers to share their stories of failure and then letting the audience determine the lesson.

“It takes a brave person to get up there and be so vulnerable and authentic,” he said.

Still, panel participant Landrum, who has gone through bankruptcy and is launching a new venture, Wonderactive Books for children, believes “failure is part of life, but you have a choice in how you handle it. I want the audience to know that this is how I dealt with failure and I’m still here.”

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