Episode 16: Futurist Deborah Westphal intersects humanity, technology, empowerment





In this episode, two female futurists come together to talk about the future of humanity with technology; water infrastructure and the leadership needed to sustain it; empowerment of women and new generations of leaders; and much, much more. Deborah Westphal, CEO of the future-focused strategic advisory firm, Toffler Associates, is an engineer by training and an evolving leader who recognizes the value of people. She believes individuals’ hopes, desires and strengths can further organizations, even in exponentially changing technology environments. She and Dr. Connie also explain that our inter-dependencies whether rural and urban, male and female, boomer and millennial are assets to build upon.

Deborah Westphal, CEO, Toffler Associates
“We must understand that while it looks and feels like we’re in the midst of a technology revolution, we’re really experiencing a human revolution.”
Deborah Westphal
CEO, Toffler Associates

About Deb


Deborah Westphal is CEO of Toffler Associates, a future-focused strategic advisory firm. For more than two decades, the Virginia-based firm has guided private and public organizations through disruptions and transformations in preparation for future success. Deb has spent her career unearthing insights and connecting dots to identify future risk and opportunity, and then architecting plans to best mitigate those threats and seize the opportunities.

Deborah has an MBA from Webster University and a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Mexico, and has completed extensive continuing education with Harvard Business School and Wharton Business School. She is also a member of the Air Force Studies Board, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Deborah is a sought-after speaker for events focusing on the future of space, the future threats and opportunity landscape, and organizational transformation.


Deb’s Recent Work



Bold Voices Student Segment

Listen at 13:20 of Episode 16!

Raghav Kidambi, senior management major at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Hometown: Chennai, India (population 7 million)

“When people leave rural societies for urban centers, we’re losing a huge amount of workforce when it comes to agribusiness and agriculture and things that are necessary — that are the backbone for the country. And not just in America, but this is happening everywhere in the world.”

“Going into a rural community is something special by itself, because there’s a lot more meaning attached to what you’re doing. Your work is going to affect not just you but literally a community that you get to spend time with on a daily basis.”

Learn more! Raghav’s RFI Student Serviceship experience in Seward, Neb. »


Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie, and joining us today is Deb Westphal, CEO of Toffler Associates, a future-focused strategic advisory firm. Deb, tell us a little bit more about Toffler Associates.

Deb Westphal: Sure, so Toffler Associates is a strategic advisory firm that helps our clients actually create better futures by understanding what’s driving change, helping them plan through that change, and then finally helping them adapt their organization and be successful.

Dr. Connie: Well, and we’re going to talk a little bit more about that, and some of your work is specifically with strategic advising, but I want to get more into depth a little bit here, because there are some very interesting things about you that I think our audience would be curious about. What do you do for fun?

Deb Westphal: Oh, fun, well right now I’m really into running, and I have learned to have fun with that. I’m actually going to be running in the Chicago Marathon in less than a week.

Dr. Connie: So you’re doing the Chicago marathon, but I think you also have a big climb coming up in February?

Deb Westphal: I do, I do, I’ve actually planned a trip to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.

Dr. Connie: I’d like to know, how does this bring joy but also how does it make you better at what you do?

Deb Westphal: I need to be in constant motion, whether that’s mentally or physically, or maybe even spiritually, so running and hiking and learning and just staying in constant motion brings great joy. And that really fits nicely with what I do professionally at Toffler Associates. It’s perpetual connecting dots and learning and meeting extraordinary people and learning about their lives and that brings great joy.

Dr. Connie: Well, obviously serving as CEO of Toffler Associates, you’re in a high profile leadership position. So tell us a little bit more about yourself as a leader.

Deb Westphal:  It’s evolved, and I have an engineering degree, and so in my younger years it was more about process and making sure the structure was aligned and making sure that the strategy was there. Over time as I’ve matured as a leader, all of that is needed, but that’s not the priority. And what I have found is that the priority is people. If you organize around them, and you organize around their strengths and their hopes, and their desires, the organization is much better for that, versus trying to make sure you have everything lined up organizationally and then put the people in there.

Dr. Connie: I feel like the way you lead, and your philosophy around leadership matches so well with your work because I know in our pre-convo and the form you submitted before coming on the podcast, you stated, “we must understand that while it looks and feels like we’re in the midst of a technology revolution, we’re really experiencing a human revolution.” Expand on that a bit.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, so it’s easy to focus on the technology and yes, there’s so much technology that’s maturing and advancing that we lose sight of the implications to people and humanity and society and this revolution that we’re in is human. The technology’s the fuel that is connecting us, it’s allowing us to find people like ourselves, to gain voice, to be activists. It is allowing for humans to rise and rise above the technology and use that technology as more of a platform for society and humanity.

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Deb Westphal: For our company, if you look at our business cards, we don’t have titles, because we play different roles at different times. There are times when I’ll have a millennial or a Gen-Z leading a project and I’m there to make PowerPoint slides. They’re my lead. And so you hit on the roles, right? If you see some of the projections about the workforce being by 2030, 80% of the US workforce will be freelance. Well freelance is not necessarily a title, it’s not a position, so these traditional organizational models that we have where we bring somebody in for a slot, it has a title, it has a job description that’s very limited, and we cram a person in there, we’re only getting a part of them. How do we unleash that, and how do we take advantage in the opportunity both on from a company perspective as well as from the individual to bring the whole person. Our work around human centric organizations is going through these models and where do we need to go to bring that to the forefront, to bring people to the forefront? The whole person, not just the slice that maybe was their education, or a specific experience.

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Dr. Connie: Well, I know your work and research have unveiled what you call future shocks. So how and what are future shocks and how are they going to continue to change and shape society?

Deb Westphal: Wow, there’s so many, future shocks that are happening. One is what we call the power balance, and that’s really that shifting power structure that is moved from more traditional entities to non traditional entities. Take Elon Musk, and he’s a controversial fellow, and he gets himself into trouble, but, here’s this young billionaire that connects with some silicon valley engineers and they have a vision, and all of a sudden, their influence moves an automotive industry that has been pretty stagnant, if you would, for decades. And if you look at where the automotive industry is now they’re placing their money on autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles where they wouldn’t have done that ten years ago. And so, it’s moving this power balance, moving from the traditional entities to non traditional entities to people, the GoFundMe platform allows for donations to be collected in matters of weeks for the Las Vegas shooting victims. It gives hope and some relief, if you would, to those victims in matters of weeks where the government would have taken months or possibly years. So that is a future shock that says just because you’re a strong organizational entity you may not always be in power. It really may be individuals or groups of startups that maintain that power.

Dr. Connie: I think it’s a great message for people to really think about. I think for so long we’ve been in a society where it seemed like a few people decided what happened. Right? And I’m not saying that power still doesn’t exist but at the same time, power has been given to people like never before. And getting these interesting partnerships together, thinking boldly and moving boldly and with conviction can really change the world. And developing these platforms that give people a voice, especially a collective voice, is really amazing. And it’s a great time in history to see how this is going to shape the future.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, and the infrastructure that’s being put in place around the world, the communications, information technology, we have more satellites going up, we have fiber being laid, we have CellulAir, it’s allowing everybody on the planet to connect, and through social media, there’s good and bad there, but the connection, to find people like ourselves that can bring that power and that voice is a real strong shift here, and very exciting for the future, I think.

Dr. Connie: Absolutely, and I love one of your quotes. “If your organization prioritizes age over ideas it’s time for a change.” And so thinking about, you know what, this doesn’t have to be what it was, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been around, how much experience you have, there’s really this capacity for individuals to make a huge difference, especially if they come together.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, I find it really interesting with some of the clients that we work with, that their reference, if you would, to millennials or Gen-Z is how are we going to manage these kids? They’re almost out of control, they’re very different, instead of how are we going to use this as an opportunity? Because they see things differently, they were born into this digital age they are looking at things and saying,  “this doesn’t seem right, why do we do it this way?” And for the older generations, they may see that as a challenge versus an opportunity to go, yeah, why are we doing it this way? And organizations should see that as an opportunity to question and listen to that younger generation. It would probably help them move forward in a faster way. That younger generation’s going to point out areas that probably don’t make sense in this day and age to be doing it that way. So it’s really an opportunity. It’s not a challenge, it’s not a chore, it’s an opportunity.

Dr. Connie: Thinking about a university, and the Rural Futures Institute, how can we look at that and take note and do something about that, and this is even where I have to give our young podcast producer, executive producer, Katelyn Ideus, props, and her team. They push me to do things I would not normally do.


Dr. Connie: I mean, when we were getting ready for the podcast we had this photo shoot, I’m like oh my gosh what am I doing! I’m Gen-X, doing a crazy photo shoot. They’re making me pose and look at the camera in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. But you know what, it turned out great and I’m so glad that they really were like “yeah we can do this, it’ll be awesome!” And it just makes for a great team if you can harness that diversity, and the differences, and really harness the innovation that comes out of it.

Deb Westphal: My son is 29 and while he’s starting to get older, he’s still that Gen-X, that, they’re passionate, they care about the world, they care about humanity, they want to solve the problems. They don’t necessarily want to follow in their parent’s footsteps with working 80 hour weeks, and not taking care of their bodies,  and they see there’s a higher purpose for why we’re here, and I just think that is amazing. And it’s probably scary for older generation, or older leaders, but it’s really going to unleash a new way to lead and a new organizational construct that I think is pretty exciting and full of hope for the future.

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Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rock star students from the University of Nebraska who are making a difference in Rural.

Katy Bagniewski: Hello podcast listeners, I hope you’re enjoying the show. I’m Katy Bagniewski, production specialist of Rural Futures with Dr. Connie, and with me today is Raghav Kidambi, a senior management student in the college of business at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Welcome Raghav.

Raghav Kidambi: Hello Katy, it’s good to be here.

Katy Bagniewski: And it’s so nice to have you. Let’s start by giving our listeners a glimpse into who you are.

Raghav Kidambi: I’m from a city called Chennai in the southeastern part of India with about seven million inhabitants. It’s a pretty cool place, a tropical coastline. We also have one of the largest natural coasts in the world. But apart from that, my connection to Rural and the Rural Futures Institute was through the serviceship that I went through this year, so very grateful for that. Yeah and let’s dive into that. We know that you’re this urban guy with a soft spot for rural.

Raghav Kidambi: When people leave rural societies to urban centers, we’re kind of losing a huge amount of workforce when it comes to agribusiness and agriculture, and rural things that are necessary that are the backbone for the country, and not just in America, but this is happening everywhere in the world. So that’s kind of the catalyst that’s enabled me to want to participate in something like the Rural Future Institute, and the serviceship that you guys offer.

Katy Bagniewski: So tell me a little bit about your serviceship experience.

Raghav Kidambi: So, the RFI serviceship, for me, was kind of a game changer, and it allowed me to experience rural America for the first time, because personally I’ve never really been to a rural town. I’ve driven by it, but I’ve never been situated in it for more than maybe a day or two. The people in rural societies and rural towns I feel like are very special, the places are special and I learned a lot of wholesome things from working with them. So for me that was it, the experience of being in a rural society and learning from people who are fundamentally extremely different from who I am and also sharing my experiences with them there’s a lot that we can learn from each other.

Katy Bagniewski: What advice would you give to students who are in your shoes or who may just be interested in impacting and serving a rural community?

Raghav Kidambi: That they should just go do it and a general advice that I would give my peers is that making use of opportunity, whether it be rural or not, is something that you have to do to grow as a professional, but going into a rural community is something special by itself because there’s a lot more more meaning attached to what you’re doing. Your work is going to affect not just you but literally a community that you get to spend time with on a daily basis.

Katy Bagniewski: Well, thank you Raghav, for talking to me about rural and urban collaboration and sharing your unique viewpoint on it all. And just bringing hope to students and all of us as we work toward a better future for all.

Raghav Kidambi: Absolutely, thank you very much, Katy, for having me on the podcast.

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Dr. Connie: I love how you talk about the future of work, through what you do, in terms of even thinking about future generations and what they’re willing to embrace, such as using AI as a teammate rather than viewing it as a competitive threat.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, I mean we’re already using technology, all of us are using it, whether you have a fit bit, and it’s monitoring your sleep or you have Siri in your car or Alexis in your home, we’re already relying on technology and as it advances in this AI and human machine learning and autonomy is there to help. To me it’s not scary because the technology is so far away from it being to where it’s human like, or will overtake the human. So we really need to think about it as peers and teammates, and not as a threat, because let the machines do that drudgery, and then that gives people a chance to be more creative and innovative and problem solve and do the things that only humans can do which are so much more enjoyable and fulfilling for people.

Dr. Connie: I mean, getting help with that, so it would release that time and energy to really think more broadly, think about personal development, and fulfillment, and actually be able to achieve more of that, rather than staying in the to do list.

Deb Westphal: Even some of the brain work that people do in organizations, strategic planning, lots of data collection and reading reports  and going through the information,  let a machine do that.

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Deb Westphal: So where we start is you have to get the question right. You have to get the question right, and you have to do that head work before the footwork. And spending time on what is the real question we’re trying to answer, here. Too many times people jump to a solution and just listen to what they say– we need a strategic plan, or we need a new process or we need a working group that collaborates. Wait, you don’t need those things, what is the problem we’re trying to solve? What is the question that we’re trying to answer? And really, what is that question and when we solve that problem or answer that question, what’s going to be different? And how will we use that? For us, that’s where we start. And we spend a lot of time with our clients, before we ever, sometimes before we even contractually engage with them to get the question right, what is that question, what is the problem we’re trying to solve, and then what are the hypotheses to solve that question and then what do we need to do to get the data or the right people or the right resources to solve that problem? But the key is getting the question right.

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Dr. Connie: As the future evolves it’ll be interesting to see how the technology and the interaction between technology and humanity continues to evolve as well, but another area that you’ve really focused on is water. Recently, I read an article that you published about is water the world’s greatest security risk? Tell us a little bit about your interest in water and what you’re seeing in that space.

Deb Westphal: Well the interest is across the, kind of the critical infrastructures and water is something that we can not survive without. And major water sources connect across country boundaries or state boundaries, and it can be used almost as a weapon because of that.

Dr. Connie: Well I know one of the statements you made in our pre-convo was who’s the first mover in water? And who is the long term leader? But it’s not just humans that need it, we need it to create all the technology and every living creature actually needs water.

Deb Westphal: And no one owns the problem. Is this down at the regional level, is it the state level, is it the country level? And who owns that? What industry owns it? And so that coming to the table again, who is that first mover, and who’s going to put the resources on the table to start solving this problem? I know that the University of Nebraska has the water center which is a start. It’s cross-disciplinary, you’re trying to work across the industries, the government agencies, kind of this uber collaboration is really hard because who’s accountable? Who owns it? But we have to be thinking in different models for solving these really hard problems, and water is a very, very hard problem.

Dr. Connie: As you mentioned we have a sister institute to the Rural Futures Institute here at the University of Nebraska, which is called the Water for Food Institute. And they’re really interested in how do we produce more food for a growing population with less water? We have a water center that’s been prolific in its work, but we also have a Nebraska Water Leaders Academy. I actually teach the Futuring and Innovation piece of that Academy, so people can start thinking about the future of water a little bit differently, and the leadership it’s going to take to think about this all in a new way. As you’ve talked about, I mean, the policies and structures are old, I think there’s a lot of boundaries that were created so long ago, there’s a historical component that’s been very hard to shed, at least in Nebraska, and we’re actually only one of three states that even have and academy like that. But at the same time, it is top of mind for so many industries. I mean, if you’re Coca-Cola, for example, water’s huge. I mean, I know a lot of companies have started incorporating water into their strategic planning because it is such a big part of their business.

Deb Westphal: Yeah and so what are you finding? Are you finding it’s about process or are you finding it’s about people?

Dr. Connie: Like you’ve said, it’s very complex. And the great thing about the Water Leaders Academy is that it brings together all these different areas of expertise. So you have attorneys, you have policy analysts, you have leadership development people like myself,  you have futurists like myself, but you also have farmers and business people in the academy, so it’s a great collection of expertise, both teaching and learning, and all co-learning with one another. So much of the policy was created so long ago. For example, here in Nebraska, surface and groundwater are sort of treated as separate entities. Well, we know ecologically that’s not the case, right? And so who does really own what, who really should lead what, and how can we innovate together to make it different? So it is both, I think policy, it’s procedure, but then there’s that element of humanity as well. Because we also have challenges around, okay, if I’m a farmer for example, should I be able to grow my crop over someone who owns a business that takes people down a river in a canoe? What is the priority for all this water? And I think we have great systems in place in a state like Nebraska, too, where we have natural resource districts. So I think we’ve been fortunate that there’s been a lot of collaboration, but we’ve also seen some interesting things happen around quality, because quantity has been the focus but now it’s quality. And so for example, as quality becomes more of a challenge point, how do we innovate around that? What can we create that’s different? And we’ve seen even some of our rural communities who literally were giving bottled water to their community members, especially pregnant women, older people living in those communities, people at risk for their health, because the nitrate level was so high. And what that community had to do was actually work with the ag community, because separately they could not afford to remediate the water or pay for a new system but together they found a way to make their water system better in their area.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, I had a discussion with the Coca-Cola, North America sustainability gentleman and he was talking about the issues of water. And quality was a huge issue and it comes back to their brand because the different qualities of water, whether you’re in a small town, at a gas station, at a Coke machine, or whether you’re distributing out of a large distribution center somewhere inter-regional, that quality of water makes the Coca-Cola taste different. And why I bring that up is not so much worrying about their brand, but they’re worried about their brand and the power of a company like Coca-Cola is engaged with solving this problem both for us and humanity, but also for their company so I think that’s real hopeful. A part of it is educating, it’s only been recently, what, in the last decade, that we’ve really even dug deep into these really complex issues to even start to untangle them so that we can solve them.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I mean I’ve been studying more and learning more about this while I’ve been working with the Water Leaders Academy for, I don’t know, the last, I suppose it’s been about 10 years. I mean, I’ve learned a lot, but I’m also a natural resources major in my bachelor’s degree with a water science emphasis and I am a complete nerd in this space so I love digging into it. It’s really fascinating to me to think about just this concept of water and why we do what we do with it. So when you look at other countries, and I think this is where studying what other countries are doing and even traveling like you talked about is so helpful. They’ve started using gray water to wash sheep, for example. I mean, why are you using fresh water to clean sheep? Whereas I think here in the US, that same thing about cars. Why are we washing cars with really good water? I mean, do they really need that? I don’t think so. And I know that’s a big expense to switch a lot of that around but at the same time are we going to be at the forefront of this, are there other solutions we aren’t thinking about, are we going to wait until it gets to a mission critical point before we’re willing to make the changes necessary?

Deb Westphal: And it’s only one of the critical infrastructures that we have. Department of Homeland Security identifies 18 critical infrastructures: the electric, and telecom, and finance, and manufacturing, and water touches all of them, so it’s not only the problems inside the critical infrastructure but it’s also those interdependencies of the other infrastructures, and you start thinking about this very complex lattice, if you would, of issues. It really demands different models of leadership and collaboration and problem solving.

Dr. Connie: Yeah I love Singularity University doing an XPRIZE on how to pull water out of thin air. How do we get the vapor out of air, wherever you are, so maybe you don’t have to dig a well? Maybe there are other options out there, that we need to think more broadly about.

Deb Westphal: Yeah, I think that we need more of that. I mean the traditional kind of historical organizations need to rethink their boundaries. Right now, that’s where a lot of the brain power is, and the resources, and the money, and the energy, and we have to unleash that somehow out of the traditional companies.

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Dr. Connie: I’d love to know what parting words of wisdom do you have for our listeners?

Deb Westphal: Let’s not forget that this technology revolution, if you would, or this advancement of technology is really pushing and elevating people, and humanity, and thinking about the models more as a human centric to unleash that power and that energy of people within their organizations as well as outside their organizations is really what leaders of the future, I think, need to be considering. And to do that you have to look kind of internally, too, and overcome your own biases or your own belief systems about how things work or should work or how they need to work in the future so realize this is about people, realize this is a human revolution, and start with yourself.

Dr. Connie: Well, and speaking of starting with yourself, Deb, I’d love to know a little bit more about something that’s been a hot topic lately, and that’s women. Women, leadership, and I’m also going to throw aging in there. How do you feel right now as a woman leading an organization and doing amazing things in your own life? How are you seeing the world through the eyes of a female leader?

Deb Westphal: I would imagine you’re also going to throw that into aging and aging–

Dr. Connie: You know, I’m going there.


Deb Westphal: I am, I am aging. But you know what? To me, this is the best time of my life. I would not go back to my 20’s or my 30’s, or, this is an amazing time. We have the ability to stay physically fit, to stay mentally fit, it’s really an attitude, but also we need to change society’s view about what this is. I mean I am a long way away from giving it up and just sitting on the couch. And I’m in my 50’s, and I am better physically fit than I was in my 30’s, and I have higher energy and I don’t see this as an end and so I think this is a social shift we have to make. It’s not about women just raising kids and getting to this age and quitting. It’s really a time of empowerment.

Dr. Connie: Well I think that what you’re saying and sharing is such an important message because it is one of those difficult transitions in life as well, in some ways, where I’ve found that my career as you worked up and did all these things and you worked hard it’s like, you were supposed to wait. Oh, wait until you’re this age, you don’t have enough experience, well suddenly it’s like you turn 40 and then all the sudden they’re focused on sort of the next incoming group of leaders and emerging leaders. I’m like, wait a second, where was the perfect time?


Deb Westphal: Right.

Dr. Connie: I’m not sure. And then it’s like, well you know what it’s really up to me to create that. But I was just at the eye doctor here recently and couple, I guess two years ago, she tried to get me to switch to bifocals, and I was like I’m not doing that, and I didn’t, so year one passes by I didn’t even get the prescription filled. Year two goes by, I have it filled, I couldn’t even find them to go to the actual appointment and I just told her basically like a couple weeks ago I’m like, “hey, you know what, I may not be taking this well. I want the bionic eye that you’re telling me about so what can we do with that, I’m a futurist, bring it on.”

Deb Westphal: That’s so funny. Well I’ve already had cataract surgery so and I did get the bionic eyes and it’s amazing. So it’s hard, right? You go to college, you get married, you have kids, you want a career, you want to raise your children, you want to be a good wife, and somewhere along the way maybe you forget about yourself. And then you get to this age, and you go wait, you know what? It’s okay to be thinking about me. And there’s plenty of years ahead. So this work life balance, I don’t think it really exists, because you’re really not trying to achieve balance, you’re just trying to live it all. And you’re doing the best you can. Put yourself first for a moment and go do those things that you wanted to do.

Dr. Connie: And I think it’s a great message for other women that are our age to hear but I also think it’s such a positive message for younger women who are trying to figure out how do I do all of this?

Deb Westphal: Yeah and you have to be forgiving of yourself. Because you’re not always, not every day, not every moment, you’re not going to hit it, you know? It’s not going to be perfect. And so I’m a big Brené Brown fan. She talks about vulnerability and you’re enough, and really bringing out that human side. Don’t put up the armor and try to be perfect and try to make everybody happy. Try to be real, try to be authentic. Over time you grow it, you don’t hit it every moment.

Dr. Connie: If a person’s going to be teaching about leadership, if you’re going to be talking about leadership, it’s so important to be who you are and be very comfortable with that.

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Dr. Connie: So what advice would you give, women in this day and age as they kind of reflect on who they are, what they want to experience, but also as they age?

Deb Westphal: Ooh, well first thing is stay healthy because you need that, you need to take care of yourself. And you need to make that a priority because without that, the other stuff becomes too hard. I guess the other advice is don’t put so much pressure on yourself. You’re enough, and you have to put yourself first and not put the burdens of what expectations are on you.

Dr. Connie: I so admire you and the work you’re doing and I love the fact that you’re bringing this human centric sort of philosophy out to the world, and thank you for doing that because definitely, more organizations, more people, need that.

Deb Westphal: I really appreciate you having me on this, the podcast, and the leadership, and being a woman in strategic foresight, we need to have more conversations like this. And so I appreciate it, Connie, and thank you so much.