How The Arts Can Play A Quiet, But Vital Role

Last week, I had the rare opportunity to spend an hour with the type of person I don’t normally encounter. Mert Iseri, engineer, entrepreneur and founder and CEO of SwipeSense, in Evanston, Illinois, was in town to speak at TEDx. Impact Foundation invited some nonprofit leaders in the metro to join him for a pre-session where he talked about design thinking something as massive as eradicating 100,000 preventable deaths a year through inadequate hand washing in hospitals, the value of failure and more.

That’s all well and good, but, again, this type of work is not exactly in my typical lineup of people I meet with.

But Mert Iseri was extremely interesting, and quite frankly, he had that kind of contagious enthusiasm about his company that often helps those who are not immediately attracted to the topic find a place to engage.

But it was something more, and I felt it from almost the first minute he began to speak.

For 45 minutes, Mert was animated, articulate, engaging and inclusive of the entire group. He used his hands to gesture in powerful ways. His voice has a melodic quality that drew us in. And he was an excellent storyteller.

In short, he was not a stereotypical engineer.

And then it dawned on me: there was no way Mert Iseri didn’t have an arts background or artistic passion that drove him beyond his desire to track hand washing and preventing unnecessary hospital deaths.

The time came for questions from the audience, and I raised my hand. I had to know what his background was — the information that wouldn’t show up on a CV or LinkedIn.

I said, “You’re an unusual engineer.”

He and the audience laughed.

I continued, “I don’t believe you are simply a product of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. I want to know what your art background is.”

He looked at me for a brief minute and said, “Actually, I do have an arts background. I sculpt.”

I did that “touchdown” gesture that refs do when the ball clears the poles and felt a wave of relief that my instinct had been correct.

He added, “My sister is an oil painter, and on Sundays, I sculpt. I have a studio where I go on the weekends and make art. I grew up around the arts, so it’s always been in my life and part of who I am.”

The only thing that would have made this better is if I had been recording his conversation.

In that moment, I felt overwhelming joy that Mert Iseri, an entrepreneurial engineer I don’t know and will likely never meet again, proved my point that STEM must be STEAM (art) to open up the minds of brilliant young engineers, scientists, mathematicians and those in technology.

This young man is changing the world, but I would argue it’s the arts that gave him the ability to engineer the solution in the first place.

This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and originally appeared in print on Monday, July 31, 2017.

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