Chris Cummings, founder and CEO of Pass It Down, receives the Startup Award at the Spirit of Innovation Awards luncheon Friday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Photo Gallery

The innovation culture…Failure's not bad, constant learning are seen as keys


* Pass It Down - Spirit of Innovation Award

* International Maritime Security Associates - Early Innovator Award for Automated Risk Management Solution

* Blake Bettis of Westview Elementary School; Kywon Cooper and Silas Wiltshire of Normal Park Museum Magnet School; and DaMya Kelly, of Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences - Young Innovator Awards



An environment where failure isn't considered a bad thing helps create a culture of innovation, says a former worker at some of America's top technology companies.

"It's an environment where people are constantly learning, and learning is encouraged, and actually not learning is discouraged," said Leslie Miley, who has been in engineering leadership roles at Twitter, Apple, Google and Slack.

Miley spoke at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's Spirit of Innovation awards luncheon, where story-telling platform Pass It Down was the top winner.

Chris Cummings, that company's 30-year-old founder and chief executive, said he sees "huge opportunities" for the business moving ahead.

"We have some high goals," he said, adding the company is aiming for more than 200 percent revenue growth next year. "We'll see if we can get there."

Miley, interviewed by Launch Tennessee CEO Charlie Brock, said flexibility in approaching one's job also is key to spurring an innovation culture.

"I've said this to many people that 'I don't care how you get your job done. Just get it done,'" he said. "'I don't care if you're here or in New York or Tokyo."'

A lot of engineers he knows don't seem to work at their headquarters anymore, the Silicon Valley native said.

"They just fly off to Tokyo, Germany, Dubai, and they work out of their offices there because they can work out of their offices there," he said. "Google, Facebook and Twitter understood the importance of building the infrastructure to give their people that advantage."

Miley said that for Chattanooga to become the most innovative midsize city in America, it must "keep doing what you're doing."

"Everything from the Aquarium, how downtown was revitalized, intentionally engaging communities of color, engaging women — keep doing this. Double down on it," said Miley, who now works with Venture for America. The initiative permits Silicon Valley professionals to spend a year in other cities with venture capitalists or working with innovation districts.

Asked about a lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, Miley said a report last year showed there are fewer than 835 black engineers at Google, Apple, Twitter and Facebook.

"It's a stark reminder that it's not an inclusive environment," he said.

Miley said he was taught to "put my head down, keep working hard, be two, three, four times as good as the next person to get ahead." While that works to an extent, it's also isolating, he said.

"The Silicon Valley hasn't solved a lot of good problems because it hasn't had diverse people in the room," Miley said.

Cummings, whose company employs seven people, talked about the rollout of a new initiative with the Chattanooga Public Library. It will enable people to share their experiences about Chattanooga through uploaded video, audio, photo or text which can be pinned according to place, time and theme.

Cummings, who started his company two years ago, said there are two other cities with which Pass It Down is working, and each is "a multimillion-dollar opportunity."

He started his company after watching his mother fight dementia when she was 47.

"I didn't get to know the memories of my mom's life," he said. "I didn't get to know her stories, the little things every kid wants to know. There's a lot of things in life we do well, but being able to really capture the memories of a loved one is not something most people do."

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.