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Brainstorming at 30,000 Feet: Tackling Big Problems While in Flight

Mile-High Expectations: Tackling Big Problems While in Flight
A British Airways plane in London, England. Photograph by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Here's one way to kill time on an 11-hour flight: Try to solve one of the world's most pressing problems.

That was the mission for 130 tech executives, venture capitalists, educators and government officials who are flying today on British Airways' first in-flight, all-night hackathon called "UnGrounded" from San Francisco to London. The miles-high expectations? Come up with at least four ideas to alleviate a chronic shortage of science, technology, engineering and math students entering the global workforce. The dearth of qualified job candidates can stifle innovation.

While the unique in-air networking session was created to get technology execs hooked on flying British Airways, the other motivation was to help solve, along with design firm IDEO, Google and several universities, an estimated shortage of 500,000 people who can fill computer-related jobs in the U.S. by 2020. A big part of that equation is figuring out how to fill more of these positions with women, who only represent 35 percent of the tech workforce, according to the airline. The group's four best ideas will be presented June 14 at the G8 summit's Innovation Conference and the concurrent United Nations' Decide Now Act conference in London.

But before tackling that problem, organizers had another daunting challenge: the seating chart for a group of VIPs on a 747 with only 14 first-class seats and 54 in business class. Passengers included Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist; Todd Lutwak, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz; Guy Schory, head of new ventures for eBay; and Rahul Sood, general manager of global startups for Microsoft.

In the end, organizers had everyone check their egos at the cabin door and asked participants their areas of interest. Passengers were then placed on teams (and in seats) based on their responses. And showing that chivalry isn't dead, the group tackling ways to get more women interested in tech won the coveted first-class seats.

Unlike typical flights, though, flight attendants were told not to scold people who use bathrooms outside their assigned cabins. One thing the crew will watch for is the group's sobriety -- no one wants the teams to come up with half-baked ideas when they're, well, half-baked on free drinks, says Simon Talling-Smith, executive vice president of the Americas for British Airways.

There was one bit of good (and bad) news before the group took off from San Francisco International Airport. Storms over much of the U.S. would add travel time. The extra hour might not be spent problem-solving, though, as turbulence keeps people strapped in their seats.

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