On a Wednesday night, I find myself in a motor inn room in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The window air-conditioning unit is humming quietly, my bedside table a still life of vacuum sealed salami, cheese, cornichons and a pack of Wheat Thins — dinner for winners. And I am unsure. Of what to do with my time. This is so unexpected. On the one hand it finally opens a window to think about all the world-changing ideas that daily life rarely grants space for. Similar to the vacuum seal, we squeeze so much out of each day that there is no room between the day’s 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.-foil and the body of our work, creativity, family and social life. Not surprisingly, I find it daunting. Big ideas feel exciting and great from a distance, when we catch so much as a glimpse, when they look up and wave at us from a swaying field of great ideas that our high-speed train called life rushes through. But when you actually come to halt and sit down to have a serious talk with them, it’s quite hard to know how to approach them, where to start. It’s like a blind-date mix-up, there might be potential but it might also end up being an embarrassing, awkward night during which you don’t connect. It’s daunting, did I mention that? I tried Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and emails but I shut my computer annoyed, nothing holds my attention. Instead, I keep coming back to the conversation I had in my own head earlier today in the car as we were driving through the mountains of North Carolina.
We were just finishing up Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance. Brilliant book. Read it! Or listen to it! But consume it! We were stopped at an old gas station at a T-intersection, paint was crumbling from the walls, the gas pumps looking rugged. As we rolled into the gas station and I listened to Vance, it occurred to me that I had committed the cardinal mistake I warn all entrepreneurs of: doing something for people instead of with people. To put this in perspective: In his last chapter, Vance talks about the challenges in addressing white collar poverty, and social decay in general. He talks about it in a non-demoralizing way; he is a hillbilly himself. But he explains how no policy will ever be able to change the family ties and culture that define today’s hillbilly-culture if the families themselves didn’t want to change it themselves. Vance spoke from such as self-critical and -reflected way that I — reluctantly — drew parallels to my current work projects.
With a group of dedicated startup champions I am launching Unreasonable Lab Virginia — a one week intensive program for people who want to create social or environmental change in our community by being entrepreneurial — a bootcamp for social entrepreneurs. Unreasonable Institute (the mothership) is located in Boulder, Colorado, and has a great rack record of working with social entrepreneurs from around the world. I’m a fan. When I saw the opportunity of running a miniature version of their program, I jumped right at it! I had moved to Richmond only a year earlier and knew we had social challenges to work on:
I see homelessness in the street almost every day, at 30% Richmond’s poverty rate is one of the highest if not the highest between New York City and Atlanta. As an advisor to startups and nonprofits, I know that local change makers are addressing the lack of job training opportunities for young people with special needs, food deserts, low access to STEM education for girls, especially from underserved communities, to therapy for traumatized children and sustainable buying choices. With all that knowledge and idealism about how to make out city a better place, I pursued several rounds of application to bring an Unreasonable Lab to Virginia. I was thrilled to introduce a new format to the city, one that I had studied and worked in internationally for several years, to try out something new and convince the old guard that this was the way to progress.
About a week ago we were called out for not being inclusive, for ignoring the needs and circumstances of Black and underserved communities. We had originally invited an activist who is well connected to these communities to come on board for exactly that reason” We knew that attracting people of color and/or from low-income communities to the program was going to be a key challenge. We knew he had strong ties to these communities and during our first meeting, I felt that he was excited about the opportunity. I didn’t worry too much about inclusivity from then on; I relied on him. He didn’t show up for our next meeting or any other ones since then. I assumed he was busy working full-time being a dad but no doubt an advocate for our program. Until one day, unexpectedly for me (ha!), he sent us an email covering all the things we were unaware of. Right away, I puffed my white cheeks and felt offended and misunderstood. I felt discriminated against for being white. And goddammit! all I wanted to do was make the world a better place MY WAY. Of course he was right and it took me a while to accept it: Our program wasn’t suited at all for people who work full time and would lose a week’s pay to participate in our program. With its bright pink and green colors, hipster hashtags and pretty Facebook page our Unreasonable Lab VA would do little to attract ex-convicts and homeless people to apply. What I had I been thinking?
But it runs a little deeper. Even though I thought I knew what the issues were, I hadn’t spent any time talking to the community stakeholders, the people affected, the people who I wanted this program to be for. Instead of looking at the big picture, I relied on partners who I hadn’t really built strong relationships with. I assumed they would reach out to participants that I had no access to (clearly I couldn’t do it all, right?), as though they were just waiting for a program like Unreasonable Lab VA. It sunk like a rock in a stormy sea, slowly but steadily, when I realized that I had been wrong. I had tried to design a program for the people I wanted to work with, not with them. I have talked and written about this at length: Never implement a venture whose beneficiary you haven’t spoken to. If I’m being honest, I have no idea whether the real change makers in our community need an Unreasonable Lab. I have NO IDEA. Maybe all they need is one-on-one mentoring, or training, maybe all they need is funding, or simply someone who speaks their language. What they don’t need is another well intended program run by white young women with good intentions but little connection to the disadvantaged communities they are trying to work with.
I am more than surprised and disappointed that I ran — with open arms and at full speed — into the very very same pit that I warn all entrepreneurs of. Not once did I ask: “Wait a minute, what do you know about social issues in Richmond?” or “Have you even spoken to any of the people affected by these conditions?”. No, I ran in confidently and with a big smile without questioning what I really knew vs. what I thought I knew.
We now have a great group of participants of different ethnicities, gender, age and origin. And for a first-time run, that’s ok. From day one we told everyone that this was an experiment, that we were very much testing whether our region had the right type of entrepreneurs, interested mentors and dedicated supporters to pull off such a program. When I first realized what had gone wrong, I beat myself up. But when the dust had settled, I assessed the situation with some distance and I have come to understand that this is the first of probably several lessons that hurt in the beginning but are valuable in the long run. And hopefully make us better ecosystem builders. If this program goes into a next round we will know a lot more about what (not) to do — and that’s the best we can hope for: to learn.
*This post was written several weeks ago and had to mature for a few weeks.