Zebras: Let’s Get In Formation

By Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz, and Aniyia Williams

Four months ago, we published “Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break,” a treatise calling for a more ethical and inclusive movement to counter existing start-up culture. We called for an ecosystem that supports founders of all stripes. We argued that creating alternatives to the status quo is a central moral challenge of our time.

We wrote the piece as a reaction to what we were seeing, feeling, and experiencing as underrepresented startup founders at odds with systems not designed for us to exist, let alone thrive. It was our way of finding catharsis and community, and of giving hope to those who found themselves in a similar position.

Since then, the evidence against toxic “unicorn” company culture has only mounted: the fall of Uber’s CEO; exposés on sexual harassment; damning studies revealing how funders ask biased questions and speak differently about male and female founders. The problem is clear: what exists is created by and for an exceedingly select breed of companies.

Startup culture cannot be fixed by #decencypledges, tearful mea culpas, or diversity training. From the start, it has excluded countless capable founders and ignored the important products and services they’re passionate about bringing to the world. We’ve come to realize that many of these founders are actually not interested in gaining entry to a unicorn kingdom. These founders don’t align with the scene, the values, the culture, the business models, and the economic imbalance it perpetuates. When a system is corrupted, why endorse it by joining it? Instead of fighting to change this existing reality, why not design a new one of our own?

The Zebra movement is a founder-driven, grassroots effort, grounded in a different set of ideals. “Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break” invited those who share our values and ambitions to help make another reality possible.

We expected to generate some interest. The response has been beyond anything we could have imagined. More than one thousand people raised their hands to attend DazzleCon, a conference that will bring together like-minded founders and investors. Hundreds more reached out to offer encouraging words and support (we are responding as fast as we can!). Founders in Berlin started throwing zebra parties of their own. The zebra methodology is being taught in Melbourne and Mexico City. Employees are writing about the joy of building zebra companies. Law firms are beginning to recognize zebras as an area of law. And zebras are even being referenced in pop culture.

This momentum is proof we’ve hit on something. The validation has been extraordinary…and a little overwhelming. As four founders, we’re striving to grow our respective companies even as we work to galvanize the zebra movement. We had to get really honest and ask for the help we needed. Incredibly, it is arriving.

Everyone who has shown up thus far agrees: as unicorn culture crumbles, the time for zebras is now. They also agree: it’s going to take a village to build this movement. If you want to help us build this alternative framework for twenty-first-century business, we want you. Here’s how you can get involved:

Next Steps

Are you a friend, founder, or funder? Opportunities to link in are below:

1. Founders: We have heard from thousands of founders and funders excited to attend DazzleCon, our inaugural gathering (a group of zebras is called a “dazzle”). Given the response, we’ve divided the event into two conferences — one to take place later this year, and one in 2018.

If you’re a post-revenue founder who identifies with the zebra ethos; has a product in market; and faces capital challenges, apply now to join us at DazzleCon ’17 from November 15 to 17 in Portland, Ore. (scholarships will be available).

We’re inviting about one hundred and fifty founders and funders to discuss and design the support companies like yours need and the community you’d like to see, as well as compile a list of shared resources. We’ll also jointly create a definition of what it means to be a zebra. Is this you? Join us!

If you’re an aspiring or pre-revenue founder or strongly identify with our manifesto, please join our mailing list to be notified about details for DazzleCon ’18, a larger public conference (dates and location TBD).

2. Funders: Visionary funders recognize the need to invest in creating this alternative movement. We are grateful for financial and in-kind support from #Angels, Artha, Catalyst Law, JLL, the Knight Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation,

Sponsors are visionary companies and funders committed to supporting this movement. We have a limited number of sponsorship opportunities remaining. Learn more here and reach out to Rachel Coddington (rachel@zebrasunite.com) if you’re interested in joining these great funders in creating the zebra economy.

3. Friends: We’ve assembled a cohort of partners and friends to build this movement with us. Joining us as advisers are Alexander Rose and the Long Now Foundation, Aniyia Williams of Black & Brown Founders, Tara Reed of Apps Without Code, Katherine Silveira and Loren Hadassah from The Booming Collective, Andy McMillan from the Liberty Foundation, Tsilli Pines from Design Week Portland, Nathan Schneider of the platform cooperativism movement, Darius Kazemi and Courtney Stanton from FeelTrain, Marcelino Alvarez from Uncorked Studios, Rand Fishkin of Moz, Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman’s, and Vanessa Roanhorse of Roanhorse Consulting, who is working with Native American founders. Together, we’re creating an awesome conference, DazzleCon (more on that below).

Are you interested in being our friend? Friends lend their time, talent, ideas, and networks by helping us to secure support, resources, and partnerships needed for the conference. We also cross-promote aligned events and opportunities. Contact us here.

Founders, funders, friends: let’s get in formation!