Zebras Unite To Fix What Unicorns Broke

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Portraits of DazzleCon attendees by Jacob Hinmon

Who gets to build the future? Why humane tech must be built by humans serving communities.

Last November, more than 250 founders and funders gathered in Portland, Oregon for DazzleCon, the first conference of its kind. It was inspired by “Zebras Fix what Unicorns Break,” which proposed a new system to help entrepreneurs build companies for purpose and profit. We call these companies “zebras” in contrast to the boom or bust “unicorn.” (A group of zebras is called a “dazzle,” hence DazzleCon).

Zebra founders and our allies believe that creating an ethical and inclusive alternative to the Silicon Valley status quo is a moral imperative.

To build humane technology — to build anything humane — we must support the people who personally experience a problem and bravely create solutions born of this lived experience.

Culture change arrives from many directions. From the top, it can come from private, back room conversations led by “world-class” men, top industry leaders and designers, heads of state, and technology executives. The conversation can continue in classrooms and ivory towers. We can prize elitism and privilege or we can collectively choose a path of community and common good.

Change for the common good often comes from the ground up.

This is how the zebra movement began, by founders without privileged access committing to holistic systems change, and catalyzed by the community from which they are born. The ground-up approach necessarily begins with listening, empathy, curiosity, and humility. It considers the needs of entrepreneurs — especially underrepresented voices — that are on the ground creating transformative products and services that tackle real world problems. Here’s who attended DazzleCon and is shaping the movement:

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These overlooked founders need support and community. They need teams dedicated to innovating business models and corporate structures. And we all need to have honest, difficult conversations that advance shared values like integrity, collaboration, authenticity, agency, care, freedom, and yes, love.

But thankfully: we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Over the past three years, the Design Justice Network has been developing research, theory, and practice that springs forth from these values. We’ve drawn inspiration from, and signed on to, their network principles, as well as learnings from DazzleCon, Black & Brown Founders, Native Women’s Business Summit, Listenup.Tech, and the Platform Cooperative movement, to arrive at five key questions that all of us — consumers, founders, designers, policymakers and investors — must ask about designing ethical, humane products and companies.

  1. Was this designed for or by those affected? Today, startups engage in a process of customer discovery and validation. They parachute into a market to test a hypothesis and design a product. This results in disconnected, predatory colonialism whereby entrepreneurs profit from the insights they’ve gleaned to sell products as quickly as they can, and more often than not, fail and leave destruction in their wake. Lasting solutions are born from founders and teams who have experienced the challenges they’re solving for firsthand and collaboratively address their needs by building with the community they are serving. The designer is a facilitator rather than an expert and we build from a place of, “Nothing without us about us.”
  2. Does this disrupt or repair? The culture of disruption has a devastating impact on cities, and communities. “Move fast and break things” means a lot gets broken. Important things, like journalism, democracy, and social infrastructure. Deliberate and intentional processes that forge public, private, and community partnerships can sustain, repair and empower our communities.
  3. Does this hurt or heal ourselves and the earth? Harmful design patterns result in addiction, extraction, and the destruction of natural resources. New business models must be created to support companies that consider and improve both mental and environmental health outcomes. We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and to each other.
  4. Does this result in big wins for very few or shared prosperity and intergenerational wealth? Less than 1% of venture capital goes to Black and Latinx founders and 2% goes to women. These underestimated founders represent an astonishing missed opportunity, with startup creation being fueled at a higher rate than average by women of color. The most promising path forward is to work towards profitable, sustainable companies that create shared prosperity and lasting, intergenerational wealth. We need new financing instruments like uncollateralized debt and local economic development programs to support these efforts. We provide tools and support to build successful businesses with modest resources.
  5. Does this reward shareholders or stakeholders? Existing business models and funding opportunities reward shareholders above all else. The alternative to these extractive, investor-owned models is to consider stakeholders like users and members, employees, freelancers, and other participants to share in the value created. New corporate structures can accommodate the collective interest.

If these questions resonate, if you are part of a community that addresses them, or if you want to become part of a community that does, we can’t wait to meet you! Start by joining the Zebra community. Learn more about our inaugural conference, DazzleCon, with this recap, listen to our podcast, Zebracast (new episode with Jason Fried!) and if you’re able to put money where your heart is, donate to this founder-led movement.

This year, stay tuned (click “follow” up top) as we share our mission and collect community feedback, grow our organization, and develop more resources, support, and points of connection to advance our shared vision of the future, in which all of us can win.

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