Nurturing Alliances that Create Systemic Change; with Kevin Jones
Kevin’s work has always been about bringing people together. From his early career running a local weekly newspaper, to co-founding SOCAP, and now through his work at GatherLab and Transform, he has seen the value in creating a strong community.
Real change happens when alliances are nurtured. We need strong partnerships to make the impact that is needed in the world. Read the interview below for Kevin’s insight into community building.
Tell me more about your organization and the work that you do.
I co-founded the SOCAP conference, Social Capital Markets, which is the largest of the impact investing conferences with social enterprise in the world. It has been around for a dozen years, and we call it the conference at the intersection of money and meaning. There are about 3,000 people from close to 70 countries who come to that.
We sold that a couple of years ago, and now we have a company called Gather Lab. Conferences are great and you meet new people and you form new alliances, and those alliances need to be nurtured over time to cause a real system change and that’s what we’re doing in our new conferences.
How did you decide to make the shift into this new organization?
Two things. I’m really good in early markets and startups, and when things go mainstream, I’m less valuable, and you can hire an MBA to do it. And, I like to go into new things.
Then I realized that at the conferences, people were meeting, for example, at the back of a panel session and saying, “We’re working on the same kind of problem you are.” They were trying to form these alliances on common systemic problems, but there was nothing to nurture those connections and cause those to become real over time.
We’ve been working on things like regenerative agriculture with a group in Illinois to help regenerative agriculture, which is agriculture that sequesters carbon, move from the farm to table kind of niche to farm to hospital food service. Now we’ve got regenerative oats, which again are oats that are restoring the soil and sequestering carbon, and now they’re in hospitals at industrial scale. Those sorts of things need to be nurtured over time.
We’re working on a really promising housing solution for Somali immigrants in Minneapolis. The problem there is that often Somali immigrants, and a lot of Muslims from a lot of places, don’t believe that you should have interest, so they don’t buy houses. We have a solution that is about to start. We’ll have 200 people putting up $2500 each, other Somalis and neighbors investing in their neighbors, buying two houses. Then they’ll be paid off over 15 years and not have interest.
We’re splitting the profit essentially between Star Finance, which is the Somali startup, and with the neighbors. The profit that would’ve gone to a bank is split between the community who’s investing in their neighbors. We think we can potentially disrupt the mortgage industry. If you ask people, ‘would you invest in your neighbor’s mortgage?’ And you ask an immigrant, they almost always will say yes. And, if you ask a typical baby boomer, if you would invest in your neighbor’s mortgage, they would think you’re kind of crazy.
This is a solution that is really tailored for immigrants because they’re already investing in their neighbors.
What was your background originally, before SOCAP?
I started out as a weekly newspaper editor in the poorest county in Mississippi, but I grew up in the Bay area and I moved there when I met my wife. Her father was about to sell the family weekly newspaper, and I said, “Well, how different can that be?” And, it turned out to be quite different, but what I learned there is that that newspaper was incredibly vital. We would have 200 people show up every Wednesday night to get the paper because we were writing about what people cared about.
My father-in-law’s thesis, or theory, was that you have to create a community in which your business could survive. My wife and I have been in nine startups, and they’ve all succeeded, in media and events, business journals, newspapers, magazines, and other conferences. Our premise is that we have to build a community in which our business can survive.
Throughout your career so far, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
You have to listen to people and you have to give them what they want. The other thing is you have to do what you’re good at. I’m an idea person and I get a handle on what the shape of a new market will be. I need a product design person to turn my understanding and ideas into a real viable business that holds up over time. I’ve learned to do what I’m good at, and not do what I’m not good at.
What advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs?
Discover if you’re really an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is way too sexy of a thing these days. If you can be a valuable employee or a follower, you should be one. If you think you’re a leader and people aren’t following you, then you’re not a leader. We have way too many people who think they’re leaders who really should be followers. If you can’t live with a boss being stupid, then you’re probably an entrepreneur. If you can be an incremental change agent in a large institution, then you should be, those are really valuable. You don’t need a lot of entrepreneurs, you need more followers.
What’s your vision for the future, either for your business or for the world or for both?
One of the things we’re doing with Star Finance, the Somali led a housing initiative, is the wealth will be held locally, so we’re not going to resell the mortgages so it won’t turn into a financial bubble. I see more democratic solutions to community wealth, and I see that the rapacious capitalism is not working for the planet and for the people. Don’t bet on rapacious capitalism to survive. Don’t join Goldman Sachs or one of those other kinds of places.
The thing we’re doing with the Somali immigrants will work well in a downturn and will work really well if the economy just goes completely to shit. I would work on things that will work if things turn worse. You need more people to be on your side and on things that have increasing social capital over time.
What action do you want readers to take?
Invest locally. Even Lloyd Blankfein, immediate past head of Goldman Sachs, says he thinks the greatest systemic risk is a wealth disparity. The fact that so many people have so many fewer assets than other people, and he thinks that’s a risk to the whole system. Work on things that eliminate wealth disparity and make wealth held more in common in neighborhoods where people don’t think of themselves as being wealthy. I think we have to invest in our own collective wellbeing into the future.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We don’t have time for people to despair. The times are too late and the situation too dire to be anything other than firmly hopeful.
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