Illustration by Arthur Jones

Labor & Delivery: Birthing the New Economy

Join us for a community conversation about this manifesto on Friday, February 19 at 1 PM PT

“Her birth did not go as planned.” This is how Zebras Unite co-founder, Aniyia Williams, and her husband Marco, describe their daughter Noemi’s unexpected arrival in her father’s hands, at home, in their bed, without medical professionals. Aniyia repeated her doctor’s advice: “Your body knows what to do.” The labor unlocked the family’s superpowers: listening to their instincts, presence of mind, and faith in a time of crisis. In this era of industrialized childbirth, Aniyia, Marco, and Noemi found their own way.

Like childbirth, there’s no one right way to build a business. We need more guides — doulas — to help us along the path that feels right for each of us.

It’s time we talk not just about where we want to go but also how we’ll get there together.

We four women who created Zebras Unite call ourselves the “Dazzle Doulas.” Dazzle, because that’s the fantastic collective noun for a group of zebras. And doulas, because most of our labor is listening and paying attention: to our hearts, bodies, intuition, and our community, to create new possibilities. Corporations and organizations — both words derived from the body — often result. Like a doula, we create a space for compassion and human-centered wisdom within the cold, cost-efficient, calculated modern way of doing things. The doula restores a connection to intuition and nature amidst beeping machines and easy-to-clean linoleum. We Zebras restore humanity and communal benefit to the traditionally uncompromising world of capital.

That means we don’t follow the narrowly defined startup playbook of fund, throttle, exit or bust, and neither do the thousands of founders like us who’ve joined the Zebras Unite global community. We do have some common life experiences: many of us are first-generation entrepreneurs. Few of us are white-cis-bicoastal-males. Did we grow up with wealthy friends and family? Nope. In fact, a surprising number of us were raised by single parents. Just as every newborn emerges into the world in its own way, we show up as founders of a different stripe.

At Zebras Unite, how we build businesses is as important as what we build.

That means we must question who controls them, who owns them, and the conditions they create. This is why we believe that the most urgent human rights project of our time is reimagining the world of business.

To do this requires that we imagine not only the product, but the process. And the product can no longer be the delusion of infinite growth. As our friend Roxann Stafford puts it, “The quest for growth leaves people dead.” As 2020 has revealed in so many ways, there’s always a cost; we just don’t measure it. But what do we measure? Outputs. Deliverables.

Like babies, we measure them, weigh them, check on their growth, test their intelligence. As we pointed out in our first essay, “Sex & Startups,” this is “the tyranny of the quantifiable”: a system that prizes winning, not playing. The rest of the world is starting to wake up to what we Zebras know in our bones: that divorcing the process from the product causes irreparable harm.

What if we paid attention to not only the profit margin, but to what was extracted in order to achieve it? What if, rather than forcing founders to know their exit plan from the start, the same way we ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?,” they could answer the question, “What do you love and want to contribute to the world?” This is, in the words of Nora Bateson, where “warm data’’ lives: forms of care, feelings of satisfaction, relationships, trust, history, context. These messy things aren’t easy to measure. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable, but it does explain why they’ve been devalued in our metrics-obsessed world.

What does nurturing the process look like in practice? It starts by asking a question like, “Who is rewarded for a startup’s success?” Too often founders and investors receive a wildly disproportionate upside, while the benefit to workers, users and everyone else that might contribute to a business’s success fails to match their valuable contributions. Experiments for new options are underway. Last year, a collaboration between Zebras Unite and the University of Colorado’s MEDLab guided a cohort of founders from 29 companies to adopt the ideas of Exit to Community: the practice of proactively shifting power and profits from a few beneficiaries to a broader group of stakeholders.

What about the funders? We’re beginning to see investors demand more than financial returns. To the high net worth individuals questioning whether your donor advised funds support social justice and systems change: We have options for you! To impact investors seeking mission-aligned exits: Consider employee ownership structures! If you’re a foundation fighting to reduce the operational blockers that keep you from advancing your mission: We’re here to help! We see you all, inspired to make your capital do more than just make more money, to improve the world while sharing the wealth. It takes courage to restructure your assets and operate differently (and there’s still plenty of money to be made). Come one, come all to the Dazzle! We’re here to connect and support you!

To the funders reading this: we need you to commit to changing your own procedures with the same spirit as you’re hoping to change the world. When attempting to run a new so-called theory of change up the ladder to senior decision makers and to high net worth individuals and impact investors, we often hear: “Could you summarize the New Way in a memo to share with my board?,” or “Could you put the New Way into a bullet point list?,” or “Could you define the impact and forecasted returns for the New Way?” How can you support new models when evaluating them with old methods? The current demands, by definition, default to the old way of being, where what’s easily described and measured is all that matters.

With extensive experience working inside of institutions, both nonprofit and for-profit, Zebras Unite speaks this language of bureaucracy. We call this the “Trojan Zebra” strategy for change. We give the old guard its deliverables, while making magic happen by doing the work itself. We contort ourselves to fit the dying logic model, to ease the moneyed and powerful into a place of comfort, in order to resource this renaissance. But make no mistake: this system is broken for the people who need it the most.

For those of us in communities of color, for leaders working at the grassroots level, and for our kin in the next generations: the Trojan Zebra approach may yield metrics, but doesn’t move the needle. It stymies justice and perpetuates inequality. While it’s a necessary lesser evil for this transitional era, we dream of the day it becomes obsolete. Know this: today’s change makers are constrained by fitting their vision into the so-called “deliverables” that the current power structure understands. The work they are doing goes far beyond numbers and timelines.

It’s time to adapt funding systems to recognize the many forms that vision, talent, and trust building can take to make a better world.

This year, Zebras Unite is prototyping how to build this new model with integrity and transparency. We want to share some of what we’ve learned. Most of all, consistent with the spirit of our multi-stakeholder cooperative, we want you to join us in (and own!) this labor of love:

If you’re a social change organization: imagine one day your budget is leaked to the public. What story would it tell? Would it show care for your community, a commitment to equity, and consideration for the stakeholders you claim to serve? If these questions make you uncomfortable, you’re not alone: we’ve found the budget to be one of the most challenging, messy and high-opportunity documents where theory meets practice. Both our nonprofit and co-op arms — a creatively wrangled institutional structure that, once again, is trying to build the future with the materials of the present — are experimenting with optimally aligning budget with our values of mutualism, fierceness, truthfulness, and emergence. We love sharing with and learning from any organization that examines their budget through this lens.

Do you want a deep dive into our budget’s guiding principles (or present your own)? Join us for “Our Budgets, Ourselves,” a Crowdcast discussion on March 12 at 1 PM PT.

On the non-profit side: we aim for the majority of grant dollars we secure to go back out the door by partnering and consulting with grassroots organizations led by communities of color. Recognizing the whole selves of the people who do the work, we’ve reserved funding to provide childcare and mental health support. Rather than staff up internally, we’re designing creative approaches to engage (and further resource) grassroots, direct service organizations. This is exemplified by the work we are doing in partnership and co-ownership with 100+ organizations in the Inclusive Capital Collective. Are you creating alternative capital solutions that meet the needs of underserved founders? Join the ICC!

On the co-op side: we’ve set aside 2.5% of all gross revenues for a Zebras Solidarity Fund that co-op members will decide how to circulate back out to the community. This practice is inspired by the principles of Zakat, a morally obligated Islamic practice to dissuade hoarding and redistribute wealth (more on this soon from our Director of Operations, Sheeza Shah). Most importantly: our co-op structure ensures that our members, who are our owners, keep us on track with their voice and their vote.

Working with our friends at SecondMuse Capital, we’re advancing a participatory design process that brings together entrepreneurs, investors and other key system actors to co-create innovative, inclusive and integrated financing mechanisms. These mechanisms then catalyze the growth of inclusive and resilient economies — ones where all people and communities can contribute and benefit while protecting and restoring our society and environment.

This Future Economy Lab process aligns investors, government, and philanthropy to a shared theory of change and then to practice. And the founders they prioritize are involved from the outset. Are you an investor or funder? Learn more about the Future Economy Lab, a participatory design process to take alternative capital from concept to reality.

We are thrilled to share the news that we are a part of a rare accelerator program for cooperative models with Start.Coop. We’re joined by companies building cooperative models in news/media (Bloc by Block News), addiction (Brave), child care (Carefully), sustainability (GoBox), Black-owned business (Kinfolk), and gig work (The Driver’s CoOp). This week, we’re inviting our first early bird members to join our co-op and can’t wait to welcome you this year. Do you want to own and lead this movement with us? Join the co-op.

Just as a doula in the delivery room, we’re here to assure you that as we birth the next economy, our humanity is a powerful counterbalance to today’s hyperrationality. Let’s follow our instincts, have confidence in our competence, and build it together, cooperatively. We’re up for this messy labor and delivery. We think you are too. Ready? Join us for a community conversation about this manifesto on Friday, February 19 at 1 PM PT.

The Inclusive Capital Collective is supported by grants and sponsorship from the Surdna Foundation, Wells Fargo, and UBS.

Zebras Unite.Org is grateful for support from One Project, Basecamp, the Center for Cultural Innovation, the Yagan Foundation, and our incredible board: Jennifer Brandel, Allie Burns, Janine Firpo (Chair), Vanessa Roanhorse, Nathan Schneider, Astrid Scholz and Mara Zepeda.

Zebras Unite Co-Op extends a warm welcome to the companies that have signed on to join us as founding members:, Smith + Connors, Crux, Camille Nisich Consulting, SecondMuse, Hearken, Sphaera, Sassy Facilitation, Engage Between, UpEffect, Social Venturers, Start.Coop, Guild of Future Architects, Sam Mehoke, Black & Brown Founders, Roanhorse Consulting, Village Capital, Uncompromise, and Liz Roberts. Consider these outstanding, visionary companies and organizations our preferred and most trusted service providers. Their partnership and sweat equity has brought us to this moment! We also thank our incredible team: Sheeza Shah, and Esme Verity.

The co-op is being built in partnership with our chapter leads from around the world: Kasia Odrozek & Naomi Ryland (Berlin), Daisy Ford-Downes (Edinburgh), Witman Hung (Shenzhen), Gary Marx, Linda Drabik & Laura Waters (Bay Area), Tracy Mehoke & Sam Mehoke (Portland, Oregon), Yoshitaka Tabuchi & Yuji Suyama (Tokyo), AseTila Koestinger (Vienna), Claudio Dipolitto (Rio de Janeiro), Thomas Bisballe (Copenhagen) and Johny Tay (Singapore).

We welcome our first Institutional Members, Priya Parrish (from Impact Engine, also a co-op board member) and Caterina Fake (of YesVC).

We thank our catalytic supporters, the Omidyar Network and Kauffman Foundation.

We thank our muses: adrienne maree brown, Donella Meadows, Grace Lee Boggs, Ella Baker, Margaret Wheatley, Jonathan Harris, Ari Weinzweig, Jennifer Armbrust, and Mary Parker Follett among them.

Finally, thank you to our readers (many of whom are listed above): Danny Spitzberg, Jesse Kriss, Jesse Friedman, and Evan Steiner.

Zebras Unite

A compendium of contributions from Zebras Unite founders, chapter leads, investors + allies