By Emily Johnston, co-founder of Unity Effect.
We sat on the bus, rolling out of Barcelona, headed to… well, actually we didn’t know where. This is the mysterious appeal of a ChangemakerXchange summit, an off-shoot of Ashoka, the biggest network for social entrepreneurs worldwide. Asking yourself what happens at a ChangemakerXchange summit? Well, we were too. All we knew was that we were going to spend the next five days together with 20 changemakers from across Europe and MENA region – 20 of Europe’s top social entrepreneurs, as the description of the event where we had just pitched our projects had (only slightly intimidatingly) put it. And now here we were at the beginning of our adventure into the unknown, feeling a lot like a bunch of kids heading out on a school camp. What exactly was in store, we were yet to see.
As we left the outskirts of the city, we were invited to partner up to reflect on some questions. Looking back over the last few weeks, what had excited us? What had drained us? And looking forward to the next few days together, what did we hope would happen? What were we afraid would happen? As soon as I heard these questions, I knew I was in exactly the right place. I love good questions, I love real conversations, I love moments to reflect. In fact, I’ve pretty much built a business around it. It felt refreshing to step back from the role of the one asking the questions and have the space to reflect for myself.
Over the next five days, we spent a lot of time like this: diving into questions, sharing and listening to one another. This might sound overly simplistic, yet it is hard to overstate the power of having space to reflect, and especially to do it together. Everyone in the group was a leader of a social business or initiative, yet we were invited to take off our masks and show up just as ourselves, as humans – not as CEOs, co-founders and leaders of our ventures, not as ‘hero-preneurs’, and definitely not as Europe’s top social entrepreneurs. For many, this was a huge relief. Wearing that mask and the expectations that come with it can be extremely exhausting, and for many, pretty lonely. Many people in the group shared the feeling of being misunderstood – that a lot of the time our parents, friends or society in general don’t get what we actually do, why we’ve chosen this path, or why we spend all of our time on it, despite not getting the financial reward we could otherwise get in a ‘normal’ job. Simply having the chance to be vulnerable, to connect on a deeper level and share these challenges gave us the feeling that we are not alone with it. And it was amazing how many shared similar challenges.
Shared challenges & the importance of realising we’re not alone
Throughout the summit, I was struck by how the challenges and struggles we face as social entrepreneurs, are, at their core, extremely human. There are the underlying issues of worthiness: the fears of not doing enough, knowing enough, being enough, of being an imposter. Tied to that is the challenge of setting boundaries between ‘work life’ and ‘life life’, a distinction which gets especially blurry when your work is your passion. And when your project becomes your identity, when you are focused on doing social ‘good’ and contributing to a better world, and then you throw worthiness into the mix, it can be extremely hard to feel that you are ever doing enough, to value your wellbeing, and allow yourself to stop working. It’s hardly surprising, yet very concerning, that many people in our group were close to burnout or had been at some point. For many it was extremely important to recognise that it’s ok to value our own needs and that caring for our wellbeing is not only a good, but essential use of our time. Let’s face it: we can hardly expect to create a happier, healthier, more sustainable world if we don’t value ourselves as part of it – and if we have exploited our own energy resources in the process.
Other shared challenges related to the leadership roles we play in our ventures. Many people expressed not wanting to be an all-powerful leader but having this projected on them by others in the team. Often it was our deep passion for a cause that propelled us into a leadership position, not a desire to climb any kind of ladder – otherwise we would probably have stayed in a job where there actually are ladders to climb. Yet our inspiration and vision for our ventures, combined with a sense of accountability and ownership, as well as simply rolling up our sleeves and getting things done, naturally puts us in the position of a leader, with all the expectations that come with it. The challenge is learning how to embrace this leadership role and the power that lies in it, and at the same time find ways to empower others to step up into their own leadership positions – to share the sense of ownership, to tap into the creative power in the team. This can mean a process of letting go of a certain level of control, decentralising decision-making and growing a deeper level of trust and transparency in the team, which is not always easy. Yet it was simply refreshing to explore the idea that leadership comes in many forms and doesn’t have to mean one person is at the top, in control and has all the answers. This kind of leadership is necessary in some cases, yet in a social enterprise where everything is constantly changing and growing and where – let’s be honest – no-one really has the answers a lot of the time, it can be much more productive and healthy to shift the traditional power dynamic and figure out the answers together.
Creating this kind of team culture takes work and commitment – which, in much the same way as with personal wellbeing, can be hard to value as an important use of time when there is so much else on the to-do list. Yet our team is really the most important resource we have and where, as I learnt over the summit, many of our challenges arise. Investing time into our teams is therefore essential not only for our personal and collective wellbeing at work, but also so that we can have more impact on a broader scale.
Systemic impact: thinking bigger
Another topic that made us ask ourselves tough questions was, maybe surprisingly, systems impact. This is a core topic and goal of Ashoka: to grow the systemic impact of changemakers around the world. Obviously all of us who were in the summit want to create social or environmental impact as that is why we chose our path as social entrepreneurs, and not just, well, entrepreneurs. Yet how far do we go with it? Are we willing to let go of our ideas, of the things that make our businesses unique, to make our work freely available to the world on purpose so that people can copy us and grow our impact beyond our business? Are we willing to stop with what we are doing if we realise our business is even getting in the way of having a bigger impact? This is not to say that this is how we have to think necessarily – there is nothing wrong with growing our own business, creating financial sustainability for ourselves and keeping some of the magic of what we do to ourselves. Yet I love the invitation to think about how we can grow our ideas and work to solve the problems we are passionate about, at the same time as growing the structures of our business. In the long run, growing awareness and even a movement around what we do will also help our business. This is the Ashoka way: why teach a person how to fish when you can revolutionise the entire fishing industry? This is a pretty epic mindset shift, yet also an extremely powerful and exciting one.
So many big questions and deep reflections – and of course there was also a lot of time for playing, laughing, walking, drinking wine and swimming in the pool. In many moments I looked around me and simply thought: wow. Each one of these people decided to start their own business, to create something out of nothing, to put their time and energy and passion into a project that they hope will make the world a little better. I find this so insanely inspiring and these five days really reinforced my passion to support these people and their teams on their journeys as changemakers, leaders and above all, humans. There is so much power in connecting, sharing, allowing space for vulnerability and bringing humanness back into the equation. We can learn so much from and with each other. And to get to do it in a beautiful place. It’s a huge gift which ChangemakerXchange gives.