Ecosystems. We’ve been using that word a lot this past year – many people have, really. Last August we brought together a group of friends, old and new, to meet for a monthly salon designed to challenge our ideas about ecosystems. We invited dozens of catalysts from across our community (and country – thanks, Mark Newberg!) to spark conversations around food ecosystems, learning ecosystems, health ecosystems, even impact investment ecosystems — and how this lead us to an impromptu laughter yoga session one evening is, I suppose, part of the beauty and spontaneity of ecosystems.
One of the final stops on our ecosystems’ journey this year was a trip to Kansas City for The Kauffman Foundation’s inaugural ESHIP Summit. Jumping into a swarm of ecosystem builders, we found ourselves in a massive network of strangers (soon to be friends – or at least connected via an impressive ESHIP app), who were eager to build a community of practice and pave the way for a new model of economic development.
While getting our hands dirty in ecosystem building activities and taking a few moments to pause and reflect on the words of a few wise “FireStarter” speakers, we came across some recurring themes that echoed the learnings from our salon in Tucson. Ecosystems seem to thrive when they include diverse voices, foster inclusion, promote active listening and provide the time & space to create together.
Diversity & Inclusion
Thousands of years on earth have shown us that diversity is a good thing. Actually a great thing. When there is greater diversity of life on our planet, this biodiversity makes ecosystems stronger. As humans, we are better off when we live and work in diverse places. Whether it’s ecological or entrepreneurial, diversity advances life-saving research, weathers massive storms, fosters deeper understanding and propels us forward as a species.
ESHIP FireStarter, Melissa Bradley, said it well “There is a cost when we do not invest in diversity – reduced economic output & productivity.” Melissa shared that black female business owners outperform others by 6x. Yet, only 1% of all venture capital funds go to minority-owned businesses. Advocating for diversity and confronting racism is a step forward both socially and economically; however, building healthy ecosystems takes more than just getting the right people at the table. How are we putting diversity into practice? Inclusion is that “how.” We can take the first step by identifying boundaries and working to span them.
Listening & Creating (Together!)
The world is changing rapidly – ecosystems included – but that doesn’t mean we should keep speeding up. Instead we need to slow down, ask questions, listen, and reflect. We know our relationships, our work, our communities and our political systems crumble without trust. So how do you build trust? Take time to ask questions and actively listen. Use RASA to engage in deep listening. It’s worth your time.
We spent time listening to Paulo Gregory, another FireStarter at ESHIP. He shared that “the problem is not the community. It’s the structure of the system that leaves communities hanging.” In order to shift these structures and affect systematic change we have to listen to one another. Easy right? Well, practicing empathetic listening can be uncomfortable – especially when what you hear doesn’t match your experience or world view. But that’s what it’s about: shifting perspective. Bradley shouted it from the ESHIP stage… “Let’s get $%&#@!* uncomfortable!” Basically, if you keep doing the same things and surrounding ourselves with the same people, you might feel comfortable, but you’ll be stuck. Change will happen without you.
To be a part of the change, we have to listen. When we listen, we can start to form connections (both neural & network) and create sustainable solutions, together.
I returned from ESHIP with one connection that, with a bit of irony, put these learnings into perspective. This afternoon, I’m grabbing coffee here in Tucson with someone who I met in Kansas City. Oddly enough I had to travel half-way across the country to find an entrepreneur in my own community who is doing some pretty cool stuff.
There is always something to be learned and discovered in your own backyard – an ecosystem to be nurtured. So what are you waiting for? Honor diverse voices, span boundaries, actively listen, get uncomfortable and create something together.
Want tools for ecosystems building? Come visit our backyard this February for the Ecosystems Leadership Lab in Tucson, Arizona. Spend 3 days on a mini-sabbatical, collaboratively exploring what it means to lead place-based, systems change.