Uncharted Insider - March 2021

Commentary on the genealogies of social change, management via unexpected delights, and the trauma of COVID and mass-shootings.

Uncharted Insider - March 2021

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the March edition of the Uncharted Insider.

One year ago, the pandemic swept across the US in its first wave. In preparing for this Insider, I went back and reread the March 2020 Insider and my reflections at the outset of the pandemic. Quite simply, I’m grateful to be alive 12 months later and grateful for the opportunity to write you all this letter each month. Collectively, we’ve come a long way in the last 12 Uncharted Insiders. I’m humbled by your responses, your encouragement, and your offers to help. If you know of someone who should subscribe to this list, they can do so here.

Uncharted Update

  • Upcoming Program: We are preparing for our signature program, which will support eight early-stage solutions to economic inequality. See below for how you can help.
  • Antiracist Journey: We have been publishing a series of articles and podcasts with a behind-the-scenes look into our journey to becoming an antiracist organization. From inclusion to hard conversations to hiring, we’re sharing our challenges, progress, and questions.

Genealogies of social change

In the January Insider, I proposed that going earlier and going wider represent the two pillars of a differentiated and long-term strategy for identifying and supporting emerging social solutions and innovations. They represent competitive frontiers in our sector, and they are the first principles propelling Uncharted’s new strategy. In that January Insider, I focused on going early. This month, I’m discussing the merits of accelerating a more diverse range of solutions.

After 10 years of vetting and selecting early-stage social ventures, one meta-learning is just how similar so many social ventures look. The business models, the growth plans, and the operational structures are often similar. It seems like social ventures follow some unwritten playbook, partially stemming from funders’ dictates, partially informed by the success stories that have been heralded, partially driven by the limited options for customers and payers. In biological taxonomy terms, I would say that >90% of applied ventures are of the same genus and species; they share the same social impact genealogy. While there have been great successes and outstanding impact created from these models, we’re missing out on genealogical intermingling and cross-breeding. Research says that the most “innovative” ideas and the most “breakthrough” innovations have diverse genealogies and non-linear origins. (See this article on where "new" ideas come from and why African masks and Spanish indigenous art informed Picasso's work, and why Henry Ford said of his assembly line, "I invented nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work.”)

What does genealogical mixing look like in early-stage social ventures? Here are two examples:

  • Bridging policy and implementation. Palak Shah, the Social Innovations Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, says that the biggest opportunities for impact in her space are working to bridge policy and implementation. One of the best examples of an organization doing this is FreeFrom, a 2018 Uncharted venture working to dismantle the nexus between intimate partner violence and financial insecurity. They do this through their policy platform, programs, tech tools, and funds. They’re blending approaches, and they represent a unique blended genealogy of approaches.
  • Youth-led, tech-powered social movements. Many of our social entrepreneurs are building or harnessing technology, but few are building tech-based social movements and campaigns in the ways that youth activists are: decentralizing power and leveraging social media. Jaclyn Corin, a Parkland student who has been one of the many faces and leaders of the movement against gun violence, has said: “People always say, ‘Get off your phones,’ but social media is our weapon. Without it, the movement wouldn’t have spread this fast.” The student-led movement to end gun violence inspired Greta Thunberg to launch her own climate movement, which has spread largely via technology and social media. The decentralized, activist-led, tech-powered social movement is a genealogy of social change we need to learn from and graft into more social ventures.

On Surprises

When we ask co-founders about how they communicate with each other, many have good answers. They share how they give feedback in one-on-ones, weekly meetings, and during quarterly reviews. They talk about how they plan out times to express gratitude and how they have specially-designed rituals for appreciation every week. Often, we’re impressed with how intentional and planned they are. But the more structured we become, the harder it is to meaningfully connect with our peers.

There is a coffee shop one block from my house called Rivers and Road Coffee. It’s owned by a couple named Mike and Desiree, and they roast their own coffee and bake their own cakes, muffins, and breads, all right there. Before COVID, from time to time they would heat up a few of their banana chocolate-chip muffins, cut them into quarters, and walk around to those of us working in their space and offer free samples. It didn’t happen every day, or every week, or even every month. There was no way to plan for it or expect it. Just on some days you would show up and they would be giving out a quadrant of a warm, gooey banana chocolate-chip muffin. The surprise and unexpectedness of it was utterly delightful. It is stuck in my memory and somehow it speaks to their spirit of generosity and hospitality more than if free samples were a planned, regular event. All of this has me wondering if we’re over-engineering and over-scheduling our times for connecting with the people we work with every day. Instead of your co-founder or direct report knowing that it is the Wednesday meeting and this is the time when everyone goes around and expresses gratitude to one another, is there a more unexpected way to recognize someone, to have them feel seen, for them to feel like they’re deeply valued? The call out of the blue, the handwritten card, the affirmation when they least expect it. When so many are burnt out, worn down, and tired of the Zoom screen and the homebound routine, the smallest unexpected delight can be the grandest gesture.

Can you help?

  • In preparation for our next program on economic inequality, we are looking for social entrepreneurs, movement builders, and nonprofit innovators working to address economic inequality. Who should we be talking to?
  • Does anyone know Alicia Garza? We want her to be a mentor for our next accelerator. How about Van Jones?

What I am reading

  • The AI revolution and a radical (and technocratic) plan by Sam Altman, the President of Y Combinator, to address economic inequality. Here.
  • 41% of workers are considering leaving their jobs, and leadership is out of touch. A new study surveying 30,000 workers on burnout and turnover. More positively, here are 21 approaches to bringing women back into the workforce.
  • Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion trainers and consultants are more focused on people than power. How the DEI movement has lost its way.
  • Book: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. A poetic and comprehensive telling of America’s caste system, through comparison with Nazi Germany and India’s caste heirarchy.

Something Personal

For three years in the early days of the Unreasonable Institute, I lived one block from the King Soopers in Boulder, where last week’s shooting took place. I went to that store multiple times a week and knew its layout like the back of my hand: which aisle had the pasta sauce, where my favorite yogurt lived, the exact location of the Double-Stuf Oreos. The images from last week’s mass murder in that store, in my store, were particularly startling for me because everything was so familiar. I knew that parking lot, I knew those mountains, that was my home.

Whether it’s the invisible virus that has killed 550,000 people in our country, or it’s the randomness of a mass shooting in Georgia, or the AR-15 killing machine inside a grocery store known for Girl Scout cookie drives and chance encounters with neighbors, we’re being reminded that we are more vulnerable than we once thought. As Mat Kearney, the Nashville musician, intones in one of his songs, “I guess we're all one phone call from our knees.” Somehow we've told ourselves that our safety, security, and privileged lives are set apart from the severity and trauma of this world, but it only takes one phone call to put us on our knees in disorienting, stunning grief. If we let it, this “consciousness of fragility” can send us into a small life governed by fear and avoidance. But appreciating our human fragility can also make us live bigger, braver lives. It can push us into the arms of those around us. It can invite us to hold hands at the dinner table and go around to speak the simple words of quotidian gratitude (as my friend Sam does with his family every night). It can decenter the self and center this moment’s heartbeat. Being reminded that we are one phone call from our knees asks us to answer the question that poet Mary Oliver poses when she writes, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”