In 2020, I ran a virtual gathering in the midst of the pandemic. It was an adaptation of what was meant to be an in-person gathering. It was challenging. Painful. I built a team of approximately ten people, and after the pandemic hit, the team had a few people come in and out. The day before the gathering, every person on the team quit except for one person: Daniel Burns.
I showed up to facilitate the four day event for at least eight hours each day. I was the space holder for the facilitators to hold space for workshops they ran with the participants. It was a beautiful experience – learn more on the Cooperative Impact website. I documented every session and packaged up the video content into Youtube playlists.
At first, it seemed clear that my investment into the project cost more than it returned. After taking time away from the project, I did a retrospective to see what went well and what needed improvement. This provided insights into next steps.
I began a series of conversations with participants and facilitators to learn more about their life and any challenges they face today that seem somewhat immoveable. Based on what I learned during a specific set of phone calls that took place over the course of a few days, a concept came to mind which was an adaptation from a program I created ten years prior at Rutgers University. I combined that which I knew from experience, new insights, and what I could see emerging in the market. Through synthesizing these elements, the program began to take shape in my mind.
I decided to call the program, “Emergent Leadership: Launch a venture that impacts the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals”.
I chose this because my life’s work has been around building businesses that serve human needs. The UN seemed to be embracing this type of work now, and the people I would serve next seemed to have fallen into the “skills gap”. My thought process was to provide learners with the skills to not only carve out a path for themselves in the new economy, rather, provide them with a transformative experience that would create space for them to (1) provide the learner with a job by creating it for themselves, and (2) support the societal transformation to a more compassionate way of life.
I created a landing page that outlined the tip of the iceberg. I created a second landing page that went in deep to the curriculum of the program. I created a third page for a multi-step application which I used as a qualitative research tool that provided me with a deeper understanding of the people I would (hopefully) serve in the upcoming experience. I had a solid idea of the overall program concept, and, with this deeper research into the learners I would (ideally) have enough data to pull insights from that would inform the design of the way we started the experience together.
I invited the people I had conversations with after the virtual gathering, and they seemed thrilled – they completed the full application (5 pages of questions) within a few days. This drove me forward into the next step of filling this pipeline with more potential learners.
I identified a paid advertisement formula (goal, target audience, visual graphic, landing pages, social media post, and all the copywriting required for each element of this equation) by combining the intersection of two fields of research. One coming from Raj Chetty of Harvard (the “Lost Einteins”), and the other coming from institutions like Annie E. Casey Foundation (“Disconnected Youth” or “Opportunity Youth”). I come from these populations so my life’s work continues to revolve around ways to support them by unlocking access to resources they are not familiar having.
The moment the ad was activated, signups began rushing in. Email after email. New applicants were coming in from countries around the world. I quickly had thousands of applicants and I was unsure what to do or how to manage it. After about 2,500 signups, I decided to turn off the ad so I could stay focused on the cohort I was about to start.
As I onboarded learners during the Meet & Greets, I walked them through my post-it notes and thought process to create context with their real-time feedback as we shaped the programming together. The eight weeks were mapped out with a general topic for each module. We, the 16 learners and myself, continued to take small incremental steps together until we began on August 24th, 2020.
Without a specific target that needed to be hit, it seemed to “create space” for the experience to unfold into becoming whatever it wanted to become. This seemed to also create space for the humans – the learners and myself – to evolve and unfold and become whatever our innate nature wanted us to become. It was organic.
It seemed to happen on its own in an emergent capacity. It is only now, as I type these words, am I seeing the significance of what we did together. The dots are now beginning to connect.
I suppose the virtual gathering during the pandemic wasn’t such a failure after all. If I stopped when I faced the failure of that event, the beauty I unpacked above would never have taken place the way it did.
I followed the same process I followed since 2009 as I have tried to bring this work from city to city: Humanity, Community, Innovation, and Impact. Each city, another experiment with many learnings.
I am learning how much there is in the world that I do not know or understand. It actually seems quite massive – that which I do not know.
My intention is to begin writing through my experience from each city to identify more learnings, connect more dots, and, perhaps, compile everything into a longitudinal study of this work since 2009. This will take time, and I will work on this in the background while continuing to bring a new product suite to market driven by the insights and learnings of this work.
One of the learnings is the importance of Individuation. The lifelong journey of becoming my highest self means being seen for who I am and what I have done and who I am becoming by the people in my team. It seems to be an upstream innovation that has a measurable impact on the outcome of a project or success of a venture. Perhaps it is a mechanism for unlocking the ability for a team to collaborate.
I am also learning that by bringing my whole self into a new city along with this type of work, it can create friction between myself and cross-sector incumbents. My work seems to live-on in the cities for which I have travelled. I, however, do not live in these cities anymore. This makes me wonder, “How can I bring this work to more people while not relocating myself everytime?”
A few months ago, I had dinner with someone in Costa Rica who posed a few questions for me, What if I changed my understanding of “community”? What if “community” was more than the in-person, grassroots gatherings that take place within our neighborhoods and cities? What if a “community” had no borders?
I noticed something over the last few months: after years of running experiments followed by a pandemic that forced me to adapt my approach resulted in the discovery of a way for me to bring this work to the people who might be ready to receive it.
The conception, design, and launch of the 8-week immersive I explored above happened quite effortlessly. It just came out of me. I did not need to travel. I did not need to meet any gatekeepers. I went directly to the people I wanted to support.
I asked myself, “How can I package everything I learned and created throughout the course of 2020, along with the insights from the previous ten years, into something that others can easily use?”