Advice To Changemakers: Lessons From The 2013 Ashoka-American Express Emerging Innovators Toronto Boot Camp
“If you have a preconceived notion of good, you cannot be creative,” said Zahra Ebrahim, founder of archiTEXT. “Let go of everything that already is, and design something that truly does not exist.”Armed with this advice, 15 social innovators in a design-thinking workshop led by Ebrahim went to work twisting pipe cleaners and arranging popsicle sticks to prototype new toothbrush designs.Ebrahim compared design thinking to the mindset required for social innovators during her workshop. “Like designers, innovators know the facts, but don’t rely on them to develop their innovation,” she said. “They put them aside to think radically. Social innovators have a level of comfort with ambiguity that distinguishes them from most people.”The 15 innovators were participating in the two-day American Express Emerging Innovators Boot Camp at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, Canada. (Two similar boot camps were held in New York City and, this week, in Mexico City.)The purpose of these boot camps is to support a new breed of leaders: young visionaries that have a disregard for sector boundaries, are impatient for change, and are marrying impact with financial sustainability to tackle challenges at local and global levels. The boot camps offer participants crash courses in storytelling, investor relations, developing organizational culture, crowdfunding, and relationship advice (that can be relevant to co-founders as well as life partners).Now in its second year, the Emerging Leaders program is hosted by American Express a long-time supporter of leadership development in the traditional nonprofit sector, in partnership with Ashoka, a pioneer in social entrepreneurship.“This was a fantastic opportunity for Ashoka Canada to directly support early stage social entrepreneurs,” said Elisha Muskat, executive director of Ashoka Canada. “In particular, we were able to draw on Ashoka Fellows and other advanced social entrepreneurs whose personal experience—taking bold new ideas to fruition and changing our social systems—is invaluable to those in their first few years of their ventures.”With her bare feet dangling from a table, Tonya Surman, an Ashoka Fellow and co-founder of the Centre for Social Innovation, opened her session with an invitation to ask her anything. Now on her seventeenth social startup, Surman spoke about recognizing and then balancing out our tendencies.“The spirit of a social entrepreneur is to dominate the space,” she said. “We have these incredible visions, and we want to own it all. I recognize I was sometimes too territorial—my instinct was to control all of these pieces because I hadn’t built up my confidence about what we were doing.”Surman eventually realized that she couldn’t scale-up her organizations if it required her to be fully immersed, so, like Ebrahim, she began to think about scaling up as a question of design. “If your projects starts to crumble when you’re away—there’s a design challenge,” Surman said. “What can be deferred or consolidated rather than expanded?”Surman now follows a pattern of one year of intense growth followed by a year of consolidation: “I’m intentional about taking more time and nurturing the work rather than scaling it, and I own this.”’George Roter, an Ashoka Fellow and co-founder of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) – Canada, described how to create a strong organizational culture. “The culture you foster at the very beginning—during your organization’s first three years—will sustain,” he said. “It’s very difficult to amend it later on.”Roter committed 30 percent of his time to strengthening EWB’s culture, which was grounded in open-source principles. “We decided early on that we wanted to be a rule- and policy-free organization,” he said.“Up until two years ago, the only rule we had was that you must wear a helmet when riding your motorcycle in sub-Saharan Africa.” Notably, Roter created culture not by saying “no,” or reigning people in, but by giving a flame to those whose work he valued.Roter’s commitment to culture is not superficial, as evidenced by EWB’s newly adopted meeting format. The first 50 minutes are spent sharing on a personal and emotional level, and it just the last 10 minutes that are dedicated to resolving pre-selected agenda items.“This format has revolutionized the way the group operates— we’re now more effective and aligned in making decisions,” Roter said.Boot camp participants also had the opportunity to talk openly about their exhilarating experiences as emerging social entrepreneurs, interspersed between skills training for fund raising, engaging volunteers, and managing staff.“The boot camp equipped us with philosophical, financial, storytelling, and design skills,” said Athena Theny, who works with First Nations people to source, tan, and smoke rawhide, from which she hand-makes purses and jewelry for ATHENA Atelier. “But perhaps the most energizing aspect of it for me was how it reinforced my conviction in pursuing the road less traveled, and summoning the strength to bring my vision into reality despite the inevitable challenges I will encounter.”The boot camp, and the chance to step away from daily operations, was a kind of therapy for Scott Oldford, an entrepreneur since the age of 7, and founder of FundUni. “The most striking thing for me is that others want to help you succeed as much as you want to help others succeed,” he noted. “We’re all in this together.”Are you interested to learn what advice Seth Godin and DonorsChoose founder Charles Best offered social entrepreneurs at the boot camp? Check out highlights from last month’s New York City boot camp.–This article originally appeared in Forbes.com’s Change in the Making section. Click here to read the original post.