What 10 years and deep curiosity has taught us

Anthea Smits, CEO TDi

 

Last year TDi celebrated 10 years, and over that time we’ve had the opportunity to travel with a number of organisations and often get a bird’s eye view of what’s going on. Although I wasn’t part of the TDi team 10 years ago, I was running social enterprises and an active impact investor. I don’t think any of us at the beginning of our social enterprise journey really understood just how much we were biting off, or how difficult things would get. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. I think we thought, ‘if we could just get business to behave like this, and investors to behave like that, we’re all good’. 

 

WOW were we wrong. We forgot the complexity of playing in failed market systems, that a lot of us would employ people from vulnerable groups who need different supports, we forgot that investors have behaved and viewed risk through certain lenses for many generations and that it wouldn’t be easy to shift. There are also roles for government and philanthropy to play to create room for these new emerging business models. One of the things I’ve valued most at TDi is our deep sense of adventure and curiosity, our willingness to go into places that are dangerous and hard. Recently I had the opportunity to reflect on what the past 10 years and deep curiosity has taught us. This article is a reflection on our top 6 learnings.

 

 

1. Business has the potential to be a  powerful agent of change. 

This is the very premise and deep belief TDi is built upon, and we’ve seen it over and over again. Business has the powerful opportunity to bring about fundamental social and environmental change.  From the people it chooses to employ, how it treats customers, who the product and services are for, how those products and services are designed and made – it’s in the daily decisions that positive change comes about. To get to this place, design and thoughtfulness are required.

There’s a saying Brad Graham, one of TDi’s founders used to say all the time, ‘You get what you design for’. 

To step in as agents for change, social entrepreneurs must think through how the change will be created, and how the business model should then be designed. 

 

2. The idea of doing good and making money is not a new idea, we are returning to something ancient.

When passionate social entrepreneurs talk about their ideas, you can, it feels like an exciting ‘new thing’ – to build a business that not only makes money but also does great things for people and the planet. The fact is, that if we travel back in time, we come to understand that these ideas are ancient, the very roots of business.

You just have to look at the oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena  which was founded in Siena, Italy in 1472 with the mandate: ‘To make capital available for the city’s poor’. Most of us who are born into privilege have access to the ‘bank of mum & dad’ and often an accumulation of family wealth that gets passed down. What Monte dei Paschi and most microfinance lenders recognise, is that generational poverty puts people at gross disadvantage, so they work to bridge that gap.

I also think of the Salvation Army, who in 1891 used business as a form of social activism to change an injustice on London factory workers. Many of the matchstick factory workers, mainly women, were getting ill and dying from ‘Phossy jaw’ which was caused by the use of white phosphorus in the production of matchsticks. After advocacy to change working conditions didn’t work, the Salvation Army went into direct competition by creating their own brand of match sticks. They used red phosphorus, which is much safer and provided better working conditions and higher wages for their workers. 

‘Doing good & making money’ is not a new idea. We need to be learning from the past and drawing on the wisdom of previous generations. 

 

3. Mindset and model trump cash and resources every time.

At TDi we have many businesses and NFPs who come to us for help. When we ask what they think they need they often answer, ‘I just need cash’. It is our experience that often cash is the last thing they need. In fact for many, if they had cash, it would not be spent in the right places or invested in the right areas of the business. We see that the biggest obstacles they face are around their business model and their mindset. We spend a large amount of our time designing, redesigning and validating the business model and helping to set a mindset that will overcome the social entrepreneur’s perceptions. This is often about beliefs of inferiority and attitudes toward money and self worth. 

 

4. We need to come at things from a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity. 

What if we have all the strengths, assets and support that we need, in order to create our future?

In my faith heritage there is a story about a man who is called to be a great leader, he goes to God and says, ‘I’m not enough, I don’t have what they need or are looking for’. God says to him ‘What do you have in your hand?’. He answers that he has a staff in his hand.  God then instructs him to throw the staff on the ground and it’s now a snake. He’s then able to pick up the snake and it’s a staff again. The man then uses this staff in many ways as he leads the people and lives out his call. 

What I love about this story is that it prompts us to focus on what we have, rather than what we don’t have. When we realise what’s in our hands, things change. We may need some help to see the value of what we have but once we recognise it, we can begin to imagine the possibilities.

 

5. Undervalued systems have to be revalued, it will allow us to tap new resources.

I have had the privilege of sitting with indigenous entrepreneurs, usually women, across Australia and Asia Pacific and I’m often struck by a simplicity, a wisdom and a cultural beauty that they are trying to weave into the fabric of their business. I hear in their stories a commitment to sustainability, equity and a spirit of sharing – things we would all aspire to. 

I then put on my investor and risk assessment hat and realise that often these two systems are incompatible. We have often undervalued cultural knowledge and ideas and replaced them with fast, unsustainable alternatives for financial gain 

It was Robert Kennedy who said ‘GDP, measures everything except that which is worthwhile. It does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages….. neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’. Things that are undervalued are sidelined and don’t get resources or investment. We have to find new lenses for value. I’m convinced that this will allow us to tap new resources and create a more sustainable future.

 

6. We all have a journey of unlearning to make.

There’s an old saying, ‘Wisdom isn’t about what we learn, it’s about what we are prepared to unlearn’. We live in a time in history where knowledge is abundant but wisdom is scarce. And yet we need wisdom now, more than any other time. The journey of unlearning is often painful and difficult because it requires us to acknowledge what we don’t know, to lean into uncertainty and examine what we may need to reconsider. 

Last year COVID revealed significant cracks in our systems and exposed the vulnerable, particularly in our economic and health systems. To fix these we are going to need the courage and wisdom to go on journeys of unlearning. No longer can we take a seat of arrogance and knowledge at the table; we need to sit in the mess and complexity, owning our contribution to the problem.

 

 

Most of these insights have been born through getting it wrong, completely underestimating what is before us, and the discipline to sit in the mess, not rushing to the answer. I am grateful for the collective wisdom of the last 10 years, and I look forward to the many more things we will learn and unlearn as a team at TDi, and together as a sector. 

To learn more about TDi and our work visit https://tdi.org.au/about/

 

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