How to be a Network Entrepreneur: be ready to lose control, open up to discomfort, relate to those different from you

One of the brightest tools in the toolbox for transformation is Stir to Action, which publishes a vibrant, artist-led quarterly magazine on the new economy called STIR. They also run workshop programmes and support diverse forms of community economic development.

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Having signed up to Jay Tompt’s “How to be a network entrepreneur” workshop – reported below - A/UK spoke first to STA’s Director Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh to give it some context:

Stir to Action exists to serve the ‘new economy’ – news, training, education. Our first volume had twelve original illustrations, so we had to be in print – but otherwise, we’re just developing as we go along.

In 2015 we launched our first training programme in Bridport with 12 – 15 workshops on offer. This year we have 15- 35 workshops available as well as a 3-day residential for 30 people that is already 80% sold out. We engaged 2,500 people last year. Now we want to turn that into a community with economic power.

The aim is to offer a long-term perspective, with no singular model at this point. Having said that, we’re very inspired by Co-operation Jackson who are building a ‘solidarity economy’ anchored by a network of co-operatives and worker-owned, democratically self-managed enterprises.

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While we live in a very different era of organising and mobilising, we have to be clear about our intellectual heritage or we’ll end up with the wrong solution.

As we see it, anything we do has to address the dual power of electoral strategies and economic ownership. It’s pointless having a political strategy without an economic base. But it’s also not enough to have an economic model without political resistance. As Sion Whellens from the Solidarity Fund suggests, you need to oppose and propose.

We go back to the 1844 Rochdale Pioneers, the birth of the Co-ops. But draw from more diverse sources too. Books like Collective Courage by Jessica Gordon Nembhard, showing us how the same principles hold in African-American cultures. When you have experienced being locked out of land ownership, then losing your vote because you have no work – you know these issues come together.

At the same time, we have to build the culture and the technical skills. Look at Mondragon in Spain who started with a tech college in 1943 before opening its first co-op in 1956.

Which seems like a good segue into Jay Tompt’s very enjoyable workshop in the same series – How To Be a Network Entrepreneur. From the start, Jay set a different tone: one less derived from history and structural complaint to one, less tribal, more personally challenging and playful. Much of what Jay shared with us, was a way of being and acting – rather than a set of rules to follow.

Entrepreneurialism is a cultural construct, bringing two quite different things together. To be a Network Entrepreneur, is to be actively in relationship with people who are different from you. To be ready to lose control, to be open to discomfort.

Everyone has ideas, but what are the conditions for making them flourish? We have to be in play. We are all susceptible to illusions. Where there is dogma, there can be no dialectic. We always need to have a box of lenses to use: not only to be able to see others in multiple ways, but to be able to reflect on ourselves.

It’s a highly effective stance for these times in which we have to accept that none of the big ideas of the 20th Century were enough to prevent the crises we are now experiencing. At the same time, we are in a revolution of new forms of agency which could add up to change: but only if we can truly occupy the future. As Antonie de Sainte-Exupery suggested: “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

The morning of the workshop invited us to open these doors within us. We did exercises in what Vittorio Loreto described as the ‘adjacent possible’ – looking just outside of ourselves for the idea that turns our own thinking into something innovative. To get into unfamiliar spaces to see what other people are actively looking for and thinking about how you can provide it – or something similar. Networking as building attraction rather than outward expansion.

At one point, Jay revealed that he had given three people in the room secret chestnuts. The idea was to exchange the chestnut for a favour, thereby creating a tie with that person, but also giving them some capital in return. Would those chestnuts make the rounds and bind the group into a network of favours? Although these would only be what is described as weak rather than strong ties they would always be bridges to future networking. Interestingly, not everyone who had a chestnut used it.

The afternoon began with a mapping session that revealed how, despite a superficial familiarity between the participants, they were a collection of quite siloed activities. What might have looked like an instant community was revealed to be a lot of different perspectives on the needs of our society, almost pulling against each other. How could we work together, less as a tribe on a similar bandwagon, and more as a metaphorical eco-system – each doing our part in a system of change?

I won’t share all the good links Jay provided to further understand the kind of leadership needed to materialise what are now only virtual systems – you need to go on the workshop for that – but here’s one from the New Directions collaborative.

Jay used two current networks he is currently involved in to illustrate what successfully innovating and developing looks like – the Local Entrepreneur Forum within the Reconomy Network in Totnes. And the CtrlShift Summit – a socio-political group of actors, responding above all to climate change.

In an exercise to be an incubator for a day, on a shoestring, the Local Entrepreneur Forum welcomed 850 participants with these results:

·      31 enterprises were pitched (of which 27 are still going strong)

·      740 investments were made from 200 investors.

·      20 jobs created

·      £100K raised in grants / loan

·      a further £30K in non-financial investment

·      strong ties established with Dartington Trust and Schumacher College

 We left the day feeling lighter on our feet, more network capable.