Friday, January 17, 2014

The Entrepreneurial Dilemma

This past summer, Terry O'Keefe and I co-taught four days of focus on the economic dimension for the Ecovillage Education US training at Dancing Rabbit. (The other three dimensions are worldview, ecological, and social.) We started the afternoon of our last day with a 90-minute discussion about the challenge of integrating entrepreneurial energy in cooperative communities.

Most of the students in the class aspired to start an ecovillage and we challenged them to consider how to fit together the following pieces:

A. Most intentional communities struggle to create a solid economic base for their members. That is, it's rare that all members have the income stream they need without leaving home to secure it. To be clear, I'm not saying that all members of intentional communities struggle to make enough money; I'm saying that it's rare for a community to provide its members decent work—by which I mean work that pays well, has flexible hours, can be done at home, and is well-aligned with one's values.

(To be fair, income-sharing groups almost all tackle this challenge head on, but they're only 10-12% of the field of intentional communities—the vast majority of communities leave the matter of member income almost wholly up to the members themselves and don't even attempt to address it.)

B. Communities tend be located in areas where property is more affordable—an unintended consequence of which is poor wages in the immediate area. Thus, unless a member's income is unrelated to geography (perhaps they're retired and living off a pension or investments; living off inheritance; telecommuting, or relying on off-site consulting), there is often a struggle for members to make ends meet. This can show up in long commutes, less-than-satisfying employment, or weak wages—none of which produce much joy.

C. Entrepreneurs tend to prefer working alone, with plenty of room for creativity, few encumbrances on what they can do, and minimal bureaucratic oversight. Often, if there are concerns about their ideas that arise within the group, the entrepreneur has reactions such as:
—You're just not open to new ideas.
—It's not fun for me to do this work if you're just going to be critical.
—I'm trying as hard as I can to generate new income in line with the community's values, and instead of appreciation I get accused of compromising what the group stands for. Instead of being a hero I'm the villain!

D. Successful entrepreneurs often accrue income, latitude, and power out of proportion to their dedication or years of service to the community, which creates tension (envy?) with those (the non-entrepreneurs) who feel they don't have access to the same pathway to a better life or greater standing in the group.

E. The ability of entrepreneurs to be joyous about their pursuit of money-making is often viewed as suspect in the context of communities that have core values around equity and fairness. (If money is the root of all evil, it's suspicious that you take such pleasure in its generation.)

F. Many of the traditional rewards for entrepreneurs in the wider culture (personal financial gain, a corner office with a view, a reserved parking place, a year-end bonus, increased power) do not necessarily transfer into the community milieu. A vibrant entrepreneurial subculture can translate into significant inequalities among the membership.

G. One of the surest ways to generate new income streams is to attract and support residents with entrepreneurial (money-making) energy. However, once you digest the complications of factors C-F above, you can see why entrepreneurs don't flock to communities.
What are suitable rewards for entrepreneurs that: a) genuinely recognize their contributions;

yet b) don't compromise or undercut the community's values? Keep in mind that entrepreneurial energy manifests in more ways than just starting business ventures. It also shows up in solving problems and establishing systems and structures. Thus, there is an aspect of founding communities that is entrepreneurial, even if isn't linked directly to income generation.

This is a poignant problem. Communities need entrepreneurial energy, yet are conflicted about embracing it.

Among other things this is a diversity issue.

o  How wide a range of views about money can exist among the community membership without incurring undue tension? If the values of the entrepreneur's product or service align well with group values, is this sufficient to bridge the gap?

o  Entrepreneurs typically want to run their own businesses. If they are sufficiently successful to create jobs for others in the community (which are likely to be desirable to non-entrepreneurs, most of whom would prefer to work near home), then you necessarily walk into the schizophrenic dynamics of Member A being an employee of Member B Thursday afternoons (when they're both on the job), yet being equals at the Thursday evening community plenary. This can get awkward.

o  Entrepreneurs tend to keep their eye more closely on the bottom line when assessing community proposals. For others, community living is mainly a social experiment, to enhance the stimulation and quality on one's life. When finances are mainly a personal concern (rather than a group issue), the steady insertion of financial analysis into group conversations can be experienced as sand in the gears. How much weight should be given to the question of financial impact, short of bankruptcy?

o  One of the key spectra that most groups need to manage is risk tolerant members living with the risk averse. While most groups are reasonably clear about their common values and do a decent job of screening prospectives for a good fit in that regard, there is typically little attention given to where a would-be member positions themselves relative to risk—with the end result that the membership is all of over the map. As you might expect, entrepreneurs tend to be more risk tolerant; non-entrepreneurs the reverse.

[For the risk averse, it can be exhausting listening to a steady stream of new things to try; what's exciting for the risk tolerant is a nightmare for the risk averse. Consequently, they come to dread meetings.

Going the other way, it's a drag for the risk tolerant, every time they introduce a new idea, to be offered up a steady diet of worry and caution from the risk averse—sucking the life out of the conversation. Consequently, they come to dread meetings.

Unaddressed, everyone loses!] 

Ironically, unless groups have sufficient skill in the social dimension (being able to talk authentically, yet compassionately about hard things), they are unlikely to be able to handle this normal range of diversity well, which undercuts their ability to be economically vibrant. 

It's eerie how much these dimensions of sustainability interrelate.

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