Building a "Community" of "Sustainable" Entrepreneurs

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1 years ago


What does it take and what does that even mean?



The words “sustainability” and “community” feature prominently in my vocabulary.  As co-founder of Sustainable Startups, I find myself uttering stereotypical things like:

“Entrepreneurs need a collaborative and supportive community to succeed,” And “Entrepreneurial innovation is essential if we are to achieve sustainability.”   

In full disclosure, I don’t know what these words mean. I’ve heard so many different definitions I’m risking a brain aneurism.  But that’s okay. I’ve never been one for definitions anyway.

Even if we can’t settle on clear definitions for these terms, we certainly can agree they are critical to entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurs rely on other entrepreneurs and various support structures to grow their ideas.  Further, entrepreneurship should be about more than making money for money’s sake.  Money should be the means to a higher end.  These ideas of community and sustainability are fundamental to entrepreneurship, and while we cannot clearly define them, we can begin to understand their fundamental ingredients.

Let’s start with community. A strong community has a feeling that is inescapable. When people feel empowered, connected, supported, inspired and safe, they are without doubt part of a healthy community. Further, people have trust, and are trusted, by others.  A true community members’ actions usually result in the collective best interest.  When I meet people experiencing this collective support, I can’t help but notice it.

Entrepreneurs crave this community thing, as they should. Entrepreneurship is a hard, lonesome, unclear road, fraught with financial, emotional and personal perils.  But it doesn’t have to be.  These challenges become significantly easier when entrepreneurs use their best weapon.  Nope, its not investment capital, impressive mentors, or glitzy office spaces.  Its each other.  

The best resource for entrepreneurs are other entrepreneurs.  Simple as that.

The shared connections, experiences, and peer mentorship that takes place in entrepreneurial communities is powerful. Shockingly powerful.  

However, this peer support system does not happen organically. It must be carefully cultivated.  The entrepreneurial world is riddled with predatory individuals and organizations that look to exploit the needs and ignorance of entrepreneurs for their own financial gain.  A real entrepreneurial community should be built and sustained by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs.  

Entrepreneurs may be our world’s single most important asset.  They solve pressing problems, sustain the economy, provide jobs and foster innovation (whatever that words means, but that’s a whole other article.)  We must do all we can to assist entrepreneurs, and dismantle the predatory elements of the ecosystem that claim a piece of a startup’s existing value, instead of helping them create more value.

At Sustainable Startups, this is exactly what we are trying to do. We are working to cultivate a community of peer support for entrepreneurs to do their magic. We take no equity, provide no investment, customize program fees to meet entrepreneurs’ budgets and work to build entrepreneurial capacity.  By entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs. The old, predatory models are breaking down. The secret is being exposed.  They don’t actually add value or truly help anyone. More and more, communities are being created where entrepreneurs come first.  I may not be able to fully define this new type of entrepreneurial community, but its certainly happening.

On to “sustainability,” the even more amorphous, murky word of the pair. Our entrepreneurs have a close relationship with this word.  Good entrepreneurs focus on developing concepts that “create value.”  Unfortunately, whenever we create value somewhere, we destroy value elsewhere.  Many businesses destroy much more value than they create, and through our current market structure, don’t account for it. (Mountain-top removal coal mining is a high-profile, stereotypical example.) Therefore, in my mind, any entrepreneur who creates more value than he or she destroys, gets us closer to sustainability. Those are the entrepreneurs we want to assist.

Sadly, there are many business models that make a lot of money without adding a net positive value to society.  Many times, due to the rollercoaster ride of the startup process, the founders of these companies don’t even realize it until it’s too late, when they are beholden to aggressive shareholders demanding high short-term returns.

To avoid this trap, we advise all entrepreneurs to clearly articulate their personal values.  

The phrase “it’s not personal, its business” deserves to be listed in the record book of stupid phrases.

Business is one of the most personal things in the world, and it damn well should be. At its purest, business is the process of solving pressing problems and needs for people, and adding value to improve the world.  What’s not personal about that? Further, entrepreneurial ideas are generally born of personal passion and drive to make difference and impact the world.  Sound impersonal?  

If we are to create a “sustainable” world, entrepreneurs must stick to their values when building their businesses.  Life is too short and there are too many big challenges to do otherwise.  The divorce of business from personal values is the root cause of many of our biggest social and environmental challenges.  Business needs a new guiding compass beyond quarterly financial returns.

Thankfully, this change is happening.  Increasingly, entrepreneurs are starting scalable businesses rooted in values and impact-driven missions.  Cotopaxi, Chapul, PK Clean, Even Stevens Sandwiches, The Spotted Door and Musana Jewelry are but a few Utah notables.

This shift is being pushed from the customer side as well. Consumers are becoming more discerning about their purchases, and our consuming power is increasingly linked to our belief systems and community visions.  More and more employees are taking pay and power cuts to work for companies adding high positive net value.  These trends are starting to sound pretty “sustainable” to me.

However, two lingering questions remain?  First, is this transition in business culture and purpose happening fast enough?  Second, what does it all mean in a finite world that houses a global economy based on exponential quantitative growth?

In short, I don’t know.  But I’m excited to keep rolling up my sleeves and figuring it out with our community’s best entrepreneurs.

 - Ian Shelledy