I recently got back from Portland, OR where I had attended DazzleCon and I figured it was worth some sharing and reflection.
The story of Zebras
A brief history, as I understand it
It was almost two years ago that a couple women got together and wrote a critical analysis of the underlying issues with startup culture called Sex & Startups. It poked at toxic masculinity and exaltation of the dollar above everything else (all hail the ROI!) among other things. It’s juicy and it’s spot-on.
For good reason, the post got a lot of attention, the authors started gathering feedback, and the conversation kept building until the authors produced a follow up article in March of this year (2017) called Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break. Piggybacking on all of the attention that second article got, the authors decided to gather this burgeoning online community. Somewhere along the way they also started an organization called Zebras Unite. The way they put it, the zebra company represents the antithesis to the unicorn company.
“A unicorn is a startup company valued at over $1 billion. The term was coined in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, choosing the mythical animal to represent the statistical rarity of such successful ventures.” — Wikipedia
How it lands with me
This table really laid out the disparity between the current paradigm and the future we’re working towards with Good Good Work. So, yeah…I guess we’re also a zebra company.
The goal of structuring a business from the ground up to be both profitable and ethical resonated deeply. I recall reading the website and these articles and emphatically nodding my head.
YES! Someone is speaking to me! I’ve been seeing this and ranting about this for so long. I don’t feel so alone…and maybe there IS hope for the future!
It didn’t take much convincing to hop on a last-minute plane (especially considering someone had donated a ticket for me to go). These were my people. They spoke my language. I had to meet them.
And the path diverged
From what I could gather, those who attended DazzleCon were a loose assortment of people who aligned with the concept outlined in these posts. They were entrepreneurs, lawyers, teachers, technologists and more, and they came from pretty much every sector — nonprofit, corporate, small business, academia, public sector, etc. And let me just say: so many people from the platform co-op scene. They saw the same spark of brilliance in zebras that I did.
The folks I had a chance to connect with were, well, kind of incredible. My head is still swirling with the ideas and conversations we shared. This is the community I need, especially now as we’re still building our business, defining who we are and how we operate. The feedback loop is completely invaluable.
What people were saying didn’t match up with the manifestation of the event.
The medium is the message
For a group so full of intelligent, sharing-oriented minds, the shape of the conference felt really off. The event was originally promoted as an unconference, a place where participants would determine the format and content of the space(s).
What I found instead was a bank of chairs facing a stage where people talked at us about money. There was little space allotted to mixing and sharing. There seemed to be less space devoted to clever facilitation and self-organization. Questions that were critical of the format were quickly redirected.
Needless to say, it felt antithetical to building collective power. Without building collective power, how will we ever change the expectations for businesses to behave better? How will we redefine valuable work? How can we build collective power if we’re not building connections? How can we build connections if we’re seated in a lecture hall?
Certainly there were people interested in the speakers’ content — the organizers brought in some very smart folks — but I didn’t fly half way across the continent to listen to people talk. I went to share. I went to deepen connections. And I quickly noticed I wasn’t alone in my disappointment. I kept hearing “I thought this would be different” and “I thought we came here to exchange ideas” from other people when I spoke to them one-on-one. Granted, it could have been confirmation bias. You can’t rightfully stick a bunch of radical thinkers into a space without getting a lot of conflicting ideas about how things should be done.
At some point, a few other people and I were so frustrated by this that we broke off and formed our own activity in an unsanctioned space.
Where it started to make sense
The last day of DazzleCon held (for me) the most value. Ari Weinzweig of Michigan’s beloved Zingerman’s led us through a visioning session that felt both powerful and on-point. I found his idealistic, anarchist approach to business to fit right into the little nook in my heart where my business sense lives. I don’t know this person, but I believe we’re probably cut from the same cloth. And I believe that building a respectful, professional, successful, horizontal business requires an anarchist spirit.
Hierarchy got us where we are. To change the paradigm, let’s change some of our underlying principles.
“Anarchism as a political philosophy advocates self-governed societies based on voluntary institutions.” — Wikipedia
Hearing from the organizers that Ari’s philosophy was a guiding light in the inception of Zebras Unite helped me overcome some of my disappointment. And they made it known that in this work they’re trying something new and are open to feedback. They want the community to build and direct itself. With that, I’m writing this in the spirit of feedback, not judgement.
Though I took issue with the structure of DazzleCon, and still view the community’s flagrant use of the word “movement” to be in poor taste (a movement isn’t a movement just because you say it is), it’s become clear that these women and I have a somewhat similar vision of a future perfect state. This ship, I do believe, is steering in the right direction.
At the time of this writing, I support what’s being built here. I’m hard on the organizers because as a designer I know how crucial honest feedback is…and this is important. It’s an important time in this community’s lifecycle and it’s an important message to hear. I believe that the spaces you create — and how you create them — matter greatly. The ideas espoused in the “zebra community” are a welcome change from the status quo in the business world. There’s a reason so many bright people are gathering to steward this community. It gives me great hope.
In the mean time — while we’re waiting for value to be collectively redefined by society at large and for our collective power to be realized — I still have to buy my anarchist books on credit.
Juicy bits of anarchic goodness
If you’re curious about redefining your view on (or definition of) anarchy, I’d like to recommend these books for your reading pleasure:
- The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Ari Weinzweig’s Guide to Good Leading Series
- Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
- Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
This here writing is cross-posted on our Medium publication