Uncharted Insider - January 2021
Happy 2021! Welcome to the January edition of the Uncharted Insider.
- Current Programs: We are in the middle of supporting our cohort of mobile tech nonprofits (with Visible), and we’re wrapping up our accelerator focused on supporting ventures working in next-generation farming (with Chipotle).
- Wealth Inequality Focus Groups: We have been hosting a series of focus groups with entrepreneurs working on wealth inequality to help us design our upcoming initiative on the topic, which is launching later this year.
I’ve been thinking about the idea of patience recently.
Patience as an obstacle: On one hand, I resonate with what John Lewis once said about patience being a “dirty and nasty word.” He said, “we do not want our freedom gradually” because patience was invoked to slow civil rights progress. Radical change has often faced headwinds that masquerade as exhortations to be patient, but I’m curious if the events of 2020 have influenced our appreciation of impatience and the possibilities that come when we dare to believe that necessary change doesn’t need to be waited on. Our brains are being rewired with new code about the pace of change: what was once perceived as impossible has quickly become inevitable. At Uncharted, our new focus on finding, funding, and accelerating radical solutions is born out of a swelling impatience with so much of the nibbling-around-the-edges and busy work that defines the social sector.
Patience as critical: On the other hand, at times I find our collective impatience to be a symptom of our vanity and obsession to see immediate results. For example, the behavior of investors and philanthropic funders who apply pressure to see quick wins, fast growth, and transformational change is forcing social ventures to contort themselves into producing results that might be distracting or counterproductive to the long-term change they seek. Our impatience for results makes us shortsighted about what true change requires, and this, in its own way, is our self-created headwind. One of the biggest drivers of an organization’s design is the impatience for its results. I’ve been asking myself this question: if the impatience of results didn’t deform organizations, how might they be designed? How might they look different?
To reference John Lewis again, are we okay with the pace of “good trouble?” Somewhere in the nuance between impatience and patience, between audacious goals and early wins, there is a reverence for the work itself: the time it takes, the unrelenting focus on the ultimate goal, and the multi-generational faith that the real work carries forward before us, beyond us, without us.
On going early
In the early-stage social venture ecosystem, I see two competitive frontiers that Uncharted and our peers will need to push into in order to remain relevant by 2025:
- Going earlier: Sourcing and recruiting even earlier-stage organizations and leaders. The pressure will be increasingly on finding the up-and-coming talent that hasn’t been believed in and credentialed yet.
- Going wider: Supporting organizations with non-traditional organizational structures: working with social movements, advocacy groups, and others that depart from the traditional social venture playbook. The pressure will be to leave behind this playbook that we have borrowed from venture capital and instead focus on organizations that build and distribute power.
In future Insiders, I’ll cover the topic of going wider. Today, I want to talk about going earlier. I’ve been increasingly fascinated by emerging research and models that are premised on the idea that betting on people is a better predictor of long-term success than betting on their specific models, products, or ideas. Here is a quick sampling:
- Democratic Lotteries: This is a concept where candidates are elected via a simple lottery system where names of people who opt-in are drawn from a hat. It sounds crazy, but there is some fascinating research about how democratic lotteries increase access to leadership opportunity and build unlikely but more capable leaders. Start with this podcast, and then check out this org and this org.
- Funding scientific research: There is new thinking on why it’s nearly impossible to pick out the best scientific research proposals from a pool that meets a certain threshold. One argument is that our ego makes us think we can pick winners but that funding more randomly will yield less biased and more successful scientific research. Further reading here and here.
- Focusing pre-company or pre-campaign: I’ve been closely tracking two organizations with different models but share a common throughline: betting on people before they launch their thing. Entrepreneur First is a cross between an entrepreneurial accelerator and a talent scout. They match co-founders together and fund them pre-idea and pre-company to figure something out. Justice Democrats is an organization that recruits people to challenge out-of-touch congressional Democrats in vulnerable primaries. They were the organization that identified and recruited AOC and then helped her win.
The implications for our work are intriguing:
- There are so many promising and capable leaders who never make it to the level of working full-time on their social venture. Under-representation starts before the organization launches.
- The size of our ego about our ability to pick winners is as big as the size of our blind spots. Maybe we don’t need to think as hard and perhaps simply select and fund more.
- Solutions might be more interesting when you stop funding the usual suspects. Matt Clifford, founder of Entrepreneur First says, “If you give people who might not otherwise start a company time and space to do so, you (should) get companies that otherwise wouldn’t exist at all.”
Can you help?
- We are embarking on a study of the history of radical ideas and how they became mainstream, how they died, who led them, and what the conditions were that enabled their creation. We'll be publishing our learnings later this year. Who should we be talking to?
- We are looking for an introduction to Dalio Philanthropies
- We are looking to be introduced to Isabel Wilkerson, the author of Caste
- We are looking to be introduced to Ai-Jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance
What I am reading
- The Inside story of Mackenzie Scott (ex-wife of Jeff Bezos). One of the wealthiest women in the world and how she is redefining philanthropy. Here.
- The battle over Cancel Culture and the need to widen the space for hard conversations. Here.
- When Wall Street discovered the profitability of water scarcity. The future story of water in the American West.
- The biggest technology breakthroughs and innovations of 2021, from ARK Invest, a fund that invests in everything from crypto currency to delivery drones to artificial intelligence to cell and gene therapy. Here.
- Podcast: The food ecosystem, food technology, the future of restaurants and ghost kitchens, and why Domino's Pizza is one of the most impressive companies in the last 20 years. Here.
I am spending more time backcountry skiing (outside of resort boundaries), so I took an avalanche safety course recently to make sure I was skilled at both navigating avalanche terrain and participating in rescue efforts should I ever be involved in an avalanche. If anyone is interested in avalanche safety, I have become a full-blown nerd on the topic, but what I found most powerful about the experience was how skiing avalanche terrain put me into the most intimate relationship with nature I have ever experienced. You’re reading weather reports from out-of-the-way weather stations before the sun rises. You’re testing the snow chemistry by peering closely at the size and complexion of snow crystals. You’re measuring the angle of slopes (avalanches only run on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees) and determining which slopes are wind-loaded with snow. You’re forced to take in the trees, rocks, cornices, and terrain to spot signs for avalanche activity. You’re constantly checking your topographical map, ascribing the smooth black lines on the map to the harsh topography before you. And you’re in relationship with the sky, its looming clouds, its quickening pace.
Whether it’s with nature or with a person, intimacy is a hard concept to articulate. It is defined more by the distance that’s missing between two things than it is defined by something that exists between them, and I have been humbled to witness the shrinking distance between the magnitude of a mountain and the fragility of this small human life.
With patience and pluck,