In my conversations over the years, social entrepreneurs, organizational leaders and some self-employed service providers (advisors and consultants) have shared with me – sworn to absolute secrecy – that they are secretly thinking about what’s next for them. I often get the sense that social entrepreneurs in particular feel guilty about wanting to experience new things. Let me say this loud and clear:
You are allowed to grow and evolve to become the next version of your most content, impactful and fulfilled self!
In fact, you are doing your organization – and hence, your cause – a disservice if you remain in a position that does not allow you to evolve!
If you are deeply rooted in your WHY, it only makes sense to continue to explore new ways to bring your vision into the world. It doesn’t mean you are abandoning your cause or team, clients or organizations. On the contrary, a responsible leader of a movement or cause WANTS fresh ideas and motivation to further the mission. We all evolve naturally; if you have nothing left to give in the status quo, you must make space for a new person to take the endeavor to the next level. And I do hope you start thinking about how that person is long before s/he is needed!
From founder to organizational leader
Noa Gafni is the founder and former CEO of Impact Squared, a global consultancy working with mission-driven organizations to amplify their impact, communicate their cause and rally supporters. Impact Squared specializes in movement building, in particular by bringing young people into the fold of advancing the Sustainable Development Goals. Prior to founding Impact Squared, which is now part of Dalberg Media, Noa joined the World Economic Forum as the Head of Communications for the Global Shapers Community, a network of young people driving dialogue, action and change. A movement builder in everything she does, Noa recently took on the role of Executive Director at the Institute for Corporate Social Innovation at Rutgers University where she now works with college students to help them experience and identify their roles as responsible global citizens.
“I believe in this work because young people need to proactively address the issues that most deeply impact future generations — and we need to connect them with today’s decision makers to drive change now. I love connecting people from different backgrounds and have seen incredible things happen when people with unique perspectives brainstorm. I’m trying to bring that to an audience that usually gets left out of these conversations. And we can’t afford to keep the people who are closest to the issues out of the loop — especially now.”
From analyst to entrepreneur
The CV of Rehana Nathoo reads like a Who is Who of impact investing: From the Rockefeller Foundation to BNY Mellon and The Case Foundation, Rehana explored the impact investment industry from every possible angle. When it was time to decide what was next for her in 2018, Rehana turned inside to check in with her WHY: She knew she wanted to help translate the language of impact investing and help redefine how the industry views impact:
“I envision a future where the distinction between investing and impact investing ceases to exist. We have successfully integrated intentionality into the investment-decision making process – not because it feels good – but because it makes sense to consider all risks, to invest for the long-term, and to protect the people and planet that make any enterprise possible.
My mission is to translate what I believe is a shared vision for the future of investing. The translation needs to happen across audiences that are not used to speaking to (or listening to) each other. Impact Investing is not a new way of investing – it’s a refined purpose for why we invest. I subscribe to the belief that, done well, it can fundamentally deliver on a double bottom line – profit and purpose. Tradeoffs are real but they are not binary, and the real challenge at hand is simply explaining that.”
Today, Rehana is Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University where she teaches impact investing and social finance in emerging markets, and she is the founder and CEO of Spectrum Impact.
Staying true to your WHY: The megaphone effect
When I lived in Richmond, VA, from 2014 – 2018, my WHAT – supporting purpose-driven founders to launch, manage and grow socially responsible business – showed up like this:
- Mentoring founders 1-1
- Running business model validation programs for early-stage founders
- Corralling the troops as a B Corp community builder
- Telling the stories of entrepreneurs at a high-growth startup accelerator
All of these fractional roles left me exhausted but also deeply satisfied at the end of each week. I could palpably feel that each of these roles were a direct extension of my WHY. These were four different WHATs to my unique WHY.
Simon Sinek explains that if you know your WHY, your HOW and WHAT act as a megaphone for that WHY.
At the same time, I happened to co-found a boutique conference for women entrepreneurs, creatives, small business owners, freelancers and professionals. A friend of mine had the vision and – inspired by her WHY – I happily jumped on board to help execute: I am a highly structured, process-oriented executive with a keen attention to detail; this set of skills are my HOW. The result was an incredible conference that has continued on to grow to two events per year and several chapters along the East Coast of the United States. I couldn’t be happier for Shannon and her team. And yet, sitting in a room with 150 attendees during our first conference, I couldn’t help but feel like I was the one who didn’t fit in. For years I was slightly embarrassed about feeling like the misfit at my own conference. It took me years to figure out the true reason: While I was good at bringing this vision into the world, it was not an extension of my WHY. It didn’t feel as rewarding and fulfilling as I had hoped because deep down, I knew that this was not the reason I am in this world.
Lastly, when COVID-19 swept the world and brought gatherings like conferences and live in-person events to a swift end, Shannon and her team were able to pivot and bring their conference online. Driven by her WHY, she knew that serving the community of women she had brought together in-person over the previous three years meant:
- She needed to find new ways to maintain this deeply connected network
- She moved the signature event, Rebelle Con, online
- She came up with new event formats to support her community – many of which are entrepreneurs and freelancers – through this difficult economic time.
Your WHY as your unique advantage
Competition is real even in the world of social impact, entrepreneurship and ecosystem building. And it feels especially icky, doesn’t it? After all, shouldn’t we as world-savers stand above competition and instead link arms to save the world? Yes, we probably should. But as humans, we are wired to compete to secure survival – whatcha gonna do about THAT?
The reality is that even impact-focused accelerators, funds, advisors, co-working spaces etc. compete for funds, mentors and participants (and and and…). But if you’re able to focus on your WHY and communicate it clearly, you might just have defined what sets you apart from all the other actors. Let me explain:
Advisor A and B both offer strategic advice to social entrepreneurs and mission-driven organizations in the same geographic area. At first sight, their services look identical. If we dig deeper into their WHY, however – and let’s assume they communicate it clearly – it becomes apparent that Advisor A prefers to work with groups of entrepreneurs, offering workshops, coaching and strategic advice all the while building a peer community of like-minded entrepreneurs. She also specializes in scaling strategies for social entrepreneurs to help them hone in on their core business strength while leveraging international markets. Living near Brussels, she has worked with the European Union on several occasions and understands the EU grant proposal process.
Advisor B previously worked with a network of academic institutions and brings with him an intimate understanding of the bureaucracy and inner workings of academic institutions. Further, he deeply enjoys working with student entrepreneurs. He has a knack for 1-1 sessions and prefers to dive deep with each individual entrepreneur to solve their specific problems and define a strategy to move forward.
Advisor A is Kaat Peeters of Impact Projects. Her mission is ”to inspire and connect so that a diversity of actors (social enterprises, governments, associations,…) progress in their way to better the world.”
“I envision a world in which every social entrepreneur can unleash their full potential and can both scale their their business and maximize their impact to the benefit of society. My mission is to unlock that potential in people so that they can be their own version of the change that they want to see in the world.“
Companies with a clear WHY ignore their competition, those with a fuzzy WHY are obsessed with what others are doing.Simon Sinek, Start with Why, chapter 6
Clearly, this does not only only hold true for solopreneurs, but organizations at large. Think of any two non-profits or businesses that seemingly solve the same problem. If they communicate their WHY clearly, you will feel more naturally pulled toward the one whose WHY resonates with your personal values and experiences.
Sinek argues that our WHY is formed in the limbic brain – the area responsible for decision making and behavior, while the WHAT and the HOW reside in the neocortex responsible for facts and language. If you’ve ever struggled to put your WHY into words, know that you are not alone. We struggle to put our emotions and convictions into words because they come from a part of our brain that is not equipped with language. In other words, our raison d’etre has to travel from the limbic brain through the neocortex for us to be able to put it into words. Rest assured that discovering your WHY is one thing, being able to communicate it clearly is quite another.