The more I talk to entrepreneurial ecosystem builders for social change (35 and counting), the more I learn about the unique world views and skillsets that make these people put the needs of purpose-driven founders before their own. What I notice at the same time is that they often are not even aware of just how special their mindset and motivations are. At the recent Creative Mornings here in Durham, NC, USA, speaker Tobias Rose put in words what many of us have a sense for, but rarely articulate: What makes us who we are and how do we double down on – as he calls it – our Unfair Advantage? 

What makes you YOU: Your Unfair Advantage

Let’s assume we all are a product of our upbringing, the talents and preferences we were born with and the experiences we have along the way. None of us intended to become book worms or athletes, music lovers or cooks or storytellers – all this kind of happened from a combination of circumstances and the people we were and are surrounded by. If who we are is not intentional, then how do we recognize and own our brilliance?

According to Tobias, what makes your Unfair Advantage is the unique constellation of these four factors:

  1. Your talents (which you are born with)
  2. Your skills (which you acquire throughout life)
  3. Your identity and perspective (informed by your upbringing, mindset, and experiences to date)
  4. Your community and market (Who do you surround yourself with? Where do you live, what do people in your environment value and how do you add value to that community?)

It is this fourth sphere that makes this approach so fascinating for ecosystem builders: Knowing who you are and what you’re good at is all good and well. Understanding how you can add value to your entrepreneurial community – other than as a customer – is where we make our mark: Whether we are mentors, investors, coworking space operators, program managers for accelerators, city officials or storytellers: We recognize that founders need access to all kinds of resources to be successful. We understand that we all operate as part of the same entrepreneurial ecosystem, and we decide to leverage our Unfair Advantage to improve the flow of information and resources in that very ecosystem. 

Tobias Rose giving a taste of this Unfair Advantage at Creative Mornings Raleigh
photo credit: Caroline Cockrell Photography

Your greatest asset

Tobias’ Unfair Advantage (I apologize for this  completely insufficient short list, I was hastily scribbling to keep up) is a combination of 

  • His creativity, 
  • Honing his craft as a designer and creative,
  • Watching his grandparents run their own businesses,
  • Living in Durham, running his own creative agency in Durham and and and… 

The point? Tobias’ Unfair Advantage is a unique, once-in-the-universe combination of innate talents, interests, experiences, mindsets and philosophies, and the environment in which he came up and lives today. 

And so is yours. 

Sit down with pen and paper and draw up these four categories. Set yourself a timer for 15 minutes and write. If you’re done in less time, keep writing. No shame in staring at a piece of paper for a few minutes. Allow your mind to wander and see what else surfaces. Which things on that list give you joy? Which ones do you do because you’re good at them? Which ones do you do because they are expected of you? There is magic in writing these out. Give it a try!

Once you have figured out what your Unfair Advantage is, deploy it! Here’s how Tobias goes about putting his unfair advantage to work:

Putting your unfair advantage to work

Nurture it

Whatever that activity is that makes you forget the time, that gives you so much joy and fulfillment down to your core – do more of it. Make time for it. Invest in it. Compete with yourself, keep track of your growth. Don’t be afraid to use it up, the more you create (with your hands, your brain, your thoughts, etc.), the more you will want to do it. 

Keen to learn more? Check out Austin Kleon’s Show your Work and Steal Like an Artist.

Don’t follow your dreams.
photo credit: Caroline Cockrell Photography

Don’t follow your dreams. Build them

Especially if you’re in a job or living situation that has you stuck in your day dream of “One day…”, it is time to shift gears. How are you going to deploy your Unfair Advantage not five years from now, not one year from now, but as soon as you wake up tomorrow? Call BS on yourself every time you hear yourself think “If only…” or “Once I do/have/look like [x], then oh then I will…”. Stop it. Right now! Take that first step to live your dreams right this minute. There’s a really good chance that you will experience two things:

  1. You’re much closer to achieving these dreams than you thought. You might just be astonished by how much momentum you feel from taking that first scary step.
  2. Your dreams most likely will evolve. Now that you’re finally giving them the time of day, not just in your head, but through your actions, they will start to evolve and grow.

And before you know it, you will wonder why you didn’t start much earlier living this life you had always dreamed of.

I know it can be intimidating to start. My home remedy is “Everything is figureoutable” by Marie Forleo. 

Invest in your community. 

In Tobias’ words “Your gifts are not necessarily for you!” Find a way to deploy your Unfair Advantage in your community. This is where the rubber meets the road, where self-development and growth turn into the early signs of becoming an ecosystem builder (assuming the community you invest in is entrepreneurial and you are, in fact, interested in helping entrepreneurs in your community thrive by nurturing a culture of trust and collaboration). 

In late February, I had the pleasure to interview Yuliya Tarasava, co-founder of C Note and one of 43 World Changing Women 2020. I was struck by how she turned her passion for financial markets and instruments (a foreign language to me) into a service for underserved communities across the U.S. When I asked her why she does what she does, she explained: “Given my upbringing, we always had this mindset of serving people as a mantra in our family. Serving people is my personal mission. Combine that with the fact that I’m a math nerd and numbers person and you have the foundation for C Note. You see, finance is a powerful system but historically, it has only been powerful for people who have money. I  want to figure out how to bring my talent, strengths and interests to serving people.” 

Return on investment

Once you figure out your Unfair Advantage, you realize you are holding the key to your universe. Congratulations! It is entirely up to you how you want to deploy your gifts. In my experience, investing in your local (coffee shop, knitting, coworking, craft beer, dog lovers, senior citizen, entrepreneurial etc.) community will only amplify your Unfair Advantage. The more you invest (within reason), the more you see the impact of the connections you made, the people you brought together and helped move forward. Working from a place of deep purpose is a currency like no other. Do more of it. 

I recently launched a campaign called The Unsung Heroes of Ecosystem Building to highlight and celebrate professionals around the U.S. who are working tirelessly to build better entrepreneurial ecosystems. My Unfair Advantage? A combination of:

  • A desire to build community
  • A knack for storytelling
  • A high-level view of the seven ESHIP Goals and those who champion these initiatives and the movement
  • A receptive audience of fellow ecosystem builders who crave stories from the field and love recognizing, learning from and celebrating each other.

My return? As soon as we announced this campaign in our circles, The Keystone Podcast offered to give us an entire episode’s airtime to share some of these stories. Ecosystem builders nominated over 70 people from across North America acknowledging the hard work and dedication these individuals put in every day. As a result, we are able to share close to 30 spotlights and seven pieces of deep insights over the next four months. The amount and content of personal emails, website traffic and outpouring of support we have received in response to these first publications has been one of the most rewarding professional experiences in the last five years.

As ecosystem builders, we operate on a different kind of currency. And our Unfair Advantage is a key in unlocking this potential.

A reminder that most of these ideas came from Tobias Rose’s talk at Creative Mornings Raleigh/Durham – they are his intellectual property. To see his entire talk, I recommend you visit the Creative Mornings Raleigh/Durham site.

A massive thank you to the wonderful team of volunteers at Creative Mornings Raleigh/Durham for putting on such a fantastic event each month. You are a cornerstone of the local community. THANK YOU.

A special thank you to Caroline Cockrell Photography for allowing me to use her stellar images!