Emergence Of Laddership Circles
--Nipun Mehta
6 minute read
Jun 28, 2015

In January of this year, few of us met for a lunch where a friend offered us money to support the Generosity Entrepreneurs (GE) vision.  Even though we haven't taken the money, his intent ended up catalyzing a great possibility within ServiceSpace.

Traditional project incubators support their entrepreneurs in becoming sustainable through money, but the GE idea is to be sustainable through nature.  More specifically, through generosity.

When Lynne Twist asked Mother Teresa about her thoughts on fundraising, the response she got was: "Oh, I just pray. Whatever I get is what I need." And that was Mother Teresa's only strategy for sustaining 400 centers across 102 countries. From a distance, that seems like a mysterious anomaly, but perhaps finding security in money is actually what ought to be odd.

Across time and wisdom traditions, sages have always repeated a principle of nature: "It is in giving that you receive," "Every seed produces many fruits," "Nature produces water, before you experience thirst." Exemplars like Saint Francis and Master Hsuan Hua set a very high bar with the example of their own lives. Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave also deeply understood this principle, and would send many promising change-makers, like Nirmala Deshpande, to remote regions of India, without any resources or connections or even a common language. "Take a broom, a scripture of your choice, and a musical instrument," Vinoba would instruct them. Hands, head, heart.  Your security was the selflessness of that multi-dimensional service.

When we serve without expecting anything in return, people respond. All life responds. It creates a web of relationships that sustains us. Someone's cup of gratitude, somewhere somehow, overflows to provide us what we need. We may not know exactly how the matrix of inter-connections creates that overflow, but if we can just understand that it does, we lay the foundation for what we're calling Generosity Entrepreneurship.

Back at this lunch, when our friend offered us this incredible gift for the GE vision, we took it as a sign of emergence. "Well, let's explore. Before anything, we need to cultivate a field," we said.

So we started.  The following month, we piloted an 8-person Laddership Circle for six weeks. Regular readings and homeworks, daily practices, a weekly video conference call, optional design call on the weekend. On her farm in Colorado, Mira started a clay-it-forward class; in building his start-up, 23-year-old Calvin stopped designing for monetization; Fran, a professor in LA, said the six weeks significantly changed how she teaches her classes. Filmmaker Katie Teague echoed the group sentiment when she said, on the last call, "We are all like a family. I don't feel alone in pursuing these values."

In retrospect, our Laddership Circles offered three fundamental ingredients: (a) personal practices that deepen one's awareness, (b) content that generates more questions than answers, and (c) community that creates resilience as we struggle to integrate the new ideas into our world view. Hands, head, heart, if we want to put a Gandhian framework on it.

Inspired by our pilot circle, Audrey, Birju and I thought we'd try a second round. More than 30 change-makers applied! Reading their incredible applications and project intentions, we couldn't get ourselves to refuse so many of them. So we stepped it up, and decided to host two concurrent circles. Preeta, Min, Zilong and Nicole signed on as additional anchors.

Lot of change-makers and community organizers look to ServiceSpace, as a model for a different pathway to social change, one that leads with inner transformation and stays aligned with its deeper values. Unlike that electronic text or a favorite MP3, though, you can't copy-paste or download ServiceSpace in one swoop. It requires an engagement with our internal state of being, our external service, our relationships with all the stakeholders and the innumerable interconnections among all of those spheres. Without that context, our content is simply not activated.

In the early days of Karma Kitchen, for example, we used to get tons of media requests. But the reporters almost always confused the concept! It was amazing, if not shocking. So then we came up with a new rule: before you do a story, you first have to volunteer. When Caille Millner, on the editorial board of SF Chronicle, approached us for a story, that's what we told her. So she came in to volunteer -- busing tables for the first time in her life. And she got it: "At that moment, all nine of us - exhausted, splattered, hungry - believed that we could have served those 150 people, too. Nearly all of us will be coming back to try. Why is that? I wondered as I drove home, high from the experience of doing manual labor for not-always-gracious strangers."

Laddership Circles, then, are our way to encourage copy-paste of ServiceSpace. We hope that the combination of our hands-head-heart context will provide a new lens of looking at the world and creative frameworks to be entrepreneurial with that augmented vision.

This week, we just had our introductory video conference calls. Really inspiring.

Saejung is a lawyer in San Diego, who has created a women's group to foster cooperation among immigrant moms. Fernando is a former basketball player in Europe, whose life took on a new turn after he watched a KarmaTube video, is trying to integrate values into a new shoe company in Chile. Pranidhi is a yoga-instructor who is starting a new studio rooted in generosity, while Bonnie has been a pastor at a Church for 11 years and looking for newer solutions that lead with "inner technology" and Geet is setting up a gift-economy Ayurveda clinic. In Dubai, Natasha gave out bananas (and got 1200 hugs) as a way to align her budding startup with her core values.  Joel in France, and Deven in India, are scheming up ways to change our relationship to money.  Sachi is creating a volunteer program at a remand home in Bombay's slums, Poonam is channeling her experiences with violence towards training young leaders around "Soul Force" leadership, and Grant is creating a gratitude app.  And so much more.

They are all keen to explore an inner transformation that will align them, and their work, with nature's sustenance.  Here are just a couple of excerpts from the dozen pages of rich reflections from the first week:
"Like Fukuoka's reading, how do I find the courage to let 400 mandarin trees die, so a new possibility can emerge?" "I failed at sitting 10 minutes everyday, but I am encouraged by my new understanding about how little things can add up to big changes." "I'm realizing how attached I am to outcomes. I crave recognition." "How can we dissolve a system that seems so oppressive and violent with the power of love, small acts and service? How can I expand my cup of compassion to empathize with those who are so oppressive?" "I'm trying to unlearn that money and trust can't go together."  "How to reclaim the priceless?" "Only when the heart is filled with a song that a child can be said to be musically gifted." “When I don’t know you, I serve you. When I know you, I am you.”

"I was in Boston visiting friends this past weekend, and wanted to experiment with radical pay-it-forward actions to strangers. So, I stood in the subway and kindly offered to pay for people's subway ride. I was taken aback, but upon reflection not surprised, that literally everyone refused my gift. Most people didn't even respond to my presence, since engaging with strangers is such a foreign activity to most, and even the ones that heard me out in my simple offer, they curtly refused and went on their way. And it's not just a boundary with other people. It's a boundary for me as well, since it's just easier to engage with people you know, for acceptable cultural activities (e.g. buying a card for Father's Day). I think the best way for me to do this might be to start small, start doing random small things for friends."

It's not hard imagine how this might compound over six weeks, with a close-knit circle of kindred spirits.

Collectively, perhaps we will create a field for new patterns of social change, a la Generosity Entrepreneurs. Or even if we just "start doing random small things for friends", it would be a great thing.           

Posted by Nipun Mehta on Jun 28, 2015

4 Past Reflections