StartingBloc: Tribe of Empathy on Steroids
As I’m finally nearing the end of college life, this last semester has been as difficult as the first semester upon my return. Having come back to college at the age of 25 after 5 years of gap, I felt bored, lonely and anxious in school. Then, I slowly began to find connections between my learning and my future work, tried to open up myself for a wider network, and met several friends that I now consider as some of my closest friends. I stopped worrying about whether my return to college rather than dropping out was the right decision and tried to live the freedom I had. Fast forward a couple of years, I was heading towards that trough again, as I’ve been feeling so eager to start working, saying goodbyes to my closest friends, and feeling uncertain about what to do after graduation. I was in a dire need for some fresh dose of inspiration, a new community of like-minded people, and most importantly, some damn sunshine. (Babson is located on the outskirt of Boston)
Then, StartingBloc happened.
There were several reasons. Numerous entrepreneurial friends that I admire wouldn’t seriously stop bugging me to convince me to experience StartingBloc. (At one point I thought they were getting paid a referral fee) I also wanted to join SB before I graduate since I knew it would be more difficult to stay in the U.S.
Last but not least, California!!!
Here, I’d like to share with you what SB is, my most memorable SB experiences and learning from them, lasting questions in my head, as well as what it all means to me.
An Institute: SB is a 5-day event consisted of activities, discussion, reflection, and networking. Founded in 2003, the institute focused on social entrepreneurship and transitioned to social impact in 2010. SB now focuses on “convening, growing and supporting leaders to step into a collaborative, authentic, distributed workforce.” SB covers “analytical frameworks, skill-sets, and models for mindset transformation.” In short, it’s a mini-school for future of leadership.
A Fellowship/Community: Many conferences I’ve been part of, albeit a lot of valuable insight and connection, do not come with a tight-knit community beyond a Facebook group. StartingBloc is a community of 2,800+ entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and community-seekers of all kinds that constantly exchanges learning, asks and gives online and offline. This is why the fellowship is said to begin after the institute is over, not when it starts. The age of SB Fellows has spanned 18–70, with a median age of 29.
More information about what SB is and how their program is consisted can be found here.
The most memorable things from my SB experiences were…
Intention-setting throughout the institute
At many conferences, I zone out from time to time because I lose my focus or I’m physically tired. Although the nature of sitting down and listening for extended hours does tire you out(welcome to my daily life in school), most of the reason that accounts for people being out of sorts during conference is that people forget what they wanted to learn. In SB, the organizers tried very hard to keep us focused throughout the institute, none of which was done in any coercive manner but rather in a very organic and spiritual way. It felt like I went through a proper amount of stretching and meditation to get my head in the game. To illustrate a few ways they made this possible:
- Reading: From Day 1, we often began the program by reading something together — a poem or quote. I found this to be very effective in setting the right mood.
- Asking and sharing our intentions: After going through our daily agenda, we were to think of specific intentions. “What do we want to get out of today? What are important things to pay attention to based on our schedule today?” Then we’d share those among each other.
- Rule-setting: They set up a few simple rules with the aim to give each other support and space. These include snapping instead of clapping(my fingers were sore on the 2nd day), not yelling/shouting, introducing your name and gender pronouns whenever you speak, and completely stopping to talk when the organizer raises her right hand.
- Push to reflect deeper: After each workshop, they would give us 2–3 minutes to jot down the thoughts and learning in silence. I especially appreciated this because a)I’m a huge reflection nerd and b)I get easily distracted by sound during my reflection.
- Vulnerability: Vulnerability was definitely a keyword from my SB experience. I was impressed by how vulnerable and accepting the organizers were to listen to our feedback about the institute, which allowed me to be okay with being vulnerable. At the end of each day, we’d do a “Plus and Delta” session, during which we share one positive thing and one area for improvement about the day. Each time someone shared her or his Plus and Delta, the organizer would repeat them to ensure that everyone understood clearly. Why doesn’t everyone do this?!
“How to Fall in Love with Anyone”
As part of the “Creating Lasting Change Through Action” workshop, Scott Sherman, the speaker, had us ask some questions from “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” in pair. The three sets of questions, developed by Mandy Len Catron and introduced by New York Times, are meant to bring up the intimacy level between two people as the questions build up in a sense that both are forced to become vulnerable to each other. According to the author, “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” As we all know, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in front of another — let alone a complete stranger — can be very difficult. However, this exercise forced us to share our vulnerability. I paired up with a friend that I met for the first time and felt strongly connected thanks to this exercise. The 8 questions that we worked were:
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
- What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
- When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
- For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
- Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
- What is your most treasured memory?
- What roles do love and affection play in your life?
- Share an embarrassing moment in your life.
I strongly recommend you to do this exercise with your loved one, co-worker, or your friend.
Harnessing the Power of Inclusion
This workshop was intended to guide us to to infuse your community with inclusivity, identity and cohesion. In other words, it helped us to be WOKE around all kinds of -isms that we see on a daily basis — sexism, ageism, racism, classism and so on. On the wall of our event space, there were signs of about 10 different elements of our identities such as level of education, race/ethnicity, ability, religion, gender and sexual orientation . Through this exercise, we walked around different identities, stopping to reflect on some questions we were asked.
This was especially relevant since I was just at a dinner with Julia Middleton a few weeks ago, Founder of Common Purpose. She argues that in many communities, culture or diversity is limited to geographical difference although in reality, it contains so much more. I strongly recommend you watch her TED Talk.
Polarity management workshop: Life is a Paradox, Deal with It
This was perhaps the most insightful workshop from the institute. I, very often, think about some of the conflicting characteristics of mine that I apply to thinking, perceiving, and doing. Sometimes such reflection makes me feel guilty, incompetent, or unstable about “being myself”. This workshop, however, taught me that it’s perfectly natural that I go through such paradox and I felt motivated to take advantage of it.
In brief, we were asked to jot down our reflection from some questions about our conflicting natures of who we are and who we want to become. Writing these adjectives down about the way I think and behave clarified how “contradictory” I can be and yet, taught me how to take advantage of them by recognizing below:
- Exactly who you are and who you’re trying to be, and the why behind it
- Paradox of your characteristics is not solvable, nor does it need to be changed. Instead, managing your polarity will allow you to take advantage of the upsides only, rather than dwelling in your downsides.
- One of the most interesting findings for me was that most of the things I jotted down were very clearly the qualities of either my mom or dad — I love you!
If this sounds interesting to you and yet you don’t know exactly how to do it, I’d be happy to help.
On Day 2, we each had to prepare our own vision statement. Then, we all shared them in 60 seconds. The vision statement was explained by SB as such:
- Their “why”. At 30000 feet, what is your vision for the world?
- How do you see yourself working towards that vision?
- What is most enlivening for you in this moment?
- What question are you holding in your life and in your work?
- An #ask or a #give for the room — what do they need from the room, and/or what do they have to offer the room
- A project, program, or company they’re currently working on
Then, we would vote for a few most resonated vision statements that we would collaborate in a design thinking workshop (which we did the next day).
This was very effective for the following reasons:
- Coming up with a 60-second pitch about your life vision statement is more difficult than one would think, albeit a huge importance of the question. This was probably the smoothest “getting-to-know” exercises I’ve ever seen.
- Although there were like 80 of us, this was a very efficient and effective way of getting to know everyone from the institute.
The amount of talents among the fellows were just incredibly impressive. Each of us were encouraged to propose our own workshop — brainstorming, knowledge-sharing, reflection, activity and etc. There were over 10 workshops created in a matter of 20 minutes by the fellows who volunteered to host a wide variety of workshops from decolonizing love to Blockchain conversation to reflection for transition to a walk around DTLA. They were SO good! I’m so glad and impressed that the SB organizers allowed this space for us. More conferences should utilize the potential learning values from unconferencing.
Blockchain for good
Never did I expect that I would learn about Blockchain at a leadership development conference. But I became so much more interested in the underlying technologies behind the Blockchain technologies. The panelists and blockchain experts taught me about how to easily explain the Blockchain and applying it for social impact beyond cryptocurrency — which is just one aspect of the Blockchain technologies. After the institute, I ended up reading a couple of blockchain books and a few white-papers, which means a lot to me. (I suck at reading)
Make Your Own Luck
On the last day of the institute, we were randomly grouped with 5–6 people and share the gives and asks. Based on the strength of “Weak Ties” as well as Richard Wiseman’s “4 Principles of Luck”, we shared we we need/can provide ideas, job opportunities from/to others. Not only this exercise increased my chance of getting what I need, but clarifying my ask and give itself was very helpful.
Groups and mentors
The fellows of SB LA ’18 were all grouped into a team of 8 including one mentor. The mentor (I love you Geronimo!) had us introduce each other before the institute started and would meet throughout the institute for intention-setting or reflection activities. What I appreciated the most about these groups is that it enables you to stay focused and connected to this institute. In particular, our group set up our norms such as being on time, active listening and authentic sharing — which I thought was very effective. The mentors are so approachable that I hugged almost all of them.
What I learned from SB…
Vulnerability drives humanization.
We must become better and get used to starting conversations that make us vulnerable. There are plenty of light questions such as “what’s your quirk?” that brings the community together.
Racism and sexism are NOT the only products of discrimination.
We shall see beneath and beyond the color of skin or where they lived to be culturally sensitive and agile, which should be expected from both leaders and followers.
You can co-create shared responsibility (even during a conference)
By setting the rules together, we all become responsible. Once you build a community, everything falls into places.
Scaling can be another word for domination.
Don’t think about starting an empire, think of building a network.
Excerpt by StartingBloc:
- “This is relevant to a concept called ‘social aikido’ — In the martial art of aikido, we use the strength and power of our adversary to our advantage. Similarly, when we are trying to solve social problems, we should not try to fight against people who have more power and resources than we do; we will just get crushed and waste a lot of resources that could be used to solve the problem. Instead, we should use our opponents’ strength to our advantage. How do we do that? We need to transform our adversaries into allies. We can transform conflict into cooperation and hatred into goodwill. It may sound difficult, but it’s both possible and extremely effective!
“The best way to eliminate your enemies is to make them your friends.”
— Abe Lincoln”
When writing job description for others when hiring someone, be careful of what you demand for.
We must be keen on the qualities that are actually necessary for the job they will be doing. I especially resonate with this after seeing hundreds of JDs with traditional proxies such as particular school, certificate, or experience in particular firms. Avoid dangerous assumptions and focus on the right measurement of skills.
Create an environment to turn abnormal to normal, unconscious to conscious.
Until the word “brainstorming” was born, people probably considered others who kept throwing ideas as assholes. We should go beyond that and normalize being weird and wacky, allowing community members to be creative and unconventional.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it safe.”
— Carl Jung
Snapping is AWESOME.
It not only brings out the organic support-system among the audience, but also it doesn’t cut the flow of deliveries. It does wear out your fingers though.
#MeToo movement should NOT end as just a hashtag movement.
We (I mean everyone) should do everything we can to ensure a)all voices are heard and b)appropriate changes are implemented.
Buycott instead of Boycott.
Care about social impact? Try to change your consumers, instead of your directors.
- How can social-minded individuals become inclusive ourselves to best deliver education around Diversity, Inclusion and Identity to leaders that are not so social-minded?
- How can we bring Diversity, Inclusion and Identity education to Asia, particularly in more closed countries?
- How can we create a safe space to discuss Diversity, Inclusion and Identity in our organizations?
- What can men do to end sexual violence?
- How can I better manage my polarity?
If you read this far, you’d probably want to join SB. Like very, very soon. Well guess what? The next SB institutes will be in NOLA (5/17–5/22) and Raleigh-Durham (6/21–6/25). There are more in the future in NY, DC, and LA as well. If interested, apply here or shoot me as message(email below).
Implications on me…
Aside from all the precious learning and connections thanks to SB(its online community has been the most welcoming and helpful group I’ve been a part of), attending SB helped me clarify things I want to create. Regardless of its form(non-profit/social enterprise), I dream of creating an organization that does:
- Community problem-solving hackathon: multi-day collegiate/community-based event where different people including strategist, engineers, and artists get together to ideate and execute their local problem-solving ideas
- Community problem-solving school: batch-based accelerator where people gain access to training, resources, and partners to execute their problem-solving ideas. It’s also in the form of coffeeshop and a hostel, a hub for local culture and social impact. (Folks interested in social-impact can stay here rather than regular hotel/airBnB for more authentic experiences.)
- Future of education fellowship: A 4-day workshop that focuses on analyzing what’s happening around the world in the education. This is not a place for pitching your profit-driven education product, but rather a hub for collaboration and ideation. It’s a life-long community/fellowship, not a one-time event.
- Diversity-based leadership development fellowship: 4-day workshop for leaders/employees/students to teach the depth of diversity — not limited to the color of your skin, but including sexism, ageism, discrimination against disabled, etc. It’s a life-long community/fellowship, not a one-time event.
I’m curious about your thoughts on:
- What are your thoughts on the needs of above-mentioned projects in general?
- Are there any organizations that are doing similar things? (disclaimer: StartingBloc was a huge inspiration)
- If I create an organization that does the three projects above, would you be interested in joining as an investor, partner, or co-worker?
More importantly, I’d like to give my special thanks to Cheryl Kaiser, Emily Weiner, and Jen MacDonald from the Lewis Institute of Babson College as always for supporting my incredible learning journeys. I’d also like to thank Alex Place and Babson’s Professional Accelerator Fund for making this trip possible. I will pay it forward as I grow and become wiser.
Last but not least, thank you StartingBloc for being who you are❤
Alex Lim is currently finishing his entrepreneurial studies at Babson College and open for growth opportunities in the intersection of technology and social change. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
If any of you are interested in learning more about StartingBloc and joining the fellowship, do not hesitate to reach out to me. Again, I found this experience to be one of the most authentic and emphatic education I’ve gone through. I strongly recommend that you look into this opportunity. Hopefully, I get to be part of bringing this effort back home.