Archives For Enough Project

 

Note: I wrote this story for the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation. It was originally published on December 17, 2014 on JKHF’s Medium.com page.

Photo Credit: Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation

 

I. A Fight to Ignore

On a June morning this summer, a small group was working on a 16-by-16 plot of urban farm land in Southeast Raleigh when a fight broke out. Across the street two women were arguing over a cellphone. Shouting ensued, onlookers gathered, and the women began assaulting each other. The crowd grew, urging the fight on rather than breaking it up.

Akiba Byrd, a civic activist and entrepreneur, was supervising three youth and an intern on the farm that morning. He had been recently introduced to Nation Hahn, co-founder of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, who came to work with them on the project for the day. They watched intermittently as the fight persisted for what each says must have been half an hour. Nation mentions being disturbed and distracted by what he saw. It was so unfamiliar, and he couldn’t help but keep glancing up at it.

But each time he looked back at the youth on the farm, they remained heads down, completely absorbed in their work. They weren’t at all interested in the commotion across the street. For them, it was all too familiar.

As the fight raged, two little boys wandered up. They were holding ice cream cones. Rather than join the raucous, they wanted to know what all these big kids were doing. Why were they digging in the dirt? Farming was for the country, could they really do this in the city? Could they really do this in their neighborhood?

“They were completely fixated on this garden, this small garden,” Nation would tell me later, fascinated by the reaction.  “And it was like they were entirely oblivious to this loud and violent fight just across the street. They just stood there eating ice cream and asking questions about the garden.” Continue Reading…

Victor Hugo. Credit: Unknown, Public Domain

Victor Hugo. Credit: Unknown, Public Domain

There’s nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come.

– Victor Hugo

In their 2006 book, The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom chronicle the power of organizations with no central control, no structured leadership, oftentimes no budget, and that tend to be volunteer driven. The authors call them “starfish” because they thrive despite (or perhaps because of) having no central nervous system. You cut off a leg, and they regenerate another.

Starfish organizations include Alcoholics Anonymous, Wikipedia, the abolitionist movement in England 150 years ago, and the Apache resistance to Spanish conquest in the 17th and 18th century Southwest US. As I considered last week, the idea can spread far and wide to include less known organizations operating in our communities, such as the F3 workout group that meets early each morning in Raleigh.

We’re so biased towards models of command and control, that it’s counter-intuitive to think that a group without a leader can somehow be more powerful and more successful than one with a manager at its helm. So what’s the secret to starfish success? The authors outline several success factors, and the one that jumps out the most is ideology. Here they highlight how it works with Alcoholics Anonymous:

At AA, the ideology is that people can help each other out of addiction. The twelve steps reflect the implications of this ideology. People who don’t buy into the twelve steps aren’t likely to stay in AA. But those who do follow the twelve steps do so rigorously…we can expect AA and its offshoots to be around as long as there’s addiction.

The idea is straightforward, and it serves a real need (addiction). The structure of the groups is simple and easy to replicate. If someone wants to start a new group, it’s like a fractal pattern repeating itself as its reach expands further and further. The power lies in the simplicity that makes it repeatable. If the ideology becomes too complex or too convoluted, the expansion collapses on itself.

As Victor Hugo put it above, there’s nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come. People will rally around an idea that speaks to them; that resonates. And in organizations that don’t provide economic compensation or status or other forms of incentive, the idea must have power, be simple, and be cogent.

I. An Image Problem: Hercules & The Hydra

Hercules was a real jerk. That’s my conclusion after thumbing through the tales of his conquests last night in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. He’s lionized as the favorite Greek hero, but this dude had a serious case of roid rage, perhaps the first in all of literature.

To illustrate: his most famous adventures come from the “Labors of Hercules” in which he choked-out the fierce lion of Lemea, diverted two great rivers to clear years of accumulated animal filth in the Augean stables, and killed the many-headed Hydra of Lerna, a creature considered immortal until it met Hercules. But why was he checking all these chores off a list? They were part of history’s first 12-step recovery program, penance for a roid-rage fit in which Hercules murdered his wife and three sons. That backstory was conveniently missing from Disney’s cartoon movie. Seriously, we need to reconsider our heroes.

Hercules v. Hydra, Photo Credit:  Eagle Painter Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons License

Hercules v. Hydra, Photo Credit:
Eagle Painter Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons License

Here’s Hamilton’s description of the Hydra conquest:

The second labor was to go to Lerna and kill a creature with nine heads called the Hydra which lived in a swamp there. This was exceedingly hard to do, because one of the heads was immortal and the others almost as bad, inasmuch as when Hercules chopped one off, two grew up instead. However, he was helped by his nephew Iolaus who brought him a burning brand with which he seared the neck as he cut each head off so it could not sprout again. When all had been chopped off he disposed of the one that was immortal by burying it securely under a great rock.

Let’s refocus this tale from Hercules to the Hydra. Despite its evil reputation, I want to reimagine the creature in a more pleasant light. That ability to grow two heads where one is lopped off has been the source of nightmares, but I want to strip it of fear and turn it into a constructive metaphor for something we should want more of in our local economies. I’ll call them Hydra economies. Continue Reading…

Starfish, Creative Commons License

Starfish, Creative Commons License

Several days a week, before dawn, middle-aged men congregate in small groups around Raleigh. They meet at parks, school playgrounds, and open fields and spend the better part of an hour running through fitness drills. When done exercising, they gather in a huddle for chatter and reflection before breaking and heading their separate ways.

I first heard about these groups a year ago. Over the span of a few weeks, I was approached by no less than six men suggesting I might enjoy the experience. None were pushy. Each seemed genuine and friendly. I sensed no alternative motive, but I demurred. I’m slow to accept new commitments.

If asked last year to wager on whether these groups would still exist today, I would have bet against them. I would have said they’d peter out. People are just too busy and have so many easier options for working out. At best, maybe they’d continue with a small core of devotees. Certainly nothing more.

Well, prognostication has never been my strong suit.

It’s breaking out like a virus. From simple beginnings not many years ago, it has somewhere around 200 participants today. It’s grown from Raleigh to neighboring communities, and there are hints of it expanding even further.

Yet it has no leadership structure. No money changes hands. And there are few hard and fast rules about when and where they meet or how they conduct the workouts. It’s all happening in an organic, self-organizing way.

How? Why?

These are the sort of questions I’m pointing at Will (known in the groups as “Maize”) at the neighborhood pool over Memorial Day weekend. Since there are no leaders, I can best describe him as a champion of these groups. While we both keep an eye on our children splashing at the edge of the deep end, I ask him why this is taking off. What’s the secret?

“It’s the starfish principle, man,” he answers. “You want to understand, you gotta read The Starfish and the Spider.”

So I ordered the book and devoured it early this week.

But let’s step back for a moment. Why do I care?

Continue Reading…

(Or, Why I Put My Money In Self-Help Credit Union, Part II)

 1.

When Michelle Holland started her little bus company in 2009, she would rouse her son at four each morning. He was ten and his single mom had no option but to grab his pillow and plop him in a rear seat of her refurbished yellow school bus while running routes through Charlotte’s neighborhoods. He would grab his last winks of sleep while she collected students from their homes for delivery to a local charter school. For the privilege of avoiding the hassles of car pools, the parents would pay Michelle a small fee each month. She would drop them off before extending her trip a few extra miles to get her own son to his school.

Such was start-up life for Michelle and her Eagle Bus Service. It was tough, but it supplemented the income from her bookkeeping practice. And after several years spent juggling the demands of an all-consuming corporate life with the demands of being a young, single mother, it let her be near her son more often.

Now word was spreading to other charter schools that Michelle could solve their transportation woes. The state gave them funding to educate kids in their own unique ways, but it didn’t give access to the county-run fleets of buses. Principals saw what Michelle was doing for her first client, and they wanted her to expand; to help them, too. They were offering guaranteed payments and year-long contracts if only Michelle could scale-up her service. If only she could get more buses and more drivers.

Michelle's Bus Fleet (Credit: Michelle Holland)

Michelle’s Bus Fleet (Credit: Michelle Holland)

This is the story I’m getting first hand from Michelle in a phone conversation one afternoon last fall. We had been trying to connect for weeks, but Michelle isn’t exactly swimming in spare time. Her morning schedule remains largely the same as it was in 2009 – up well before dawn, preparing to get students safely to school – and her days are spent balancing the desk work of Eagle Bus with the needs of her few remaining bookkeeping clients. In the meantime she was searching desperately for another bus to add to her growing fleet. She usually bought them in North Carolina, but someone was grabbing all the state surplus vehicles before she could get to them. Michelle had just driven to rural Virginia to find one that met her standards. We were speaking because I was interested in how she got the money for that purchase. Continue Reading…

Self Help Credit Union

Self-Help Credit Union in Durham
(Credit: Google Maps Street View)

I’m late for my lunch appointment and covering the 20-mile stretch of highway between Raleigh and Durham at a brisk pace. It’s the last day of September. While North Carolina is showing few signs of autumn, some cool air rolled in the night before and pushed the summer humidity out to the coast. With a shining sun, it’s perfect for rolling down the windows and letting the wind swirl around the faded leather interior of my old Toyota.

I’m heading downtown to meet Kristen Cox, an investment associate at Self-Help Credit Union.  I’ve been thinking about the Enough Project for a few weeks now, and I’m about to write my first check.

The idea is to put some chunk of our family money to work supporting conscious capitalist organizations and projects. We’re doing pretty well these days, financially speaking. I’m less and less compelled to make every dollar go into investments that aim for the highest possible returns. If there’s a tradeoff to be made between earning the highest return possible versus one that’s merely reasonable, I’m willing to explore the reasonable option when it means the money supports something constructive, meaningful and that provides some benefit to my community.

This is the gist of the Enough Project: putting a small slice of our money to work in ways that are consistent with the things we value.

Yet I find myself glancing anxiously at the passenger seat of my car. It’s empty save one checkbook wrapped in the same navy blue vinyl cover my bank issued me when I opened the account more years ago than I care to remember. I’m not sure why, but I’m a little nervous about using one of those checks to transfer our six-month emergency fund over to Self-Help. The transaction is riskless. The new account is covered by NCUA insurance, so it has all the protections the FDIC provides at my bank. It will earn the same interest rate it gets in my bank. It’s completely liquid with the money available to pull out anytime I might need it. True, the check is the biggest I’ve ever written, but I’m writing it to myself! Why the fear?

There’s something about this drive, about this check, about this Enough Project that has me thinking hard about my crazy relationship with money these past ten years. It’s creating a serious case of navel-gazing.

Flashback to June 2004. I was down to my last $50. Literally. And I had a wallet full of maxed-out credit cards, a mortgage-sized student loan payment, and a car note to boot.

It had been six months since my last paycheck, and my job options were so dim that I passed my days filling out applications on the Halliburton website. My mind spun vivid daydreams in which I drove 18-wheel supply trucks in caravans criss-crossing the deserts of  Iraq or Afghanistan, pulling a kevlar bucket tight by its chinstrap when the occasional mortar shell came whistling down. Spending the next year or two as a war contractor seemed my best option for income. Perhaps my only option to avoid whatever comes after one runs out of money to pay his creditors.

I remember lying across my bed in the middle of one sweltering Charlotte summer day, my roommate’s dog resting her muzzle on my thigh while my brain dizzied itself spinning through every desperate plan that might keep me afloat just a bit longer.

Suddenly it all stopped. My mind emptied itself, becoming utterly silent. Staring at the ceiling for what must have been five, maybe ten minutes of total quiet, the despair slowly gave way to a simmering anger. I muttered aloud, for no one in particular, “Never again.”

Continue Reading…

My September books brought so many amazing learning experiences, not to mention the discussions they generated with family, friends, colleagues and even one of the authors.

Financing Our Foodshed by Carol Peppe Hewitt

Let’s start with the winner of the prestigious Most Dog-Eared Book of the Month Award. Thank you Carol Peppe Hewitt for writing Financing Our Foodshed: Growing Local Food with Slow Money, a collection of 22 stories on North Carolina food entrepreneurs (farmers, bakers, restaurateurs and the like) to whom Slow Money NC has introduced local financiers eager to fund sustainable local eating ventures.

IMG_20130929_124805Mainstream investing has become overwhelmed by the opportunity cost heuristic, guided by the simplistic question, where can I make the most money as quickly as possible with the least risk? 

This is not entirely bad, and I’m not quick to cast moralistic aspersions on using capitalism in pursuit of profits. There’s a place for that, and there always will be. But it brings to mind the notion of hypertrophy, this glitch in evolution’s system by which nature allows (for example) a male ibix to grow horns so large, its neck cannot support the weight. Yet those large horns have become a proxy for virility, and the females are programmed to mate with him whose horns spread widest. And so this glitch propagates through the generations with the genes of big-horned ibix begetting even bigger-horned ibix until an entire species is handicapped with antlers with all appeal but no function. I can imagine the big cat mountain predator eager for this easy prey. Given enough generations of reproducing those big horns, the hypertrophy glitch will bring doom to that gene pool.

It’s not that big horns are bad, but there is such a thing as too big.

So it is with capitalism and opportunity cost. It’s not that it’s bad, but there can be too much.

In chasing the biggest-dollar, fastest-bang, lowest-risk return, we put all our resources into high-scale enterprise that promises crazy riches while we starve our local entrepreneurs of the capital they need to get off the ground or grow. Herein lies a hypertrophy risk in our investing system. We chase the promise of the next Facebook (that big-horned ibix) while ignoring the small-scale businesses that create happier, healthier, more sustainable local economies.

The weight of that imbalance threatens to topple us. Continue Reading…

Apparently my fascination with all things Zingerman’s knows no bounds as I explore this Enough Project. I’ve trolled a brilliant little video (by Daniel Seguin) featuring Zingerman’s co-founder, Paul Saginaw, that promotes a concept called “Localism.”

“There’s this idea of having enough” Paul narrates over beautiful pictures of the Zingerman’s businesses. “So when you believe that, when you’re not wanting more and more all the time, what’s driving you is wanting to create something of excellence. It’s liberating.

“What is this? Is it capitalism? Is it socialism? What do we have here? I don’t know if it’s capitalism. I know it’s not socialism. I don’t know what it is and it isn’t. But anybody can do it. It’s just a lot of work. But I would say try it. It’s also fun.”

(The video is here.)

(h/t to Ron Maurer for this link via Twitter)

IMG_20130911_091302

My brief trip to Ann Arbor last April introduced me to a real-life application of conscious capitalism. Zingerman’s Community of Businesses is a thriving enterprise that does good business while doing a lot of business good. Rather than extracting all the profits from their companies, the owners put back much more than they take out. It’s a model that deserves some deep contemplation, and it’s the example I turn to as I seek a new investing construct for myself. Allow me to introduce what I’m calling the Enough Project, a gonzo investing and writing experiment to see what kind of impact I can have by investing small amounts in good businesses committed to doing good.   

Eating in Ann Arbor

It’s raining hard this April morning as our rental car speeds west down the short stretch of interstate 94 connecting the Detroit airport to Ann Arbor. The windshield wipers set quick cadence, a rhythmic background for the good-humored argument entangling my two colleagues and me. My boss, Josh, sits in the back scrolling through his iPhone, barking out various Yelp recommendations for good eating options in Ann Arbor. Daniel is in the front seat, and I’m behind the wheel. We’ve already shrugged off Josh’s first suggestion – that we let some group of restaurants called Zingerman’s monopolize all of our meals – and now he’s tossing out alternatives.

Josh is our company’s resident foodie, and so we usually defer to his better judgement when it comes to dining on the road. Plus his wife earned a masters at the University of Michigan, so he can call on first hand experience when it comes to the local restaurant scene.

Yet we challenge his every recommendation – we’re feeling argumentative – and so we’re now resorting to the advice of anonymous Yelpers.

As Josh relays their suggestions, we sense his heart isn’t into any of the substitutes.

Okay, we finally relent. Your original idea sounds fine.

“Great!” Josh responds, his demeanor changing instantly.He dials a number and within seconds we have a dinner reservation that evening for some place called Zingerman’s Roadhouse.

Second Thoughts on Investing

I’ve been mulling over a change to my investment approach for nearly a year now, seeking to reconcile my desire for high returns with a growing sensibility to do something constructive and socially beneficial with my money. Continue Reading…