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Augeo in Conversation: Andy Stoll, The Kauffman Foundation

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At the heart of our business is a desire to help our clients grow. One of the most important factors in growth is having a growth mindset. We sat down with our client Andy Stoll, Senior Program Officer, Entrepreneurship for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to learn more about the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s approach to growth through community in challenging times.

Joan Wells, Augeo President, Experience: You’ve spoken before about the importance of generosity, especially in making connections with other people. When you do something without thinking about what you’re going to get out of it, you’re being generous, and people appreciate that. How do you see this playing out in future trends for physical events?

Andy Stoll, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation Senior Program Officer, Entrepreneurship: The central equation to building community is: P+C=E: PEOPLE plus CULTURE equals EVERYTHING. Culture is the activating force for groups of people who wish to work together.

Thriving communities, networks, and ecosystems are built on relationships and thus, require a type of culture where generous collaborations happen. It’s a type of culture that supports people regardless of who they are or where they come from with their ideas. That is really important. It’s a very different culture than, I am going to say, traditional business, which is historically, very transactional and often pedigree-based.

You recently sent me a note to thank me for a referral, no one ever does that, and I thought, “Oh, that’s really thoughtful to let me know that my referral became a thing — now I feel good.” But I am not expecting you to do anything in return for that, I’m not keeping score. If everyone in a community operates that way, then I know when I need something someone, somewhere, who has paid some karma into the system, is going to take care of me. Generosity is a key driver of collaboration and really, all relationships.

I know to build that culture, as a leader, one thing I can do is  “model the future” I wish to see. It’s a very different way of thinking than traditional business, but what is interesting is that we have a really cozy word for this, which we have used a long time, which is “neighborly.”

Why? What do you do for your neighbors? You support each other, you help each other out. The secret to community is to be more neighborly. The secret to ecosystem is that everyone should be friends, because what do you do with your friends? You help them out, you support them, you cheer them on. All that is driven by culture and that culture is the culmination of many things that happen in a community on so many levels. What you can’t do is just say, “Well, our culture is now collaborative.” You cannot declare it. It does not work that way. But as a leader, you can model it and encourage people who do it.

“That gets back to that question which I said is at the center of ecosystem building and community: how do you lead when no one is in charge?”

It’s not to say there are not leaders, but when you look across at who is actually in charge of a community, people think in terms of roles like “the mayor.” The answer is, that person is not actually in charge, they’re in charge of the functions of the city government, but that’s only a portion. The mayor is not in charge of what private business does, the mayor is not in charge of what the non-profit sector does. So, leadership skills cannot be top-down. Some people try, but it does not work that way.

The role of leaders in this new era is to recognize the need for and build a culture where individuals thrive and people get to contribute and we all come together to solve problems and create opportunities for ourselves.

“You have to think of physical events as an opportunity to build that culture in a network around people who care about the same thing.”

Back to your question around physical events, you have to think of physical events as an opportunity to build that culture in a network around people who care about the same thing.

It doesn’t even matter what the thing is, as long as you all care about it. The speakers, the way you design it, the interactions, what the leaders say, all of that creates a culture in a place. All of us have been to conferences where you have just the worst culture. It’s transactional, dry, nobody is having fun but they have to be there.

The alternative is conferences where people are just on fire and they are helping each other, they are connecting, you cannot shut them up.

Joan: You can see that in event attendees, when they’ve arrived already committed to participating and engaging because they’re so excited about it.

Andy: Yes. But the value of the conferences is as much what people put into it, not get out of it, and it’s that question we used at the center of the first ESHIP summit, which was, “If everyone says the best part of the conference is the hallway conversations, how do we make the hallway conversations the conference?”

Joan: Yes, you want that, you want to make those connections, that then have just sparked enough that they are going to live on.

Andy: Exactly. I remember the first time I pitched the idea to whoever, it was like, “We’re not gonna do keynote addresses. The longest speaker is going to be 15 minutes,” and half the people were like, “Oh, that’s cool,” and the other people were like, “Well, how will people learn anything?”

But it’s actually that peer-to-peer interaction, especially within ecosystem building because it’s such a new practice. There are no clear best practices, they have no experts, myself included. So, peer-to-peer learning is where it’s at, and it’s probably the same with all conferences, frankly. I think the conferences give people a chance to create that network and that culture and that sort of nutrient exchange that happens, but because we are still in these mental models of hierarchies and top-down and experts, and all things from the industrial revolution, it’s really difficult.

One of the limited great things that is happening as a result of COVID is it has accelerated virtual events and virtual meetings. I have not left my house, really, for six months, but I am actually having more conversations with people in other cities because everyone is used to Zoom now and we can do this face to face, I can see you. All that stuff, it helps.

I think the future of virtual events is thinking exactly along the lines of what you’re saying, which is how do you use events to cultivate networks and cultures where innovation and creativity can thrive.

Joan: I firmly believe that in the future every company is going to have a virtual strategy and a physical strategy as part of their digital marketing. It’s going to be one of the lines in your marketing mix and it’s going to broaden what is possible. It’s going to be good.

“You have to stop thinking about your event as an event. You have to think about your event as a community.”

Andy: I once had the opportunity to speak with Seth Godin about community and he said, “You have to stop thinking about your event as an event. You have to think about your event as a community. The power of an event is you build a network that you cultivate through events.”

Joan: Because the work is already happening.

Andy: It’s happening, you know each other. You think of it less as an isolated conference and the meeting point in a longer journey of a community.

What I realized after Seth said that was like, ‘Oh, we already have a community, we just need to use the event to say, ‘Hey we’re meeting, and if you’re not in the community come join us,'” because that is the thing people are hungry for. In an interconnected world where we are all isolated, what we all want is to relate to people.

“You know, when physical events do come back, I actually think it’s going to be an exponential explosion. People want to hug people, have a beer with their buddy, go with their peers and sit in a conference and just be with humans.”

I think that also is a lot of the trend, generally, of just life in America. Social media, frankly, has exacerbated that divide in lots of different ways. I am wondering if the backlash to this moment is actually going to be sort of a pendulum swing back the other way and we all start huddling more.

Joan: You know, I think that is absolutely right. I think people are going to feel like you were saying, so isolated and so let down and so disgusted that they are just going to reach out to each other more and those connections are going to be stronger and people are never going to take things for granted. It’s so interesting. Because of that, to your point, their community is going to be center stage. People are going to reconnect.

It’s also connecting more on a one-to-one basis, which is kind of a backlash to social media as well. Because of some of the divisiveness of social media, people are getting their emotional bucket filled with more simple heartfelt connections to somebody that they feel connected to but have never met because of something that has brought them together. That is really interesting.

Andy: The thing that underlines all of it is trust. If you can create a culture of trust within your network, people don’t have to know each other to be willing to help each other out.

Back to the ESHP summit, back to any conference, if you can create a culture of trust, then you create opportunities for people to connect and see each other. But again, it’s about the culture in the network, it’s the culture in the community and events. I still think events are the single best way to create culture from scratch because before the event, there is no culture. It does not exist.

“The way you set the event up, the way you invite people, the way you design the website, the way you write the copy, what happens when they walk in the front door, how the seats are arranged, what the emcee says, how the agenda is designed, all of these things are building blocks of culture.”

If you and I meet at an event and then we say, “Hey, let’s chat, let’s get coffee later,” and when we get a coffee in two weeks, we are going to behave in the culture of that event because we literally do not know a different way to behave.

Joan: That’s an excellent point.

Andy: If we meet at a transactional event and we have coffee, we are not going to think about it, but our conversation is going to be based around transaction. If we meet at an event where the culture is telling you to help each other, the first thing I am going to say to you is, “Okay, John, that’s awesome, I really enjoyed that ESHIP summit, that was great for me. Okay, what can I help you with?”

It will take on that tone, so when I coach people around emceeing (that is another way of saying being a leader) at an event, I tell them that your job is to model the culture, and people do whatever you tell them because literally, that is your job is to tell them what to do.

It propagates to the coffees, in the local communities, in the companies. Events are how you set the culture in a network because you cannot control every single little individual action, but you can control the large gatherings.

Your team does a really great job of building events that are welcoming, inclusive, thoughtful, different, interesting, fun, and all of that adds up to the culture of the event. But it’s also not one decision, it’s thousands of decisions that your team makes. Those events create that culture, and the choices that are made around how the event is designed, the agenda, and particularly how the leaders at that event speak is incredibly important.

I think in the networked society, there is no one that has all the answers. You cannot just say, “Well, we’re going to put the expert on, he’s going to give a 50-minute speech and then we’ll have the answers, and then we’ll go to cocktails.” It does not work that way in a complex world.

Thank you to Andy Stoll and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation for their time and their work.

Meetings & Events
Experience Design
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