Reflections on the StartingBloc Institute for Social Innovation (#SBBos12)

I honestly went into the experience not really knowing what to expect when I landed in Boston on May 24th. I knew that I would learn about different forms of social innovation - everything from social entrepreneurship to intrapreneurship to cross sector partnerships – and I knew that everyone would share my belief that economic value creation and social value creation are complementary. That, in a nutshell, it’s possible to make money and “do good”.

What I didn’t know was that the description of the Institute as a “transformative experience” wasn’t simply marketing language. What I didn’t know was that I would meet nearly 90 strangers with whom I’d build amazingly rich and deep connections over a five day period.

It was literally like nothing I’d experienced before.

First order of business: Let all guards down.

We had the privilege of spending the first day of our session with Scott Sherman of Transformative Action. We started with some basic discussions about our goals for the weekend, expectations of the experience and ways we planned to contribute our talents. He then proceeded to captivate our attention with his humor and story telling abilities then allowed us to delve into the art of building relationships with a few activities.

One of the most memorable activities that broke down guards from the very beginning utilized basic improv techniques. For about 15 minutes 90 of us stood in a giant circle and responded to and/or acted out various prompts Scott threw out. The only rule of the activity was that whatever a participant said or did had to be followed by roaring applause and high fives. There was little room for shyness and there was no opportunity for shame. We were all in it together. And, just like that, energy spread through the room like a wildfire and maintained its presence for the rest of the weekend.

Building the StartingBloc community: Share your passions

With Scott’s sessions out of the way, StartingBloc had started to create an environment that encouraged us to share our full selves with one another. A few of my favorite activities that allowed us to delve deep into each of our personal goals:

  • Ideas marketplace – Anyone could sign up to give a 60 second presentation on a passion, project, or business they want help with. Some folks even just presented themselves, offering certain skills and talents to anyone who could use them. All of these were kept track of in a shared Google doc for future reference. (If you're wondering, I used my time to profess my love for the concept of Shared Value.)
  • 15 year reunion – A seemingly corny exercise, it required that we choose a partner and literally act as though we hadn't seen each other for 15 years. Our updates to one another had to include the accomplishment of our biggest dreams and aspirations (our "big hairy audacious goals"). I’m a firm believer in speaking things into existence so this turned out to be a powerful activity.
  • Ideas to Action – This was the final activity of the weekend, which required us to share our current progress on our goals and describe our vision for progress over the next year. We had to include details about not only our professional and academic milestones but also other aspects like the state of our support systems, our physical and emotional well being, and geographic location of choice

The core of the experience: Get vulnerable and smash fear

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”― Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

If you know me then you know I’m obsessed with the topic of vulnerability. It started with me watching the Power of Vulnerability TED Talk by Brene Brown back in 2010 and has continued with me following her other works including her latest book, Gifts of Imperfection (go buy it!). With that in mind, it will come as no surprise to you that the level of vulnerability required to engage with the other Fellows over the course of that weekend is what will stick with me forever.

One of the first activities of the weekend required us to find someone we'd never met and ask him/her a series of increasingly personal questions, which included “If you had one year to live, what would you do?” and “What is one thing you would change about your childhood?” Another activity I enjoyed was simple and quickly forced us to dig deep: we had to turn to a partner and share our deepest fear. We then had to ask each other why (and answer that question) five times. A fairly known technique, 5 Whys gradually gets us to discuss the root of a problem, or in this case fear.

The last day included a presentation by a StartingBloc Fellow Ted Gonder (who completed an Institute prior to ours) entitled Smashing Fear. It was by far the most memorable session as it included the perfect combination of creative slides, humorous stories, and audience engagement. It was also high energy, motivational, and appropriately placed in the agenda. Among the gems he left us with was the following quote: “If I’m not at least a little scared to do something, it’s probably not worth my time.”


If it’s not already clear: what made StartingBloc such a powerful experience for me had nothing to do with the curriculum covered. Yes our ambitious agenda did cover topics like cross-sector leadership, social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility as promised.  However, while useful, these are topics I could learn more about through books and on blogs for the most part.

There is richness in learning through other people’s experiences. That richness becomes even more profound when the sharing of experiences happens between individuals who have opened themselves up to creating an environment that values vulnerability and deep connections with one another.

Not only did I have the opportunity to add 100s of current and aspiring social innovators to my professional network (there are 1,600 StartingBloc Fellows across the world), but I also had the honor of learning who these people I met are - beyond what they do and where they’re from.

I learned about struggles that inspired goals, insecurities that sabotaged success, vulnerabilities under surfaces, and hopes that fueled ambitions. We “strangers” cried, laughed, hugged, cursed, sang, ate and even breakdanced together (dance-partying is a core value for the org). I rode this high for five days straight, after which I came home mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted yet empowered in a way I hadn’t felt before.

I hope to experience something similar again one day. Even more, I hope to incorporate the lessons I’ve learned about what shaped this incredible weekend into my daily life.