I don’t know what I’m heading to. I’ve never been to an unconference. As the time draws near to pack my things and head South, I start to doubt my decision to go. I think about pulling out, but instead I get up, pack my bag, and make my way to an early flight to Palmerston North. I’m scared. Meeting 100 new people. Having my work judged. I don’t know anything about social enterprise. But with every step, I make a decision to be open to the experience.
99 others are also making their journey. They are making their way from Wanaka, Christchurch, Wellington, Levin, Gisborne, Parihaka, New Plymouth, Tauranga, Auckland and beyond. By Friday afternoon we are all descending on Matau Marae, Levin. Our venue and home, for the weekend.
Pledge Me’s Anna Guenther has brought us all together. Anna has been an inspiration to me over many years. And so the opportunity to be a part of a social enterprise unconference hosted by Anna and her team was too awesome to pass up. Anna and her team are there to greet people as we begin to arrive. We all gather up and get acquainted. We’re all excitedly anticipating the weekend ahead and our powhiri.
Karanga mai, karanga mai, karanga mai. We are welcomed onto Matau marae. We learn about Cain Kerehoma and his beautiful whanau. We are welcomed in to Cain’s whanau, and we are joined together as whanau. Our powhiri onto Matau Marae sets the scene for the weekend.
Social enterprise is the banner under which we are gathered and so it seems fitting to reflect on this for a moment. Without a doubt social enterprise has been happening in Aotearoa for a long time under many banners. The last few years have seen the nomenclature of ‘social enterprise’ and ‘purpose driven business’ rise to popularity; and in my opinion the shift to social enterprise has had a unifying and inspiring impact on Kiwis.
New business models are at the crux of this movement and the work spans new start-ups, charities, and large corporates. So it seems to be more about how we do things to ensure social, environmental and economic outcomes, than who. And because it’s such challenging work to change the existing models, and because it’s so critical – it’s a really exciting area to work in. It’s a diverse group each of whom identify with social enterprise in some way that have descended on Matau Marae to learn from each other.
The unconference phenomenon
To get us started we are assigned a group. This is our small group whanau for the weekend. After we’ve introduced ourselves and shared hopes and dreams for the weekend ahead we are called in for kai. Ka haere mai ki te kai! We’re home now, altogether.
Once we’ve all settled in and eaten dinner together, we get into the mahi of setting the programme for the weekend. We’d all been informed prior that an unconference does not have its programme set in advance.
It’s quite mysterious when you haven’t done it before. I’d actually been dreading it. I’d imagined hours of debate about what should and should not be included in the programme. I cringed at the thought of having to deliver an unprepared presentation on something to do with my work that faced public judgement. What actually happened was a pleasant surprise…
We were given a low down on how the weekend would run. How we’d set the programme and we ended up learning the three key rules of an unconference:
Rule 1. The rule of your own two feet. Do what you want, go where you want (and if you’re running a session don’t be offended if people get up and wander off).
Rule 2. Keep sharing details about what is discussed throughout the weekend discretely and seek permission if you do want to share details.
Rule 3. Whoever is there is meant to be there (and that means that if only two people show up to your session don’t worry about that! It’ll probably be the most amazing discussion you have all weekend).
I’ve never seen such a democratic, simple and fast process for setting a conference programme in my life. The weekend’s schedule was set with five parallel streams running consecutively throughout the weekend. There were ten, 45 minute sessions that started at 9am each day.
It worked out that 100 people was just the right number to set 50 sessions without too much duplication and without anyone missing out on putting up their idea. All the session topics were accepted and scheduled – nobody was rejected.
Session topics varied from “How to make a podcast” to “Bread baking with Doris” (Doris was our incredible chef) to “Agh. I need to build a tech product” to “How do you secure growth funding grants?” to “Te Ao Māori and social enterprise”. I put forward a session called “Connecting with nature – a deep engagement walk in the wilds”, and took on co-facilitating someone else’s session topic on “How do we recruit and support diversity in our organisations at pace?”. Within an hour or so everyone who wanted to put forward a session has done so, and they have all been scheduled.
After a long and impactful day, I retreat to bed in the wharenui where about 50 of us sleep together shoulder to shoulder for two nights. Unlike me, many of the group stay up chatting late – energy levels are high! And the excited chatter from the wharekai is audible late into the night. I have to ask myself – are these people all 20 years younger than me and I haven’t noticed? Perhaps.
From here, I was amazed how smoothly the unconference ran, and how quickly decisions were reached. There were lots of laughs and learning and the overall vibe was incredibly positive. It worked. I’ve summed up the key themes that resonated with me through the weekend – these themes also sum up why I think we need more events like this in Aotearoa.
Empowerment and connection through ownership
It’s probably the most obvious point of an unconference format – it’s non-hierarchical and democratic in its process and delivery. But I still want to acknowledge the unconference’s powerful framework that enables a completely different kind of interaction. We, as attendees, were allowed to take full ownership of our experience at Matau Marae.
The difference from other events was tangible. Views were shared fast and freely. Connections, friends and alliances formed easily, and support shared generously. I saw people let down professional guards and genuinely connect, share and play together – all with the common purpose of advancing our work to make Aotearoa a better place to live.
Connection and a feeling of social cohesion through whanau and whakapapa
We entered into our unconference with a sense of intimacy and familiarity that is unprecedented at standard conferences I’ve attended before.
The overarching theme that emerged at the unconference was whanau. The result of which is a sense of connection and social cohesion non-māori and urban dwellers can only dream of. I relished the opportunity to experience this deep connectedness through whakapapa whilst on the marae. What I heard repeatedly throughout the weekend, was the incredible experience people had staying on Matau Marae and the opportunity to be a part of the social enterprise whanau we collectively created.
But why is this important at a social enterprise unconference? The positive impact of social connectedness and social cohesion are well researched and documented. What many walked away with at the end of the unconference was a mental health First Aid Kit filled to the brim. Examples of the impacts that can result include:
- being more resilient to the emotional and physical ups and downs of running a business
- more readily establishing relationships and collaborations back in the day to day
- being more capable of learning and achieving educational outcomes
- being more able to tap into and utilise creativity and innovative thinking when needed
- being better equipped to deal with depression and other mental health hurdles.
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
Sometimes an event just attracts the right people, right? Getting a good bunch of folks from all over the world and from all sorts of backgrounds and areas of expertise must be a bit of a knack. The first two takeaways I’ve mentioned wouldn’t have been able to happen without such an awesome group of humans.
Along with the gift of social connectedness to buoy us through the challenges of day to day life I was gifted with the inspiring stories, ideas, and businesses of the people I met. I fell in love with a bunch of people at this event. And I fell in love with a bunch of projects and businesses that I think epitomise what business should be. These are business ideas that deliver a quality service or product while ensuring that the state of people and nature that are connected to that business are improved rather than degraded. What I’m talking about are businesses that are both mana and mauri enhancing for the people and nature connected to them. Achieving this is, to me, what achieving sustainable business is all about.
Play, active rest and creativity
This theme presented itself tangibly in two sessions I attended throughout the weekend. The first was a session on “playing games as the work, not just the break out session”. We shared games we know and enjoy in different contexts for our work. This was a hilarious and fun session in which we actively played! Each of us also walked away with a tool kit. I have no doubt that the games I learnt in this session will be invaluable in my work for years to come.
The second was the session I led on connection with nature, the aim of the session was twofold:
- to experiment with the impact of connection with nature on our experience, and
- to give people a moment of quiet reflection that might enable learning and new ideas to germinate.
Play, active rest and creativity can enable deep reflection, inspiration, decision making, and new ideas as well as provide us with the tools for resilience and grit we need to implement new ideas.
Seeking out and asking for help
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of asking for help. For me this weekend fundamentally came down to that. And this was the most amazing experience – I received so much support and advice that is influencing my thinking for the programme I lead at the Sustainable Business Network – Million Metres. And as a result of the people I met at this conference I will continue to ask for help, repeatedly and often. Because I can’t do any of this alone. If we’re going to achieve clean water for Aotearoa I am going to need a shedload of help. But asking for help is not always the easiest thing to do, nor is it always the thing we humans are best at.
Being brave and challenging ourselves
I gave myself a theme at the start of the weekend – and that was to use this time to challenge myself and what I’m doing, and to encourage others to do the same. So I have a set of 5 challenges that I’m reflecting on as I take all the learning I did at the unconference back into my day to day:
- Rethink ownership and how power is allocated in our programme, Million Metres, and how empowering our team can help us improve water health in Aotearoa
- Develop a much deeper understanding of Te Ao Māori, whakapapa, and particularly for my work, wai. Work on enabling connectedness in our organisation and celebrating diversity.
- Take time out to learn about what others are working on and thrive on the inspiration this provides!
- Seek out opportunities for active play! (Like attending the unconference). And figure out how to develop daily habits for active play and rest.
- Ask for help. All the time. The unconference format almost formalises asking for help as a way of being. My challenge to myself is to take this way of being back into my day to day life in the long term.
Photo credit: Bob Zuur