Peacebuilding Entrepreneurs

I have to take part in two discussions at Nova Southeastern University in the next ten days. The first will deal focus on how young professionals can build careers and find their niche in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. In the second one, I’ll be talking about what my colleagues and I are doing in dealing with the conflicts roiling the United States.

Both of these issues have been at the heart of my poitical and professional life for half a century; So, I expected these would be easy presentations to prepare and that my toughest decision would be whether to use PowerPoint™ or not.

I was wrong.

Once it dawned on me that some people would be attending both sessions, I realized that I didn’t want to repeat myself too much. So, I had to think of them as a package. Then I saw how they could and should build off each other precisely because they forced me to deal with the issues in what I initially thought was the reverse (and wrong) order. Now, I see that:

  • We have problems helping students like the ones I’ll be working with start and build careers.
  • To my surprise, thinking through those difficulties strengthened my conclusions about the next steps all of us have to take if we want to have an impact on the social, political, economic, and environmental crises that are roiling our country

I’ll deal with careers and entrepreneurship here and write the other one over the weekend before I have to take part in the second panel discussion.

I struggled, too, because I initially thought that I should explore the second topic first. However, as I thought and wrote and sent countless paragraphs to the trash bin on my Mac, I realized that an exploration of careers actually opened the door to a broader discussion of the next steps the entire field could and should take.

In short, over the next two blog posts, I’ll make the case that we have a career crisis in part because we aren’t providing the kind of career options that our best and most creative students are looking for. As a result, many of them will have to create their own organizations and initiatives. And as they do that, they’ll help us make what I will call the peacebuilding pivot next week.

Craig Zelizer’s Dilemma 

Before he moved to Colombia a few years ago, Craig Zelizer regularly ran a workshop on starting careers at the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s (AfP) annual conference. Each year, the session would be oversubscribed with current students and recent graduates who were having a hard time starting their careers in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

Craig was responding to a real need which I’ve known about since I started teaching 45 years ago. Searching for one’s first job is anxiety-producing—at best.

That is even more the case in peace and conflict studies than it was when I taught political science for one simple reason. There aren’t enough jobs to go around.

Indeed, every year Craig would say that roughly half of the people attending the workshop would have to build their careers in another field for one simple reason. We just didn’t offer enough jobs. He would go on to say that while that might seem disappointing and leave the attendees frustrated (or worse), it might actually be a good thing, because one could practice what one learned about peace and conflict in any professional setting.

Craig, of course, is right.

However, I was never comfortable with his statement especially when it applied to graduate students who had devoted anywhere from two years to a full decade in completing their degrees.

Then, I realized that Craig only identified the tip of the clichéd iceberg.

It isn’t just that there weren’t enough jobs. We weren’t offering the right jobs to our smartest and most creative students even when they did land a position with the kinds of organizations that make up AfP’s membership

My most promising students—including the ones I’ll be working with this weekend—come to grad school with years of experience, often in fields that are at least one step removed from the peacebuilding and conflict resolution mainstream. In the last week alone, I’ve talked with young(er) friends with interests in neuroscience, yoga and other forms of embodied experience, journalism, and online dispute resolution.

For good or ill, most of the established NGOs just don’t focus on these kinds of issues (I’ll deal with some exceptions at the end of this post), which means that these students are likely to end up frustrated with jobs in which it is hard for them to reach their personal or professional potential or simply fit in.

Can Peacebuilders Embrace Startup Culture?

So, I’ve increasingly found myself suggesting that those current students and recent graduates start their own NGOs or, in some cases, for profit businesses. That’s not for everyone. And having more entrepreneurial young people go off on their own won’t solve the larger problem. Still, encouraging many of these young people to “do their own thing” might just help them and help us all expand our impact at a time when we are so sorely needed.

My Back Story

None of this came out of the blue. Although I’ve only been encouraging students to think in terms of peacebuilding startups for a couple of years, I’ve been thinking along some of these lines for ages.

It all began when students started coming to me for advice about career options when I first started teaching. I was only twenty-seven at the time and had precious little experience to draw on. I quickly learned that I could best help them by getting them to take a step back from fretting about theirfirst job out of college and getting them to think about their longer term career goals. Soon, I found myself asking a seemingly simple question the first time a student came to my office to talk about careers:

Where would you like to be ten years from now?

In language I would not have used in the early 1980s, I was trying to give them some agency and help them see that they could at least partially shape the trajectory of their careers. In the terminology the Omidyar Group uses in its systems trainings, I was asking them to define their “north star” and begin charting a course for getting there.

Fifteen years later, I became active in the Beyond War movement which was led by a group of men and women who were among the first generation of wildly successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Ever since, I’ve asked myself what we could learn from their experience that could help peacebuilders enjoy something akin to the exponential growth of a company like Dropbox or Salesforce, let alone Apple or Microsoft.

Like most people I know, I have become far less enamored with the tech sector and its obsession with unicorns, rapid growth for its own sake, surveillance capitalism, and the like. Still, I’ve spent the last fifteen years identifying ideas I’ve learned from the startup community and elsewhere in the corporate world that could be adopted and then adapted by my colleagues at AfP and elsewhere in the peacebuilding community.

Until recently, I mostly tried to infuse existing peacebuilding organizations with startup values. However, in the last few years, I’ve realized that it’s easier—and maybe a lot more fruitful—to ask my younger colleagues to do so.

Thinking Like a Startup

So, I find myself pulling out both of those themes in my discussions with the best and brightest young peacebuilders I’m lucky enough to work with. Because I explored what startup culture is like a few months ago, I’ll limit myself here to three key tenets as they apply to entrepreneurship and young peacebuilding and conflict resolution professionals.

Visioning. I ask students (or anyone) to think in decade or longer chunks of time because doing so broadens their perspectives and opens up new possibilities. That, however, is never enough.

It encourages all of us to dream big and then plan accordingly. I help the students define a meaningful goal they could shoot for over the course themselves of  some reasonably long period of time. With my best students at least, that increasingly requires their starting their own initiative.

Thus, I helped one yoga instructor who had just finished a masters degree in conflict resolution in which she developed an interest in neuroscience define where her work could take her in the decade before she turns forty. That included specific goals like developing curricula that could be used by peacebuilders and yoga practitioners alike, doing more research, perhaps building an academic career, and creating a community of practice among the people who inhabit both of her worlds. Perhaps because I haven’t always done this part of it as well as I would have liked, I also help them chart goals for the non-professional parts of their lives, because I’ve seen far too many of my friends burn out….

Nailing It. I also know that setting goals is never enough. In fact, I often joke that my own goal at age 21 was to end the war in Vietnam by Friday and that I’ve “matured” enough to realize that my goal really is to change the world, though I’ve given myself more time to do so—by the end of next week.

Seriously, it doesn’t do much good to simply help the people you work with dream. I’m no more likely to change the world by the end of the month (let alone next week) than I am to make it as the third baseman for the New York Yankees at 73 years old.

So, to borrow a term from my new found friend Kelly Corrigan, I ask the people I work with what it would it take for them to nail it, what their “it” happens to be. So, I ask my yoga teaching peacebuilder to describe what her life would be like as concretely as possible if she had nailed it when she turns forty. What would that community of practice be like? What would she be doing at work on a daily basis? And, especially for a yoga teacher, how would she have achieved work-life balance?

Design Thinking. I’m enough of a complexity scientist to know that neither her life nor mine will unfold in a way that leads from where we are today directly to that goal. There will be lots of twists and turns. I know that her life in 2031 won’t end up looking exactly the way she has laid it out over a series of Zoom calls because I know that my life in 2021 is quite different from what I had expected in 2011.

However, by applying some of the key principles of design thinking and the rest of what we can glean from the startup literature, it is possible to sketch out a strategy where my friend can take her yoga and peacebuilding startup and reach some version of that goal.

We also know that most startups don’t make it. What’s more, anyone who starts a new enterprise from scratch and rigidly sticks to a strategy for getting from “point A” to “point B” is all but doomed to failure.

Nonetheless, a few of the memes from the startup literature have helped me advise these student. I also have to admit that they force me to take a deep, self-critical look at my own work:

  • Think big. Never lose site of your goal or your “north start” as Omidyar’s systems trainers would put it.
  • But start small. Especially if you don’t have a mega donor who will bankroll your initiative from day one.
  • Fail fast. You won’t get things right the first time. Learn from your mistakes. James Dyson said he made 572 versions of his eponymous vacuum cleaner before he got it right.
  • Plan on going to scale. I often send my budding peacebuilding entrepreneurs to the work of Admiral J. C. Wylie who wrote about cumulative strategies in which officers constantly changed their tack but kept getting closer to their main goal.
  • Without becoming a unicorn. Without naming names, we now know that plenty of so-called unicorns have gone to scale and done so in ways that are in conflict with the values that led their creators to found them. So, I always try to temper my student-friends’ ambitions by trying to connect them with socially conscious entrepreneurs in other fields through such organizations as Zebras Unite or Imperative 21.

It Can Be Done. It Has Been Done.

I don’t want you to think that starting your own peacebuilding initiative is going to be easy. As is the case in the corporate world, most startups fail. Few have the funding that would allow them to make 570 versions of their product before they get it right the way that James Dyson did. None of us have the freedom to get it wrong anywhere that often from an ethical point of view.

Nonetheless, I’ve seen a few peacebuilding startups succeed which gives me hope that at least a few of the students I work with today can make it. So, let me end this post with two of them.

Build Up. In early 2014, I got an invitation to the first Build Peace conference on technology and peacebuilding that was going to be held at MIT’s iconic Media Lab. Since my interest in IT antedates my Beyond War days and because I’d always wanted to visit the Media Lab, I signed up right away even though I knew absolutely nothing about the organizers or their parent organization, Build Up^.

I showed up and discovered that there were more than 200 people in the room. I knew two of them. I was also the oldest person there by far. And then in their opening announcements, they said that they expected everyone to show up at a dance party that night around 11.00, which is way past my bedtime.

Despite missing that dance party and every other one they’ve put on ever since, I got hooked. It was the single best conference I had ever attended only to be topped by each succeeding one, including the 2020 version which had to be held wholly on line.

I’ve seen the organization expand far beyond the conference. It is directly engaged in digital peacebuilding initiatives around the world, including its Commons project in the United States. It funds and trains digital and artistic peacebuilding fellows from around the world. It keeps branching out in new directions, including doing work on everything from surveillance capitalism to an initiative with a travel magazine aimed at hip, cool millennials. They also run the organization in ways that should help them both grow and avoid the problems that have led so many unicorns into trouble in the years since we first met at MIT.

Obviously, I got hooked. I now serve on Build Up’s board and not just as a token old person. I am engaged in the Commons Project and the one to work with travel magazine which is also run by a thirty-something entrepreneurial woman.

There’s an added benefit which I’ve enjoyed ever since I started doing this kind of work in the days before my hair color was challenged. They keep me intellectually and emotionally alive.

Urban Rural Action. The same is true of Joe Bubman, the CEO of Urban Rural Action. I actually met Joe at the 2015 Build Peace conference in Cyprus. He was then working for Mercy Corps, but as we got to know each other better after we returned home, he told me about his real dream—to create a peacebuilding organization that would work to heal the urban/rural divide that was beginning to shape American politics.

He loved what he was doing for Mercy Corps, but he also felt he wanted to do more. He wanted to take what he had learned from a lineage of peacebuilders that goes back to Roger Fisher of Getting to Yes fame. But, he wanted to do so as a policy entrepreneur and to work in underserved parts of the United States rather than in the Global South where Mercy Corps focused its energies.

In 2018, Joe showed me plans for a new organization that would build those kinds of bridges through local festivals and contests that would bring urban Americans to selected rural communities. Though I liked the idea, it didn’t take off. Joe realized that he would do better if he concentrated on specific issues in specific places that local people themselves would identify.

Urban Rural Action was born the next year. It stayed small at first developing a project in a single Pennsylvania county that focused on criminal justice reform and expanded to gun violence. In 2020, it opened a statewide project in Maryland that will bring together citizens from the edge of Appalachia with counterparts from Montgomery County which is as suburban and affluent is a community can get. Later that year, Joe won AfP’s Melanie Greenberg award for innovations in American peacebuilding. This year, he agreed to co-chair the coordination of what all of our members do in the US.

The Peacebuilding Pivot

As I hinted at the beginning of this post, these very talented young people have also pointed me toward the peacebuilding pivot I alluded to earlier in this post. In other words, they are showing us what we will need to do if we want to make a difference on the problems facing our communities, our country, or the planet as a whole, especially those of us who have been around since the modern peacebuilding and conflict resolution  field came together in the early 1980s.

But I’ve also gone on longer than I should have here.

So, you’ll have to wait until early next week to see those ideas which will also be the subject of my second talk at Nova Southeastern.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.