Ownership, Governance and Culture: building Zebras, not Unicorns — with Mara Zepeda



Ownership, Governance and Culture: building Zebras, not Unicorns — with Mara Zepeda

In this episode, systempreneur Mara Zepeda joins us to talk about how Zebras Unite is creating the capital, culture, and community for the next economy.

Podcast Notes

In this episode, systempreneur Mara Zepeda joins us to talk about how Zebras Unite is creating the capital, culture, and community for the next economy.

Mara Zepeda is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Zebras Unite. Being an international and intersectional hybrid cooperative, Zebra Unite’s members include founders, investors, allies and ecosystem builders of a different stripe from around the world and has over 25 chapters on six continents. Prior, Mara was the founder of a venture backed software company, Switchboard (now Hearken). Mara is a systempreneur and serial social entrepreneur.

We explore how the Zebra movement evolved from a manifesto they created dissecting the difference between what they call Zebra companies and Unicorns. We also explore how ultimately every business can be seen as a vector for social change, and the complexities and challenges involved with cooperative decision making, what it means to practice mutualism and interdependence, and the effects of having a seasonal approach to energy management.


Key highlights from the conversation

We discussed:

  • The Zebra movement and the qualities of a zebra company
  • Why we need to view business as a human rights issue
  • The qualities of ownership, governance and culture among Zebras
  • Founders’ role in money, finances and budget decisions
  • Some case studies of ‘Zebras in the wild’


To find out more about Mara’s work:


Other references and mentions:


Find out more about the show and the research at Boundaryless at https://boundaryless.io/resources/podcast/

Thanks for the ad-hoc music to Liosound / Walter Mobilio. Find his portfolio here: https://boundaryless.io/podcast-music

Recorded on 20 January 2022.


🌐 Boundaryless Conversations Podcast is about exploring the future of organizing at scale by leveraging on technology, network effects, and shaping narratives. We explore how platforms can help us play with a world in turmoil, change, and transformation: a world that is at the same time more interconnected and interdependent than ever but also more conflictual and rivalrous.


Okay. So, let’s start. Welcome back everybody to the Boundaryless Conversations Podcast. Today I’m here with my usual co-host, Stina Heikkila.

Hello, everybody.

And with Mara Zepeda. Hello, Mara.

Hello, so happy to be here.

Thank you so much for your time. We’re really looking forward to expose your ideas and your actual work to our listeners so that they can get some serious inspiration. So, first of all, Mara, I think it will be beneficial for our listeners to understand a bit more of the movement that you kind of contributed creating and kick starting and growing. This movement that we call the Zebras movement, right. And the idea of the zebra was created in a way to be antagonistic or alternative, I would say more specifically to the unicorn idea that everybody was thinking about or talking about when it comes to ventures. And so what does it mean to build a zebra? What is this movement about, really?

Sure. Well, let’s see. The movement, I guess, begins with the four founders as most things do. The four of us, Jen Brandel, Aniyia Williams, Astrid Scholz, and I are four founders who, back in 2017, we were each starting our own companies. And we had a lot of dreams and visions for what business and entrepreneurship could be in these companies. And in the process of building our company, I guess, the way that I can liken it to is sometimes I think about gardeners or people that work on houses, and you begin to think that you’re going to grow tomatoes. And then as you start to grow tomatoes, you realize that you need to grow complementary crops, you realize you need a greenhouse, you realize you need to understand composting.

And so in the process of starting a business, we are all systems thinkers. And it became clear that we were existing inside of an ecology of a lot of different other systems at play, such as access to capital, the constraints of corporate forms, our communities that we were living in, our families. And so that caused us to begin to write about what we were noticing. So, in 2017, we wrote a manifesto called ‘Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break’.

And what that manifesto was, was really an observation of the startup ecosystem that we were seeing at the time, which was the dominant status quo of Silicon Valley exponential growth, growth at all costs, monopolies, making a small number of investors very wealthy, versus the companies that we were both building and that our friends were building, and that we saw a lot of other founders building where that wasn’t the incentives, and that wasn’t the end game. And they didn’t identify as social entrepreneurs, per se.

So, the social entrepreneurship category wasn’t really catching these people. These were people that had an innate ethical and moral compass that had an innate orientation towards community and mutualism. And so we talk about these types of founders just kind of as a certain type of person that is motivated by different things. When we published the manifesto, we put a survey at the end of it that said, if you resonate with these ideas of mutualism, cooperation, sustainability, regeneration, community investment, cooperative ownership, reimagining what might be possible for the future of business, that reimagining businesses as a human rights issue; it’s one of the most important human rights issues of our time, then we would love to hear from you. And we heard from tens of thousands of people around the world. So, what followed was a very organic grassroots movement.

Later that year, we all met in Portland, Oregon, for a conference called Dazzle Con, a group of zebras is called the Dazzle. And we asked the community what should this organization be. And they had a number of ideas and dreams and design requirements for how we could do things differently. And so what ensued was the sort of a two year odyssey through all different types of legal structures and financing to arrive at the corporate structure that we have now, which is a pretty unique hybrid structure, which we can talk about a bit later. But the movement was very much, it feels sort of like a lotus that just keeps opening and opening and opening.

We now have over 25 chapters around the world. So, it’s an international movement. And we have a distributed team of 15 worker-owners in the movement that are both owners of the cooperative and are contributors to it. The co-op was started with about 20 founding member companies that really believed in the vision of Zebras Unite, and they gave their time and talent to building the movement.

Yeah, thank you for the introduction. I was interested when you said quite making, a little bit, this distinction that it’s not necessarily social entrepreneurship as maybe it has been conceived and we think about it normally, but it’s really looking at the type of person who is founding it, that person’s values and ethical stance, let’s say. And you mentioned business as a human rights issue. So, I’d be curious to double click a bit on that if you can explain more what that means and how you sort of arrived at that.

Yeah. Well, I think it’s twofold. I mean, the first is business is a vector for social change, because it touches so many parts of our systems. Businesses are created inside communities, those businesses pay taxes, those taxes fund our schools, businesses create demand for infrastructure, businesses employ people, those people pay for real estate, they send their children to school. So, businesses in many ways is kind of, for better or worse, a driving economic factor that as a result of the engine of capitalism, where we are now in late stage capitalism, it drives a lot of different consequences. And it’s an engine where a lot of issues sort of surround it.

Why we say it’s a human rights issue is because the way that any business does business will create different consequences in the world. So, right now we’re recording on a company called Zencastr. We can ask a lot of questions of Zencastr to understand what their worldview is; how are they funded? What is their corporate form? What is their policy towards maternity leave, and family leave and paternity leave? Do they have a four-day workweek? Are they remote? Where are they based? What are the values of their founders? And so inside of something like Zencastr is actually a number of micro decisions that make the world, it’s what creates the world.

So, if we think about this and reverse engineer, then what we’re here to do is to enable people that have beautiful, responsible, compassionate visions of the world, and help them to create the enterprises that support them, their families and their communities. So, if you start from the place of what is the type of founder that we wish to support, and what is their vision of the world, then in that sense, every business is a social impact business, because every business offers the opportunity for infinite choices that are better for our communities, our bodies, our environment, ourselves, our planet. So, that’s what we mean when we say business is a human rights issue. And then when you now compound that by just the astonishing reality that billionaires doubled their wealth during the pandemic, what you get is a real clarion call that we have to be thinking about business in a different way.

So, I have a quick question that I hope it doesn’t sound too much of a provocation, let’s say. So, we used to, in kind of this distinction that happens, sometimes online between woke ideas and based ideas. You’re familiar with that, I guess, right?

Woke and the other one?


Based, B-A-S-E-D?

Yes. We have this idea of doing good, right, that too often gets watered down in just we are familiar with greenwashing. And we’re familiar with any type of washing, let’s say pick one. And on the other hand, when you speak about community, for example, right, and our families and whatever, there is a certain aspect of embodiment, right? That a business needs to integrate, right. And this comes with, I would say, sacrifice. I don’t know how to say it in English, but something has to give, right, when you really want to make an impact, when you really want to make a business that has a direct relationship with the word that it’s making, right, that you were thinking about this idea of word making.

So, my question will be, are zebras more embodied as organizations, are they maybe more local, more distributed, less ambitious, in terms of having, for example, global businesses? What are the traits that you see emerging from zebras that really want to embody what they preach, essentially? That’s maybe the point that I wanted to ask you about. What are the changes in the organizational structure, type of businesses in the way that these companies really interact, I don’t know, with their communities and landscapes and so on?

First of all, I can’t speak for all zebras, right? So, it’s just what I’m noticing. And second of all, I wouldn’t say that we’re less ambitious. I think if the measure is capitalism and growth at all costs, and like exponential profits that benefit the few, that isn’t our ambition. But I would say that we are wildly ambitious to imagine a different future and different world for our children and future generations, that does not use those metrics as the metrics of success around ambition.

So, I think that capitalism has kind of a nihilistic quality because it has to keep self-perpetuating. And we imagine systems that are ambitious and that it’s okay if they die, it’s okay if they evolve, it’s okay if they get absorbed, it’s okay if they merge. So, I think the first question inside of your question is what is the definition of ambition? And I would say that there’s a very broad spectrum and people are desperately ambitious to imagine a different future as we wake up to what we are living in right now.

In terms of the values, our values are truthful, mutualistic, emergent, and fierce. And so those are the qualities that we oftentimes see in zebras. And I think the one value that I find I contemplate every day is this notion of mutualism. Mutualism is this notion that we need each other and that it’s not about going further together, it’s not about being greater than the sum of our parts, but there’s actually something quite spiritually significant, inherent in that idea of realizing that we are interdependent.

So, if we approach the world from a place of interdependence, and recognize that competition isn’t what our ambition is, and instead, what we’re trying to do is cooperate as, as much as we can, as deeply as we can, as authentically as we can, that opens up spiritual traditions, wisdom, traditions, ecological principles. And so then what you start to get is many different metaphors around coexistence. So, the upside is that it’s a pleasurable, generative, nurturing kind place to be. And we’ve seen zebra founders have extraordinary attunement and sensitivity to their communities, their employees, a sense of fairness.

And then there are complexities and challenges inside of cooperation because it involves an entire skill set that many of us don’t have, or we have to depattern from traditional corporate settings. I’m sure Aaron talked a lot about this in your interview with him. So, that’s the challenge, right? There’s a challenge always inherent in all opportunities. And so the opportunity is we can absolutely imagine a better way. And I think many of us are motivated by that sense of service and transcendence and connection, and recognizing that there’s a unity to humanity.

And then the challenge inside of that is inherent in that we have to figure out then how to negotiate, making decisions, being in relationship, having conversations, making tough choices. We just have to keep deciding together. And that is an entire skill set that very few of us have toolboxes equipped to, to address. So, that’s kind of the fun part of it, is that we all get to learn together and how to do it.

Yeah. I had a quick reflection, and then I will also hand it over to Stina because I know she has something to add. But what does it entail in terms of leadership, in terms of kind of style of management, for example, right? So, in terms of you are used to the big impact that founders, for example, have on companies. So, in general, I’m wondering, what do you see in terms of approaches to leadership, in terms of… I know you speak often about the need to detach from this idea of the hustling entrepreneur and pushing forward the whole of the organization. So, what are you seeing in terms of, for example, what does it entail, in terms of management, right, in terms of leadership styles?

Gosh, I mean, first of all, I would even question if what we need is to be managed or to be led. So, I don’t know if that’s true, which is I don’t even know if those words apply anymore. I mean, I guess I can speak a little bit to some of my own experience. And what I see is, it’s a practically bottomless experience of empathy and being able to adopt another person’s perspective and point of view in order to have difficult conversations. I think that is made so difficult by Zoom, frankly. There are times that I am really starting to question how Zoom is interfering with our ability to read people because so much is communicated in nonverbal signals and body language and we basically just have like the neck up as a tool in Zoom. So, I have a lot of questions about that.

But I mean, in terms of leadership, some people that come to mind that have been really key to me are people like Margaret Wheatley, Nora Bateson, Ari Weinzweig, Father Arizmendiarrieta, Amanda Ripley’s book called High Conflict which discusses situations where people have managed to get out of high conflict situations. Because at the end of the day, mutualism is stymied by an inability to move through inevitable conflicts. You’re working together, you’re working together, everything’s great. And then somebody drops the ball, somebody lets you down, somebody hurts your feelings, you misinterpret a memo.

And so it’s actually in the exceptions to cooperation, where I think we find the greatest opportunity to explore what leadership means in this time, somebody’s kid gets sick, somebody has to take care of their grandmother, right? And so then the question becomes, well, are we leaders in those moments? How do we create compassionate spaces for authentic sharing, and ways that those experiences can become part of people’s lives in a way that they feel that they can share vulnerably, they won’t be punished for and that we can learn from that we can all support one another and learn from?

It’s interesting, you mentioned a bit about the technology, and that was actually another question that we have. But I wanted, first, to hear your thoughts on a little bit, the picture that you paint like about this deep empathy and the skillsets and/or I would think, intuitively the time that that takes compared to a world that is moving, always in a very fast speed, and sort of you have a feeling of constant acceleration. And then we have on the other hand, we also have very pressing challenges that we know that we have to face as humanity like climate emergency, other social inequality issues.

So, there’s this sort of notion that you want to speed up and slow down at the same time. And I’m sure that that’s something that you have come across a lot. So, it would be interesting to hear does this take too much time if we want to build organizations like that? Do we have that time? Should it accelerate? Can it accelerate, and so many questions in one, essentially, but I think you know what, I’m trying to get at.

Yeah. No, it’s a great question. I think about it a lot and I’m sure you all get those questions a lot around platform coops and cooperatives in general. I mean, I think one thing I can say that we do really well at Zebras that I give credit to Sassy, Kate Sassoon, who’s our Director of Membership, and one of our founding members and Astrid Scholz, one of our co-founders, and she’s a Shah who directs operations is that I guess I would say two things around this notion of it’s going to take more time.

The first is, many things can take less time if you develop a process for them. So, I think where chaos starts to unfold is if there’s not a process. And so cooperatives actually offer this huge body of past work and history that we can draw on around the notion of making a proposal, right? So, if somebody is not happy inside of a cooperative, the process to bring that forward is to discuss it and make a proposal.

As an example, at Zebras we were finding that if we were meeting on Thursdays, and we were meeting for an hour, and we found that that meeting for our team was too late in the week, so we had low energy. And it was also too short, because we are an internationally distributed team across all sorts of time zones, that it was really our only time to get together and co-work as a group. So, Sassy made a proposal, which was let’s have the meeting earlier. And let’s have it for an hour and a half, right. And then we discussed that proposal and then we implemented it, and then we tried it.

And so cooperatives actually have… And then the beautiful thing about it is the second thing I would say is you also have a bunch of tools that are available now. We use Asana and Notion like our life depends on it. So, anytime we have a process, we will put it into an Asana task as a template so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time we’re doing these tasks. And then that template can become updated. We can document our rationale inside of Notion.

So, I think that the technology tools that are available right now are actually fairly adequate for doing collective decision making processes so long as, once you have that process, we have what’s called a decision log, which logs our decisions and rationales around kind of big issue conversations. We have Asana that memorializes essentially the steps within tasks. And Asana is a profoundly flexible tool that I encourage people to check out. It’s really quite potent in terms of what it can do. And then we have iterative processes where if those processes aren’t working, people are empowered to bring forward a proposal.

So, there’s a lot of great work out there about proposals and cooperatives. Another great resource I suggest is Ari Weinzweig wrote something called Bottom Line Change. And there’s a training that Zingerman’s does around it, which is essentially creating a culture where employees/employee-owners feel empowered to write a different vision for what could be, put that forward as a proposal, and then go through a discussion and decision making process in order to reach consensus and move forward.

I’m curious to explore, a bit, two aspects. First of all the how. So, you spoke about something. You spoke about something like, for example, collaborative decision making. But I would like to explore all the bricks, let’s say that make Zebra? And then I would like to jump into a little bit more the what. So, what are these companies doing, what business models, what kind of products and services and so on?

So, first of all, let’s start with the how. So, you spoke about, as you said, taking decisions collectively, for example. But what are the bricks that make a Zebra? So, I can think of what kind of corporate structures do you use, for example, the exit to community idea, sociocracy, decentralized, self-management. So, can you maybe name a few of these traits, let’s say, of these key elements that you see coming up again and again in zebras? Like, for example, many zebras use self-management, or many zebras use a certain approach to taking decisions.

Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I think the two main bricks or I should say three are ownership, governance, and culture. So, when we talk about ownership, these are founders who, they may have had a venture funded startup as I did, and they recognize that there’s a different way. They may recognize that traditional venture style capital will dilute their mission and their vision and so they’re looking for alternative capital.

So, the ownership piece really is the founders collide with the real limitations of our existing status quo when it comes to corporate structures like C corps, or S corps or LLC, or nonprofits, and they kind of have this like, ‘what the hell is this enlightenment moment’ where they realize, okay, I’m going to need to find a different corporate structure. I’m going to need to find something that’s… I’m going to need to create a hybrid. I’m going to pursue something like steward ownership, what purpose is doing. So, they collide first, I would say with the limitations of existing corporate structures.

Then what makes a zebra is that person questions, interrogates, they ask themselves, whether that structure will align with their values and their end goal, and then they seek out alternatives. So, they might enroll in Start.coop, Accelerator for Cooperatives, and they’re pursuing a different path there. They might decide that they’re trying to exit to community, which means to figure out ways that the end users or employees, or people that created value, receive ownership.

And so they might do something like, like, I would argue that Brian Chesky from Airbnb when Airbnb went public, and they set aside, I can’t remember if it was five or 10% of shares for Airbnb hosts, that was a bit of a zebra nod, right, to say the people that created the value on this platform deserve to share ownership. So, I would call Brian zebra curious, even though he has a venture backed company. So, the first one I would say is ownership. They collide with existing systems, they question them, they choose a different path, and that path can sometimes takes years. As you know, there’s no quick fix.

The second is governance. So, again, they collide with traditional top-down hierarchical governance and decision making structures. They realize that they want it to be more participatory and inclusive. They discover things like Frederic Laloux Reinventing Organizations, or you know what the folks at The Ready are doing, alternative models, resources like CommunityRule.info that Nathan has, and they begin to awaken to the fact that human beings can make decisions in different configurations, and it doesn’t have to be this top-down managerial, hierarchical style.

So, then they begin exploring alternatives. They may find sociocracy circles, they may create a charter for themselves about how they do decision making. But I think the second stop along the way of the zebra journey, and this is definitely not linear, is that they begin to question decision making norms inside of corporate culture. And they choose different models, and they figure out ways to make that conversation participatory with their stakeholders.

And then I would think the third is culture. So, again, getting back to a lot of what we’ve already talked about, they instill different practices. So, for example, at Zebras, I can speak to our practices. We have something called the Zebra Solidarity Fund where 2.5% of all of our top line profits goes into a fund to help members that might not be able to afford co-op membership, and to support other member driven projects. That was informed by an Islamic finance principle called zakaat, which was brought to us by our Director of Operations, she’s a Shah, who writes quite a bit about the practices of Islamic finance as a core teaching that may be useful to zebra companies.

We have a fund called The Joy and Belonging Fund where worker-owners can choose to spend that in ways that cultivate feelings of joy and belonging. A lot of it comes down to, I would say the budget really represents your values. We have a relatively transparent system around doing participatory budgeting at Zebras Unite, so everybody owns and understands their budget. And that takes a long time. There’s a whole raft of issues associated with money, trauma and family of origin stories and stories about self-worth.

So, I would say that a really core place that I would suggest founders play around the culture piece is specifically around money, finances, and budget, because there’s a lot of both potential and emotion that is caught up in that space, in the financial space. And you need to make money. People have to make money in order to make their salaries. And so it really impacts a lot of the issues that we’re talking about, it’s like a very concrete place to have conversations about value and worth. So, those are just a few examples of the blocks of zebraness of what we see is bringing founders together.

And then adjacent to that we have a lot of students that are involved in the zebra movement that are really tired of this traditional status quo MBAs, they’re looking for alternative resources. We have a number of investors who are part of the community that are looking for deal flow, and ways of investing that are different than the status quo. So, people come to us from many different places. And then in our international chapters, you have our chapter leads that are really creating culture change on the ground. Places like Japan where they just raised a million dollars to support zebras in Japan. And their real focus is like how do we create more companies that are over 100 years old. Japan has the highest concentration of those types of companies.

In Berlin, it looks more like the new Michel Shan movement, which is very much about family owned enterprise in Amman, Jordan, that’s really about how to keep the bay at bay and reimagine investments that are equitable, where women are involved in the investment landscape in Jordan. So, the chapters really have a phenomenally diverse vision of what culture change can be on the ground for their cities.

I have a quick follow up.I hope Stina will allow me to do so. I’m sorry about that. But I’m listening to you and I feel a lot of what you said, points out to a different model of growing the company, right, something you know, when I think of, for example, in the need of having collected decision making, for example, my experience with sociocracy is a slow process. When you speak about culture, the need to create culture, again, it’s something that it costs you lots of time because it takes time to do so. So, I’m thinking of what is the role of slowness in these kind of companies?

Because if I listen to you, and I kind of hear an approach to entrepreneurship that demands much more participation in, of course, also in responsibility and accountability. So, it takes more people to be entrepreneurial, to build the zebra than it normally takes, right? Maybe normally you have a smaller set of entrepreneurial people that can kind of manage and instruct everybody else to execute on their ideas and vision. And this is how normally venture-backed or hyper scaling growth companies grow so fast, because they just execute on a plan that some of the leadership teams have densified.

And of course, there is a lot of smartness even in teams in large companies, but in traditional startups, but I mean, a lot of the vision is coming from the center, right? So, if I hear you’re talking about zebras, you talk about collective decision making, collective ownership, building culture; points me to something that is growing much more different, right, is growing in a way that it needs more in engagement, it needs more embodiment, it needs more participation.

So, what does it entail and what is the result of such a different approach to growth, because he said you are ambitious, right? And this is an important point because we have been talking about platform coops for ages now. And the reality is they didn’t really make any big impact on the space, right, because at the moment, they’re still very small respect to the traditional companies that dominate the space. How do you reconcile this need to be small and slow and include everybody and make everybody accountable and responsible of building venture and building value, versus this idea of being ambitious and represent an alternative to traditional models?

Sorry, are you saying that you do believe that it has to be slow? Or do you believe that that’s kind of like a bias that we’ve inherited?

No, no, it’s not a bias. It’s, I think, an inherent effect of when you speak about decision making, for example, right, let’s make a tangible example. Sociocracy, sociocracy versus autocracy. For sure sociocracy is much slower than an autocratic decision making process. Right? And also, if you need to build culture, right. You cannot, for example, onboard 100 people and expect that they have the culture one week after, right. You need a much more careful process of onboarding the people and be sure that the culture is solid, and everybody understands the place they’re working in and so on.

So, inherently, for me, building these kind of companies, it entails that the process is slower, possibly, that the business models are much more embedded. You know, it may be a network of nodes as a huge centralized power unit, right, power structure. So, how do you reconcile the inherent care and attention you need to build a company where everybody is accountable, everybody is participating, everybody can really lead herself into having an impact. Which, this ambition to grow, I mean, it’s a bit also reconnecting with the idea of be humble, right? A company like that sounds much more humble than the traditional venture-baked hyper-scalar.

Sure. Yeah. No, that’s helpful. Well, I mean, I guess I would say, I actually think, as a bit of a provocation, I wonder if the movement is somehow undercutting itself by telling itself the story that deliberative processes are slow. And say this as somebody who’s relatively new to coops, I have a year under my belt of acting as the managing director of a co-op. So, I refer people too Sassy, her website, SassyCooperates.org, she has just a wealth of information. But what I would say is this, I think we need to tell ourselves different stories about cooperative decision making.

And what we’ve learned at Zebras is, let’s take for example, a process that every organization has to do each year, the objectives and key results, right, or OKRs. So, our OKR process started with one of our founding members and co-op members, Armillaria, doing a three-hour sprint, where all of us put all of our ideas for what our objectives and key results should be. Then we spent the first hour brainstorming. The second hour, we started to group them thematically. The third hour, we then began to align on which are the ones we want. They sent us all asynchronously the reorganization of what they saw the common themes were. They asked us to either agree or to dissent. And if we had a different opinion, to explain why. We had one round of revisions, and then we ratified our OKRs.

And then we took those OKRs and we each then assumed responsibility for ones to make sure there was coverage for each OKR. And then we spent a week writing a personal work plan for how we were going to address those OKRs. Then we put those personal work plans, we ratified those, then we built out our budget; what’s the amount of money that we need in order to execute this plan? Each of us made our own budgets. So, we figured out what each of our circles, we’re kind of sociocatically run, what we needed and then we did a budget roll up and then we ratified the budget. And now we have quarterly goals.

So, I mean, I think this notion of it being slow or protracted and difficult, I think sometimes is a bit of a crutch. Because there are a lot of existent processes, templates, frameworks, facilitated experiences that can get people to decide in a finite amount of time. And so long as you tell people the budget process is going to take all of Q4, it’s going to involve these 10 steps, and we’re going to end up here by February 15th, then you’re giving people a roadmap for what that’s going to look like.

So, Sassy often talks about this great essay called ‘The Tyranny of the Structureless’. And I think we have to stop telling ourselves the story that participatory cooperative decision making requires structurelessness. I would argue that it’s the opposite. It actually requires a tremendous amount of architecture, structure of thought, communication, and container making in order to have an organization be effective.

Now, whether people are willing to rise to the occasion of iterating on these processes, learning these tools, adopting them inside of their cultures, and recognizing that by overly communicating you are avoiding traumatizing people, is another thing, right? But I think there’s some incredibly toxic leadership practices inside of cooperatives, cooperatives are not immune, where the belief is sort of that you can have this like willy-nilly, fancy-free structure, lessness. And if anything, it’s the structure and the container and the habits of collaboration and communication that make this at all possible.

So, again, I’m just speaking from our own experience at Zebras Unite, which has involved an extraordinary amount of infrastructure and architecture, and really deep work around collaboration and communication. And the traumas that we carry from our past professional work. It’s ongoing, it’s constant. Every week is a completely new challenge. But I think that we have to rise to the occasion of recognizing that a certain amount of structure, communication and discipline is what will make any of this other world that we all think about possible.

Yeah. Let me maybe draw some lines for our listeners as well. So, my impression is in this transition between this idea of move fast and break things into something that sounds more like move slow and heal things, my impression is that something has to give, right? And what has to give is probably our idea of what kind of impacts we can have on the market. So, that’s why I was having this kind of question for you, like, how do you reconcile your ambition with this idea that you really want to represent a new or want to promote a new parody, right? What can you leave there, right, in a change of moving away from this idea of moving fast and breaking things? So, that was the original question coming up.

And I understand from your words, that it may take some architectural communication work that can serve, let’s say, to bridge some of these processes that are inherently more careful and need more care, need more slowness, and make them faster through architecting, right, through architecting communication and working more at the structural scaffolding level? These are just, I would say at the moment, just quick ideas, but I think this kind of resonates with what you were saying. I don’t know if you want to add something on top of that. Otherwise, I will turn it over to Stina.

Yeah. I guess I would just say briefly, I think anything is possible with trust, right? And you can move fast if you have trust. So, I think once I thought like, move fast and break things or move slow and make things I think there was a sticker with a little slot on it. I think differently now. Like, my mind has been changed a little bit about that, because I don’t know that slow… we bias towards another extreme when we say slow, right? I think it needs to move at the right pace. I think that pace is dictated by trust, people’s capacity, their ability to rest, whether they have child care.

Frankly, I talked about this in other podcasts, like our team is all women and women have different energetic cycles based on their menstrual cycle. And so there are weeks when members of our team will get done in a week what would take another person three months. And so their seasons of productivity are really different. And that in and of itself is something that’s worth studying. So, is it that they’re slow? Is it that in those months — in other weeks? No, it’s that the quality of what they’re doing for that particular week is so exceptionally different and productive and quantum.

So, I’m interested in moving in quantum ways where the energy that’s expended is moving things forward in really powerful bursts perhaps, and then you rest. And so I think that a seasonal approach to energy management is something that’s really intriguing to me where you are doing things at different seasons and you’re doing things according to how your body feels best at different seasons. For me, between January and March is practically when I’ve created, built, thought of, executed, and made happen anything in my life. Like, you look back at everything I’ve created, it was in those three months. And so that is a signal to me that I need to take those months really seriously.

And then by the time I get to the summer, I need to ask people for help. But lo and behold, there’s somebody for whom summer is like a high quantum season for them. Right? And so then I can be support for them. So, I really appreciate the questions that you’re asking and where you’re coming from. And I think what you’re asking gets at, like this whole line of thinking around people as seasonal animals, and the notion of quantum rather than slow and a real attunement and sensitivity to what each person’s energetic gifts and capacity are at any given time, and a recognition that it’s always going to be changing, and our life circumstances are constantly fluid.

And so in this moment, I guess to your question about leadership, we have to recognize that the only constant is change to some degree. But then inside of that constancy of change, there’s so much to love and appreciate about people, because they’re just these miraculous creatures that always manage to find a way. And there’s a lot of real beauty and imagination and creativity that I’m seeing inside of that if it’s given sort of space to unfold and safety. And most importantly, people won’t do anything if they don’t feel safe. So, these containers have to be safe as well.

I mean, it’s great that you touched on this, the idea of quantum, because this also resonates a lot with an idea that seems very structural to your thinking, this idea of essentially integrating the yin and the yang, right. And there’s a lot of quantum energy in this idea of integrating the two sides of something. Right? So, I think that that’s great. Stina, you have some question the structural architectures, right?

Yeah. I mean, I loved what you said that trust makes things go faster. That’s really something that I think that makes that whole discussion that we had around speed, it sort of puts the right light on that, I think. So, maybe my question is also a bit on what you see, maybe around with the zebras, and more in general, also, your thoughts on that. One is a bit about team size, if you have seen that for this to work, you have to keep small teams that are autonomous to execute decisions, and so on, to not make it sort of too big in that sense to reach that level of trust. That’s one thing.

And the other thing coming back a little bit to this technology, like how much do you think that you could automate those kind of and have more like a trustless system? Do you think that by making those proposal processes that you were talking about more automated, more lean, etc. would that be more like a competition with the trust building that you have seen? Or could it be a complement? And you could really have both coexist, let’s say, in the same way, or is it removing too much of the human element?

I think we’re going to find out with Web 3, right? I think your question will be answered with Web 3 in terms of like, what are the limits of how far we can push automated distributed decision making of people that don’t know each other, and are making collective decisions? And it’s a space that I am interested in, and a lot of my friends are interested in it. And I think it’s a very worthwhile experiment. So, I don’t know that I’m able to answer the question, but I’m really interested to find out.

And somebody like Austin Roby might be a great guest to have on your podcast, who’s working in the Web 3 space and has a background in cooperatives and can speak more about it. I think, at this point in my life, I feel this very strongly, maybe my birthday is coming up. And I feel like I’m getting to this age where I have to make decisions. It feels somewhat like people are having to — there’s a fork in the road and people are having to choose a path and apply their gifts and talents to this notion of Web 3, and distributed digital infrastructure and decentralization. And I think inherent in that also is probably a conversation about the metaverse versus the real world, and our own lives and homes and communities and streets and buildings.

And I live in Columbia, South Carolina, which I walk through the main downtown area every day to work and it’s just boarded up shops. And it really, it breaks my heart and that’s where I want to put my energy. I want to figure out how people can be in rooms sharing meals, being in community. And I’m just personally biased towards spending the rest of my time here on Earth, cultivating that sense of fellowship in ways where we can hold one another as babies and the acceleration of decentralization, to me, is not where my heart is. But I think we’re about to undergo a lot of really inspired experiments and a lot of potentially incomprehensibly destructive experiments as well.

Beautiful. And if I can remind you about the team size question, if you have a small reflection on… No?

I don’t know if the team size matters. I think we’re learning a lot about just briefly speaking, essentially, Zebras Unite is organized in a sociocratic way. So, we have what’s called circles. And those circles, we have a membership circle, a finance circle, or an operation circle, a circle that drives a lot of the revenue. Because we’re a hybrid, we have a C three circle. Each of those circles has a lead, those leads can have co leads, they have other members. And then when we sit together, we sit in what’s called the general circle to make decisions that impact the whole organization.

And we are applying that same governance structure to member-driven circles. So, members have to do the same thing. There’s one on the future of work on leadership, on infrastructure, on patronage. And they have to adhere to the same processes of having a lead, having a reporting structure, having a charter, organizing themselves in certain channels. And I have a lot of faith in the sociocratic method of governance, to me, does not imply that you have to have small teams. It does mean you have to train circle leads and make sure they’re really folded in tightly to the culture and to have tight communication between circle leads.

But I don’t think — I’m not convinced that smallness is a requisite for the types of culture we’re talking about. I think that’s where you really need kind of a competency of leadership to say, what are the skills and supports that the circle needs lead in order to feel as much sovereignty as possible over their circles? And what are the communication structures and norms and the culture building that enable us to come together in the general circle and make conscious and productive decisions. But I’m really excited about the way that sociocracy especially, is able to kind of scale with organizations and things don’t seem to fall apart as the organization grows.

Thank you so much. I mean, it was great, I think, to explore this. I think we got some really good insights in terms of how we could kind of put together architecture, structure, responsibilize teams, and grow differently than we used to, with these kind of venture-backed businesses. And so I think, for me, it was a very insightful conversation. As we move into the last few minutes, I would like to ask you, maybe, Mara, to just share with us a couple of examples of, maybe even more if you want, of zebras that maybe have an interesting new type of, new approach to a business model or something that you believe it’s interesting to mention, to kind of illustrate a bit how zebras are different, even on the outside, not just on the inside?

Yeah. Well, I would encourage everyone to visit us, our Medium channel. We have a series called Zebras in the Wild that explores our chapter leads, our members, and you get to learn more about each one of their companies. So, we profiled Zebras in the Wild. I mean, there’s so many examples of companies that are doing things in different ways, it’s honestly hard to keep track. I always like to give a shout out to some of our founding members.

Smith and Connors is an example of a branding and strategy agency in Portland, Oregon, that helped us with our branding and marketing. They approach storytelling in partnership with their companies in a completely different way that’s so relationship based, it’s so deep, and they tend to work a lot with social impact companies, with foundations. And really, telling the story is so important for these companies. So, that’s an example that I like to shout out.

Other founding companies like my own, like Hearken, we work with journalism, with colleges and universities, we have technology and services company. And in that instance, we have a distributed team that’s working really closely with partners that are core to democracy. And so that means that we have to raise different types of financing. It means that we have to pursue different structures of partnership, we have to have a hybrid that’s both software and services. You have companies organically grown company that recently transformed into a steward-owned company, as an example of what it looks like to have a 30 year old produce company in Portland, Oregon.

And then there are so many companies around the world as well, folks working on childcare and different ways of imagining childcare networks. So, yeah, there’s so many. I encourage everyone to hop over to Medium and read about Zebras in the Wild because everyone I would say, what’s so extraordinary about their companies is like they’re both building their companies and also working really deeply at systems levels. And so I think another feature of zebra founders is that they recognize they’re part of larger systems. And so the concurrent work of building a company and working on systemic challenges is so inspiring to me, because each one informs the other.

That’s great. I mean, again, another really echoing idea from daoism, right, because systems thinking, realizing you’re always part of a system, that’s another very resonant idea from this Asian kind of thinking about stuff. So, it’s really great to hear. Thank you so much. It was an amazing chat. I’m sure that we gave some very tangible reflection points to the founders from our community. So, we’ll be sure to include in the notes, all the links to the things and the readings, and the medium you mentioned, so that they can spot the zebras in the wild because there is where you should spot them, right? You should really look at these companies, how they’re doing it, as to get inspiration.

Maybe, Mara, if you want to just say a couple of words on where they can find your work, or maybe some initiatives that you care about in these days, and you want to kind of promote to our listeners.

Yeah. So, in terms of where to find us online, go to ZebrasUnite.coop, there, you’ll be able to join and own the movement. So, a lot of people ask, “How can I get involved?” One of the easiest ways is actually to just own it and become a member-owner of it so that you can help build it together, which is what we’re very much doing in the startup phase.

If you just want to dip your toe and learn more about the community, when you go to ZebrasUnite.coop, you’ll see that there’s a place to join our online community which has over 10,000 members from around the world. So, that’s a great place if you want to start a conversation, share more about your business, connect with others.

We have a lot of public programs, so if you, also on our website, you’ll be able to find a link to our Crowdcast channel, we have a number of programs on ethical marketing, and impact businesses this month just coming up. And we have a lot of great programs slated for February. Subscribe to our newsletter, which you can also do on our website.

And then every Wednesday, I host or almost every Wednesday, I host a managing director meet and greet. So, if you subscribe to our newsletter, you’ll get a link to that. A lot of people reach out after episodes like this wanting to connect and learn more and get involved. And I love those conversations. They’re free-form conversations that allow us to get to know each other personally. So, I really love meeting people in that format as well. So, please come on into one of those and let’s get to know each other.

And then of course, follow us on Twitter, and I think that’s about all the places. We have a lot of resources available to you to learn more. And if you just want a first place to start to understand what this is all about, I’d recommend our manifesto, Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break, which gives you a really succinct overview. We published a manifesto every February 14th. So, on Valentine’s Day, look out for our next manifesto this year, which we’re really excited to share.

Thank you so much. Stina, do you have anything to add?

Nothing to add. Thank you so much for the conversation.

Thank you.

Thank you so much, Mara. And to our listeners, let’s catch up soon.

Thanks a lot. Take good care.