That night, I was doing what many entrepreneurs do. My good friend and powerhouse, Cosmo Fujiyama, brought me to a drink gathering with five other incredible people who would ultimately be the reason I chose to visit Panama. Kassidy Brown, Co-Founder of Journey of Action, and Amanda Slavin, who were present, had just returned that evening from visiting Kalu Yala, a sustainable entrepreneurial settlement nestled in the heart of Panama. I didn’t know much about Kalu Yala, but after hearing them rave about their visit with such optimism and excitement in their eyes, I knew I had to go.
After visiting the website that night, I admit that I still didn’t quite know what Kalu Yala was all about, but I would soon find out that I was on the right track. It’s a place that certain people are attracted to; the right people.
“We’re not intentionally mysterious, but we also don’t intentionally answer questions that we don’t necessarily have the answers to yet. There are a lot of people asking for you to say what you are before you are these days, especially when you’re a start-up company…and we’re a start-up culture as much as we’re a start-up company. So, for us, I can’t tell you what our product is because our product, the whole web-design, the whole organization of my product, will be a result of all the people who chose to believe in it.” -Jimmy Stice
And so, I was in Panama City. A simple dinner with Jimmy Stice, the Founder of Kalu Yala and the man who started the movement, turned into a four hour conversation; one that I did not want to end. With no hesitation, I can say that he is the most honest and endearing entrepreneurial leader I have ever met. Both realistic and idealistic, Stice is a leader who understands both how to lead a project and how to let the momentum of a project lead him.
In this case, the project is Kalu Yala and the mission is to transform the way the world is built by exemplifying a sustainable future in a 7,000-acre valley 35 minutes from Panama City. When the project nears completion in mid-2015, Kalu Yala will be a vibrant home for believers in stewardship, self-reliance, collaboration, transparency and a responsibility to the surrounding region. It will be a mosaic influenced by the knowledge Stice has gained since the project’s inception, the hundreds of interns and intern-directors who have “broken their backs” (as he likes to say) caring for the future of the valley, and the founders who whole-heartedly believe this project will indeed transform the way the world is built.
Here are some lessons in entrepreneurship I snatched from our conversation:
1. A successful entrepreneur must be willing to do the grunt work, the most essential work for anything to get done.
The glorified “sexy” work is only the tip of the iceberg; the “un-sexy” work makes up the bulk of any successful project. Technology is innovating at such a rapid pace that the millennial generation has grown impatient to keep up. We forget, at times, to slow down (or speed up) and do what needs to be done. Stice says: “We can write a brilliant paper on how it should be done, but our generation doesn’t do dirty work, which is the biggest opportunity in our generation…For entrepreneurs, there are just so many opportunities [in Panama], it’s absurd; but, the number of people who are able to harness that opportunity and do that grunt work that’s not sexy, is slim…That’s a big differentiation I’ve noticed. Kalu Yala is not going to be for everyone because there’s going to be a societal expectation that if you’re an investor, an intern, a home-owner, or a visitor, you get your hands dirty doing something.”
2. There is a big difference between the reality and the risk we often take.
Six years ago, Stice devoted himself completely to creating the world of Kalu Yala. He is honest about the fact that it was not a huge financial risk. Idealism aside, background to the foreground, it was actually quite realistic. Stice says: “If you take a look at VCs, you’ll see that the average entrepreneur is actually a 35-year old executive who’s already networked, learned the business, proven himself in theory on an operational role and convinced a VC to back him starting his own company. The reality is that most successful entrepreneurs work a 40 hour a week legitimate job and work on their start-up on the side until they can drop the 40 hour a week job entirely so that they’re seeded by actually having a real income that’s providing their experience and building their resume. If they fail, it doesn’t matter because they’ve got a real job. For some reason, our generation, particularly the privileged in our generation (including myself in terms of how I’ve modeled this), would rather just launch a big bet at 25 and put 100% into a business that isn’t financially supporting itself. A huge risk that’s not usually backed by us because we haven’t made enough money to control our own finances yet.”
3. Intrapraneurship needs to be just as sexy as, if not sexier than, entrepreneurship.
Innovate within a company, not only surrounding it. Create a culture of self-reliant individuals who see collaboration as the only mechanism that creates true success within a company. Stice says: “I wish there were more companies that support intrapraneurship, but I think (and hope) that’s the one thing you’re going to see trending when our generation takes over executive positions in large businesses. Intrapraneurship should be sexier than entrepreneurship. You’ve got resources, you’ve got culture and, just to be honest, it’s a lot safer.” Later, Stice spoke about the entrepreneurial culture that he helped create where people are motivated to self-start: “At Kalu Yala, It’s all about how we do grassroots, bottom-up. It’s a lot of cultural inertia, setting precedent, setting principals, and judging a lot. Lazy people at Kalu Yala are going to be socially ostracized so quickly. We joke that we make men at Kalu Yala. Women make us, but we make men.”
4. The leader is the guy leading, not the guy who has the title. Don’t hide behind your suit and tie to gain respect.
The intern program at Kalu Yala evolved into a lesson in itself for Stice. He took me into Kalu Yala’s Valley, and introduced me to the infamous interns that I had heard so much about. What immediately stunned me was how there was an obvious ladder of respect, but no one was dressed differently; everyone looked rugged and interns respected their directors because they had earned it. You can’t be an intern director if you haven’t first served as an intern.
Gaining trust and respect from Kalu Yala’s surrounding community is key, perhaps the most difficult part; and they’ve done just that. The surrounding community’s inhabitants see the interns working hard, so they respect them. They even lobbied for the government to build a new road, the only path to Kalu Yala’s settlement. Stice says: “It’s just automatic. You see the guy who works harder than you and you respect him…I can’t let them do backbreaking labor if I’m not doing backbreaking labor. I’m pouring all of my personal money into fixing up the intern head quarters in the city and I’m moving in. I feel great about it; I’m pumped. I’m in it, I’ve got that energy and it’s the only way to keep the respect. In the grassroots, bottom-up organization I’ve established, the leader is the guy leading, not the guy who has the title.”
5. Be inclusive.
We spoke about that fact that the field we’re in is self-selecting. The team at Kalu Yala runs a Myers Briggs Personality Test on the interns and almost everyone is an intuitive extrovert. Stice says: “I’m all about inclusivity… I think it’s one of the guarantees for meeting other social entrepreneurs. As for the intern program, we’ve never kicked anyone out. I love letting people come to their own conclusions…it’s evolutionary.”
6. Don’t respect it if it hasn’t been put into practice.
Although the social innovation field is saturated with TED talks about various advances and interesting experiments, few lead to action. Stice says: “I don’t respect it if it’s not being put into practice. I don’t give a damn about a theoretical answer that I haven’t already implemented at least once. Until I’ve implemented it at least once, with my bare hands and my own sweat, my intellectual answer is worth nothing more than a little bit of attention.”
7. Sometimes what is truly innovative does not match the public’s take on “innovation.”
Don’t re-create the wheel if the wheel is working perfectly; we should learn from what has worked and create more of it. Combining best practices in a unique way is innovative. “Almost everything we’re doing is old, except for how we interact with people and shareholders. I mean, tradition is innovation that worked. Where we’re really innovative is how we not only engage shareholders, but also hold investors accountable.”
8. Don’t spend your life chasing your version of “enough.”
Entrepreneurs tend to be unsatisfied. It’s in a true entrepreneur’s nature to constantly question how life processes can be made quicker, easier or with greater return on investment. It’s difficult to keep yourself grounded and in-check with the world around you while you’re working hard addressing what you believe the world needs. “All I’m obsessed with now is how do I define enough? It’s, like, the only question I ask myself because I think there’s something about our personality types where we could spend our lifetimes chasing it. Like, when will Kalu Yala be enough? People ask me what the end goal of Kalu Yala is and, when I’m on the phone with a guy for the first time, I say we’re going to build ten more of these things; we’re the nation 2.0. We’ve taken the corporate form and blended it with community. If it’s not replicable, it doesn’t matter. If I can’t build ten of these things in multiple situations, it’s not an impactful model in the world…it’s just a really special place for a group of people.”
Bethany Halbreich is currently working at one of America’s most-esteemed therapeutic communities for addiction rehabilitation in Tucson, Arizona directing various projects that harness the entrepreneurial potential of the communities’ members, many of which are Native American. She is a recent graduate of New York University, passionate about creating sustainable community lifestyles, and using film and media to inspire action. For more, visit: www.bethanyhalbreich.com and www.circletreeranch.org.