The young woman from Yale asked me if I would moderate a panel.
“I’d be honored to,” I said, “but I don’t do panels.”
It’s a relief to have enough silver hairs, 25 years down this professional path to have the chutzpah to tell an Ivy League invitation what you will do and what you definitely will not. My colleague in this case is young enough to be my daughter, so I feel safe to say that I’ve got a bit of experience to share.
“I'm looking at your objectives here,” I say having just studied the documents she’s sent me in advance about her intentions for the meeting, “And one of them is building strong connections among the participants. You can’t do that with a panel. Talking heads are boring. I promise you by 8 PM post a glass of wine, people will be sound asleep.”
“OK” Carol says with her lilting British accent and constitutional good cheer, “It’s good we need to be pushed out of our Yale business school button-up comfort zone. And it’s on the West coast anyway, far enough from New Haven to be safe. What do you propose?”
“First off, let’s not begin with the speakers. We’ll begin with a check in in small groups of four. Do the chairs move? We’ll need them in a circle. I’ll open with a question like, ‘What brings you here and what do you want to learn tonight?’ The assumption is that the wisdom is in the room. No doubt people are coming with lots to learn, but also tons of experience in impact investing, women’s leadership, social responsible business, etc. They’re coming in part looking for their tribe of like-minded souls and here they’ll find it. So we want to cultivate that since we’re building a movement.”
I continue to share details with Carol of how the night will unfold. There will be sharing of stories, feedback, give and take, drawing, creation of shared visuals, new relationships born.
“OK, I’m game,” she says. “We need some shaking up and I like the idea of building a movement. After all the evening’s called, ‘Women at the forefront of social change.’ That’s a lot of changing and none of us can do it alone.”
Four weeks later we arrive at Google’s San Francisco downtown office. After passing through three layers of security worthy of DC intelligence agencies where I’ve worked in the past, we ascend to the 11th floor. I ask for a coffee – uncharacteristic for me, but I’m still bleary eyed from jet lag and need a little boost.
"Right this way,” says Cliff our long lean guide, circa 30. We approach a full Starbucks quality coffee bar complete with multi-pierced barista.
"Oh I didn’t bring any money.”
"That’s OK,” Cliff tells me, “No money needed at Google.”
Coffee in hand we approach the room where Women will be at the forefront of Social Change. My heart sinks as I see a podium at the front of a rectangular shaped room, with several long tight rows of chairs. I’m guessing your heart is not moved by this moment, but I know rows are the kiss of death for community building. So I do the most important intervention I’ll do for the night.
“OK gang,” I say to the four young women from Yale who are here to host, “It’s time to move chairs.”
Moving the furniture. It’s a habit. I almost always begin a program by moving the furniture.
The Yale women are energetic and in about 10 minutes, viola, the room is transformed. Podium gone and chairs in semicircular pods of four, which I know will be conducive to engaged conversation leading to surprising intimacy for strangers. New connections will be made. Ideas will spark ideas. Business cards will be exchanged in genuine desire to grow the connection. Inspiration will be contagious. People will leave feeling renewed and ready to build the movement. Not asleep in their chairs at 8 PM.
And our friends from Yale will be delightfully surprised by how seemingly effortless this was.
How do I know this? The origins of this process for community building are a variation on what’s known as World Café created by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs. Juanita worked for Cesar Chaves in the farm workers union in the 60s and recalls how that movement was sparked by people sitting around the kitchen table with coffee and cake. Intimate conversation was the key to social change. Small groups of people made miracles happen. Juanita brought this approach to corporations (not quite sure how she made the leap from unions to board rooms but that’s for a different story.) Then gave this social technology away so that it is now used all over the world, in every sector. I’ve used Juanita and David’s World Café approach in groups from 15 to 1500. It works.
So it was for the 180 people who showed up for Women at the Forefront of Social Change. There was a palpable buzz in the room. People stayed long into the evening for California Wine, French cheese, grilled veggies.
The next morning at Breakfast, Carol and team reported that it was awesome. Magical.
“Yeah, I heard a bunch of good feedback too.” I said. “I’m really happy it worked.”
Is it fair to say that moving the furniture from lines to circles is a radical act in itself? That that move is indicative of the kinds of things that happen when Women are at the forefront of social change? We value the power of the community over the expertise of any one individual. We value conversation over a so-called expert. We value connection over isolation. We create space to make our values come to fruition.
The evening at Google was to quote the B Corporation movement about, “Business as a force for good.” Or as Dean Cycon of DeansBeans says, “Business as a vehicle for people centered change.” B Corporations have made a commitment to value the planet, community, and workers equally along side profit. To create as they say, “a shared and durable prosperity for all people” and I’d add, all inhabitants of the Earth. Many of us believe women will lead this movement that places caring at the center of our economy. Who else will?
Want to change the world? It’s going to take all of us. Start by moving the furniture.