Since its founding in 2005, Etsy has helped lead a revival in crafts and DIY culture, providing an alternative to soulless, mass manufactured goods. When the company, a B Corp., went public in 2015, it used some of the proceeds to endow a separate foundation, Etsy.org, to further its mission of “re-imagining commerce.”
As the Etsy.org website states: “The time has come to bring more human connection, accountability, and compassion to business, and to build diverse and inclusive economies. Yet, most business education today is still preparing entrepreneurs to run businesses in ways that are often at odds with the needs of the communities they’re meant to serve, the wellbeing of their employees, and the natural systems of the world.”
To that end, Etsy.org is creating a very different kind of business curriculum. It’s first pilot program, which brought together 22 entrepreneurs with new economy thought leaders (see above), wrapped up earlier this year. Applications are now open for its second program, kicking off in the Hudson Valley in June.
We sat down with Erica Dorn, Etsy.org managing director, near the nonprofit’s Crown Heights, Brooklyn offices to talk about the future of business, Etsy-style.
Tell me about the origins of Etsy.org and this new program.
I started about a year ago working with Matt Stinchcomb, one of the original Etsy employees, to think about what’s possible for an Etsy foundation. If Etsy’s mission is to reimagine commerce, what does the foundation do? We thought what was most needed was business education for reimagining commerce.
We were seeing a hunger for business education that wasn’t so focused on a pitch culture, a Silicon Valley narrative around scale, growth and disruption. We saw a need for education that was more focused on the role of the entrepreneur as an economic developer and a community leader. So we talked to people we admire—from the BALLE movement, Judy Wicks, Greyston Bakery.
What we came up with is business education that is experiential and participatory. We are focused on place-sourced education that honors the wisdom of a place and a group.
And the first place you started was New York?
We knew all along we want to do something in Hudson Valley —Etsy is the largest employer in the town of Hudson, and it’s Etsy’s second largest office. Our next program will take place there (see box below). But we started in Brooklyn; we wanted to start close to home. We had a vision, but didn’t know what it would look like in a program.
And so what does it look like?
With a lot of feedback, we developed a four-month experiential program. There are so many different incubator models—you could focus on an industry, or stage of business. We decided to create the most dynamic program possible. So right away we said, we’re going to open this application process up to entrepreneurs at every stage, of every socioeconomic background and create the most dynamic cohort among age, race, gender identity, stage of business, industry… because this program is ultimately about the cohort, which is why we want a diverse perspective.
The learning arc was to see your essential self, understand your vocation and sense of purpose, and how that relates to running an enterprise that ultimately has a deep impact in your local community for the broadest amount of people possible. It’s the idea of regeneration and the whole—self connected to business connected to community.
What did you learn from the first pilot?
I don’t want to be cheesy, but what we learned—what we knew but weren’t intentionally stating as a goal—[was that] we created a compassionate economy. The cohort itself was a fractal of that. We learned that you can bring together people from very diverse backgrounds—entrepreneurs who in other contexts would have been really competitive with each other—and you can build an ecosystem among them that increases empathy and collaboration and allows for local living economies to take shape. Because the group is learning to collaborate, learning to see mutualism and the benefits of working together.
I think we learned that what we’re actually in the business of is turning more energy in the world into a love energy, an affectionate energy, a compassion economy. We also learned that it’s really important to name these new skills that are being developed.
Can you give me an example?
Learning to be vulnerable. People got vulnerable in this program. Everyone completed and loved the program—this is like a family now—but the question became, if the program is a microcosm for how I’m running my business, how did I benefit from being vulnerable that allowed me to understand my deeper purpose and to run my enterprise with more intention? So naming vulnerability as a skill.
There’s been this disconnect or chasm created between entrepreneurs and everyone else. If I had to pin it down, I’d say the most important thing is to train entrepreneurs to see that they are economic developers, that they are the leaders in their community. When they are narrowly focused on profit or the individualism that comes with entrepreneurship, it becomes lonely and they are disconnected from their community. And ultimately successful businesses are very connected to their communities.
Etsy.org’s Good Work: Hudson Valley
- Program runs from June 15, 2016 – December 16, 2016
- The 12-session program is held twice-monthly on Thursdays at locations throughout the Hudson Valley, including two program immersions with overnights.
- Six Sessions have been pre-designed and the remaining six sessions are co-designed with the fellows during the program
- Cohort will be made up of 20+ business and nonprofit leaders working in diverse industries throughout the Hudson Valley
- Applications open March 30 – May 2, 2016 (see Etsy.org)
- Fellows will be announced May 15, 2016
- The program is offered as a gift to its participants. Those who require additional financial assistance in order to participate may include this request on their application.
I was just interviewed a well-known angel investor who was saying how lonely it is to be an entrepreneur…
One of the biggest lessons we learned is that people are yearning for love in business, for affection in business. They are yearning to be themselves and not have to be someone else. We’re finding there is an awakening, a coming out of a dead place that has been in our culture, especially in business, and that to allow people to be fully expressed is really good for them and really good for their businesses.
How do you measure your success?
We’re not a traditional business program, so we’re not measuring success by the longevity of these businesses. Because to us, if they’re running the wrong business for their own essence, maybe the outcome is that they stop running that business. That’s success to us, too.
We also measure compassion and how that’s showing in various ways, through collaboration, articulation of their values, vision and mission. So we’re measuring a lot of the activity that’s happening in the cohort.
We also had a ‘Regenerative Roadmap’ as a product of this program, where people take what they learn in the program and build it into their business. So we’re measuring those roadmaps—are people staying connected to what they feel they need. But I’ll be honest, we’re still sort of playing with some of our metrics.
What’s the long term vision for Etsy.org?
We want to continue to run local, place-sourced business programs and continue to build this core. We’d like to continue to contribute to a business revolution and a new narrative for the role of business in society and a redefinition of what entrepreneurship is. That could take shape a lot of ways, such as books or more media engagement.
We also see distribution potential in a modulated version of our program that gets integrated into existing academic institutions. B-schools aren’t introducing these concepts early enough, or they’re teaching social entrepreneurship. We’re saying that social entrepreneurship is redundant, that the role of business from its earliest ethos is to be a contributor to society. So our metrics in the future could be around how many different ways our education is being integrated into other programs.
But this is going to continue to shift. Look at how quickly the narrative is shifting already!