There is so much talent and potential for change leadership hiding in underserved communities and among people who were not traditionally given opportunities. The Caravanserai Project, a nonprofit that supports social innovators and change makers along their journeys, aims to make inroads into that huge pool of undiscovered leadership potential through SEED Lab, an 8-month pre-accelerator for early stage social entrepreneurs. Join in as hosts, David Jensen and Cecily Chambers talk to the orchestrators and prime movers, Stephen Bennett and Mihai Patru. Learn a great deal from their insights on social impact entrepreneurship, change leadership, the role of influencers, COVID-19 activism and so much more in this wonderful conversation. Plus, learn what structured mischief means for Stephen and Mihai and how it figures in the groundbreaking work that they do.
Listen to the podcast here:
Social Impact Entrepreneurship: The Caravanserai Project With Stephen Bennett And Mihai Patru
Thank you for tuning in. We’ve got two special guests with us. We’ve got Mihai Patru and Stephen Bennett from Caravanserai. The Caravanserai Project’s goal is to help social entrepreneurs to create good in the world. They are working through their SEED Lab Program on a group of entrepreneurs in Eastern Coachella Valley, a place where there are great economic cultural diversity and opportunity for entrepreneurs to make good in the world. Welcome.
We have a special pair of guests here from the Caravanserai Project. We have Mihai Patru and Stephen Bennett with us in the house. Welcome, guys.
I had firsthand experience of how you’re having an impact on the community. Will you talk a little bit about the Caravanserai’s goals in a big picture and then some of the projects and programs that you’re doing with social entrepreneurs?
Thank you, David, for the invitation. Caravanserai Project started several years ago and the initial idea was to support change-makers along their journeys. People that had an idea and solution for the social problem within their communities or beyond and needed support to implement it, pilot it, develop it or even scale it. Move fast forward, we started developing our own projects in 2018 with the launch of a SEED Lab, which is a pre-accelerator for very early-stage social entrepreneurs. The target region that we have been focused on is the Inland Empire in California.
What an amazing mission, first off. What have you learned in the Inland Empire that you could scale elsewhere? Are you going to remain focused in the Inland Empire and go deeper with the projects and the outputs of the program?
We came to the Inland Empire because we’d been doing some work in the Eastern Coachella Valley which is mainly farm and immigrant workers. We saw 2 or 3 things that we thought were very interesting. One was there’s such a difference between the rich and poor. It’s a very mixed community. It’s the future of America in a sense. It’s also a community that has very little infrastructure partly because of the geographic and we thought it was a place where there were a lot of opportunities. When somebody is living in the Eastern Coachella Valley and it’s a single parent with three kids, they have to get up in the morning and get their kids to the school bus.
They have problems with no drinking water, energy and the generation of electricity. They’ve got to be on a bus at a certain time that only comes every three hours or they are going to lose their job. They are entrepreneurs. Everything that you need to be successful in the future, they deal with unexpected, they’re resilient. They get up and make it happen. We saw some talents that were unbelievable and these folks often don’t feel that their dreams can come true. We learned in SEED Lab in the 1st and 2nd year that these people were ready to go and they had incredible dreams to make their communities greater and stronger. To us, it’s a place to learn but we can definitely take what we learned and generate it in other areas. COVID creates a new opportunity for us to do that because geographics don’t matter anymore.
Let us dig in a little deeper on what you described as the East Coachella Valley being a snapshot of the future of America. Can you elaborate a little bit more on what that looks like in the tensions and also the opportunities there? The second part of the question is given we now live in what I’m calling a virtual century, where would you possibly take that model elsewhere?
The profiles that we’re looking at is we’re seeing about 40% Latinx community. Only about 5% of that are immigrants. The rest of them had been in California longer than any of us have. We also have Indian tribes throughout the region that are very strong. We have a Native American community that’s strong. We have about 15% African-American and 15% Asian. When you think about Caucasians, Asians and blacks, it is a demographic that we’re going to see across at least the Western United States, if not the United States entirely. It’s a very interesting group. We also have a lot of heavy industry over the San Bernardino Riverside part of the county, a big agricultural piece, mining up in the High Desert, and then we have Palm Springs which is a resort. You’ve got all these different economies swirling about.
We find that it’s a very interesting place to work as the first part of your question and because that gives us a tremendous amount of learning. For both Mihai and I, we’ve been working on Pride all over the world, and what this has given us is an opportunity to work with real people on the ground. If you’ve done consulting and inside work, that inside-outside the combo is a very huge learning opportunity, but people who have never been inside, it never touched the work or they’re missing a lot.
I know it firsthand. I completely can relate. Where do you take this? What’s the other place in the US or even globally that you would take that model and apply it?
As Mihai was talking, it’s not just the SEED Lab model itself but what are the elements about that SEED Lab that make it different? I want to go back to your name. I’ve always been full of mischief but I learned my mischief never was very helpful until I structured it. One of my themes at the moment is this whole idea about what is the relationship of these kinds of mission-driven organizations with a community? What does that social contract look like? You look at the governance. Who owns these and then not-for-profit, it’s a board of directors who are the fiduciary keepers for public trust.
We have known for a long time that the key to a mission-driven organization being successful as a strong board and that relationship between the board and good leadership that trust and sense that the staff is aligned with the mission. All those kinds of moral, ethical, and vision things have to be intact. If leadership has the trust of a board, they can get away with a lot of mistakes and I’ve benefited from that in some of my work. On the other hand, in the private sector, all of that stuff about trust and mission, that’s important, but what’s important in the private sector and my career has been 50/50 is competency and business results.
In the not-for-profit world, we’ve seen a lot of folks who are not competent who cannot deliver the goods but keep their jobs forever because their board sees them as aligned with the mission, values, they’re doing good work, and trustworthy. There are a huge challenge and opportunity here to look at not-for-profits in a different way, measure competency, not judge it but build it and strengthen it. It takes a certain skillset that’s very different than in the private sector.
What you described is so multi-pronged and there are many things to attach there. I definitely want to come back on you as a mischief-maker, both of you. I know Cecily has some questions upfront but let’s talk a little bit further about where you’re going with the difference between for-profits and nonprofits. Some of the folks that come out of SEED Lab though are going to be social entrepreneurs in building for-profit businesses. Can you talk a little bit about that?When you reach out to people who have always been left out, you will find that they often have better skillsets to become agents of change. Click To Tweet
Remember that the for-profit versus nonprofit is about a tax structuring. What we’re concerned most about is about impacting on the mission and what is the best structure to do that? There are so many not-for-profits that come about. They don’t know why they became a real not-for-profit. They want grants. Grants are not a sustainable way to design a business model and its very nature. When somebody says that to them, you’ve got a bad model. Something that can create where you make your own revenue and build wealth is where we’re going to see some of the biggest changes and impact of what we used to think that is just enough for-profit model but looking at a mission-driven model that has sustainability.
There’s an interesting intersection with that mission-driven model and bringing competency to all types of organizations. As you’ve described, the challenges in established nonprofits that might not have a competency model, I put it in the context of social events that have started in the US and now have gone globally that I would put under the category in this new term. I don’t know if you all heard it. I was speaking with somebody at McArthur about JEDI. We’ve had diversity inclusion for some time but now Justice, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.
What’s lovely about that is this idea that everybody wants justice, be it social justice or economic justice. Everybody needs equality, be it racial or economic equality. Diversity, we know we’ve proven over 30-plus years how diversity impacts organizations, especially business for-profit organizations in terms of output and then inclusion. You are tapped into something that also intersects so nicely with what is going on in the world from a JEDI perspective. Any thoughts on that front?
I’m on the board of the Arcus Foundation as well as the California Endowment. In Arcus, we developed a concept called SOGI. It’s the same thing as JEDI. When you look at where we’ve invested our money, it’s on building the strength of people who’ve been left out and their personal power, their sense of belonging, their sense of community, and their leadership, and change-making skills. It’s been a long investment but it’s all SOGI. You have to look at every situation that way. Part of what we’re trying to do in the Inland Empire is to find those people that have always been left out who was never given the same opportunity because we think they may often have better skillsets to be change agents where we find that we’ve got content and process way of learning. We think our content is good and our process is unique but part of what the difference is here that you’ve got to be very clear about without hammering it over people’s head is that most of the people we work with don’t have any sense of entitlement.
They don’t feel like they’re part of or they can pick up the phone, call somebody and ask them a question. One of the sub-agendas maybe and yet it’s a very important part of what we always try to do is do things that help our folks value their own skill, their own selves and get exposed to folks. By the end of SEED Lab, we want people walking out of there, not only with a business plan and all this stuff but with the attitude, “I can do this, I have the right to do this.”
They feel prepared to be a leader.
I do want to say, Mihai, you can talk more about this. We get a little concerned when things are too focused on leadership alone.
Mihai, tell us more about that. What do you mean?
To follow-up on the idea that you discussed earlier, you want all these for elements, justice, equality, diversity, and inclusion to be the normal of everything we do and not to be questioned or think much about it. They are automatically incorporated in everything we do, not just us but everyone. That’s what the standards should be. When you focus too much on leadership, what we’ve learned is that it’s very easy for people to become talkers. It’s easier to talk about things, share brilliant ideas and influence people but at the end of the day, I wonder how much that changes the system. You can become an influencer easily. You have access to so many tools, social media, promote if you have a strategy, catchy message, and good content. It’s fairly easy. What is very hard is to transform what you preach and implement it. That’s the biggest challenge. We’ve seen in some of the folks that have been part of SEED Lab, their ideas were amazing.
Their solutions were great but what they missed was the implementation phase. What we’ve been trying with SEED Lab is a mix of inspiring them to become a leader. You cannot become a changemaker unless you are a leader of that community, people are following you, they trust you, they listen to what you have to say, and what you want to do but in the same time, you have to back that message with things that are proven that exists and can demonstrate that your idea can change the system, can improve people’s lives, or can move the needle whatever the sector is.
Mihai, can we break that down a little bit further where you were going around influencers and leadership? We sent you a couple of thoughts as we were prepping for this. One of the questions we put out there was can an outsider be an influencer by extension? Can those non-influencer or outsiders be on Instagram and still be authentic? You were alluding there a minute about influencer culture. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how you distinguish success relative to influencer culture?
Influencers should exist. They provide and encourage the conversation, and they bring ideas to the table that otherwise you would never thought of although, it was always in the back of your mind but somebody sometimes needs to package it and put it out there in order to generate, encourage people to follow, and develop it. That’s a great tool, but if it stays there in the vacuum and within the social media reality if you want to call it, it doesn’t change anything. It’s at a conversation level. A mix of practitioners, doers, talkers, influencers, all of them should be part of the same conversation but at the same time, part of the implementation process.
We have a model we’re going to share with you but Stephen has something to say.
We try to find outside influencers to join us at SEED Lab and with Caravanserai. One of them is a good example. His name is Jason Tester, and Jason was with the Institute of the Future in Palo Alto for a number of years. It does vary how to organize for the future and postcards from the future. He’s not a manager nor an entrepreneur. He doesn’t fit into our framework. What he does in minutes with our cohorts is to have them living in the future and thinking back about how they got to that future in a very constructive way.
For him, he’s a classic outside influencer. We use him a lot, particularly in our strategic planning. Also, you see more situations where on the last organization I ran where I got paid was with United Cerebral Palsy Worldwide. When I got there, we had a very linear thinking board and we realized every time we needed to change that up so we brought in nonlinear thinkers to join the board like dancers and actresses. One of them was an actress named Cheryl Hines. She was on Larry David’s show on Sunday night.
We were having a huge debate about how we needed to work with Medicaid because it’s a lifeline for disabled folks. We were talking about all the problems because, by definition, you’ve got to be poor and sick to get Medicaid. Our folks were not sick and to get Medicaid, they had to stay poor. It’s a horrible challenge. At the end of the conversation, Cheryl looks up and said, “I’ve been listening to you try to work through this problem. Why do you keep even talking about Medicaid? If we’re a policy change organization, why aren’t we talking about some disability act that takes us out of poverty and illness? Why do you keep thinking this way?” That’s a trick outside influencers.
That’s a whole long conversation. I’ve been in the nonprofit world. I also was the advocate of having those outside influencer voices which shake things up. They’re unconventional thinkers. What you described as what I call future back scenario planning has aided me so much in solving all kinds of problems. Be it big problems for big companies or just in small ways trying to create activism in a local community. On that, I wanted to talk a little bit about a model before we get into how you all have made mischief in your life.
We’ve put together something at Structured Mischief that we’re thinking about is a minimum viable collective for change. That minimum viable collective has three persona types, a hustler, a hacker, and a hipster. One of the questions is which one are you guys of the three persona types? More importantly, as you look at Caravanserai and the SEED Lab, to me, what you’ve been describing is that model of creating a model of where you bring different folks together in order to create mission-driven organizations, companies, and talking about sourcing talent. You have to start to think about how you have these different persona types show up to make a change. Does this model or this minimum viable collective for change resonate with you?
How are you defining a hacker in hipster in this case?
The hacker is somebody who’s like a computer hacker who goes in and makes things unfold or happen. Hackers are folks that find breaking codes.
The hipster would be more of an influencer in a way so someone that’s influencing culture.
The hustler is the front lady or the frontman who’s out there promoting the idea of getting and cutting deals, looking at how the organization needs to have relationships, etc.
I like it. I’m watching a show on Netflix that is about hackers. It’s about the ‘80s, how decoders started the online, Silicon Valley and everything. It’s a mix of hustlers, hackers, hipsters, and you find these characters there, especially within that world in the ‘80s. All of them have brilliant ideas but none of them has structure. The characters that save the day are the salesperson that is in his late 50s, early 60s that has that structure and likes things to be in control and organized. It’s starting the third season. It’s great to have brilliant ideas and want to disrupt whatever the environment you’re part of but if there is no structure or no map that it does have to be a fixed map, but at least some guidelines that you have to follow in order to get from point A to point B. A lot of great ideas get lost or they don’t have the success that they should have. Within these three characters, I would like to add somebody that has more structure.
At Structured Mischief, we’re trying to think that Structured Mischief becomes the overlay on that that helps to then create that ability to breakthrough. It’s good you’re reinforcing that.
Having that form and whether within the form, the content is always changing. There is always brainstorming and things are exploding. It has to be contained in some form.
Speaking of mischief, Cecily, I know you love talking about mischief and mischief-making.
First of all, I was curious about which ones do you guys feel like you are in your mischief-making personality, a hipster, hustler, hacker or a mix?
It’s always good to be a mix. I like structure, planning and I have not necessarily a clear roadmap but at least that’s the best way to see that you are advancing. There’s always room to go left or right and not necessarily follow the initial path. Having that arrival location where I need to get there, that’s what helps me best.
You’re not one. You’re all of them?
I think of them all.
He’s structured and I’m not. Mihai and I started this on April 2, 2016, and we complement each other. It’s a nice way of saying it. I’m definitely a hustler. I’m also an influencer. My feet are usually at about 30,000 feet. My head is at about 50,000 feet and sometimes, I touch the ground.It’s easy to talk about things and share brilliant ideas. It’s harder to transform what you preach into something that changes the system. Click To Tweet
You’re looking at that big picture, you’re looking at what to inspire, how to inspire, how to influence, how to hustle. Mihai brings that all down to a practical reality of, “How are we going to do this?”
I’m sure I irritate him and he irritates me like, “We don’t need to be thinking about that yet.” He says, “Yes, we do.”
I love that you guys are highlighting that structured mischief could come in the form of a relationship.
Being one of them, 100%, you miss a lot of things that the hustler brings to the table or a hacker and you only see your little world without noticing what’s happening around you because you’re focused on being one of these three.
The executors have no vision and no mission. They want to do what’s next. I’ve learned over the years with the experience when I’m doing a turnaround or taking over an organization, the first thing I do is go try to find somebody right next to me who’s extremely structured. My last one was I hired two. One was a lawyer who was risk-averse, who I wanted to lock in his office most of the time and then the other was a woman who ran our network and she had been a registered nurse. It’s like, “That affiliate is in trouble. It’s a nasty mess. You need to go clean it up.” It’s like a nurse seeing on her chart, “Room three has been throwing up, has diarrhea and is fighting nurses. I need to go take care of that. It’s not a question, I’m going to go fix it.” Those are the people that made me successful.
You need that balance because as you’re laying out a future and a vision, you need that reality check about, “Here’s how it shows up in very practical ways.”
Truly understanding yourself and where your blind spots are.
Cecily, I was thinking about one of the earliest and strongest examples where I can see your model was when I took over the AIDS Project Los Angeles prior to ACT and stayed with them until the cocktail because it was such chaos. We grew from 700 clients to 7,000 clients in about 1.5 years. We had 300 staff. Half of them died the first year but we had to reach out and get people treated. We had to triage them. We had to think of alternative paths because the system didn’t work for people with HIV and AIDS at all.
We hacked everything. We had to be partners and provide all the structure for ACT UP. At the same time, we had to turn to fundraising and how we develop systems of care with a disease. When I looked back at all the forces that came together that made AIDS work so revolutionary for America, we have early treatment, early access to drugs because of the AIDS Movement. We’ve got a lot of society changes due to what happened but it was a group of hustlers, hackers and hipsters, let me tell you.
I would love to talk more about that. Having lived that about the same time and seeing that all unfold, but let’s put it in the COVID context. I’m curious about what did you learn from that experience and what are you seeing with COVID that can benefit?
It’s impactful to me because COVID brings up a lot of memories. Some of them are very disturbing and some of them are very powerful. Part of it is that resilience is part of the key that the virus is one thing and you’ve got to deal with what you can about protection and all of those things. It’s very clear. It was totally out of control until we changed sexual behavior in America, which was a challenge that had never been accomplished before. There are going to be some challenges we’ve never dealt with before but they’re easier now than they were, particularly if it’s a mask, distancing and taking that seriously. More to the point is people’s attitude and around both politics and the stress of the threat, both economic and health.
What it does to a community, it can devolve, depress and stress people out. Dealing with this complexity, threat and economic stuff all going together, I’ve been hearing the term lately called COVID depression. One of the things that we learned is that we need to have a vision, hope and surround those hustlers and influencers who can lead us out of this, so to speak. We’d go to Fauci because he’s an influencer that gives us hope that somebody is being serious about this. You see the minister on television, the doctor who said the struggle cure people and you didn’t need your masks. She’s successful with a lot of reasonable people so wanting to believe her.
It’s interesting what you’re saying because I think about the activism that came out of the AIDS pandemic, Gran Fury and ACT UP. I feel like we haven’t had that yet with COVID. What you’re describing is that awareness, hope and being able to articulate for folks putting the politics aside about there’s a path through this. Right now, reasonable people are listening to that doctor/pastor because they want hope. There are literally seeing the implications in their personal lives where first, they might have been dismissive depending upon where they are whether on the political spectrum of wearing a mask. They’re seeing family members get it. They’re like, “I need to pay attention.” They’re looking for a quick fix or they’re looking for some form of hope.
The kind of activism that happened in the AIDS pandemic is what is starting to unfold here. All of the social unrest is partially bringing it to ahead. There’s been a negative side and an opportunistic side from political operatives to say, “Burning buildings and graffiti buildings, these are bad people.” In general, these are people that are saying, “Enough is enough. We need to change.” COVID was the impetus staying at home, trying to protect themselves, and then layer on top of that something that was unacceptable in terms of police behavior that has activated a lot of people. Out of that is going to come, part of the COVID response is the point.
I feel like with COVID, there was a separateness that was created because we were told that we couldn’t interact with each other. When you would walk down the street and you would see someone coming towards you, you would be afraid of them. There was definitely a separateness that has happened. With all the social unrest and the protest, people have come back together, which has been amazing to see.
It’s a soup and we’re starting to see certain strains of the souper or certain strands of the soup start to get organized and get messaging clarified. It’s a very interesting moment. Let’s go back to mischief-making, not to diminish or suggest that is not in the middle. It’s such a huge topic but let’s talk about mischief-making and how you guys have made mischief in your life. Stephen, as you said, you’ve always been a mischief-maker. Can you talk a little bit about your mischief-making? How you bring that into your play and work world?
I was a Peace Corps/VISTA volunteer in South Central Los Angeles after the Watts riots. I lived in a neighborhood for a few years where I was the only white person for a few miles in any direction. It was an education. I was also involved in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. I wouldn’t call it mischief but I was trying to stir things up. My first real career move was working with disabled folks. My goal was to depopulate state institutions. I took about 900 people out, built housing and community living. One of the things that happened to me early because I was working in South Central LA and because I was part of these movements, I was labeled as the white guy.
By my mid-20s, I was already realizing, “I’m not an outsider because I’m a white guy. I can work from the inside-out.” I felt like I was a change-maker and a mischief-maker and not one who could be just a corporate America white guy but I could get inside and work from the inside-out. I got an MBA, I stopped my disability work in the early ‘80s, became a CFO of a corporation, and got my credibility there, so to speak, so that I could play the game. I’ve always had some a sub-rosa game plan to work from the inside-out leveraging my white maleness. As I came out as a gay person, I had to realign who I was in relation to everything. It need defines who you are and I became a part of the outsiders who could pass but not much.
I can relate where you’re going with this.
Over the last few years, I’ve been tokenized all over the place and running the AIDS Project made me a celebrity gay, which was never my hope or goal. I still get tokenized and get put in situations where I am expected to speak up for the LGBT community, be either radical or not radical depending on the situation. Sometimes, that’s fun and it’s an important role to not demure from but to step right into and it causes mischief. Many times, it would be much easier to go along and get along. I don’t usually choose that route.
You’re always on a fine line. It always depends upon context, situation and moment. What you stick to your core is that you’re always going to be that insider who can bring about change because of being white and male. Being gay adds to it but when you started and realized early on in your career, you knew you wanted to help and create change. It sounds like from the very beginning for good, you’ve been able to walk this fine line as you add other attributes to your persona. It always depends upon the context by which you then give voice to situations or identify the injustice of the situation.
It makes me sound really good. I’m not that good.
Do you ever feel a certain amount of pressure to say the right thing? Are you worried about saying the wrong thing?
I usually go ahead and say it anyway. It needs to be said sometimes. Often in conversations particularly on the boards I sit on, we’re talking very directly about anti-black racism. There are conversations because there are very few white people and very few white males on them. There’s this conversation about what are the Latino immigrant families deal with coming to America? What about our Native Americans? What about all this violence that’s happening in the Asian community? Of course, the big thing with George Floyd and this clarity on greater understanding and awareness of the absolute brutality that black people suffer and the discrimination then what does a white male gay person have to say? You better step carefully, folks. Yet, you cannot speak.
Stephen, I want to build on that. As a middle-aged gay white man, I completely understand what you’re saying. I’ve been on the diversity and inclusion committee since the beginning of my career. When I worked for the Getty in 1992, they put me on my very first committee. I’ve seen 30 years of evolution of what I’ll call D&I into JEDI has been meaningful. I have clients where I’m helping them as a white leadership organization with people with 90% of their employees in plants being people of color realize even though they had a D&I initiative, there were out of step.
What I said to them is we put together some programs to help them rechart those courses. I can get the conversation started but there are so many other voices you need to hear from there that are not white male, middle-aged are gay. You need to be at the table but you also have to understand how there are different voices that your history of being able to create change allows them to come to the table and give voice to a lot of folks that haven’t been at that table. It’s a very interesting moment in that regard. Mihai, what do you think about this topic?
I’m thinking about the work that we are doing in the Inland Empire. I don’t want to say advantages but one of the tools that we bring and somebody call it brutal honesty is that you have no problem at challenging people, showing them examples, and taking them out of their comfort zone. In a way, disrupting whatever they have been planning, thinking or experiencing and telling them that there is more out there and things that they should know about. Working in the Inland Empire is obviously geographically huge and that leads to the fact that it’s very much a bubble and people don’t have the habit of checking what’s happening outside the region or even outside their community within the bigger region. I always say that it’s too close to LA but at the same time, too far from LA to feel a difference. We experienced situations when they don’t have the habit or don’t even think about checking what other people are doing.
That’s what we’ve been trying to do with Caravanserai at SEED Lab where all the other meetings that we are organizing and let people know that there is much more out there than what they have experienced. Not necessarily to copy or give up on their ideas but understand what other resources are out there, what other people are thinking, what are the trends so they can borrow, import some of these aspects and bring within their communities. There’s no reason to start from scratch when people have already experienced and found solutions to similar problems somewhere else around the world. In terms of disruption, that’s where we are at.
I’m curious what you feel like your biggest challenges are that you’re facing?
Like everyone else with COVID and constant challenge. Rethinking everything that we have planned or we did in person because one of the things that we have been very good at since the beginning was interacting with people and us going to them and not asking them to follow us or come to us. That whole mindset had to change and create all these virtual meetings but at the same time, keep them as authentic as possible. That has been a challenge but at the same time, it’s always to put ourselves in the shoes of the people we work with. We cannot claim that we understand what they are experiencing or what their challenges are.
What we can do is try to learn from them whether it’s SEED Lab or the other programs, everything is customized. We pay a lot of attention to who’s in the room so we can tweak what we do and the approach we have that they feel that they get the most of it and it speaks to them directly. As Stephen mentioned earlier, the region is extremely diverse. Everyone is going from Palm Springs to India or Mecca, people are very different. Although you look at the map and you say, “They’re an hour apart. How can they be that different?” It’s very challenging and that puts a lot of positive pressure on us because it keeps pushing us to rethink what we do in order to be authentic but also to provide the tools and the approach that is needed.There's no reason, to start from scratch when other people have already experienced and found solutions to similar problems. Click To Tweet
We’re getting to the top of our hour, so a couple of last questions. You guys are obviously in the making-dreams-happen business. What is the advice you’d give somebody who’s unsure how to start living their dreams and creating good in the world?
I don’t know if it’s advice, but Virginia Woolf used to say that the future is dark and not that it’s negative but the idea that anything can happen. It hasn’t happened yet, so you have the influence to make it the way you want. What we are trying to do with the people we work with is encourage them to believe in what they do and try everything that is out there. Empowering has become a buzzword but that’s what we are trying to, in a way, force them to think that they can do it. We try to bring people to them that is the living example that things can change regardless of how you started the resources you had, things can happen, you can do something and turn your idea into something that is real.
DJ and I often talk about having an openness to the unknown. We feel like structured mischief being able to reframe your thought patterns within this umbrella of structured mischief can let you be open to the unknown and understand that all opportunities and possibilities come from that.
The more you are exposed to things and understand how things work or willing to jump and see what’s out there, that’s extremely important.
You have to get comfortable with risk, and so you’ve got to jump into the darkness, so to speak, to be an entrepreneur, and you’ve got to be able to feel like that even if that fails, you can figure out how to get out of it because you’re going to have a failure. As a practical matter, a young person who has some dreams, they need to start with an attitude of trying to open as many doors as possible because you don’t know what’s behind and you’ve got to open as many opportunities as you can. Public service is always a great opportunity if you can do it.
I also think that you need to start making relationships and connections with people that you find interesting, not necessarily that you can use but you find interesting, stimulating, and make you think broader. Figure out ways to develop some skillsets that will be useful to you whether it’s an MBA, education or experiences that build real concrete skillsets to bring culture to your hustling attitude. I always like Bob Johansen’s book called the Leaders Make The Future. You’re not a victim to the future. You can make the future. That ownership about what happens to you is very powerful, but it’s got to be combined with that resilience because if you step into that darkness, you’re going to fail a number of times. You need to be okay with that.
I believe a lot in energy too. I feel like whatever is coming at you, you’ve somehow created it. It’s a reframing of your challenges. I’m saying that from a perspective of someone that has had a life of privilege so maybe that’s misguided but that’s been something that has been so helpful for me and my life is always trying to find the opportunity in a situation that is challenging.
I also think you’ve got to create your own energy to receive it.
You’re open to receiving it.
You have to consciously be aware of your energy and build it. If you suck energy, you’re going to push opportunities away. When people come into contact with you, they need to get energy so you’ve got to have a store of energy to supply.
That’s been my thing lately. I’m very much into intention setting, yoga, and meditation. I’ve been thinking about how I want to be a conduit for shining other people’s light back to them.
That’s helping to make the future. You’re defining your own future and you’re encouraging others to make their own future or make their future.
There are also boundaries that have to come into place because as someone that represents artists, I’m their therapist, their best friend, their agents, all combined. I love that about what I do but I’ve also had to put into place some emotional boundaries so that I can understand when things are my energy and when things are someone else’s energy. If I protect my energy, then I’m able to give them more.
Any concluding thoughts or comments?
You guys are so accomplished in this space of helping others and changing the world. I was curious about what advice you would give your younger self if you could go back and give some advice to your kid persona.
If we need to go back in time, the conditions were different than access to whatever we have access now was limited. Within that environment, take more risks maybe. If me as a kid would be in this context, the situation would be very different. It’s hard to imagine me as a kid now.
My question comes from a sense of if you could look at your life, how it’s gone so far, and if you had any advice to yourself as that younger person, it’s all going to work out. Believe in yourself or take more risks as you said.
That would be, probably.
What about you, Stephen? What would you tell your younger self?
It could be in such cocky self-assured thinking of what you’re doing. I was full of it when I was in my twenties. My parents were remarkable people. They’ve never been trained in parenting and I was the youngest of four boys and they were way over it. When I looked back, I could have learned a lot more from them because they were true entrepreneurs and energy givers. It took me a long time to understand why there were always twenty people in our home and why anybody in the trouble or in our world came to my house when they were in trouble. The things that my mom and dad did to build a community in a small West Texas town where they had come out of being very poor dirt farmers, ending up living in Carmel on the beach when they retired and sending us kids to Europe to school. How do you get there? I could have learned a lot more from them.
They gave you those entrepreneurial roots that you’re now helping others in Eastern Coachella Valley. This has been fantastic. We’d love to have you back as the SEED Lab unfolds. We would love to get some of your social impact entrepreneurs on here because we want to hear their stories.
They’re the coolest. They’re good. They’re the world-changers. Thank you so much and thank you for Structured Mischief.
What I loved about that interview is that I feel like it pertains to what we’re trying to do with the show.
That’s what I loved about it. The fact that he gave us a throw at the end saying, “Thank you for making Structure Mischief.”
I felt very strongly that it related to our mission statement and the types of people that we’re wanting to speak to. How to make structured mischief and also how I want to make structured mischief in the future. Getting inspired by people that are making such a big change in the world and our selfless in a lot of ways.
I have to say that if that had been a longer interview, there was part of me that wanting to say, “What’s in it for you, guys? Why are you doing this?” Not in a suspicious way. He already said it but he’s very much to the point his career, Stephen in particular is that he wants to get back. He’s been a successful CEO in multiple chapters. I don’t know how old Stephen is but I know he’s more than 70. I don’t know, 72 or 75.
It seems part of his healing process as well because I got the sense that he felt like he was an asshole when he was younger, or maybe not an asshole but arrogant.
I don’t know Stephen that well personally, but my sense is I know other gay men of his generation and they were in the closet, they didn’t feel comfortable coming out. He alluded to that. He played this role but he was always an outsider, they’re looking at communities that didn’t have the privilege he had, and then when he did come out, that reinforces outsider status and part of his arrogance or assholery when he was younger is that he wasn’t truly out.
He couldn’t be himself. He was repressed in a certain way. I feel like he could have been repressed in a certain way and acted out because of that and then once he was able to fully be himself and feel comfortable.
It would be interesting to have that conversation with him. On that point, we’re doing another gay man but Mixner will be an interesting interview as well because Mixner is of a similar generation and also a similar experience, meaning he first was a Vietnam activist against the war. He started out his activism back in the agricultural fields of New Jersey where he grew up, moved to California, and became part of the whole United Farm Workers/Cesar Chavez movement in the ‘60s before the Vietnam War activism movement.Start with an attitude of trying to open as many doors as possible because you don't know what opportunities are behind each one of them. Click To Tweet
He was protesting with farmworkers around the whole grape boycott campaigns that happened in the ‘60 and ‘70s. Along came the war, he turned his attention to the war, and it was through the war that he also felt comfortable of coming out with the rise of Gay and Lesbian Liberation in 1969. There was a good almost twenty years of his adulthood where he was in the closet or dabbled on the side. It has a similar life story that he was an arrogant guy. I don’t know about that, but it’s an interesting theme.
Do you feel like you had that at all when you were younger and you weren’t out?
A bit. I was a different generation. I was married to a woman. I saw my sexuality more truly like a lot of Gen Z-ers do fluid.
I see it that way. I see it as a spectrum. You’re a certain place on the spectrum and everyone else is at a different place on it. That’s what I think.
When I was coming of age, Gay Liberation had happened. Was it widely accepted like it is now? Absolutely not. Did I feel comfortable growing up in a Catholic family to express that? Absolutely not. Did I have a lot of positive reinforcement and not a fear of being arrested? Yes, because in high school, I had a friend on the crew team who was an out gay guy who brought a guy to the prom. That was in 1980.
It was respected and stuff?
To a point. There were certainly some homophobe football players that teased and made fun but Crispin and his partner or husband of twenty years, not the guy he took to the prom, but he lives in San Francisco and I’m still friends with him from high school. We had a 30th reunion a few years ago. Neither he nor I went because we’re both on the West Coast. We didn’t want to go back to DC for it, but I commended him for the bravery that he showed in 1979, 1980 to bring a man as his prom date. It was an urban high school and it was in an urban area but still, that was ballsy at 17, 18 to think. It was an older guy too. It was a guy from Georgetown University so he was a few years older.
DJ, what did you think about that interview?
Caravanserai is doing some amazing things in Eastern Coachella Valley. The fact that they have targeted a community that has such extremes in wealth and also a diversity of immigrants, locals, various populations and looking to help those who are wanting to be entrepreneurs and not sure how to do it is impressive and inspiring.
I love the insight that they had about how these people that are in marginalized communities that get up every day and persevere through challenges. They have all of the qualities that are needed to be good entrepreneurial.
I was impressed by that insight that your day-to-day lives of getting up, working hard, getting your kids to school, working multiple jobs, and doing it all at one time. Those are your basic skills of entrepreneurship is a great life lesson.
I also loved how they highlighted that structured mischief can manifest itself in the way of a relationship because Mihai is the structure and Stephen is the mischief.
I like the fact that Stephen said, “I’ve been making mischief since I was two years old and continue to do so.” His embrace of the idea of structured mischief was very satisfying.
Mischief for the good of others, it seems to be later in his life.
That’s been a motivation for him from the beginning, it feels like.
I found it to be interesting that he took a different path. He leveraged his white maleness to create disruption and change.
For me, what was most inspiring is that they’ve developed this as a model through the SEED Lab, Caravanserai Project, and starting in a community that is in desperate need of economic and social change. Building that as a model, understanding the power of it, and looking about how they take it around to other communities, if not globally. To me again, the beginning and the rooting of movement.
I’m excited to see where they go from here.
- Caravanserai Project
- Leaders Make The Future
- SEED Lab
- Arcus Foundation
- California Endowment
- AIDS Project Los Angeles
About Stephen Bennett
Stephen is a leader in NGO management, human and health services, technology and philanthropy. His current focus includes areas of health care access, international conservation, disabilities and human rights.
He also serves on the Boards of The California Endowment, the ARCUS Foundation and Save the Chimps. Former CEO of United Cerebral Palsy from 2003 to 2016, he had also served as the President of Pallotta Teamworks (charity event production organization), Founder and Chair of TransDecisions (Software firm), Founding Partner, Sokolov, Schwab and Bennett (Healthcare Consulting group), and CEO of AIDS Project LA. He was a VISTA/PeaceCorp volunteer in the 1970’s. Stephen did his undergraduate work at Pepperdine University and University of Heidelberg. His graduate work was at the UCLA Anderson School of Business, MBA.
About Mihai Patru
Mihai is an Entrepreneur in Residence on Social Entrepreneurship at University of California in. Riverside, Prior, he was a Senior Fellow at the School of Public Policy, University of California in Riverside where he designed and launched the first social entrepreneurship pre-accelerator at the University.
He started his professional career as a diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Romania. He served as Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC, and was the recipient of the U.S. State Department Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellow (2013/2014 cohort). He completed his graduate work at Central European University in Budapest (MA ’10) and Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC (MIPP ’17).