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From Business Idea to Business Activism – 18 months

When Johanna and I sat on my balcony in Berlin two years ago on a warm evening, we knew we wanted to create something together. As we brainstormed the upcoming weeks, our startup ideas covered the full risk range from creating a small self-funded fashion accessory to a venture capital backed blockchain-based solution for supply chain transparency.

The only common denominator for all of our ideas was: it needs to be sustainable.

Eventually, we founded our consultancy (that time we named our company Blanknarrative). This decision was the result of pure reasoning that it’s best for us to start out as fast and lean as possible. We both were impatient to get started and barely had savings to live off, so we took a leap of faith, quit our jobs and offered what we loved doing in our previous jobs: bringing new products to market.

From this point on, what was important to us – sustainability and creating the “job of our dreams” – we already defined two of the four core values of our company: we practice kindness towards the people and the planet and we see work as a natural thing because it fulfills our purpose, our personal “Why”.

A lot has happened ever since. Looking back 18 months, sustainability as the leading concept for our lives both as individuals and business professionals has proven to be our constant driver for learning, motivation and above all, transformation.

In fact, sustainability itself is all about transformation. If you have been following global sustainability issues closely you must be, like us, worried about how bad things are becoming. The IPCC report (the report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) states that we are heading for imminent disaster for life on earth if we do not take radical, unprecedented action now. It’s a reality I can only hardly grasp. It took me months to process the information on climate change, but eventually, it hit me.

It seems the only thing that can really prevent a forthcoming of tipping points in the climate system is a profound transformation of the system we live in. Because although businesses and even financial institutions at times tried to operate more sustainably from the inside, it has not stopped carbon emissions rising or biodiversity loss increasing. Until today, we couldn’t achieve the change we knew had to happen for more than 30 years now.

So as long as sustainability is not fully ingrained in our system, we know what our purpose is and what we are working for. Meanwhile Johanna founded a network of changemakers – The Next Normal – together with two partners, to leverage knowledge and experience of almost 300 sustainability professionals in The Netherlands to accelerate positive change. At the same time last year, I was trained to become an environmental activist under supervision of former Vice President of the United States, Al Gore, and soon after initiated the “Klimawache” with other Berlin climate leaders, a monthly protest to raise awareness for climate change.

While each of us was undertaking these very different projects, we learned a lot about ourselves, where we are strong and not so strong, and in which spaces we feel confident yet able to grow. In the end, be it relationship building or engaging in environmental activism, we shared a similar perspective on how we pursue our goal of a fulfilling life. And that is to say aloof from any kind of culturally induced expectation that suggests we need to work our butts off in order to have a career or achieve financial freedom. 

The opposite is the case. Amsterdam and Berlin, the cities we are based in, both are home to thriving startup ecosystems and we both have experienced how it is to work in a fast paced, exciting but also highly demanding and often extractive environment. We’ve been there. It’s normal to work overtime for startups that aim for a profitable exit as soon as possible. Startups need to grow fast, so there is enormous pressure to perform and to satisfy shareholder’s expectations. In this environment, it is easy to follow a definition of success that is based on the amount of funding, company growth, profitability or monthly salary. It’s easy because in the bubble I live in it’s normal.

It is also easy to lose sight of what truly matters. Dealing with the fact that we only have twelve years to prevent a disastrous 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming turns out to be facing a real predicament. Nobody, including our governments, has a clue on how to solve it. But rarely do we admit so. I often wish to create more impact myself because time is running out and it seems that all the small changes we try to make in our lives won’t add up to anything meaningful. We obviously need change on a global scale.

But on the other side, it reminds us to do the important work everyday. The work that is not related to our daily tasks. Our ToDo lists. This is not only envisioning a more sustainable economy overall (and how to get there) but also for ourselves. To not forget to look deeper and align our daily work with our very own values and beliefs.

©Cindy van Rees

As we discovered the triple bottom line “people, planet, profit”, we decided that this was our new guideline. We asked ourselves what future we want to live in and how we want to look back onto our lives. We believe, in most cases, people agree that life only feels meaningful when we have a sense of purpose. And purpose begins with being clear about our values and not about the amount of money we want to earn. Getting there, gave us an empowering sense of clarity and personally, I have never quite felt this kind of confidence ever before.

It is not that easy to liberate oneself from external influences though. It does take some practice. But with time “rebellious freedom” – our third core value – became a real habit. For us, rebellious freedom means we constantly challenge the conceptions we are surrounded with and that we dare to walk new paths to pursue our goals. We know when and where we are the best versions of ourselves and under which circumstances we do the best work. Ultimately, we take risks when the potential outcome serves to make the world a little better.

In April, I joined the movement Extinction Rebellion (XR), a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience that would transform the way we talk about the climate and ecological emergency and force governments all over the world to act. In a self-organizing system that is based on a decentral and non-hierarchical structure such as XR, taking action proactively is paramount.

To say as you do and to do as you say as well as “Act Now” – one of XR’s key messages – is at the core of which is why we adopted it as our fourth and fifth company value. It mirrors our approach to business perfectly. “Act Now” is not just referring to the underlying ticking clock but also the quality of the present, the momentum to be gained through action rather than just talking. It also reminds us to be more present, because we are so focused on the future anyway.

As Professor Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership and founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria, puts it: 

“I cannot honestly hope for a better future, so instead I’m hoping for a better present. I am earning less money and instead I am eating better and feeling better. I am not compromising my truth because I have nothing to lose. I am sleeping more, enjoying more and loving more. In this sense, my life is not doom and gloom. Instead, both doom and bloom are both part of my everyday experience.”

There’s lots to take out of this paragraph. Not to compromise on one’s truth… If there is one key message to take away from reading this, then it should be this. There is only one truth for each of us and finding it should be made a priority in a world in which we search for meaning and purpose. And this has nothing to do with sustainability, kindness, freedom or taking action. These are just our examples of values.

We believe that with challenging the status quo and being bold to head new paths – your path – we can help build the foundation for the needed transformation to happen. And I believe that this is actually easier than we think, if we just listen more closely to our heart.