Regenerating the environmental economy, one spiritual entrepreneur at a time

Etsy.com recently went public as a stock and corporation. On its way to even greater monetary success, it gave birth to Etsy.org, a non-profit that joins the e-commerce website for creative entrepreneurs in becoming a different kind of business. 

My congregation became involved with Etsy in November when the Schumacher Center for a New Economics held its annual lecture in our meeting room at Judson Memorial Church here in New York City. Matt Stinchcomb of Etsy.com was the speaker. He gave us a lot to think about.

[Watch Matt Stinchcomb’s speech here]

We have long wondered what we could do to be more creative environmentalists. We wanted to do more than march and protest; we wanted to build. We wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem. We wanted to build both a new economy and a new environment.

Matt and I met several times after the lecture and realized that we had a lot in common. We had a gleam in our eyes about how jobs could be more than “just jobs,” and instead become vocations. We also had similar brands: We say at Judson we are “a church that is a little bit different, committed to making a big difference”; Etsy.com said it was “business unusual.”

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Next thing I knew we were writing a mission statement together for Etsy.org and launching the first cohort to train regenerative leaders, or spiritual entrepreneurs. You can apply to be a part of the first cohort of regenerative leaders or spiritual entrepreneurs at Etsy.org. The deadline is Aug. 24. 

The mission is to educate entrepreneurs in ways that develop the human capacity, convey the wisdom, evoke the insights and foster the community needed to build regenerative businesses. (Churches like mine that understand that prayer is about our feet and hands as well as our knees love these kinds of words.)

That density of mission may need a little unpacking. Each word matters. Each word attends the leadership crisis that joins the environmental crisis. How can we build an economy that will be sustainable? How? We will have to learn how; we weren’t born knowing how.

Developing a mission statement is mostly a matter of putting our hopes on a diet and putting them into humble, manageable form. You can’t just create a new way of doing commerce or redistribute money to working people or even create heaven on earth. You can do your part of each of those; a mission statement identifies which portion you will love onto your plate.

Writing the new Etsy.org mission statement involved all these boilerplate mission statement challenges, but it also had a little magic to it.

Maybe it was Matt’s father’s thesaurus that made its way into our conference room. It was so much better that the online ones we had been using. Maybe it was the ease with which three people who didn’t really know each other very well traded words and ideas and misgivings and “aha” moments. Erica Dorn, executive director for the project, joined us. Mostly, we had fun around the verbs. We felt a little spiritually pregnant.

“Evoke” got everybody going. We loved it and were provoked by it. Evoke made the tilt toward the more spiritual in the entrepreneurial. It had a bold hope that human beings have what it takes to create new commerce and “all” we had to do was tend it and evoke it. It also tilted us toward emerging human capacity and against us being “just” another training institution for entrepreneurs who want to make money. (Nothing wrong with money as long as it regenerates.)

We knew we had three non-negotiable in the mission statement. One was that the person was as transformed as the product. By regenerative businesses, we meant regenerating the business maker and the business -- both, not either. The second was that we wanted to recognize wisdom as well as skill. We wanted doing and being to shake hands. The third was that Etsy.com would be almost as happy with it as we were.

There was a fourth matter that we wanted, which was acknowledgement of regeneration businesses as place-based and as relying on good old evolutionary theory. The business adapts to the environment and then the environment adapts to the business and then the cycle repeats. The person involved morphs just as much, responding, adapting, and changing, right down to the bones or the genes. 

We wanted to name ecological interdependence as a kind of pedagogy or way of learning. This “fourth” just didn’t fit until we realized that building regenerative businesses is fundamentally ecological and evolutionary. Saying the word “regeneration” implies evolution, place, adaptation and ongoing cycles of learning. The learning doesn’t stop -- it cycles.

The pedagogy will invite regenerators to redefine the meaning of success. Regenerators will go to the places that scare or depress them. The process of regeneration will give permission to despair and harness the energy of despair. Much of commerce, it seems, has come to an ecological and environmental and economic dead end. Wisdom starts there.

We don’t need more knowledge; we need more wisdom. Wisdom involves unlearning as well as learning. These are partners, not enemies. Learning apprentices itself to wisdom about who we are in a place and what the place is -- both, not either. Learning will do and doing will learn. 

Capacity will be evoked and regenerated. These are the big ideas that will form the small practice of regenerating businesses, one by one, person by person. That other spacious verb, “foster,” will show up in community, as well.

Spiritual entrepreneurs and regenerative leaders are as important as solar engineers and car manufacturers to the future of the planet. Maybe you already are one. Or maybe you’d like to become one, one spiritual entrepreneur at a time.

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