Startup Service: Life-Transforming Questions For Entrepreneurs
Questions like "Who am I?" and "What is the real purpose of my life?" can evoke a wide spectrum of reflections because we live in the co-presence of two worlds, the inner and outer. Jacob Needleman in his book 'Money and the Meaning of Life' says: "Human being has two natures or aspects: a side that is meant to be engaged in activity in the world, making and doing, having a family, creating, building; the other side has to do with the spiritual, the transcendent, the relationship to God, one's deepest inner consciousness. Those two natures make up who we are. We are called on to find the relationship between these two opposing parts of ourselves, and to develop the kind of awareness that relates each to the other in a harmonious way.
Through his life and work, Vinoba Bhave became an inspiring example of how "All revolutions are spiritual at the source." He would say that all his outer work (including the Bhoodan Movement which resulted in 4 million acres of peaceful land-transer) was done with the sole inner purpose of achieving a union of hearts. He strongly believed that: "There is nothing so powerful as love and thought -- no institution, no government, no ism, no scripture, and no weapon. A deeper look at his life and work reveals that he laid an extraordinary emphasis on the purity of inner volition for the outer action. He also strived to maintain a state of effortlessness that comes when there is no/reduced sense of ego or doership.
Can we lead with love and inner transformation in all our work? When we look at the universal laws and truth about nature, we realise that love, compassion and generosity are natural and innate qualities of all human beings. Over three days at Startup Service, we hope to share our life's highest intentions and co-create support to bring them into action. Feeling called to join us? We are looking forward to hold space for collective wisdom to emerge and ripple out in the universe.
This was the core message in the invitation email that went out for Startup Service gathering in December 2015. Many responded with enthusiasm and a diverse set of 60 entrepeneurs from different parts of the world came together for 3 days to co-create a deeply profound experience for everyone. It was also the first time when half a dozen entrepreneurs from our online Laddership Circles had come together for a Startup Service gathering. And what a blessing it was to have Arun Dada among us, carrying a heart full of love and radiating wisdom from his experience of working closely with Vinoba Bhave.
The participants started arriving the day before and our volunteers were happy to stay up till 2 am making multiple trips to the airport and station for pick-ups. Our very own 'Amdavad No Rikshawalo' Uday bhai was also receiving participants early in the morning with a beaming smile in his gift-economy autorickshaw.
Day 1 – Sharing Our Highest Intentions
In the opening circle on Day 1, everyone was asked to share a quote or a passage or a song or a prayer that had inspired them and here’s a glimpse of what each one shared.
The anchors set the tone for the day by sharing inspiring stories of change makers leading with inner transformation – from social leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave to generosity entrepreneurs like Dr V and Ishwarbhai Patel. We then reflected on the evolution of ServiceSpace and the four key shifts in the context of entrepreneurship - moving from Consumption to Contribution, Isolation to Community, Transaction to Trust, and Scarcity to Abundance. We also looked into the origins of words like Philanthropy (Love for Humanity), Entrepreneur (One Who Undertakes Responsibility) and Business (Purposeful Activity) we realize that none of them had any reference to money or material development. When these terms were seen with the lens of Inner Transformation, we could see many new possibilities of bridging the Inner and Outer worlds.
Khushmita’s beautiful opening on Gujarat’s popular ‘Sanedo’ dance and relating it with the spirit of organising the Moved By Love retreats connected instantly and we had several rounds of spontaneous Sanedo dance moments throughout the event :)
Post the tea break, 21 participants came up and shared their intentions with everyone. After listening to each of them, the collective voted to select eight intentions to dive deeper over the next two days. Each participant made a choice as to which startup they’d like to join as a team member and work together over the next 2 days.
One of the selected teams was Wisdom Crafts led by Meghna and she chose to 'pay forward' her selection to another team that just missed the chance to make it and also gladly opted to support them as a team member. A couple of volunteers strongly felt that Abid Ali’s intention should also be included and there was a consensus to give his team a wild card entry. Unlike a competition based event, many smiles and hugs were exchanged as these decisions happened pretty spontaneously.
The teams were formed and everyone got down to work post dinner by collectively reflecting deeply on the questions framed in the Startup Service Canvas. It was around midnight and a bunch of volunteers from the organizing team were in a meeting to reflect on how things went through the day and to discuss improvisations for Day 2. In the process, each volunteer came up with a question they’d like to offer for reflection to all the participants: Are our designs mindful of multiple forms of capital? What are our creative constraints? How can we tap into many-to-many potential? Are we leading with inner transformation? Can we operate without an exit strategy? (That is, are you comfortable doing this project for as long as needed and which could also be forever?)How can we create value with whatever we have? What is our core purpose? Are we holding paradoxes? What will our experiment look like in 20 thousand years?
Day 2 – When I don’t know you, I serve you. When I know you, I am you.
On Day 2, these questions from the volunteers were presented along with a few inspiring stories. This was a powerful session and it nudged the participants to listen to their hearts and lead with inner transformation. The teams then spent the day diving deeper into the questions and exploring answers within the context of their startups. Some teams went out in the field visiting spaces and meeting mentors, practicing random acts of kindness on the streets etc. to get an experiential understanding of the projects. The transformation from isolation to community was visible with heartwarming stories and experiences shared by the participants during the team check-in.
Later in the evening, all of us headed out to Seva Café. Sheetal beautifully anchored the SpiriTED Talks of Bhaskar, Smitaben and Nimo along with some soulful songs sung by Arun dada and Vipul Rikhi. We returned around mid-night but the super charged teams regrouped again to work on their final presentations. The genius was flowing through as one team decided to use the format of a rehearsed skit to make a final presentation. Another team went out to serve tea post dinner to people on the streets to get a first-hand experience of what it feels like to serve together and plant seeds of kindness even if it meant facing rejection. They created a beautiful video overnight to share their experience on the streets.
One of the quiet highlights in this gathering was the floral rangolis. Whle décor has always been given special attention at all Moved By Love retreats, this time, it was extra special with a team of entrepreneurs in the financial services industry coming up with thoughtful and intellectual flower art :) Led by Rahul and Mihir, the team created a Yin-Yang on Day 1 to signify the balance we need to create for ourselves in the outer and inner worlds. The following day, the team came up with an Enso, which in Zen Buddhism refers to a circle hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brush strokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. Outside were symbols representing what each team would possibly take away from Startup Service – a set of deeper questions, a new direction and a resolve to lead with inner transformation.
It was beautiful to see how people who barely knew each other 24 hours ago were now sharing some of their life’s deepest intentions and dreams with each other. Even though each participant was assigned to one startup team, there was continuous cross-pollination happening across teams. Laughter, open-hearted sharing, deep listening, tears, hugs, brainstorming, collective meditation, expression through visual arts, music etc. and so many beautiful moments were seen spontaneously emerge as participants felt naturally motivated to support each other’s dream by offering unconditional support. We could experience what it means to serve each other in the spirit of oneness.
Day 3 – Putting It Out In The Universe
Day 3 began with teams preparing for the final presentation that would be made in the presence of mentors from the community. The energy in the room was palpable, filled with love, hope and enthusiasm. These presentations weren’t about winning any competition or trying to impress anyone, they were heartfelt sharings based on the new possibilities that emerged after a powerful experience of collaboration rooted in love and compassion. Here’s a summary of what each of the teams presented.
1. ‘TRIPEE’ - Anil Saldanha came in with his prototype of a low-carbon, pedal powered 1.5 T capacity vehicle vehicle for self-provision and entrepreneurship at the plinth of the pyramid. He wanted to examine various social enterprise models and was looking for co-developers, service partners, energisers and support. He received much more than what he had imagined! The reflections and teamwork at Startup Service made him ask deeper questions on why he is doing this project and it led to exploration of a gift based model in the spirit of pay-it-forward. His team enacted a skit to communicate the new business model rooted in the circle of love and compassion. Not only did the model change but the orientation itself - the thoughts came from an inner transformation now and the project seemed so much more valuable, quoted an overwhelmed and teary-eyed Anil.
2. ‘BOOKSHARE’ - The original model was to create an online platform where people could exchange books, in a transaction model that would be based on points system. During Startup Service, it shifted from transaction to trust based business model where people gift a book that inspired or transformed them, along with a letter for the next reader sharing how this book changed their lives -Wow! It transformed from being a mere exchange to a higher intention of connection of minds and hearts.
The project leads Pareen and Maansi said, they experienced a tremendous shift in mindset from ‘what if someone cheats’, to ‘just put it in the womb of universe and let it happen’. They were super excited about the project, which seemed so calling as a service rather than a startup now. Many ideas such as getting back to the author with these letters for closing the loop, allowing comments on softcopy of book, ‘bookmela’ etc. emerged. They already received few books and letters during the retreat itself. Pareen and team expressed gratitude for guiding them to a trust based path.
3. ‘LADDERSHIP IMMERSION’ – With an intention of holding space for deeper engagement, the team desiged a 30-day immersion that pairs Laddership Circle alumni with servant leaders in the Gandhi Ashram community who are ‘being the change’ in their local contexts. The team visited a couple of servant leaders and got a lot of clarity on the design of the program. One of the questions the team held was to find out how they could cater to mentor's needs but this question was dissolved when they realized that mentors were so glad to serve with no agenda or expectations and in-fact were looking forward to this opportunity to serve to deepen their own inner transformation.
During the final presentation, a question was raised - “As mentors will keep changing, how will you retain the same spirit?”, and the spontaneous response from Audrey was ‘By thinking small, strongly rooted in values, without having any agenda; when we leave the space for co-creation, the potential shall emerge from people’. The project seemed all set to be rolled off now, with enough clarity.
4. ‘CO-CONSTRUCTING PLAY OPPORTUNITIES’ – Nicole Sumner and her team reflected on the rise in educational testing and steady decline in playtime in our children's lives. What happens when we lose the ability to play? What is play's purpose? There are now many studies detailing the cognitive, social and physical detriments of a play-deprived childhood, and the effects of stress (and sometimes national policy!) on adults who do not have creative outlets for their free expression of play. They experimented with various games and explored various models to put play back in our lives, and justify its value to educational institutions, or even city planners.
During the retreat, Nicole felt overwhelmed with loving kindness and teared up when she shared that she was amazed to be in a country which showers love and spirituality. She realized that she was trying to heal herself through this project. She planned to offer this without worrying about transactions and beneficiaries going further, and just get engaged with a much deeper intent.
5. ‘SERVING SEEDS’ – Divyang and Veronica came in with the intention of creating a platform where service-oriented people can interact, request service actions or resources required, donors can make informed decisions, NGOs get access to volunteers etc. An online platform with a mobile app with would support quick contribution, communication and collaboration. During the gathering they realised that it was important for them to shift from a need-based charity mindset to offering in the spirit of service and inner transformation. They conducted an experiment by serving tea to strangers on the streets, singing songs with passers-by for couple of hours in the night and felt the beauty of true connection. They were grateful to have this realisation at the beginning of their journey and now feel that their journey would head in the right direction.
6. ‘EBHLE’ (Experience Based Holistic Learning Environment) – Hasmukh Sapnawala and his team reflected on the vision of EBHLE, which is to help children blossom into the talents that each one innately possesses and become positive contributing citizens of our universe. They dived deeper into how this will be facilitated - by creating, maintaining and continually enhancing an experience based holistic learning environment where all the 5 sense organs and 5 motor organs will be stimulated with nature as the guide. The learning will begin with research and end in facts. Each learner will play, learn, share and write their own text book. The principles of "Forgiving design" and "Go with the flow" will nurture creativity without fear and encourage learners to follow their passions with freedom that is balanced by responsibility and accountability. There were moments when the team really played the devil’s advocate and grilled Hasmukh on some areas. Hasmukh’s passion and convition was infectious enough to give his team confidence in his approach and there were also humbling ‘Aha’ moments when he discovered new insights from the team. Some of Hasmukh’s questions on funding and financial sustainibility changed radically. While he realised that it will take ‘a million small things to make it work’, he was now much clearer and felt very supported in taking the next steps.
7. ‘HAPPY FAMILY FOUNDATION’ – A few years ago, Chirag Shah conducted a workshop on parenting for his close friends and family members. Little did he know that it would turn into a non-profit organization that had offered guidance to hundreds of parents and over 150 of them chosing to be volunteers to carry these workshops ahead and pay it forward. They have been charging a nominal feel for the workshop and he came to startup service with an intention of exploring a gift-based model because their core intention was to serve. He gained solid insights on leading with inner transformation and offering it in the spirit of gift. Just a few days after the retreat he called for a meeting with the core team of 20+ volunteers of Happy Family Foundation, which was also attended by a few Startup Service volunteers. He shared with great pride that: “Many team members are inspired by the possibility of Pay it Forward. There are still concerns in some of the members but the biggest result of the meeting was that everybody is now clear that while doing outer contribution work, one should always focus on inner transformation. I am sure that most of us will be aware and check what is the ‘Bhav’(Intention) of whenever we assist (serve) in most of the time. I think, this awareness will do miracles internally and externally!”
8. ‘PEER WATER EXCHANGE’ – Rajesh Shah came with an intention to build an online database of Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) through crowdsourcing and make owners report on their own operations and that of their neighbors. He felt that by showcasing success stories, we will help fix non-performing STPs and convince people to build where they do not exist. During the retreat, Rajesh and his team realized the need of making heart-to-heart connections first. At the gathering he got so much support and an offer to implement an STP pilot in Hyderabad. He reflected that he has never seen so much support when he went with data and insights to appeal people’s mind. The project took a shift from a transactional approach to connection to community-led initiative.
9. ‘SUSTAINABLE LIVING’ – Abid Ali quit his job at Microsoft to live closer to nature and experiment with Permaculture, Baker Homes, Naturopathy, Solar Power, Environmental Sanitation etc. He came with an intent of creating a sustainable living community space that will attract many like-minded families and wanted ideas on giving shape to such a place. One of his biggest takeaways was to lead with inner transformation and not to focus too much energy and resources in creating a physical space with an expectation to attract community members, and instead start small by being the change and let the community emerge and evolve organically. He already has two families of friends with whom there is an alignment and are ready to move from big city life to a more naturally sustainable life. By the end of 3 days it was visible that his desire to draw people had already subsided and he felt confident to go ahead with living a life he feels called to and people who are moved and connect will come and join eventually, if they were meant to.
10. ‘WISDOM CRAFTS’ – Launched as an experiment in 2010, Wisdom Crafts are value-based products that are offered on a gift-economy basis -- where there are no prices and it is upto the buyers to reflect the value of each product and pay what they are inspired to offer. Meghna shared the journey so far and the future intent of making it a platform of inner and outer cultivation of values through the medium of arts and gifts. She connected with another participant Natasha Rockstrom’s venture Injoy Giving and they together created a plan offer priceless gifts. This happened in alignment with the larger intention to operate in a many-to-many model so that Wisdom Craft becomes an initiative that is co-created by a much wider community.
Give, Receive, Dance
All participants and guests were encouraged to support the startups with whatever they felt moved to offer. Someone offered their time and experience, someone offered material and financial resources, someone offered connections and introductions, someone offered words of inspiration and prayers. What was invaluable was the inner spirit, the maitri bhaav with which the offerings were made. It was visible that people were not counting or calculating while giving and receiving, it was coming straight from the heart. Each startup literally received a potful of offerings and support from the community in multiple forms of capital. In the end everyone gathered together for a 'Sanedo' dance and group hugs. Offering and receiving gifts at the kindness table, we came to the end of the retreat and beginning of beautiful relationships rooted in inner transformation.
“Gandhi Didn't Create the Movement. The Movement Created Gandhi.”
After the event, Nipun reflected that all too often we see money as wealth. Sure, money is an expression of wealth, but there are so many other forms of capital. Social capital, trust capital, nature's capital, subtle capital of love, cultural capital and so on. In today's society, changemakers typically start a labor of love project and only have one pathway for maturation -- financial sustainability. Are there other, perhaps far more robust, pathways to sustainability than financial markets? When St. Francis of Assisi declared, "It is in giving that we receive", is that just an approximation or is he proposing an alternative? When sixty changemakers came together for our third Startup Service retreat, to frame their individual projects in the light of these questions, the promise wasn't to arrive at conclusive answers, but rather to support each other (and society) in holding these important questions and other questions that were collectively raised by participants and volunteers during the event. By the third day, the transformations were profound! Anil (who presented an engineering innovation) turned his entire model around, from traditional entrepreneurship to a community based pay-it-forward approach; Aabid spoke eloquently about the shift from Microsoft to farming; the young film star, Divyang, candidly shared his journey from leading with need to leading with inner transformation. One participant, who runs a $26B business, declared his intention to volunteer for a month to cultivate a different form of capital. Another couple, who runs GAP for poverty elimination, is radically shifting their model to include "love". No one was trying to create these shifts, they simply emerged. I sense that's how it works for all great change in the world. Gandhi didn't create the field, but rather it was the field that allowed Gandhi to emerge. Our job, whether in times of Gandhi or any other time, is the same -- to live in deep alignment with our values.
Living Your Highest Intention
When we had begun with the intention for Startup Service in 2013, it seemed like an oxymoron to some people. A ‘startup’ is generally about creating a new organization to innovate a solution and making it a highly scalable business whereas ‘service’ (Seva) in its true spirit is given without any expectation of result or reward. We look at ‘Startup Service’ as an experiment to hold seemingly paradoxical questions with an intention that deeper inquiry of these paradoxes will eventually lead to alignment our inner and outer worlds. While science and spirituality offer various perspectives on the relationship between mind and matter, what remains in common is that love and generosity are natural and innate qualities of human beings.
What would the world look like if each one of us lived a life in full alignment with our highest values of Truth and Love? At the Startup Service gathering we could see a microcosm of what such a world would look like when we loved each other with an awareness of the Truth about our interconnection and oneness. We don’t know how far do these ripples of love travel and what transformation it brings in the world. We’ve also been told that all this sounds too idealistic given that the forces of greed and fear make us compete with each other instead of loving one another. Sceptics have arugued that this can work for a few days with a few people but then things go back to ‘normal’. Given the way our current financial and economic systems are structured, there are certainly many challenges on the surface to make this shift from competition to love. When we look deep inside, it’s very clear to us that living in accordance to the values of Truth and Love is the only way.
In the spirit of being the change we wish to see in the world, we choose to lead with love and inner transformation. We make mistakes, we learn, we evolve and in that process of evolution, Startup Service is a humble experiment to bring entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds together and hold space for a field of love, where people's minds and hearts can meet as one. We invite you to join the quest and live our highest potential.
(View full photo album)