In the first of 3 bonus, bite-sized episodes, JP talks to Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green, about how she is changing the world by being a 'cultural translator' - someone who brings different classes, races, ideas together to create a more equitable, sustainable and just world.
This episode was recorded on-location at WEF 22 in Davos!
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: From the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, welcome to a special bite sized episode of the Positive Leadership podcast. I’m Jean-Philippe Courtois, JP.
We hear a lot about how terrible the world is today, from the devastating impact of climate change to the coronavirus pandemic, the fuel crisis and income inequality. For years, problems of this scale were left to governments and international organizations to solve. But for more than 50 years, NGOs and CEO leaders have been coming together here at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in collaboration for action.
CHERYL DORSEY: For so many of us who don’t know what Davos is, to really experience firsthand to sort of deconstruct the myths from the reality, I think is very important. And I don’t know about you, Jean-Philippe, but what I found here in the day and a half in Davos is it’s truly about connection. It’s about drawing one another in, which I think is lovely.
Hi, my name is Cheryl Dorsey. I am president of Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that supports merging social entrepreneurs.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Cheryl has spent over 20 years trying to mainstream the role of international social change leaders and to make the field of social innovation as inclusive as possible. An African American woman has served in two years’ presidential administration. She’s president of Echoing Green, that’s invested over $50 to help more than 800 changemakers kickstart their ideas. She has launched so many things that have made a difference in the world, investing intellectual as well as financial capital and really putting so much into her leadership position. It is really a huge privilege and honor to have her on the podcast.
CHERYL DORSEY: Jean-Philippe, I am so honored and happy to be with you. I should tell you that my mother was a French teacher and my name means, as you know, dear in French. So thank you so much for having me. I feel like we’re old friends already.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Thank you for such wonderful, perfect pronunciation of my first name. First time ever. Usually people call me JP, so that’s wonderful. Before diving into the work of Echoing Green, I’d like to talk to you about how you carved out your own path. I think you’re an incredible pedigree. A medical degree from Harvard Medical School, a master’s in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School and many more. You could have chosen to pursue a very lucrative career and yet, you choose to follow the path of social justice and social innovation. Why, Cheryl? Why that choice?
CHERYL DORSEY: Jean-Philippe, that is the big question.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Of course, the why. Always the why.
CHERYL DORSEY: It is always the why. In my own life, I think there’s an interesting tension and interplay between expectation and passion. So coming of age as a young African American, education was the vehicle that my parents said would set and chart my course for the rest of my life. Because I was good at math and science, early on there was an exception that I would become the first doctor in the family. My mother was a guidance counselor so she counseled me through my high school and college years. But as I became more exposed to the world, I became really fascinated by a fundamental question that I think a lot of African Americas ask. When you look at how we’re viewed in society, from the time I was a child, Jean-Philippe, the question was why don’t people like me matter? And it became sort of the animating question that consumed me in school. I wanted to study it. I wanted to understand the sociology of it, the politics of it. But then there became a real zeal and commitment to trying to do something about it. How do we dismantle that system of caste or inherited hierarchy in order to make the world more just, equitable, and sustainable for all. And that’s the journey I’ve been on ever since.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Let’s talk back in 1992, I think, very early in your career, you decided to actually act on some of those issues and to become what you call a social entrepreneur yourself. I think with the help of funding from Echoing Green, actually, you launched the Family Van, a community based mobile health unit in Boston. What was the problem that you saw that led you to do that, which was the problem you’re trying to solve, and what kind of transformative innovative solutions did you come up with? I’m kind of almost like interviewing you a few years after for the section process of Echoing Green, Cheryl. Tell me the pitch.
CHERYL DORSEY: Absolutely. And it’s so nice to be on this side of it, Jean-Philippe. I’m a lot less stressed now that I got the funding from Echoing Green to begin my career in social innovation. In the early 90’s, as you mentioned, I was in medical school in Boston at Harvard Medical School. And there was a seminal article in our paper of note, The Boston Globe, called “Birth in the Death Zones” that looked at the rate that Black babies were dying in intercity Boston relative to their white counterparts. And the rate was a three to one disparity. Three to one, Jean-Philippe. And that’s horrific and inequitable enough, but the fact that it was happening in the vicinity of some of the world’s best medical facilities, Mass General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s, New England Deaconess, seemed unconscionable to me. In many ways, social innovation is what is that problem that you cannot turn away from? What is your problem to own? You want to talk about an ownership society, we should say what is your problem? What is that thing you will bleed for, the hill you will die on? And for me, it was looking at women who could have been my sister, my cousin, my best friend, and thinking of what might it mean to have to bury your baby before the first year of life? And again, it was something that was a calling. I couldn’t turn away from it. So I was fortunate to link arms with the woman who would become one of my dearest friends, my mentor, Nancy Oriol, who was an obstetric anesthesiologist who was equally moved as an African American woman, by this issue. And we agreed to figure out what we could do. I think our transformative solution you can tick off in three ways. At the time, many people were not talking about cultural competency in medical care. So how do we get underneath medical disparity. So I think that was one innovation. Number two, what about trusting people and believing them? We defer to community wisdom. And I think last but not least, this notion, which is what social innovation is all about, how do you blur boundaries and bring together different sectors? Academia, business, civil society, in a way that creates new and shared public value? And in many ways, Nancy and I saw ourselves as the bridge between the assets of Harvard Medical School and Harvard University, and the community, which had another set of assets but there was not enough cross talk. So I think that connective tissue is one of the innovations that we brought to bear through the Family Van.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Wonderful. I think I would bet on you again 20 years after.
CHERYL DORSEY: Thank you.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: That’s wonderful. Cheryl, you’ve done a fantastic job diversifying the voices in social innovation space and bring new voice in the movement. I understand that over the past decade 75% of your US fellows were leaders of color. About 50% of your fellows identify as women and 75% of your fellows are of the community they serve. How did you make it happen to get it going where there it is more natural and gives more opportunity, again, for all communities that should be represented?
CHERYL DORSEY: The first thing I’ll say is that Echoing Green is unique relative to some of our other social innovation counterparts in that at its very founding, it was founded at the nexus of social justice and social innovation. So built into our DNA was this notion of justice and really going after structural inequities. The second thing I will say is that we have worked very hard to be a fellow first community. We are by, for, of our fellows. I am an Echoing Green fellow who is now on staff of Echoing Green. We have board members who are Echoing Green fellows and they are our greatest source of accountability and oversight. And I think that makes us a dynamic, committed, community that’s really focused on equity and inclusion. And then the last thing is we believe deeply in proximate talent and next generation leadership. We believe they know better than we do. So inviting them in, if they can make their case to us, we will defer always to this talent. We’re also lucky that now with a community of 800 or so fellows, they’re our best ambassadors. They’re such bright spots and sticky. Jean-Philippe, they’re bringing in –
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: The referral.
CHERYL DORSEY: Exactly. I also think we have spent 30 years now building last mile distribution channels into communities so we get these early stage leaders. And then last, quickly, I’ll say our selection process, and we’ve worked hard and it’s a work in progress –
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: This is one of the hardest things to do I think in centralization, is selection process.
CHERYL DORSEY: Isn’t it? I agree. And I think we’ve done a really good job of creating one of the most equitable selection processes that I’ve seen. Our call for application is completely open. The first phase is completely blind. We scrub pedigree. We try to get out of accumulated advantage. And we actually work with one of our fellows, Anu Gupta, who runs a wonderful company called Be More America, who looks at the science of bias. He does anti-bias training with our judges and our fellows. And I think through all of those things, we built a best in class sourcing and selection capability.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I love it. And there’s so much I can learn from it myself. Cheryl, as you may know, we share that together something in common with you, which is my foundation called Live For Good. And of course, I have much less history than you do. We started that seven years ago. Now we have a community of 300 interpreters. What I found hardest is exactly as what you discussed, is to get the most inclusive process to make sure we can get use from all walks of life, as we call it. And really get to understand and assess the vibrancy in that talent and a passion and the relationship they have which is the code they want to embrace. I’m quoting in my philosophy positive leaders. That’s why I invited you in the first place, Cheryl, because I think you are a wonderful, positive leader, role model... for my podcast. I’d like to ask you the question, you already addressed some of that in your previous comments, what is it that you try to find when interviewing and connecting with these potential intergenerational positive leaders who are going to launch the next family vans of 2022, 2023? What is it that you are looking for into those talents?
CHERYL DORSEY: We have leadership qualities that we look for. And then looking at the business plan or proposal, we heavily weight the leadership qualities way higher.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I’m with you, actually.
CHERYL DORSEY: Oh, good. I’m so glad. Yes, leadership first. We see thousands of business plans every year, Jean-Phillipe. And you get very good at pattern recognition. And even though these social entrepreneurs work all over the world in many different categories of change, they have some sort of common characteristics. On is in, you know this because you’ve talked about it, the role of passion. It’s that catalytic fuel that keeps us going every single day and protects us when all of the knocks come. The second thing, and you said this as well, resilience. Failure is inherent to the work of entrepreneurship and we don’t care that you fail. We want care how you get up and continue on. So that path of resiliency and endurance and perseverance. There’s a quality that we coined at Echoing Green called resource magnetism. It is a different thing than charisma. It is the stickiness of the leader. The resources that most social innovators have is so small relative to the scale of the problem. They achieve scale often by making evangelists of their cause. How do you draw in money, volunteers, media, support? And they’re the stickiest leaders I’ve ever met in my life. So those are some of the qualities we look for. And I have to say, it is highly correlated with the success of their enterprises.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Shifting to the reality of the world today, Cheryl, as well, we see as we are discussing together, high inflation coming up in the US and Europe and the rest of the world, maybe a fast coming recession as well, startups having more and more challenge to raise money in the US and Europe and the rest of the world. And I know that by design, it’s even harder for social entrepreneurs in the first place to access funds. What are your recommendations for listeners and for all those changemakers in the world to be able to track the right investment these days, to fund their passion for social innovation and change? And particularly, you mentioned it, right, in a place like Davos, what can you appeal as well to the corporate world, to the business community, in a meaningful way to drive that win-win partnership with that basically changemakers community?
CHERYL DORSEY: I think it’s very hard to raise money. I’ve been in this work for a really long time. Echoing Green is quite good at what we do. We still struggle to raise money. So just acknowledging that you are not alone in this journey I think helps and makes the journey a little less lonely. The second thing that I will say is figuring out how to tell your story in a way that finds the right partners. I also think there is a role for market makers like Echoing Green to try to fix those structural inequities that don’t make enough capital products or enough capital available to social innovators. So for example, we are soon to be launching a new social innovation finance lab that’s looking at a capital stat, a blended finance menu that we can offer to early stage social innovators so they’re not so hamstrung by only one instrument. So what about philanthropic grants alongside recoverable grants, alongside equity investments, revolving loans. So if we could increase that suite for social entrepreneurs... Right. It’s the next rung of the ladder that the social innovation field has to climb. And as for corporates, if corporates can truly see social innovators as key stakeholders, thinking about how it will help drive your business objectives, I think is a mindset shift that corporates need to take into account.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I’m fully along with your views, Cheryl. I think in many ways corporates can learn so much from the social consciousness but also social innovation in a very tangible way from social entrepreneurs. So I look forward to supporting your efforts and others in that field. My very last question, Cheryl, which I think is at the core of my attempt with this podcast, what are your special powers that enable you to unlock the potential of so many changemakers around the world? What are those powers that you can share with all of our listeners?
CHERYL DORSEY: Oh my goodness. What a final question, Jean-Philippe, but thank you. My superpower is I am a cultural translator. So what does that mean? And again, if you looked at my business card you would see that I was a doctor. You would see that I’m a nonprofit executive. But no, I’m really a cultural translator. I’m an African American woman who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland, one of the first neighborhoods in my city to desegregate and allow my parents to buy a home. So I grew up celebrating Christmas but equally celebrating Hannukah with my Bubby and Zadie. I also played violin in the high school orchestra and spent my afternoons playing Bach, Vivaldi, but running home at the advent of the creation of rap and hip hop. I was listening to Sugar Hill Gang, Run DMC, and I was obsessed and it was my life. It was important to me to hold both of these together. And then last but not least, I spent as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, was afforded the opportunity to go to Harvard University, one of the most important academic institutions in the world, and I spent my mornings there but would often cross the railroad tracks to go over into communities in Boston to be in community. And I have to say, I felt equally comfortable in both. Again, as a translator, I diffused between ecosystem, between systems and shared information across those divides, translate to the best of my ability. And it has come into what I do for a living. I now diffuse between Wall Street and Main Street. And again, that level of comfort and facility, I hope, is bridging some divides and allowing resources to flow more equitably. And I think that’s why I’ve come into the world of social innovation and I think that’s why I’m good at it because I just have this particular skillset. And I think it’s a wonderful and noble calling and I’ll look forward to passing the baton to folks who are more energetic, younger, and smarter. But I feel like at the end of the day, I ran the race as best I could.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It’s been fantastic. It’s been such a pleasure to meet you, Cheryl. As you just talked about this very special power you have as a cultural translator, it made me think about the power of positive leadership because I’ve been trying to shape nine powers. But I think I may need to add a tenth one, cultural translator, now in my mix. Because you made it very unique, very special and I think there’s so much truth in what you said. Being someone able to capture the insights as well, the inner innovation of different communities, different people coming together, different stakeholders, to out-innovate and out-innovate for the benefits of the people. It’s been a deep, deep pleasure, Cheryl and I look forward to partnering with you as well Echoing Green, to continue and get your interpreters to achieve more for the benefits of all. Thank you so much.
CHERYL DORSEY: Thank you.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You’ve been listening to the Positive Leadership podcast with me, Jean-Philippe Courtois, JP. If you have enjoyed this episode, then leave us a rating and subscribe now wherever you get your podcast. Goodbye.