At the end of the fourth week of classes at The Watson Institute I have to pause and reflect how time is a weird substance. Four weeks have flown by but the experience has felt like a four-month journey. I’m sure some of you might be curious about exactly what I’m up to after crowdfunding my way to get here, but I think I wouldn’t do justice to try and explain it all. And if you’re thinking of starting your own social enterprise I really think the only solution would be for you to apply to come and experience it yourself. It might be a bit premature for me to make claims that it’ll change your life, so in spite of what I literally just said two sentences ago, I’ll still try explain the three things that have made the experience great so far to try to inspire you to put in your own application.
First and foremost the people you meet make coming all the way here worth it. This ranges from the people at Watson, to the mentors we all get assigned, to the people of the incredible city of Boulder where we are based.
Watson has this great value that they have now brainwashed us with (I think it’s for the better) and that is to think about “The Return on Relationships” (similar to how investors think of “Return on Investment”). People you meet, be it randomly at the supermarket or one of your classmates, will be the ones who one day help you make a success of what you’re doing so the best thing you can do is treat everyone equally well, give first (I’d highly recommend reading Adam Grant’s book, Givers and Takers related to this) and always “assume positive intent”.
Our cohort has 27 people from 20 different countries and the course has been designed to carefully, deliberately and very quickly bring this diverse group of characters together in ways that I don’t think I’ve experienced before in any group setting. From team tasks in the city to rough camping in the woods (with a spade and a soft patch of earth for a toilet) the program has helped many of us dive into some big talk and gain new perspectives on the world.
All the Watson scholars have been assigned mentors who are mainly based in Boulder. Many of them have their own businesses and they all have a wealth of experience to share with us. I have been paired up with a marketing guru who’s worked with brands like Nike and Levis, and a wonderful lady who started her own clothing brand here in America. It’s really incredible to get professional insight into what we’re doing at Zimbowties and all our mentors have incredible networks of experts whose help is priceless.
Boulder itself is a special place with an amazing startup and tech scene. I’m starting to lose track of all the interesting folk I’m bumping into. You can literally find yourself chatting to a self-made millionaire and not even realise it. The “give first” mentality applies in Boulder too and it’s amazing how eager people are to connect with you and help you out. I’m a bit worried about becoming too adjusted to life in this bubble, but I hope that I can take some of the great lessons I’m learning to wherever I end up next.
What we’re actually learning
The second reason you should come to Watson is for what they actually teach you. We’ve got some brilliant facilitators (they use this term rather teachers as the idea is that they facilitate our self-driven learning rather than spoon feeding us information) and the structure of the course is really interesting. So when I’m not meeting people and actually getting down to learning I’ve found it really engaging.
Each week has four main activities.
The first is what they call Transformative Entrepreneurship where we actually get taught some of the hard skills of starting up a business. They subscribe to a combination of Lean Startup and Design Thinking methods, both of which I love and have learned about before. The beauty of both of these methods is that they are iterative and they get you to test your ideas and assumptions over and over again, as quickly as possible. So going through this process again has not been a waste of time but a natural part of what I try to do at Zimbowties and highly valuable to repeat again to obtain new insights from the great people I’m meeting.
The second activity in our week is committed to Transformative Action. This is more about our own personal development. I like to think about it as the ways we can upgrade our brain’s software. When you’re trying to start up something you often fail, fail, fail and fail some more. This can get you down or build you up as you gain new insights into what you’re trying to do and how you understand yourself and your venture. The Transformative Action class is key to supporting a positive outcome of what can sometimes seem like a thankless struggle when things aren’t going your way (The idea of Transformative Action is built upon the work of Scott Sherman and I’d highly recommend reading this article by him)
The third activity of each week is called Lab and just like in a science class we experiment with some of the tools we’ve learned to test our business idea assumptions. It’s this hands-on approach of immediately using what you learn that might make the Watson model so engaging and I think effective. No tests just use-it-or-lose-it!
Finally each week we have a Master’s course with some badass person who’s smashing it at the game of life. We have these on a Friday afternoon, typically my least favourite day to be trying to learn new things, but in this setting it’s a quite the opposite and it’s such a motivating way to end off a week. This week we had a talk from Hunter Lovins who was once named a “Hero of the Planet” by Times Magazine. She’s probably one of the most inspiring speaker that I’ve heard talk about sustainability and looking after the planet. A healthy balance of doom and gloom and a let’s fix this attitude. Apparently, she’s just published her 800th book( not really, only 12th!) and it might be worth checking out (here’s a link).
Beyond the great people and the classes, the third reason you should come to Watson is the city of Boulder. It’s glorious! In some ways it’s very similar to Mutare, the city I come from: a smallish population of 100 000 people, everything is within a ten-minute drive, and it has lots of mountains all around. In other areas though, I’m afraid Mutare has a long way to go and experiencing Boulder has given me a lot of inspiration about what a small city can be like.
Firstly, I have to confess my nerdiness and say that my favourite part of town is the Boulder Library. It’s a beautiful building that straddles the little creek that runs through town, it has a maker space, it has a cafe, it has an art gallery, it has audio-books that I can download to listen to at home, it has beehives, it might just be heaven!
There are also amazing hikes around Boulder, some up the Flatirons that are just outside our back door at the historic Colorado Chautauqua where we are housed.
Finally, if you’re tired of nature and small city vibes you can pop across to the nearby Denver which is a bit bigger with a population of 700 000 people and also has a crazy startup and tech scene. There are amazing restaurants, cool events and lots of interesting neighborhoods to explore. My favourite find there so far is the Book Bar. Because why not combine a library and a bar?!
Seriously though, if you’re looking at starting your own social enterprise or you are already starting a social enterprise and you wanna level up your game, you need to apply to Watson. The great people you meet, what you actually learn and the place all combine into what promises to be an incredible experience.
Sound good? Start your application here today!