Editor’s Note: Jess Porta is the chief strategist for Founded Communities and the former Executive Director at Raleigh Founded, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month.  In this column, adapted from an email sent by Raleigh Founded, which was reprinted by WRAL TechWire with permission, Porta discusses her departure from the organization and shares her perspective on the entrepreneurial economy of the Triangle. 

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RALEIGH – After seven of the most impactful years of my life, I am closing this incredible chapter with Raleigh Founded and opening a brand new chapter.

As Raleigh Founded celebrates its 10 year anniversary, this serendipitous timing is not lost on me. I’ve had months to comb over the data. To reflect on the 12 community spaces we opened across 6 cities; the thousands of entrepreneurs we worked with from over 500 companies; the hundreds of partners who stepped up to the plate to create meaningful resources and programming for our entrepreneurs. But what I have spent the most time trying to wrap my head around is the impact we’ve had on the community and this small role that I was given to play in the lives of many.

I could write a book of gratitude to the founders of Raleigh Founded for giving me this incredible opportunity; to Jason Widen, especially for seeing something in me worth nurturing and growing; to my team for supporting me along the way and always lifting me up. But I think what would be most meaningful to share publicly, are the lessons I’ve learned over the years as the leader of a community-based organization. And it seemed fitting to summarize those in line with Raleigh Founded’s core values.

Raleigh Founded has 6 core values: Be Authentic, Empower Others, Think Big, Drive Forward with Purpose, Embrace Diversity, and Leave the World Better Than You Found it. They sound simple enough, yet, it took me all of 7 years to understand them deeply. So let me save you a few years, and unpack those below, and share how I have seen the Raleigh Founded Community live into these values.

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Be Authentic

It’s difficult to say when we are being authentic because we all carry a public facade. We have to. It’s a survival instinct, I believe.  I have a baby and a toddler, and if I showed up as the truest version of myself every day, then a sour milk covered, messy mom bun touting, sleep-deprived, cranky witch would crawl into meetings every day and while that level of authenticity can be refreshing from time to time, I think you would all agree that in a leadership role, that might not be the best approach. So that’s not what I mean here.

Being authentic is not about sharing every aspect of your personal life with your employees, customers or partners, it’s about acting in ways that align with your values and doing the hard work of constantly checking in and re-aligning yourself and your team with those values. One of the best, and yet most challenging and uncomfortable ways of doing this, is by creating a culture where you set expectations and boundaries early on, and you revisit them in real time when those boundaries are crossed and those expectations are not met.

Brene Brown tells us that “unclear is unkind” and creating an environment where you are not open, upfront and honest about those things to save others feelings can quickly become inefficient and even toxic. Instead, create systems for communication that are built into your daily and weekly lives so that your team expects feedback of all kinds because they know that in a culture which values authenticity, open dialogue is just a part of maintaining the culture they love.

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Empower Others

As young professionals, we like to talk about the idea of empowering others publically, but sometimes, behind closed doors, we are scared to death to actually empower others in a meaningful way. Especially if you have come from a work environment or home environment that was not supportive, you may have it embedded in you that you must be responsible for your own achievements or they are not your own. You also might think about how shining a spotlight on others could take away from your own light. But as leaders, nothing could be less true.

Raleigh Founded embraces this value in a way I have never seen and it comes from the top down. Have you ever had one of those meetings where other people are talking the whole time, you are nodding your head and smiling but you can’t get a word in edgewise because no one made the space for you to speak or you are not in an important enough position to speak?  I have too. I’ve worked in toxic environments in the past.  But I have never had that experience at Raleigh Founded. I was utterly shocked the first few times that Liz or Jason invited me into a meeting that I had no business being a part of and then in parts of that meeting would literally stop the conversation, explain my role and value to the partner in the meeting, and then make space to get my feedback. This is one of the most meaningful ways to empower your team.

I have also seen this play out within our entrepreneurial community among competitors. We all share an ecosystem and at the same time, many of us are competing over the same resources. The old school way of doing things is to ignore and out-do your competitors. But the Raleigh Way is much more exciting. I have lived in other cities and consulted with dozens of ecosystems and everyone wants to know our recipe for success. What makes Raleigh unique? What makes Raleigh Founded successful? And the wild thing is that it’s just our collaboration. And when I start to talk about it, I see people’s eyes glaze over because it sounds too good to be true, like I’m making it up. But being able to find ways to work with your competitors is a game changer! Raleigh Founded has done programming and created partnerships with the other coworking communities in the Triangle and the overall benefits far outweigh the pains of shining a spotlight on others because now, every success for your community can be a success you both share. Collaboration is essential to startups and it creates a greater good for your customers and for the whole community regardless of what industry you are in.

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Think Big

Initially I didn’t connect with this value because I didn’t understand it. It sounds too simple and yet unattainable: “Think Big”  “You’re just not thinking big enough.” However, the reason I felt this way was because I had my own biases about success and failure and what it means to think big.

Like many of us, I had constructed some pretty harsh definitions of success and failure: Success, being something really high up and unattainable; like being a Fortune 500 company, an extremely high paying job, or being recognizably famous. And failure meaning bankruptcy, losing your family and your home, falling deep into the trenches of depression and darkness, never to reemerge from your complete and utter failure.  But the truth is that we succeed and fail every day. Our whole lives are made up of tiny successes and failures. If you have ever spent an hour with a toddler, you know precisely why I’m right. Because within the course of a few moments you can mentaly go from a total achievement high to an utter meltdown low just based on a small task or someone’s feedback. The only difference in successful entrepreneurs or leaders, is the ability to be resilient and create systems that support resilience for your team which embrace failure as a learning moment. Ed Catmul, President of Pixar Animation and author of Creativity Inc. tells us:  “to be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.”

So thinking big is not about exponential growth, it’s a mindset shift around risk and failure and as a leader, it’s about creating a culture where you encourage people to fail as fast as they can, so that they can: learn from the data gathered in that failure, pivot, and keep moving toward that north star. For some people, the north star is a $1 billion dollar company and for others its financial independence. Don’t worry about what “big” means to others, it’s your life and your company and as long as you create the space for your team to contribute to your vision, and ultimately your success, then you are able to Think Big.

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Drive Forward with Purpose

My background is in human rights. It always surprises people when they find out that I have my Masters in International Studies, did my capstone on genocide, and spent the better half of a decade working with survivors of human trafficking, torture, and trauma. I’ve always held tightly onto this value: drive forward with purpose, because to me, life is all about connecting with your purpose and mine has always been to help others. But for a long time, I didn’t make the connection between the innovation ecosystem and the impact we could have on the world.

Coming out of the nonprofit world, I was a bit jaded to be honest. I saw a lot of people doing great work, but I also saw a lot of toxic competition between non-profit organizations that were supposed to be working to serve a population but were instead so focused on fighting over resources that they end up detracting from their own mission. Then I joined Raleigh Founded and at first, I thought I was moving away from my purpose because no one was out there doing charity work and everyone was focused on growing their companies and making money. But once again, I had misjudged this community. This community is in fact filled with innovators who live at the intersection of innovation and public service. Entrepreneurs like Maggie Kane, who rose to a specific challenge, under conditions of extreme uncertainty and were able to do good in the community and solve a problem, but do it in a way that collaborates with other nonprofits and uses a business model to enhance self-sufficiency. And while Maggie might be a shining example in this community, there are literally hundreds of examples of entrepreneurs who are, yes, working to be successful and grow their businesses to profitability, but are also doing so with the passion, purpose and intention of lifting others up within their community.

As a leader of an organization, leaning into this value is easier than you think. Jim Whitehurst, former CEO of RedHat, spells this out in his book the Open Organization. If you want to be successful as a business, you have to connect your team with the “why” and then they will do the work of coming up with the “how” because they are so bought into the mission that it will be their purpose in work and in life to achieve it. So as leaders, you just need to get the right people in the right places and connect them to their purpose in their company.

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Embrace Diversity

Raleigh Founded originally only had five core values, but the founders believed that we were not being intentional enough about diversity. And they were right. Five years ago, I would say that while we had a dynamic community of innovators and changemakers, it was an incomplete picture. Because we initially focused on supporting high growth tech start-up companies, we did not have a lot of diversity in the community, both in terms of demographics but also socio-economic status and industry, which we quickly found to be essential to building out an inclusive ecosystem.

The lesson learned here is really about good intentions vs acting with intentionality. I’ve shared this before, but when we did add that final core value “Embrace Diversity” we planned a press release, hosted an event, and called the community together to celebrate how we were ready to embrace diversity. And guess what? We had about two people of color in the entire audience. I’m laughing about it now because it’s so obvious, but we just didn’t get it at the time. We opened the door and said “come on in!!” but we didn’t change a single thing and we didn’t meet anywhere where they were at. We invited them to the party but didn’t ask them to dance. After listening to people from the community who we were trying to connect with, it became clear that we needed to do the hard work of creating spaces and programming that actually created value for and met the needs of female entrepreneurs and business leaders of color. Which is a lot harder work but it’s the only way you can ever say that you are truly embracing diversity. And to Embrace Diversity also means that your definition of diversity and inclusion needs to change, grow and adapt as we learn more about diversity, ableism, neuro-diversity, and racial equity. It’s not good enough to create a static policy that meets standards at any given time. You must constantly listen to the communities that need their voices heard and keep asking what you can do better.

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Leave the World Better Than You Found It

Leaving the world better than you found it means living into all of those values listed above and more. It means connecting so deeply with yourself that you understand your unique impact on the world both positive and negative, and you work constantly to tip the scales.

At Raleigh Founded, we’ve worked tirelessly to maintain our B Corp certification. What many people don’t realize is that in the state of North Carolina, B Corporations carry no official status or tax related benefits. Which means that if you do not really embrace this value, the work we are doing is pointless. Why bother to purchase recycled paper, pay extra money each month for composting services, pay your employees for volunteering in the community, or donate events or memberships?

Doing the right thing as a business is a recurring expense. And as a startup fighting to obtain or maintain profitability, it’s a tempting one to cut. But I have worked for Raleigh Founded for over seven years now, and this can sum up why. As a society, we are not leaving the world better than it was. We are harming the environment and each other more and more as the days pass. The impact we are having on the world is like a raging river moving powerfully in one direction and for us to even have a shot at damning that river, much less shifting the earth enough to change the direction, then we need to work tirelessly in our own rights to stack those sticks up one by one. Even if you don’t see the change.

I have been so grateful and so humbled to have worked in an organization who saw its ability to Leave the World Better Than They Found it by creating an environment that embraces diversity, drives forward with purpose, thinks big, empowers others, and is authentic to itself and the community it serves. I won’t pretend Raleigh Founded is a nonprofit organization out to change the world, but it is a company, created by innovators who are committed to systemic change. That’s the truth. I know this because I have had the honor and privilege of seeing the founders, and this team, and the members of this community live out those values first hand as if they were their own values.

Next month I move into my next chapter. I am joining forces with another incredible organization who is out to leave the world better than they found it: GreenPlaces. GreenPlaces helps companies reduce their environmental impact and reach sustainability goals. I’m excited to dive in and bring all of my lessons and values with me, and to continue to contribute to this incredible community.

So it is not goodbye (literally, I’ll be working right upstairs in the Warehouse and we can have coffee anytime), but it is a moment of change and a moment to reflect and learn. I’m so grateful for this community. Especially to our members and partners. You made every day exciting and challenged me and the team to create new programs and resources to meet you where you were at in your own journeys. Thank you for letting me be a part of your journeys and your lives. I am eternally grateful for these gifts I have been given and I will be working the rest of my life to be worthy of them.

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