The founder first approach: “As a founder, YOU are your startup.” The Biomimicry Institute helps startup founders challenge themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally by taking them to camp (literally). Read about how this approach helps to unlock creativity, tap into next-level networking connections, and expand opportunities for business that would have otherwise been missed.
Before I became an engineer, startup founder, and eventually the Director of Innovation at the Biomimicry Institute, I was a summer camp counselor. Every summer for three years I would live and work at a 300-person summer camp in the beautiful Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. This was a formative period of my life where I learned to value servant leadership, natural stewardship, and the power of being fully immersed in nature.
In particular, I fell in love with helping campers challenge themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally. It was always incredibly inspiring to see children conquer their fear of heights on the climbing tower, build life-long friendships with fellow campers, and their awe of sleeping under the stars in the Milky Way for the very first time. By placing these campers in positions that were a little bit scary and uncomfortable, we helped them realize that they are capable of continual self-growth by overcoming fears in a safe and supportive environment.
Now as someone who supports and funds nature-inspired startups solving systemic social and environmental issues, we at the Biomimicry Institute are bringing startup founders, scientists, and CEO’s back to camp for these very same reasons!
Imagine you are a startup founder, around 35 years old with a spouse and newborn at home. During the day, you are working to develop your technology, complete paid pilots, and secure the next round of funding. Because you have a solution to a pressing environmental challenge, you feel added stress because the stakes are so high. At home you are striving to be the best partner and parent you can be. Every day there is a ton of learning happening, but unfortunately not a lot of time for personal growth. This isn’t a made up story—this is a profile of one of the hundreds of entrepreneurs I have had the privilege to work with over the past 8 years.
Unfortunately, over the course of my time working in this field I have seen countless individuals and teams burn themselves out physically, mentally, and emotionally. In fact, CB Insights’ yearly round-up about why startups fail states that 26% of startups directly failed due to “people problems” (not the right team, disharmony among team/investors, and burned out/lacked passion). I would argue that nearly all of the large contributors to startups failing (ran out of cash, no market need, got outcompeted, flawed business model) are directly correlated to people—in particular the startup founders themselves.
I often tell the entrepreneurs I work with: “As a founder, YOU are your startup.” At the Biomimicry Institute we have taken this mantra to heart, and we are helping startup founders challenge themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally by taking them to camp! This in turn unlocks creativity, networks, and opportunities for their business that they otherwise would have missed. At the same time, we are constantly reinforcing sustainable business practices and natural stewardship via activities in the great outdoors to ensure that we aren’t solving one problem and creating two more in the process.
Below is a snapshot of the recent camp retreat we led with current and former participants of the Ray of Hope Prize program. By sharing this publicly, our hope is to draw attention to the need for more startup support organizations to prioritize a founder first approach, and that by doing so in nature we can reinforce important sustainability and environmental principles that will last for the life of the company.
Setting the Scene
Camp isn’t camp unless there is some disconnect between our time in nature and our everyday lives. To help facilitate this, we recommended individuals minimize their time with technology, with many choosing to only text or call loved ones in the evening. For startup founders it is scary and often difficult to totally disconnect, but we encourage everyone to do as best they can. To help set the scene, we hosted everyone at a camp and retreat center 1.5 hours north of San Francisco in a Coastal Redwood Forest and had participants share lodging and family-style meals.
And of course camp is not complete without campfires! Instead of boring talks or lectures during the retreat, we hosted real life, interactive fireside chats with our friends from Better Ventures and Safer Made. Our fantastic speakers opened up about what it means to invest in early-stage companies that are solving big issues. We heard from them about successes, failures, and lessons learned—incredibly important information for any startup founder that is considering raising capital in the future.
Relationship Before Task
So often startup founders introduce themselves via their elevator pitch or their work. “Hello, my name is Jared, and I lead Innovation programs at the Biomimicry Institute…” This is boring and ineffective! It also takes the human element out of entrepreneurship. To combat this, our very first activity was to introduce yourself via your relationships. Founders were introducing themselves as sons, daughters, spouses, parents, and even grandparents! We asked them to take this one step further by introducing themselves via relationships to land as well.
It was incredible to learn about the different environments we all came from, and set the stage for a week of listening and sharing. Many of our participants said that this was the most impactful activity of the whole week. This is a practice we learned from Alexis Bunten of Bioneers Indigeneity program, in which she shared that many Indigenous societies would not start a meeting until everyone had introduced themselves via the relationship to the people and land that had shaped them.
As facilitators, the Biomimicry Institute team constantly referred to the mantra “Relationship Before Task” in all of our decision making. We would ask ourselves: “Would this activity grow, support, and challenge relationships?” By spending the time to allow for founders to bring their full selves into the work, we were able to spark life-long connections, friendships, and purpose for the week ahead.
Challenge by Choice
When I was a camp counselor, we were taught the Challenge by Choice framework, which is a simple yet powerful philosophy. It goes something like this…
Everyday we are faced with a series of choices. Some are incredibly boring and routine, such as brushing your teeth. For most people, this choice is an easy one to make. We categorize choices like this in the “green zone.” Then, there are incredibly hard choices, such as choosing to move to a new city or change jobs. These choices can be scary and harmful if a person is not willing or comfortable to make them. We call choices like these as in the “red zone.” Somewhere in-between green and red is the “yellow zone” or the stretch zone. It is within this zone that you leave behind what is comfortable and mundane and stretch yourself in some uncomfortable and unfamiliar ways. What is important is that a participant is invited into the stretch zone (and they have the option to not participate), recognizing that a stretch zone may look different for everyone.
On our retreat, we invited participants onto a zipline high above the redwood canopy. Depending on the person, the zipline could be a physical, emotional, mental, or even spiritual stretch zone. Many of our participants had a fear of heights that they embraced during their trip above the trees. For others, it was a stretch to trust our guides or equipment holding us to the cables. By putting themselves in an uncomfortable situation, our participants were able to learn something about themselves and each other, and were able to grow in some new and unique ways.
Now think about the life of a startup founder and all of the stretch zones they operate in every day. Founders are constantly faced with stress inducing decisions, from funding and the amount of money in the bank account, to product design and development, to hiring and growing a new team. By making them aware of such stretch zones, and by giving them a taste of how fun and exhilarating it can be to lean into something that is uncomfortable and unfamiliar to them, we hope they will be better equipped to handle the uncertainty and challenges that will most certainly arise.
One of the central pillars of biomimicry is to help foster a reconnection to nature. All of the entrepreneurs and scientists on our retreat were deeply familiar with a natural process, system, or organism (we call this emulation). However, we noticed that it didn’t always translate into an understanding of nature all around us. One of the activities we did to focus on reconnecting to nature was a naturalist led hike, where we learned about redwood forests and the complex relationships at play. It was a joy to see participants shift from just looking at nature to truly observing nature. This looked like examining redwood bark and how it insulates trees from forest fires, to finding different mushroom species and talking about “industrial decomposition,” to smelling fragrant juniper trees and marveling at how invisible molecules create such a scent.
After the naturalist hike, we shifted lens to focus on the ecosystem that the startup founders themselves were in and represented. This led to a rich conversation ranging from founder mental health, to startup failure stories, to opportunities for collaboration. Just like natural ecosystems, startup ecosystems are complex and intertwined, and we are excited to continue to help foster their growth.
As we were preparing to leave our retreat, one of our startup founders came up to me and said something like this… “Jared, thank you for giving me the opportunity and time to focus on building relationships with myself and with my peers. Launching an environmental startup can be lonely work, and I am so thankful to have built strong relationships and values with others like me. This also helped me renew my commitment to protecting nature. Thank you.”
These words have stuck with me. They help me envision a world in which technology and companies are in business to help serve people and the environment, as opposed to extracting from them. After all, startups and organizations of all types are just a collection of people. By investing in these relationships, and by doing so intentionally in nature, I believe we will continue to shift priorities to focus on protecting one thing we all share, our planet Earth.
About the Biomimicry Institute & the Ray of Hope Prize
The Biomimicry Institute is a Montana based 501c3 non-profit that is dedicated to solving humanity’s biggest challenges through the adoption of biomimicry (nature-inspired innovation) in education, culture, and industry. The stakes are high. If you are reading this, then I am guessing you know all about climate change. We believe that by learning from nature, humans can create materials, chemistry, and designs that are life-friendly and contribute positively to our planet, as opposed to extracting from it.
One of our key programs and areas of focus is the Ray of Hope Prize, which exists to accelerate the rate of nature-inspired solutions to systemic social and environmental challenges. Some startups that have participated in this program have gone on to become a leader in environmentally-friendly coastal infrastructure (ECOncrete), are developing photocatalysts to replace the most energy-intensive manufacturing processes (New Iridium), and have created solutions to lessen food loss in places without cold supply chains (GreenPod Labs).
Jared Yarnall-Schane is the Director of Innovation for the Biomimicry Institute. Jared brings his entrepreneurial background & startup coaching experience to the Biomimicry Institute to lead the LaunchPad program, with a goal of commercializing biomimicry innovations. Read more about Jared and the Biomimicry Institute team here.