May 31

How 'Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break' Created a Global Movement

Mara Zepeda Shares the Founding Story of Zebras Unite

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Some of the world's great changemakers join host Devin Thorpe to share leadership lessons you can use to increase your impact.
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Devin: What do you see as your superpower that’s enabling you to do all this?

Mara: I think the superpower that I guess I call on the most is probably listening.


What is Zebras Unite?

Mara Zepeda, one of the four co-founders of Zebras Unite, describes the business as “an international cooperative that is creating the capital, culture and community for the next economy.” [I recently joined the co-op.]

One dynamic that makes the organization highly effective is connecting with both sides of the marketplace, entrepreneurs and investors.

“You have the demand of entrepreneurs,” Mara says. “They are looking for other companies to do business with. They’re looking for service providers; they’re looking for vendors. They’re looking to sell their products or services. They are looking for best practices. They’re looking for education.”

Mara explains how engagement with investors completes the picture:

On the other hand, you have the supply of capital. And that's been the part that's been really interesting and exciting to us is there are capital providers that have come to us really from the beginning of the movement saying, look, we want to invest in zebra companies, but we need you to help us create the do the financial engineering to help to create capital products that meet the demand of the marketplace.

The complete ecosystem makes membership valuable for everyone involved. “you have this incredibly mutualistic cycle of constant learning to be able to inform, creating new corporate structures, capital instruments, governance protocols and processes,” Mara says.

Zebras Unite is achieving scale, with about 300 members and 30 chapters worldwide. It is structured as a multi-stakeholder cooperative, allowing for different rights and shares of profits and ownership. “The founders have put blood, sweat and tears into it. They can now receive more of an upside,” Mara says.

Zebras.org, an affiliated nonprofit, has a 5 percent ownership stake and special rights for protecting the Zebras Unite mission.

“Anyone who wishes to be a member-owner now can become a member-owner of the cooperative,” Mara says.

Zebras have a different way of thinking. “The folks that we serve and the members we have are coming from an abundance mindset. It’s like power is infinite, and we’re interested in building power with our members and with the economy,” she says. “We’re not interested in this kind of scarcity winner takes all mindset.”

That mindset is the essential element in founding Zebras Unite.

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Founding Zebras Unite

Mara grew up in Sedona, Arizona and Santa Fe, New Mexico, communities built around art and creativity. “I’m an artist myself,” Mara says. “But the medium that was most interesting to me has always been collective potential.”

She has always thought deeply about the power of a group. “How do we work together to unleash creative, collective potential? How can we learn, learn from one another? How can we develop deep, authentic relationships? How can that work? Be in service to larger things, larger than ourselves?”

Her insatiable appetite for knowledge helped her develop a career in journalism. “I was a reporter for National Public Radio, where I was focusing mostly on the economy.”

She also founded venture-backed Switchboard, which later merged with Hearken, launched by Jennifer Brandel, another of the Zebras Unite founders who also had a background in journalism.

Four women founded Zebras Unite. Mara says, “We wanted to grow our companies in a different way. We were interested in mutualism, cooperation, and shared prosperity.”

In addition to Jen and Mara, the four included Aniyia Williams and Astrid Scholz.

“We weren’t interested in the extractive growth-at-all-cost Silicon Valley model we see with billion-dollar unicorn companies,” Mara says.

“That led us down this path of articulating what it was that we wanted to be and our manifesto in 2017: “Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break,” she says, describing a catalyzing event in the formation of Zebras Unite.

“We began to sketch out this dichotomy between who benefits from unicorn companies and who benefits from zebra companies, which we were building,” Mara says. “Tens of thousands of people got back to us, and they said, what you’re describing is exactly what I’m building, and I’m facing the same challenges.”

In all her work as a journalist, entrepreneur and leader, Mara uses her highly-honed listening skill, her superpower.

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How to Develop Listening As a Superpower

“You could just spend years understanding listening,” Mara says. To make the point, she lists different applications of the skill. Consider listening:

  • To yourself

  • To others

  • To the cultural moment

  • To one’s body

The four founders come from different backgrounds. “To build this organization over five years, we’ve had to go through a crucible of communication,” Mara says. “We’ve had times when the organization is practically fallen apart.”

“We’ve had times when some of us have had to step back,” she continues. “We’ve had times where we’ve had to navigate conflict, and that requires actually learning, up-leveling your communication skill set. It requires everybody being committed to continuing to be in relationship.”

For her part, Mara says, “As a child of divorce, like my first instinct is always just to like peace out. My instinct is I just want to leave.”

Mara and her colleagues understood that too much was at stake to let conflicts ruin what they are doing. “The stakes are so high, and our dream is so shared and so beautiful,” she says.

The team has created communication norms that have become vital as the team has grown to 12 on six different continents. They have made these communication norms a foundational part of the business.

Mara provided some guidance for developing listening skills.

Mirroring is a start. She says, “So you just asked me what are some tools that you would recommend to others about communication? It’s quite extraordinary. The delta between what just came out of your mouth and what I heard and how infrequent it is that we take the time to make sure that what we heard is actually what was said.”

The Zebras Unite team also employs a tool that facilitates vulnerable conversations. They use the preamble “the story I’m telling myself is” when sharing difficult thoughts and feelings. For instance, “the story I’m telling myself is that you don’t appreciate anything that I’ve done, and you want me out of here, and you hate everything that I’ve ever contributed to this organization.”

“We’ve also instituted safe words,” Mara says. “So when things get a little bit too heated, we’ll introduce safe words.”

Another active tool she says the team uses is to employ a facilitator. “In my experience, it’s very difficult to be able to facilitate a difficult conversation.”

Finally, Mara says, the team has created accountability pods so you can define your goals. “Then the accountability pod system makes it possible for you to constantly revisit what that plan is and talk out with your colleagues.” Then, you can talk about your progress, failure and adjustments with trusted advisors.

By following Mara’s example and counsel, you can make listening a superpower that allows you to do more good.

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