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Merle Becker

Or: How to unlearn

What should leadership look like to contribute towards a positive future? Can business and sustainability coexist? I frequently ponder upon these questions. In my discussions with Naomi Ryland and Dr. Yanick Kemayou, I gained great insights.

In want to create sustainable visions for the future through facilitation, moderation and communication. After putting into words this personal mission statement at the beginning of this year, I kept wondering about the role that work and business play in creating a livable planet. This question seemed paradoxical to me, because of our current way of doing business being the root cause of the global crises we are facing, including the climate and biodiversity crisis.

I was inspired by the book „Alle Zeit“ by Teresa Bücker, which made me reflect on the topic of time in a power-hierarchical context. I also read „Starting a Revolution“ by Naomi Ryland and Lisa Jaspers, which gave me a fresh perspective on entrepreneurship in the context of diversity and sustainability.

Luckily, I had the opportunity to talk with Naomi Ryland (the founder of tbd*, author and speaker) about her views on these topics, and I also remembered a conversation I had with Dr. Yanick Kemayou last year. Yanick is the founder of the Kabakoo Academies in Mali, which have been designated as one of the „Schools of the Future“ by the World Economic Forum.

Through these experiences, I came to four important realizations:

1) If you want to bring about change, you must first un-learn.

To change the way we live and work, both adults and young people need to unlearn old ways and learn in new ways. Old habits and behaviours are deeply ingrained, and once learned, they are difficult to change.

Traditional education systems around the world, including primary education, are often characterized by competition, grades, and an „every man for himself“ mentality. According to Yanick, „we need new methods of learning to meet the challenges of the future.“ He states that the world faces two major challenges: the climate crisis and the social crisis. He is working to address these crises by changing the way we educate. The Kabakoo Academies focus on cooperation and ecosystem-based learning, where students work together and conduct research. They learn to listen, ask questions, and identify problems, using both scientific literature and local knowledge. This holistic approach to education promotes diversity and cultural understanding, and teaches students to work together rather than compete against each other.

Naomi Ryland told me that she often sees how prior experiences and learned behaviors in business shape our actions and it can be difficult to break away from that. External pressures can sometimes lead us away from our own values.

If we would not learn this power-based and exploitative way of doing business at the first start, it would save us all a lot of effort later on.

2) Effective leadership requires an absence of ego

Naomi has observed that many founders start their business to make up for something or to seek external validation and status. When these motives are part of the driving force, it can be difficult for entrepreneurship to bring about real change. Deep introspection and personal development are crucial components of social entrepreneurship, to remain steadfast in one’s values and goals, and to work as ego-free as possible.

At the Kabakoo Academies, students are not taught to dominate, not even over non-human elements of the ecosystem. They tackle problems collectively and with a holistic view of people and the environment, working together to solve a challenge they have identified themselves.

3) Prejudices hinder innovation

Yanick chose Mali as the location for the first Co-Learning Space as the Sahel region is a crucial place where many global crises are already having significant impacts. The success of the Kabakoo Academies in creating jobs and promoting cooperation in this region could have a positive impact on other parts of the African continent and around the world. Despite this and Mali being a historical center of knowledge, as evidenced by the presence of a university in Timbuktu in the 13th century with 25,000 students, African cities are not represented in the top 10 of the best start-up cities according to StartUpBlink’s 2020 list, which is dominated by American, Asian and European cities.

In „Starting a Revolution,“ Naomi Ryland and Lisa Jaspers introduce the inspiring entrepreneur UK Stephanie Shirley, who founded an IT company in the 1960s that mainly hired women and people who could not find employment in the traditional job market. The team worked remotely and was extremely successful, reaching a market value of 2.8 billion pounds and an annual turnover of more than 400 billion pounds. Stephanie did something that no one else dared to do because of prejudice. And she created a company that is considered modern today.

Therefore, to truly be innovative, it is crucial to move beyond stereotypes and clichés.

4) If we wish to secure a positive future, we must think holistically

Naomi highlights how easy it is to go from „burning for a cause“ to „burning out.“ It is essential, she believes, to be aware of one’s own limitations from the outset of one’s leadership journey. To understand these limits and ensure they are not exceeded is vital, she says: “Do not assume that you can maintain a fast pace without encountering burnout.”
Yanick holds the view that, “We all aim to establish structures that enable us to lead a comfortable life. We humans require access to education and healthcare. But this should not come at the expense of other elements of the ecosystem. If we adopt this mindset, we can apply it to the economy as well. It is non-negotiable. When you know there is no alternative, you stay focused. We must take action now, or it will be too late.”

What do I take away from this?

By speaking to Naomi and Yanick, and reading various books and articles, I came to the realization that I still have very much to unlearn. If I desire to develop alternative visions of a future with a sustainable and green way of life on this planet, I must relinquish many of the values I was raised with. We cannot persist in the belief that economic and materialistic expansion is the primary objective, or even attainable. Instead, we must adopt a mindset and actions that prioritize cooperation, a shared and circular economy, and respect.

I was raised in a schooling system founded on competitiveness, and I still sense this daily. However, my vision of a sustainable future does not align with this notion. It is vital that we learn to collaborate not only with other humans but also with the non-human components of the ecosystem. Despite my knowledge of this necessity, my ego still speaks frequently. Drawing inspiration from the two interviews, I intend to further train my ego to be still.

Thanks to my academic background and professional experience in the non-profit sector, I possess a discerning eye that can identify intersectional power dynamics and I consistently aim to communicate in an inclusive manner. Nevertheless, I am not exempt from prejudice and acknowledge that nobody can be completely free of it. My objective is to maintain vigilance and continuously ask myself: ‚Is this truly the case? Or is prejudice influencing my perspective? What if the situation were different?‘

Overcoming the obstacle of disregarding my energy levels and pressuring others to do the same will prove to be a significant challenge for me. Teresa Bücker states that a 20-hour workweek for all in Germany would promote sustainability, generate more employment opportunities, result in fewer sick days, and offer individuals more time to engage in politics and civic activities. I recognise my fondness for this concept, yet a small voice in my mind persists, reminding me that ‚I must work for a minimum of 8 hours daily.‘ Consequently, I must silence this voice.

I want to create sustainable visions for the future through facilitation, moderation and communication. By building a global community of future makers, walls are torn down and bridges are built – towards a socially just, sustainable future. But at the very beginning of this journey I need to unlearn and create space for new vision of the future.

Naomi Ryland<br />
Copyright: Thulani Hose-Simantov

Knowing that an increasing number of individuals are seeking purpose in their careers yet struggle to find it, Naomi, along with Nadia Boegli and Nicole Winchell, established tbd* in 2014. tbd* soon became Germany’s premier platform for careers imbued with significance.

Naomi was also involved in the founding of SEND e. V. in 2017. In 2019, she co-wrote the book „Starting a Revolution: What We Can Learn from Female Entrepreneurs about the Future of Business“ (Ullstein ECON) with Lisa Jaspers, which has since been published in German, English and Spanish. In 2022, Naomi and Lisa published the SPIEGEL bestseller „Unlearn Patriarchy“ (Ullstein). Naomi contributed to the book by writing the chapter on „Unlearn Power“, drawing on her experiences as a founder.

Picture Credit: Naomi Ryland/Thulani Hose-Simantov

Dr Yanick Kemayou is the founder of Kabakoo Academies, a pan-African network of creative and technical education centres.

He came to Germany from Cameroon at the age of 18 to study at the University of Paderborn. Thanks to several scholarships, he went on to study at the Beijing Institute of Technology and the German-Chinese Postgraduate College at Tongji University in Shanghai.

He completed his doctoral training at HEC Paris and at the University of Paderborn, where he graduated with distinction in economics.