We Are Choking the Entrepreneurial Spirit Out of Fraternity

When Ernesto Sirolli was a young man living in his native Italy, he wanted to help people and to make a difference. As part of delegation from a charitable organization, Ernesto traveled to Zambia on the continent of Africa. Their mission was to help the poor in Zambia in transformative and long-lasting ways. When Ernesto and team arrived to a village, they noticed an amazing amount of fertile land along the Zambezi River that was not being used for agriculture. Perplexed by this, and sensing a potential gamechanger, they told they Zambian people that they should use the land for farming, grow food that could sustain their people and could also be sold, and forever alter their destinies. They showed the villagers how to plant and raise tomatoes. Strangely, the Zambian people did not have much interest in these new lifesaving plans, but Ernesto and his fellow Italians would even pay them to help work the fields so that they could see the value in this agriculture. Sure enough, the fertile land bore tremendous results – large beautiful tomatoes.
Image result for hippos in river

One night, when the tomatoes were at their ripest and best state, 200 hippos emerged from the river and ate them all. The Italians were taken aback and shocked and told the villagers what had happened. The Zambians responded that yes, the hippos would do that, and that’s why they had no agriculture in their village.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” the Italians exclaimed. “You never asked,” was their reply.

Ernesto relays this tell in a much more eloquent fashion is his TED Talk and in his book, Ripples from Zambezi. The point he derives from this story, and that I wish to derive as well, is that too often we force our own solutions on people instead of listening for the solutions they wish to explore. Human history is fraught with noble-minded but tragic results of a central controlling force trying to impose structure on an indigenous people.

Ernesto’s larger point is that if you want to help people improve their situation, you need to foster entrepreneurship at the local level. That means showing up to listen, with no agenda and no preconceived ideas. You then support the entrepreneurs in their own ideas and their own vision.

I feel this is a message we need to hear in fraternity and sorority life in 2019.

Fraternity started as an entrepreneurial and grassroots solution to a problem on the campuses of the day: the lack of free expression. A society of men (or women) wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, but to build it secretly and cautiously on a heavily-controlled environment, such as a college in the 1800’s, was as risky and daring as starting a new business or enterprise.

Somewhere along the line, it flipped from being a grassroots movement to a top-down one, heavy with requirements, policies, structures, and the “one right way to do things.” I believe this is based on the fear of losing  something all of us love. But in that fear, we have sought to control. 

We structure it all. Rush/recruitment. New Member Education. Officer training. Meeting agendas. What we wear and how we wear it.

Some of this was for the sake of efficiency.  But what have we lost in that effort?

In fraternity today, we have a dearth of entrepreneurship.

Our heavily-resourced national offices (seemingly growing in bloat the way centralized governments do) are inventing programs and educational resources for their chapters on a daily basis, often relying on the intelligence of the people in the room but almost no input from the local level. And thus, we build and brand a fancy program called “How to Grow Tomatoes” and ship it off to our Zambias. And from there on out, we fight fires based on the fact our Zambians can’t grow tomatoes like we expect them to.

We talk a lot about campus culture in fraternity and sorority life. But we do so with an eye towards controlling it, and fitting it into a package we’ve already designed (from hundreds of miles away). Rarely do we talk about it in a celebratory fashion. For us it seems that unique cultures are something to be dealt with, not embraced. Grow these tomatoes, dammit.

When we need to do things like redesign a new member education program, we bring forward a commission to sit in a room and figure it out. We rarely listen to our chapters when developing new solutions, or stop to consider that the different cultures in which they operate could mean a need for multiple localized solutions.

Ernesto describes two ways Western cultures approach other societies: we either patronize them, or are paternalistic. To patronize means to treat them as servants; to be paternalistic is to treat them like they are your children. How often do we do that to our chapters, and in a world of increasing innovation, force them to do what that commission decided was best?

Campuses are quick to do this as well. Consider the growing movement to rate chapters based on a campus scorecard, with often arbitrary measures. That’s us telling an indigenous group that we know best how they should do fraternity and if they don’t fit within that structure, they deserve the fate of an outcast. Consider how arrogant (albeit well-intentioned) that sounds.

What if we tried something different. Take for example new member education programs. Instead of that commission or committee, what if instead we told our chapters that for one year, they could do anything they want for new member education. In the end, the goal is for the new members to be adequately prepared for membership, but the process is entirely up to them. Of course, hazing is illegal and can’t be utilized, but otherwise have at it!

Does that make your palms sweat? I admit, mine too.

But think about what creativity might emerge if 100+ chapters were empowered to customize new member education. At the end of that year, you invite the chapters to share what really worked and what didn’t. You listen, and then you share back the best ideas you heard.

Is it risky? Yes. But could yield a high reward. Think about all the other functions of fraternity life we dictate from the top, and what could happen if we unleashed entrepreneurship.

Is the role of the fraternity/sorority national office to create solutions to make fraternity chapters as strong as possible, or to empower chapters to discover their own strength? Patronize or Serve?

Image result for hippos in riverI guess it comes down to you answering a fundamental question for yourself: are you willing to let exist different ways to experience and do fraternity, or is there only one right way?

Respect the undergraduates for the entrepreneurial spirit they can possess. And listen to them, for they will tell you about the hippos in the river.

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