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You need courage to run a pioneering project

Published

09.09.2020

Illustration of a curved canoe with 6 people circumnavigating blocks of ice

Courage is a basic requirement for change. But what exactly is courage – how do you become and stay courageous? A conversation about the courage that should encourage us all.

Stefan Schöbi chairing a round table on the subject of courage.

For Stefan Schöbi, courage means being prepared to accept a certain necessary level of uncertainty and endure it for a while. Photo: Alexander Hana

«We've never really defined what we mean by courage,» says Stefan Schöbi, Head of the Migros Pioneer Fund. «Even though it is so important in our work.» According to Duden, courage is the ability to overcome one’s fear in a dangerous, risky situation. Courage is a lack of fear in situations in which one might be afraid. Stefan nods: «It's a question of bearing up against uncertainty.»

On the question of who personally has inspired him to be courageous, Stefan says: «I don't have a single outstanding role model. The courage that influences me is the courage shown by the many – the courage that is inherent in every single person. People wanting to achieve ambitious goals, even if they still have no idea how. People who are treading rocky paths and who are possibly following their own gut feeling for what is a good thing, although their head might say no. I want to be able to kindle this fire in as many people as possible.»

Support for innovators

The Migros development fund has been supporting pioneers in implementing their innovative ideas since 2012. To begin with, objectives are often not clearly defined, and the path can lead to uncharted territory. It’s not unusual for the partners in these projects to give up their main job and postpone other projects. The Migros Pioneer Fund helps them to find their pathway and tries to offer them as strong a framework as possible to enable them to embark on this venture.

Project leader of Ting, Silvan Groher, speaking about the collaboration, says: «The Migros Pioneer Fund has helped us to verify and sharpen our objectives. It often submitted us to tough and persistent questioning. This intricate process during the early stages was central and crucial for us. We now have precise aims, where originally we just had some rather vaguely outlined intentions.»

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«Ting is the trampoline for people who still have things planned in life and want to take more individual responsibility.» Silvan Groher, from Ting, on courage.

At Ting, members provide each other with relevant, time-limited, basic maintenance support to aid individuals to make life changes, for example by embarking on further education or setting up in self-employment. In this way the financial pressure on them is eased.

«Switzerland has a strong social security system. Our unemployment insurance model is one of the most modern and efficient. Nevertheless, the system has to adjust to the present situation and changing needs», points out Stefan. «Our system is more geared to helping where people who have fallen through the social security net. Less so to supporting them at a much earlier stage, where one could proactively help to prevent the onset of frustration or support a desire for change. Or where there’s a need to reconcile job with family.»

The Ting project team in a workshop.

«We in Switzerland are in a comfortable position. We can contemplate our purpose in life, the purpose of working and our contribution to society.» Silvan Groher, Ting. Photo: private

Taking solidarity one step further

Stefan believes that Ting is a courageous model that tries to implement a new approach and to enhance the solidarity system. In doing so it is implementing scientific findings: for example, that people need motivation and encouragement to change and develop themselves.

«It is more blessed to give than to receive». Silvan can confirm this biblical assertion following an experiment based on a similar model, adding «It takes courage to receive money. Most people are alarmed at first when they find a payment in their account.»

And that is precisely where Stefan sees the Migros Pioneer Fund's mission:«We want to facilitate and actively promote experiments so that we can trigger fruitful social and individual developments. In order to develop, a child needs to be encouraged to try out things and strike out on its own – and the same applies to adults.

Laughing, the father of two boys also notes that you sometimes have to hold children back from being a bit too courageous. In his view, what's important in every development process is that dependable support is there for someone about to take a huge step in life.

Mentoring as a recipe for success

Sophie Achermann from the Stop Hate Speech project has some advice on taking huge steps: you should never lose sight of the objective, and it helps to have a mentor. «Someone in the background offering support and encouragement. And it helps to listen to these people who are providing the support.»

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«Sometimes, you just have to take a leap into the unknown.» Sophie Achermann, from Stop Hate Speech, on courage.

Sophie is the managing director of alliance F and was a Youth Delegate for Switzerland at the UN. She found a mentor in the head of delegation who threw her in at the deep end when organising an event. «I could have howled with fear.» But her mentor encouraged her and trusted her to do it: «Interestingly, she didn’t help me at all. But she gave me that «You can do it» feeling.»

Stop Hate Speech combats hatred on the internet through a combination of technical and civic resources, thereby improving online dialogue and discourse over the long term. Volunteers swipe left or right in an app, depending on whether comments are examples of hate speech. Their judgements are used to teach the algorithm – the-so-called Bot Dog – to correctly sniff out discriminatory statements.

Sophie Achermannfrom Stop Hate Speech in a workshop.

«Together, it is easier to be courageous.» Sophie Achermann, Stop Hate Speech. Photo: Susanne Keller, Berner Zeitung

Big ambitions for good ideas

The idea for the Stop Hate Speech project came from alliance F, and at the time the Migros Pioneer Fund advised them to «think big». Sophie says that it was a huge step to find the courage to tackle such a big project.  For her, this engagement is very personal. Online, she herself does not have the moral courage that she displays in her offline life. «We need to awaken and strengthen the moral courage and bravery of every single person so that they dare to express themselves on the internet. We offer each other mutual support; we do it together.»

Stefan says that innovative projects are demanding because pioneers are often on their own. «It is relatively easy to find obstacles to stand in the way of a courageous approach. Any one of our projects can be derailed by arguments. But when everything is blocked, nothing moves. So it is even more important that we see ourselves as being in alliance with our project partners, supporting them on their way.»

Leo Caprez from Brainforest in a workshop of the Executive Program at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley

For the one-week Executive Program at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley, Leo Caprez borrowed USD 15,000 from his mother. «That was the most courageous step. Or perhaps it was actually a little crazy.» Photo: Nick Otto, Singularity University

Looking forward despite setbacks

Leo Caprez from the Brainforest project speaks even more clearly on the subject: «I lose my courage almost every day. That is part of the deal. At Brainforest we experience setbacks on a global level, that’s something we have to learn to live with. When we see acres and acres of forest ablaze, we think to ourselves: we are just a few drops of water falling on hot rocks.»

The pioneering project that is Brainforest advocates the transformation of the forest economy. A first, concrete step towards this has been the launch of a data-driven online market place which, by using the very latest technology, enables trading in sustainable forest products around the world. It means that forests will start to have commercial value, and can attract more investment. Forest ecosystems profitably reduce CO2 in this manner. By 2023 the intention is to have unleashed CHF 500 million of new investment, and through afforestation to make a significant contribution to climate stabilisation.

Finding scalable solutions

Leo's chief worry is that the project will stay small. As with many ideas aimed at changing our environment, solutions are successful only if they can be achieved at scale. Stefan adds: «It’s an ambitious project. They are not going to be planting a little boutique forest with a few pretty trees. It’s courageous to say: either we manage to create a market for global forestation, or we are better off leaving it alone.»

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«You have to develop an authentic sense of optimism.» Leo Caprez, from Brainforest, on courage.

Leo wants to achieve Brainforest’s aims with innovative ideas and connecting with people who would otherwise not collaborate. «People are capable of doing unbelievable things. This thought gives me hope. But we need courage to find the right rhythm. I find that hard sometimes. I deal with some massively urgent problems that we have to work on flat out, 24/7. But that's unsustainable in the long term. You have to sleep sometimes. It's hard to strike the balance. The symbol of trees helps here – like good ideas, trees also need strength and time to grow.»