Travelogues from Chile: Journey to Exosphere and How We Can Cultivate a Culture of Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Muslim World Part 2

 

My Journey to Exosphere

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I love anything white and shiny – that’s the only reason why I took this picture.

 

As a visitor, I came to Exosphere to be totally honest, open, human and true. It wasn’t my first time coaching or mentoring entrepreneurs but it was my first time at a bootcamp that functioned the way it did.

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Courtosey of Exosphere

 

My philosophy when asked to speak about entrepreneurship is simple: No sensationalization, just truth. My talk: “What I Wish I Knew When I Started” was about deconstructing the sensationalism about living the entrepreneurial life. I think I’ve gone through almost all the peaks and valleys as an entrepreneur and wanted to talk about that.

The group was honest, open, receptive, and curious (mostly about this random colored scarf I wore on my head).

Let me tell you how proud I am of this group. Some of the most brilliant people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. The one question I asked myself was: if I were them would I have exhibited so much bravery and courage to leave my comfort zone become an entrepreneur and find a way to live life on my own terms?

My answer would be a no.

And for that reason I know that anyone that can push past their fears to do what they know they need to do will find success. Everyone in that room, no doubt in my mind, they will become exactly who they are looking to become.

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Courtosey of Exosphere

 

Also, I was, quite frankly taken aback by the amount of people genuinely curious about my faith.

The kind of intellectual culture whose tapestry is truly interwoven with curiosity, culture, tolerance and acceptance in contrast to the dogmatism and judgements I’ve faced was truly refreshing.

People came from all over the world and ages ranged from 19-51 – all ready with courage, bravery and strength to explore a new possibility of what life could offer them and they started with this 8-week incubation.

I’ve really never been around so many brilliant, charming and beautiful people.

Part of the reason why I was surprised was how quickly I connected with everyone and how much love I felt from people I had only known for about 2 weeks.

***

Conversations that Shift Something In You

My first person I met was a robust, active and charming Italian extrovert, Antonio – with so much energy and life that eminent from him. We spent nights sitting and talking about life, his entrepreneurial ventures, being one of the first multimillion dollar telecom companies set up in Southern Italy, who then got screwed out by banks who robbed his intellectual property. When you look at Antonio, he is the face of resiliency. Where I am from, we call people like him an  OG (Original Gangster – not a negative word – it’s like the word Maestro). I recieved so much – his advice, his humour – nothing can say ‘welcome to Chile’ like an Italian can.

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Morning rooftop views

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Morning rooftop views

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Early morning rooftop views- 8 weeks of this, love. This what you get.

 

I talked about everything one faces when you are try reconcile your own passions and philosophies that the world is trying to impose on you, overcoming the guilt and stigma of deciding to overturn social norms and follow a path of your own, to the prevalance of women being sexually violated in the business world and not being able to talk about it, to deep conversations about prayer, spirituality and God, to the benefits and draw backs of space explorations.

I had so many  profound conversations with people I can’t cover it all but I’ll share a few with you.

Skinner Layne, the Founder of Exosphere, a deeply introspective, kind, beautiful soul who visionary mind I prefer not to reduce to only one conversation.

Exosphere is founded by him and Antonio, and ran by Luke Blackburn, Niccolo Vivani, Ezequiel Djeredjian, Moritz Berling, Hernan Soulages, Gerson Fontalvo, and Hoss Layne, who are brilliant people I would liken to the first few followers of the ‘lone-nut’ that Derek Sivers refers to in his well-known TedTalk, How to Start a Movement.

Skinner  was talking to me about how, until recently people never knew about the color of the ocean apart from it being this dark, wine-colored body of water. He told me around the moment when people starting writing about the varies hues of blue in the ocean is around the time sea exploration began. The point is that, when it comes to space exploration that is currently on the upswing, we see the sky as being black. But when we discover space, who knows what other colors we would find that currently aren’t in our realm of reality.

Most probably one of the most profound conversations I had was about God and prayer. Exosphere was the first time I felt comfortable and accepted for being Muslim.

One of the essential reading for the bootcamp is Scott Peck, who wrote ‘The Road Less Travelled’, who he himself was highly influenced by traditional Islam.

I choose to practice a traditional, orthodox Abrahamic faith, which for the most part, is labeled as being unmodern or backwards by western Civilization. And for this reason to connecting religion to dogmatism, I’ve avoided talking about religion with others until they ask.

I remember talking to Luke about this. He’s someone with a reserved, yet had a quiet power and a beautiful heart of gold. First time in years I had opened up to anyone about this. Much of my burnout came from my relationship to work and ambition and never talked to someone about it. I openly expressed about what I felt were the downsides of ambition – being that, if you take it too far, it takes you down a road of ingratitude for what you do have. This led us down a conversation about spirituality and the nature of our own ambitions as entrepreneurs and what I got, quite frankly, was the most profound and moving internal shifts I’ve had in a long time. I was asked some honest questions about my prayers, my rituals, my connection to God that I’ve never been asked. It was the authenticity of connecting with someone whose heart was so deeply connected to a higher being but feet firmly on the ground in reality. I had two days after that where I couldn’t really talk to anyone because I was revaluating my personal history, dogmatic beliefs I was holding etcI came away feeling strong, more connected with The Beloved.

These are the types of conversations you get at Exosphere. Where intuition isn’t excluded from intellectual discussion. Where science and religion aren’t mutually exclusive. Where you are encouraged to open yourself, your whole self to examine the deepest parts of your life.

What you don’t get is small talk. These are brilliant minds focused on hacking the big questions of life. A philosophical effort that binds people who have a new vision for what the world can look like: new institutions, new systems, new ideas but also what a new ‘them’ could look like.

Jack Kerouc, one of the writers and a member of the beat generation, wrote in his book, “On the Road”, a beautiful description of how I would describe Exosphere.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” 

***

Building The Institutions of the Future Means Building People

I remember standing on the terrace of their headquarters by myself one day softly reciting Allan Gingsberg’s famous poem “America.”

America, I’ve given you all and now I am nothing.

This truly encompasses how I feel most people feel, especially for many of the participants I met. If you’re one of the few thousand people who read my blog, you probably feel the same way. You had given your all to a system that gave you very little to work with. A compulsory indoctrination process that most of us go through and come out wondering, “What was that all for?” You feel an emptiness, a longing for something more – that is divine instinct that all humans have. And that feeling of nothingness drove many people to find Exosphere and find solace with its philosophy and values.

People from all over the world came here to take a temporary break from the ‘system’. Many I met left their jobs, some between, some right out of school. Some never return. There was a deep understanding that the world, as we knew it was gone and the only way forward was through every person creating their own job.

I relented to this fact when I was 20. I could never understand how someone else had my dream job. I figured, if I wanted to live my dreams I was the only person who can build it.

The process of understanding that and actually doing that is where things get really messy. I had no mentors or community to work me through that and it was just me, myself  who had to battle through the darkness and hope to come out with what I was looking for.

William Butler Yeats famously said that it takes more courage to explore the deep corners of your own soul than to fight on the battle field.

Consumerism and materialism, the long-standing religion of industrialized countries, comes up against the reality of its utterly inability to be a unsustainable philosophy to guide people through their lives. As a result people are collapsing morally and internally. To reduce the chaos in our world to politics or religious differences is too simplistic.

There is chaos in our world because people are empty. No direction. No real leaders. And the only way out is to do that painfully hard work of figuring out who you are and what you can offer to the world.

In the 21st century, your survival depends on it.

And that’s what Exosphere is trying to do. Building institutions of the future means building people who can withstand the future. And to build people, you need to help them reassess what they know and build new foundations.

When young graduates can’t find jobs, dealing with the emotional, financial and mental burden of choices that many of us did not make for ourselves, when people no longer wish to keep working, when aspiring entrepreneurs need a strong community around them – most of these people get left behind to fend for themselves. Where do they go? What do they go to? Where can they nourish themselves while avoiding being alone?

Exosphere is where you come. It’s that that safe place to be when navigating the unknown, with others. It creates order out of the chaos many of us have been left to deal with.

It’s intense, exhausting and difficult to do the ‘real’ grunt work that traditional institutions have failed to do. But as with any group of changemakers, you will find a self-imposed suffering placed upon themselves. It is as if they must shoulder the burden of the world as their own personal problems but with understanding that there is a redemption in the work for carrying that burden.

The redemption is in knowing that when you work on things that will live beyond you, you are forced to forgive the world daily.

You will hate no one.

You just forgive and get on with the work needing to be done.

You accept the problem, forgive and only look forward.

***

Overcoming Skepticism

If it’s inaccessible to the poor it’s neither radical nor revolutionary

Understanding social dynamics and the legacy of oppression that people of color carry due to the effects of colonialism, imperialism and institutionalized racism is crucial to be able to push the world forward.

And you cannot talk about pushing the world forward without talking about the marginalized, poor and oppressed.

As a woman of color of African descent and whose spiritual practices have made me, and many others, social outcasts, the moment I walked into Exosphere I had the same reaction many people from my own community would: everyone working there was white and male.

And why is this something I notice?

For most of my life (and most people of color), there is a subtle subliminal messaging we all receive. It is part in due to the remnants of institutionalized discrimination and the effects 500+ years of colonialism has had on people.  The images I saw as a young girl didn’t represent people like me – what was beautiful, what was successful, what was happy was a white face. Then I go into the workforce and  there is systematic discrimination because of my skin tone, because I cover, because of my name. You are being told you have to work hard. You have to try harder because the system isn’t there for you. These are statistically noted and documented. When you get into the entrepreneurial world, it’s much worse.

Black tech entrepreneurs make up less than 1% of VC-backedsStartups and receive 35% less funding than non-minority led ventures.

And the problems we want to solve are reflective of our own experiences – which very few other entrepreneurs have.

For a very long time I thought systems of oppression like privledge and institutionalized racism was all bogus- that I was victimizing myself. That I should just work hard and be better. But I had my eyes opened by a friend who told me:

How could I ever win when the system wasn’t built in my image?’

Most of my encounters, I don’t expect white men to fully understand the extent of their privilege. There are very few things that irk me more than privledge people in the startup world talking about ‘changing the world’.

Regardless of technolgical advances, the vast majority of people are real people suffering with some real problem. People just trying to eat. Trying to stay alive. Trying to not get killed through famine, diseases and war. 6.5 billion people on this planet, of which 90 percent  can’t afford the basics of life. And 3 billion of them don’t have regular access to food, shelter or clean water.

It’s clear why the startup world can get irritating at times.

I came ready to offer a new perspective.

And everyone was super receptive and acknowledging of it. This was one of the defining feature of Exosphere I noticed immediately – nobody was willing to shy away from having difficult conversations. No one was willing to hide behind political correctness. No one was offering excuses or defensive in the barrage of criticism you will natural get from a strong-minded(and sometimes stubborn) African woman talking to young white man trying to solve the problems of the world.

And you know what? I was impressed.

This was different.

They were different.

It was completely refreshing.

One of the key mindshifts that Exosphere tries to impart is alternative education, of which there is a heavy criticism of the modern education system, rightfully do.

Many people did not complete university and while their criticism of university system was completely valid, it doesn’t negate the fact that it is essential as a source of social mobility for those born with no privilege.

Again, people checked their privledge.

Another example is that I asked about their Exobase tours in Tel Aviv and they were willing to ensure Palestinians were involved and that the systematic racism and discrimination of Palestinians wasn’t something to be ignored.

I was pleasantly surprised. There was no one say: ‘We should stay away from politics. Or we should just focused on the good vs the bad.’

As a colored person, thank you. You all deserved props for that.

Plus, Chile has the largest population of Palestinians outside of Palestine and on a larger context South America has the largest Africa diaspora population outside of Africa(Brazil, specifically). So, it’s refreshing to be around level-minded, brilliantly insane people that haven’t had their humility and common sense stripped from them.

The Future Looks Like Exosphere

If you are still reading this(and honestly, if you are props- you da the real MVP), I’m excited to announce that I will be working with Exosphere to help hack / expand their operations to the Muslim world – to the East, where I feel if there is any community that needs these space places to grow, explore and challenge, it is parts of Africa, the Middle East and SouthEast Asia.

Exosphere is a learning a problem solving community but much more than that – they are people putting their money where there mouth is and attempting to solve real problems through entrepreneurship and innovation.

You don’t go to Exosphere just to learn how to create a business but to learn how to create yourself and life you wish to live – practically.

You are challenged through readings, through conversations and through sessions to tear down you internal programming and conditioning in order to be able to unleash your potential. No one is holding your hand or telling you that’s going to be okay. And this is what is needed. A safe space to explore the wonders of what you have to offer and know that, everyone is there willing to support you on your journey.

Someone wrote on the white board at the offices: “Exosphere is a journey, not a guided tour.” What I would add to that is, when you come here, we act as your shepherd. We know what you will inevitable face ahead and are there to guide you through the rough terrain and tell you what to look out for, but we can’t force you to walk with us.

When you come to Exosphere, you are around doers.

They are people who do. People who think. People who create. People who take risks. People who have the courage to act. People who are driven towards the unknown. They have an unexplainable need to make thing better. There is an assumed responsibility for the state of the world. To push boundaries. To live on the edge of life in searching of something new. 

The beauty I saw was unmatched by any entrepreneurial community I’ve ever been a apart. People ate together. Invited each other to one’s home. They lived together, walked to work together, tore down the wall between work and personal life, shared deep conversations about life, meaning and change. They lived out their fears openly, honestly, with little fear of judgement, grappling openly with the mysteries and challenges of modern life but with such acceptance of these difficulties.

It’s as if people are saying:

‘You know this thing called life? We’re in it together. To move it, to change it, to shift it , to challenge it. At the end, we remain family.’

It’s a Godfather-esque love without the murder and family politics.

They force you to break down your programming, your conditioning in a real way and get you on a path of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

Whatever changes were made there, as Skinner said at the end of the bootcamp, weere made by you, not us. Whatever growth you faced, was made by you, not us.

                                        Exosphere Can Help The Muslim World

Exosphere is leading the future. I believe this model must be replicated, with an acute sensitivity to the challenges and unique needs of the people in the East.

The single question we need to ask, as Muslims, to imagine a new world for ourselves is:

Can push the boundaries on what is possible to help unleash the potential of 1.6 billion Muslims?

I certaintly believe it’s possible.

We do exactly what Tariq Ibn Ziyad told his soldiers to do when crossing the Iberian Peninsula.

Make a decision.

Burn the boats.

Take a shot.

And believe, against all odds, even when your back is up against the wall and everything seems to be against you, that it’s in the darkest part of the night that the greatest stars shine.

Let’s do this

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