Why Caring for the Whole Self is Critical in Achieving Inclusion & Equity
"Even when it’s not pretty or perfect. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own." -Michelle Obama Becoming
In the first edition of Notion Impact, I focused on how our core identity, or collective identities, influences our journey as we climb closer to our full potential, whether founder, emerging investor, or some hybrid of our own design. There is no prototype you need to follow, despite what trend you might find popular this week or next. Different is good. Hybrid is in. Authenticity rules the day.
In a beautiful comment, Hanad Musa thoughtfully shared, “Identity is something I'm still discovering the importance of. It may not be the end point but the journey itself.” Couldn’t have been said better. Identity is an ongoing process of discovery, and when viewed in the context of narrative (story), identity is about becoming. It is not a destination, but a fluid journey, a metamorphosis of sorts.
Let me tell you about an early experience I had with identity.
Around 2000/01 I had just moved to Northern California, where I started an impact consulting practice. It was the time of the dot com crash. I was teaching myself web development and had stacks of programming books on my desk. (Old school learning back in those days. And, yup, that👇🏼 is a '64 VW Squareback I bought in SF with plans to restore it.)
I don’t recall the first website I built or the first dollar I earned, but one thing I never forgot was a sense of identity I felt when I was able to say, “I am a web developer,” and “I am a consultant,” or “I am a contributor to global impact.”
Why did the declaration of “I am” have such a profound impact at the young age of 22 years old? After all, legions of people are web developers today. It impacted me specifically because it was a milestone discovery of a new identity through creative design and code that was helping to craft a narrative (story) through the active process of becoming from where I had been, a metamorphosis. I had dreamed of doing something impactful since I was a teenager. Now I was realizing it.
The self-taught act of building a consulting practice and creating a portfolio of websites for impact organizations was especially significant to me. Around the age of 16/17 I decided, along with my parents' approval, to homeschool for the final two years of high school. I also concurrently began working in a machine shop where my father was a manager. I was under-stimulated at school, experiencing immense social upheaval as a teenager, and impatient with the pace of life.
Blue-collar careers and small business prevailed in the lower middle-income rural town I grew up in, and socioeconomic boundaries between the haves and have-nots were clearly impressed upon me as a child. What you did for a living defined both your identity and your destiny. In a sense, you could say it was a type of self-imposed caste system where few climbed higher.
I even remember a close senior relative once emphatically telling me that certain luxuries were not for us (our family) to experience. Strange how those brief memories are the one's that get stuck in your mind.
Without any external pressures or compunction, I delayed thoughts of college indefinitely and worked as a machinist from the ages of 17-22 until I would figure out where I was going. Unbeknownst to me, I had never truly explored my full identity, or in my case, identity and narrative were pre-determined by those around me with religious intent, and my ability to craft my own narrative ultimately broke down.
“So many of us go through life with our stories hidden, feeling ashamed or afraid when our whole truth doesn’t live up to some established ideal.” - Michelle Obama Becoming
Fast forward to 2001 and I found myself newly confident, identifying as a web developer and consultant with an entire portfolio of achievements. What had happened throughout this change? One day my hands were covered in oil stains, calluses, and cuts. The next they were covered with scars moving pixels on a computer screen.
To better understand this change taking place, let’s get philosophical for a moment…stay with me here.
Through the process of becoming, the concept of Aristotelianism was taking place, which in layman’s terms is “a change involving the realization of potential to a higher level of actualization.” Pretty deep stuff, right? Apparently, the term becoming was first used in this context in the mid-16th century.
Another way to phrase this Aristotelian shift is that I was beginning to realize a sense of agency, not only over my identity, but over my narrative (story), and ultimately over the potential that would determine who I was to become.
I encourage you to pause, go back, and reread that sentence. Ruminate on it.
Depending on where you’ve come from and the life you’ve been exposed to, you may not have had much choice through the journey of discovering your identity, crafting your own narrative, and ultimately realizing the gift of becoming to the concept of actualization.
It’s alright. It isn’t your fault. If you've been blaming yourself, the time to stop is today.
This deeply personal journey is imperative to building a strong foundation, where mission and purpose collide with your unique set of abilities to execute on your life’s vision, create value for others, and thrive in pursuit of your North Star, whatever that might be.
You might be asking, what does any of this have to do with being a founder or emerging investor or [insert your ideal life’s pursuit] ...? I’m glad you asked.
For many people in society, identity has been stolen, reframed, stamped out, misinterpreted, or downright maligned. For others, a false identity has been forcibly placed upon them in the form of stereotypes. Without the ability to freely discover and express identity, there exists little space to craft one’s own narrative. Without the ability to craft one’s own narrative, a feeling of powerlessness settles in and the weight of society’s enforced narrative takes its toll leading to total despair. This despair can materialize in many forms. Its impact can affect us mentally, physically, even across generations and geographies.
It should be no secret that poor educational outcomes are directly correlated with lower income levels. Children and youth in poverty not only start at a disadvantage to their peers, they maintain a disadvantage throughout their entire journey in school and are penalized every step of the way as learning gets more difficult and external responsibilities increase.
While the causation of poor academic performance has many contributing factors, including food access, housing, financial stress, and family instability, the true impact is felt as children begin to seek out a narrative with which to identify and never fully find their potential through the act of becoming. The critical component of agency is denied to them as they become youth.
When our tired youth transition into adulthood, they are already conditioned by a constant state of survival mode to maintain a fight-or-flight response, or in many cases, fear and suspicion against a world that has forced an identity upon them and too often dismissed their entire generation with a hopeless narrative not of their own.
When adulthood settles in, the disadvantage experienced in school continues while the responsibilities increase exponentially. When others experience college and the development of critical systems of social support, the tiring life of survival continues. Time seems to stand still as the world passes by. Living life under this perpetual pressure takes its toll in unimaginable ways, affecting every aspect of human development. Instead of building what many would call “resiliency,” repeated exposure to trauma drives an acute stress response within the nervous system that ultimately lowers life expectancy, making one more vulnerable to life-threatening illnesses.
At this stage of life, becoming an entrepreneur is so much more than performing the prevailing practice of identifying customer pain points, developing and scaling solutions, going through market validation, and pitching investors, all elements of your run-of-the-mill accelerator program. Let's not forget the critical daily human needs such as food access, affordable housing, quality childcare, reliable transportation, expensive technology, and dozens of other obligations, not to mention the required social capital and networks everyone else seems to already have in place.
Suddenly, the notion of becoming an entrepreneur seems insurmountable.
And yet, as if those obstacles weren't enough, the monumental task of becoming an entrepreneur goes even deeper. Yes, I'm talking about questioning your very identity and finding the courage to rewrite your own narrative. It involves facing your greatest fears: denying society and those around you the right to take away your identity, dictate a false narrative over you, and realize your full potential. Because in the act of discovery, and in the realization that you are the author of your own narrative, you just might experience full agency.
Exercising agency is about having the ability to fully participate because nobody has defined your identity for you, written your own narrative, or determined how far your potential can reach and the limits to your actualization.
This is agency. Agency is power. Agency is freedom.
Entrepreneurship, innovation, and investing in their many inspiring forms are the full expression of human agency. It’s the ability to declare, “I am.” It’s the ability to create. It’s the ability to participate. It's the ability to own. It’s the ability to belong. It's the ability to open your book and find a blank page where you alone are the author.
One of the core principles I believe about this life is that we have a fundamental duty to ensure everyone has full agency to participate in discovering their identity, writing their own narrative, and thrive in pursuit of becoming their fullest potential.
In entrepreneurship and venture capital, progress is made every single day. But there is a long way to go. Change needs to happen on an exponential level. Many people ask me how I am so optimistic given the state of the world. Well, I am constantly inspired by the acts of others I am surrounded by. From the Arlan Hamilton's to the founders just getting started. They are heroes in my eyes and why I do what I do.
If entrepreneurship and venture capital are ever going to be environments where everyone will be able to fully participate, we need to start opening our eyes to the holistic needs of humans we interact with every single day. Not just the funding needs of entrepreneurs, but the need for identity, the need for narrative, the need for becoming and belonging. And, ultimately, the need for agency.
“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.” - Michelle Obama Becoming