What would the future look like if businesses focused not only on profit, but also on shared prosperity and positive impact? Zebras Unite works to create a more just society by daring to ask what the world would look like if successful businesses made money while making a positive impact.

Zebras Unite is a founder-led, cooperatively owned movement, bringing together a community of people who are building businesses that are better for the world. We at Crowdcast are proud to be members of the Zebras Unite Co-op. This past March, Crowdcast joined the Co-Op because we want to be part of a community that's imagining and creating a more equitable future.

We've been fans of the Zebras Unite Crowdcast channel since they began hosting panels and talks back in March 2020, covering topics like alternative capital, activism in business, and sustainable, positive-impact growth. We wanted to talk to someone on the inside to learn more about the movement and how they do what they do. We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with Mara Zepeda, one of the co-founders of Zebras Unite, to get a better understanding of why zebra companies are important and to talk about the role live video events can play in helping zebra companies connect with their communities and build more authentic movements.

Zebras Unite co-founders pose for a photo
Zebras Unite co-founders (l-r) Mara Zepeda, Aniyia Williams, Astrid Scholz and Jennifer Brandel (Photo: Adrian Hallauer)

Q: How does the zebra perspective change the way a company operates?

MZ: Zebras Unite was born out of the struggle many entrepreneurs and investors face: the Silicon Valley status quo doesn’t serve their needs or the ambition for their companies or their portfolios. We all believe in and are actively building a better way, one that is built on principles of mutualism, cooperation, shared prosperity and participatory decision making. For some who come to our movement, we are changing their minds and introducing them to new perspectives. They are at the start of their journey, and are beginning to see the power of cooperative ownership, economic democracy, the solidarity economy, etc.. Most people arrive at our movement because they already hold and live these values. They have felt alone and isolated, and they’re looking for community, a co-created shared culture, and aligned capital. We work together to build that future.

Q: What are some of the differences you see in companies that are modeling sustainable growth vs the companies that are aiming for 10x growth?

MZ: Sustainability means different things to different founders, and different sectors. I can speak to three principles and values I’ve noticed. The first is systems change. Efforts like Ethically Woven, 200 Million Artisans, and Ethics MVP  offer solutions at foundational, systemic, educational level. For them, it’s a marathon to culture shift, not a sprint to a payday exit. The second is an attention to data sovereignty and shared ownership, with companies like Hylo, Understory and Driver’s Seat Co-Op. A third pattern I see is a deliberate commitment to transparency and shared learning. Companies like GreaterThan and Ampled are open sourcing their playbooks, which is an invaluable contribution to the field. It enables sustainability by decreasing the opportunity cost for new efforts. I love that approach.

Q: The emphasis on companies being both profitable and improving society seems so necessary, but how can companies ensure that they’re balancing both?

MZ: I think financial transparency with your team is a key practice. I just attended Zingtrain’s Open Book Management course. Open book management is a system in which everyone takes responsibility for the effective operation of the business. Everyone participates in running the business and looks forward to working together to achieve key measures, financial and otherwise. To do this, you need to develop as a team key performance measurements and then keep score. I love Zingtrain’s approach to turn this work into something that feels fun and motivating. You get better results and everyone begins to think and act like an owner.  That works well for Zebras Unite Co-Op since our members are owners!

Q: It’s been a little over a year since in-person events have been shut down and more events are moving online. How have you seen this affecting the world of Zebra companies?

MZ: Our movement is international. It’s had a huge impact. This year, we’ve welcomed 20 new chapter cities from around the world, from Finland to Jordan. Before the pandemic, events were largely in person. Now, chapters can attend one another’s events, and learn about the culturally specific ways Zebras show up in the wild. One example is the program our Tokyo chapter led focused on Japanese companies older than 100 years old. Japan has the highest number of such companies and the presentation was fascinating. We wouldn’t have been able to learn this wisdom had it only been in person. It’s incredible to connect our international network in this way.

an illustration of a zebra standing on a platform which is supported by a crowd of multicolored arms reaching upwards

Q: How is Zebras Unite using Crowdcast?

MZ: In addition to spotlighting our events around the world, Crowdcast has made a huge difference this year. The pandemic disrupted two big plans in 2020: speaking at South by Southwest, and hosting our bi-annual in person gathering, DazzleCamp (a herd of zebras is called a Dazzle). In a week, we pivoted and hosted our SXSW session on Crowdcast. And last fall, we hosted over a dozen events to take the place of DazzleCamp called “Season of the Dazzle.” We’ve also been able to host spontaneous community conversations that impact our ecosystem, like the one about Indie.VC’s demise. And we hosted the virtual graduation of our Exit to Community cohort. We’ve hosted over 30 events in the last year, and reached such a broad audience. The chats and questions have been terrifically inspiring. It’s also enabled us to work more closely with our Founding Member, Crux, a Black artist owned co-op specializing in virtual event production.

Q: How has hosting events on Crowdcast changed things for the Zebras Unite community?

MZ: It’s made these important conversations feel easy, accessible, and a benefit that we can now offer to co-op members like our Chapter Leads. It’s also broadened our perspective and given us the opportunity to invite so many voices we never would have had access to in person.

Q: How do you think doing more live video events could impact other zebra companies?

MZ: Live video events can be game changing for organizations that are eager to pass the mic, invite more voices on stage, share power, build community, and connect with their stakeholders. It’s a key part of authentic movement building and we can’t wait to explore so much more that seems possible. Our ZU team is made up of lifelong community builders. Crowdcast has opened our minds and inspired us to experiment!

For more information about Zebras Unite, visit their website at https://zebrasunite.coop

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