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Podcast transcript: Social enterprise school, the Mycelium School 's Matthew Abrams

Link to the show here.

AMY POTTHAST: A unique design for education is underway in Asheville, North Carolina and it takes it's model from the vegetative part of a mushroom, mycilia. Opening in 2013 the Mycelium School aims to cultivate social entrepreneurs and leaders in creating local change by enhancing social and environmental systems.

In this episode, I'm chatting with the Mycelium School founder Matthew Abrams about the school's design and theory, who stands to benefit, and exactly what prospective students might be like.  


AMY: Matthew welcome to the show! I was hoping you could start by introducing yourself and the Mycelium School.

MATTHEW ABRAMS: My name is Matthew Abrams and I'm the founder of the Mycelium school. And the Mycelium School is essentially a two year program for 18-30 year olds from around the world and it's located in Asheville, North Carolina.

The school is designed to invite these young leaders, have them learn from one another and develop the skills and experiences they need to a. understand who they are, b. have a good understanding of how the world works and often times doesn't, and C. develop a meaningful connection between the self and the world and ultimately design a social enterprise created in that image, in that connection, in that meaningful connection and go back out into the world and create local change designed to add value to social and environmental systems. While making money at the same time, I should note.

AMY: So it seems from the language that you use and the language that's on your website that the school is really based in a lot of systems theory. Do you want to just like quickly summarize what that means?

MATTHEW ABRAMS: Yeah, I'll do my best. So essentially what's been going on, just to give a little bit of a historical narrative for those listeners out there that aren't familiar, the way that we've operated for the past few hundred years has been on the industrial model. So the industrial revolution was born out of what was more of a linear type process and that worked, for a lot of ways.

We came up with some amazing inventions and innovations but one thing that that linear type of thinking doesn't account for is the complexity within which, we exist.

So, this new kind of model and it's not really new a lot of indigenous cultures have been practicing this kind of whole systems thinking and its basically understanding that everything that exists is connected to something else and everything really in essence is connected. So, this school, the Mycelium School is not only based on the understanding that everything is connected but also really focusing on the relationships between these things. So how are we connected to our community? How are we connected to our family? How are we connected to our business? And also how is our business connected to our greater community? How is our greater community connected to our world? How is the community connected to nature and to our bio-region?

So really looking at the complexity of things and holding that and understanding that we can make actions, understanding the inter-connections of the system we can really create systemic change.

AMY: And I think one thing that helps me understand the difference between systems thinking and old school thinking in the United States anyway is this concept of if you think of everything and everyone as a machine all that can happen is that they can break. And with systems, they are part of cycles and cycles regenerate. And I see that language a lot on your website.

MATTHEW ABRAMS: Yeah. So as we grow as an individual and as we grow as a society, we are in an ever-changing context so when we adopt this way of thinking we become resilient and adaptable. As we're working within this complexity and things are ever-changing, we have these operating principles so we remain malleable and adaptable and resilient as we move into the future. And I think that is one of the major benefits of approaching our new challenges with new opportunities rooted in this whole systems or often times called living systems way of thinking.

AMY: Okay and then the school is going to be based in Asheville, and you're going to start next spring 2012 with about a year of pilot workshops?

MATTHEW ABRAMS: Exactly. So the majority of the curriculum at the Mycelium School is taught by visiting instructors. So these are leaders in the world of innovation, ecology, design, academia, social entrepreneurship, etc. And they come in and they offer one day to two week workshops.

Basically you could think of it as like a TED talk, but longer and interactive with our participants. So starting this next April we will be hosting about 8-12 workshops over the course of the year and these workshops will be open to the general public, especially the Asheville community where the school is located. And then the following year, April 2013 we are expecting to invite our first class of students, probably about 10-12 students.

AMY: To me, it sounds like because the Mycelium School isn't offering a traditional degree, it's offering lots of value but not a traditional degree. And it's not going to be a traditional school in any sense of the word except maybe there will be you know instructors and students.

What kind of student are you looking for? Is the student who is listening to this podcast now and saying, "Oh my gosh I have to be there," I mean is it sort of going to be a self-evident truth that the students who are right for the Mycelium School just get it, and can't wait?

MATTHEW ABRAMS: The school is for 18-30 year olds, so it's not a place for someone who just graduated high school and says, "You know I've been working my butt off for all these years and I just want to take some time and go explore and see what's out there. It's really not for them.

What we're looking for are two things.

The first group are distillers, young folks from around the world who have been out there, and that doesn't necessarily mean have travelled around the world, but it means have gotten their hands dirty, gotten their hearts dirty, you know, been out there and lived a bit and understand that the current context is no longer working. They have a lot of ideas about what  could be better and how things could change but they're really looking to take these broad ideas and passions and really distill them down and say "Okay, I know that, you know, I'm interested in x,y, and z, and here's something that really resonates with me personally, I'm not exactly sure what I want to do with that, but I know I want to do something and I know there's a lot of other programs out there that aren't resonating with me and I see this program as really enlightening, emboldening my potential as an individual to harness what that is, and refine it, and articulate it and then go back out into the world and make something out of it, creating in that image."

The other group of participants we call the big dreamers folks who have evolved a little beyond the distillers. They're understanding that the system the way it is, is no longer working and they want to do something about it and they have an idea, a big idea, of what they want to do about it. So both of these participants, both groups of these participants will come together and flesh out (a.) who they are, (b) what their ideas are and build on these ideas with their cohorts, with these other young leaders, and really refine these ideas with the visiting instructors.

The second year is something called a dream lab. So here, the participants learn all the hard skill sets they need: so, fundraising, board development, social media, etc. that they can take their idea for a social enterprise and really bring it to life, develop all the foundation that they need to take this from the clouds and root it down in reality and at the years end they will have a fully articulated business plan, which they'll go back out into the world and be partnered up with a Mycelium mentor, so this is basically someone who has similar skill-sets and interests as the participant. And they mentor the young leader out in the world for over the course of 3 years in an "out-cubation" period. So our participants will be taking their ideas for social enterprise and bringing it to life out in the world. And the idea is after the end of this 3 year process their enterprise have reached a degree of self-sustainability and they can create them on their own.

AMY: Okay, and just in case there is anyone listening to this who hears the word "social enterprise" and doesn't quite know what that means, are you talking nonprofit, for profit, what's your definition or what's your vision for what a social enterprise is?

MATTHEW ABRAMS: We're working on a new model of social enterprise based largely off the work of Carol Sanford.

So what we're looking to do is create businesses that aren't just sustainable but actually regenerate communities and regenerate environmental systems. And the way that they do this is by (a.) acknowledging all five stakeholders, so these five stakeholders are the customer, the consumer, the earth, the investor, and the co-creators, so really looking at these five stakeholders and looking at not only the businesses relationship to these five stakeholders, but also looking at the relationship of these five stakeholders within each other.

So if we can create businesses that are really adding value to all these stakeholders we cannot only provide a product or service that really meets the needs of our end-line consumers, but we can also continuously add value and add meaning to the lives, and enrich the lives of all those different stakeholders within which the business exists. So that's our kind of emerging definition of social enterprise, but you will certainly find many, many, different definitions.  But essentially it's a business that makes money and has a baked in value.

AMY: Okay. So when the Mycelium School is up and running full-steam ahead how many students are you thinking are going to be in each cohort?

MATTHEW ABRAMS: Well, ultimately, this is an iterative kind of conversation that we're having as we see that there is no precedent for this. We're making the rules as we go along and developing it so it really has an appropriate scale. We're not trying to scale this as large as we can. So what we're planning on doing is probably, by years 5 through 8 or so, we'll have about 70 participants so there will probably be about 40 participants engaging in the first year with the visiting instructors and about 30 participants in the dream lab and ultimately after we kind of reach our maximum limit there, the school will bifurcate. It will actually split.

And what we're going to implement are kind of like Mycelium School incubation programs. So participants, with whom the idea of the Mycelium School really resonates, we will take them under our wings and help them develop Mycelium Schools out in the world so we can create this global live network of regeneration through the creation of our participants and our graduates going out in the world and creating these regenerative businesses and also, eventually, the end, big vision picture is to have Mycelium schools all over the world that are interconnected, really harnessing the energy and resources that we will collectively be inspiring, and recruiting and sharing those and spreading the love that way.

AMY: And I think I need to ask, what's "mycelium"?

MATTHEW ABRAMS: Mycelium is the vegetative part of a mushroom. So what this mycelia, mycelia is the plural, what they do is spread out under the forest floor connecting to other mycelial webs and to plants and trees and actually link into this underground system and they transfer not only information but nutrients and they have the ultimate health of the ecosystem at hand, so that's the inspiration for doing the work that they do.

So we use the mycelium metaphor as our participants go out into the world and maintain these connections, continue to grow these connections, there ultimately working to certainly preserve and thrive as an individual but also to connect and have the vision of the host environment, which of course is our mother earth in mind and work to that end.

AMY: I think that's a great metaphor. Okay final question, who are you? What graduate school did you just finish? What's bringing you to this point where you're starting a school that has never existed before? And I don't just mean because it's a new school but because it's just such a new model of education as well?

MATTHEW ABRAMS: Sure. So I grew up in a pretty traditional upbringing in Connecticut and I went to public schools and immediately following high school, I went to college. And immediately following college, I went to work in New York City, as a talent agent.

And there came a point and it was interesting, at the time, I didn't realize how much 9/11 had affected me. It was obviously tragic and it was really hard to be living in Manhattan during that time, but I think I was a little immature to really process it, but there were seeds that were planted within me, there's something within me that kind of catalyzed this transformation. We live once and I wanted some deep meaning, I wanted to understand, more about who I was, more about what the world was, and so I decided to start traveling and I kind of became a travel junkie, over the course of the next 8 years or so I traveled to about 40 countries, really trying to embed myself in diverse cultures.

When I say embed, I mean live with people of different cultures, work in these communities and really I was just curious and I was wanting to know the lives of different people, how they were different, and how they were similar and I realized that when I came back after all these travels, I realized that this kind of hands-on learning, being out there in different cultures, really being vulnerable and really being independent and dependent at the same time, I found that to be a tremendously fertile soil for personal growth and I really wanted to figure out a way that I could hold this space for other people so I wanted to create a space for young leaders to come from around the world and be able to learn from one another and to learn about themselves and to create in that image.

So basically, that laid the groundwork for the Mycelium School. And I was a big dreamer, I had this big idea, and if the Mycelium School was open at the time I may have attended, but it wasn't, so I went to a graduate school called The School for International Training. And I had a double focus there in international education and social entrepreneurship and it's a really unique program. It has an international student body and faculty and so a great learning experience to integrate that graduate experience into the development of a Mycelium School as well.

AMY: So you mention that the Mycelium School in Asheville, North Carolina, which is in the Western Mountains, it's a very beautiful place, I'm just wondering why you picked Asheville?

MATTHEW ABRAMS: Over the course of the years Asheville has become this kind of mecca for self-reliant living, for independent thought, there are really amazing people that are doing...and it's not even so much what they're doing, it's how they're thinking about what they're doing so they're not saying what's going on, they're saying what could be, what is possible, what if and they really have the chops to make it happen, the essence of Asheville is one of innovation, one of interdependency, one of co-creation. The essence of the Mycelium school is exactly in line with that. So one thing that's so important in creating any business is really seeing what that fit is, what that alignment is, between the essence of business and that sense of community and if you can find a complimentary relationship, you can create a business that has a win-win relationship with the community so that's essentially what we're doing.

AMY: Well, I'll end it here and I want to say thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast and to introduce the Mycelium school to the idealist community.

MATTHEW ABRAMS: It's my pleasure and I look forward to seeing you out in Asheville.


AMY POTTHAST: Learn more about the Mycelium School at myceliumschool.org.

I'm Amy Potthast, thanks for listening. To find more good things to do, go to idealist.org. Today's show was produced with the help of our intern Millicent Zimdars. If you have enjoyed our podcast, please show our support by going to iTunes and leaving a review and a rating of this podcast and others that you liked. You can also send us feedback to podcasts@idealist.org.