At California's Esalen Institute, Jerónimo Calderón blends ancient wisdom traditions with the visionary spirit of Silicon Valley to help burned-out social entrepreneurs pioneer ‘magical’ new forms of collaboration.
What happens when you bring a group of successful, bright, driven social entrepreneurs, environmental activists and sustainable business leaders together for a week-long networking event, then forbid them from talking about work?
It might seem counterintuitive, but this is exactly what has happened since 2016 at a series of gatherings run by social entrepreneur Jerónimo Calderón and his friends at locations from Silicon Valley to the Brazilian atlantic forest, from OuiShareFest to Burning Man Festival, from their garden to private mansions. “Many of them actually start to get feelings of anger rise up,” says Jerónimo, who, at 35, has spent the last three years experimenting with how to transform the field of social change work. “They tell me ‘I can’t be who I really am if I don’t talk about what I do!’”
Fortunately, uncomfortable emotions were exactly the kind of result that Jerónimo and his team were looking for. They wanted to design an experience that would encourage people out of their comfort zones when it came to how they relate to one another, particularly when it came to work. When stripped of the pressure to ‘perform’, what happened was that people started to open up about parts of their life they were not used to sharing. “Many of them had either had a burnout, or were on the brink of burnout, or in general not doing well,” he says. “At some point it became clear that regardless of what field someone worked in we were essentially touching upon a big collective mental health crisis. The person who felt fully healthy, alive, present in all areas of their life was the exception rather than the rule.”
Jerónimo is part of a rising cohort of entrepreneurs and thinkers that are pressing for a rethink in the way we organise around social change work.
Conversations that might have been about business models and funding opportunities turned into philosophical exercises, as they began asking themselves and each other what it was about their field of work that was leaving them so empty. How was this actually preventing, rather than enabling, them from coming up with exactly the kinds of sustainable solutions they wanted to see in the world? “We started to look into the core of how we collaborate together, how we show up, how we have discussions,” Jerónimo says. “Then considered how this changes when you introduce variables like gender, race and economic disparity into the mix.”
Born and raised in Switzerland to a Swiss mother and Bolivian father who met whilst backpacking across South America, Jerónimo grew up straddled between two cultures. “I never for one second felt Swiss,” he says. “I was always treated as an outsider, and so even though I was culturally Swiss I identified more as a Bolivian.” A self-confessed recovered cynic, as an undergraduate student in Political Science he says that he recognised all-too-well the problems in the world, but as a young person felt “ignorant, small and useless” when it came to his ability to make a difference.
A lightbulb moment came one Saturday morning when, hungover after a party, he attended a talk on social entrepreneurship. “One of the speakers said ‘it’s amazing to see you all here on a Saturday morning’ and it just clicked for me,” he says. “I thought, there’s 40 young people in this room who all came here because they want to do something good in the world. At that moment I finally felt a sense of purpose. We just needed to work together and then maybe our contribution would matter.”
After some years running youth-empowerment workshops and executive education programs with his co-founded organisation euforia, Jerónimo was invited to participate in an inner development program for social change leaders run by The Wellbeing Project, an organisation that run personal programmes for change makers from all over the world. The mission behind The Wellbeing Project is to guide people towards inner wellbeing and therefore unlock the kinds of collaboration and innovation that is needed to address social and environmental challenges. “On the programme I met people who I really admire, people whose books I’d read, and they were sharing about how they had sacrificed their health, their relationships and their personal finances, at the same time as new research was coming out questioning the impact of their ventures,” says Jerónimo. “My main thought was ‘this is not working! This is not working for anyone!’”
Organisations are generally the place we manifest our potential and action in the world, and with a critically challenged planet of 7.7 billion people, Jerónimo is part of a rising cohort of entrepreneurs and thinkers that are pressing for a rethink in the way we organise around social change work. He realised that over the years he’d been so preoccupied on scaling his own ‘solution’ that he’d never really had enough time to actually get to know the people he was sharing a vision with. Having recently received the first ThinkPACT fellowship from the Swiss Business Council for Sustainable Development he decided to take the opportunity to experiment and, spurred by his experience with The Wellbeing Project, organised a meet-up of people in his field who he’d met over the years, but never had a chance to connect with.
“So often, our starting point for engaging with someone is transactional - where all we are thinking about is ‘what can I get from you?’"
Eventually, this meeting led to the creation of Amanitas, an experiment which hosts ‘ReTreats’ with the aim of getting people together in real life and real time to practise deeper forms of connection. Named after a species of mushroom, Jerónimo explains that they chose this name for their organisation because, as an organism, mushrooms embodied everything they saw was needed in the world. “Firstly, mushrooms have the ability to transform toxic and waste material into fertile ground,” he says, “So often, our starting point for engaging with someone is transactional - where all we are thinking about is ‘what can I get from you?’ We wanted to explore how to transform this toxicity into fertile ground.” The second part of the metaphor was inspired by mycelium, the so-called ‘wood wide web’, a subterranean underground web of fungi which connects trees to each other and allows them to share information. “We want to serve this function of connecting people that wouldn’t usually meet and create this internet of real connections between people that trust each other.”
The worldview underlying Amanitas is that society is at a tipping point. Not only do we have the huge challenge of climate change and global inequality, but the internet has disrupted the way we live, communicate and organise so profoundly that what is normal today would have been unimaginable just one generation ago. Whilst huge amounts of funding are being pumped into the next big technological innovation, the epidemic of loneliness and the mental health crisis suggests that underneath all this progress lurks deeper existential implications which no amount of techno-fixes will be able to remedy. What does it mean to be human, to be alive, to have purpose?
The third rationale behind the naming of Amanitas is because of the connection between mushrooms and something Jerónimo sees as being a vital missing force in the world right now - magic. “People who have experienced psychedelics often have what we call mystical experiences. They feel a connection to all other living beings and in doing so, touch upon magic, and considering the crises we are in right now as a planet then this world needs magic,” he says. “The magic we believe is required is things like connection, awe and wonder, because that is where true inspiration comes from.”
What might seem like a fairly New Age proposition is actually something that has been practised for thousands of years across the world. On his father’s side Jerónimo is descended from the Aymara, an indigenous nation in the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America. A few years ago on a trip to Bolivia an Aymara elder told him about something that to Jerónimo, with his Western framework of thinking, sounded like telepathy. “Except it wasn’t called telepathy,” he says. “It was called affection.” As he reconnected with his father’s roots, he learned about the principles by which his people structured their communities and relationships to one and other, based on the idea of balance and harmony. “Essentially the underlying logic of it is that everything is connected through love,” he says. “What they practise is just being in true affection for each other, loving each and every single member of the community. And not just between human beings, the community is everything, the stone, the river, the mountain, the ancestors, everyone. Just being in this place of deep deep appreciation for one another and nature.”
The result of this deep appreciation and connection, he says, is the building of an intuitive bridge to the needs and feelings of others. This under-utilised sense is what is being touched upon when, for example, your spouse comes home from work and you can immediately sense that something is bothering them, when we dream about someone close to us only to find out that they have had an accident, or when a mother can feel her child’s distress despite not being present with them. “It happens to all of us, all of us have a story to tell,” he says. “But what happens is that we tell ourselves that it is a coincidence because our current narrative is that this doesn’t exist, we’ve just invented other terms for it like empathy, but our ability to empathise with people is super limited and under-explored.”
The solution to social problems will come from creating the conditions for inspiration and emergence.
Earlier this year Jerónimo partnered with the Esalen Institute in California for a two month residency, during which he and his colleagues at Amanitas had the opportunity to experiment further with this model. Over two months, they created ‘living labs’ which allowed them to gather insights about the best way to facilitate and the hold space for these kinds of human interactions to occur. Diversity was a key part of their criteria. Studies have shown that diverse teams tend to produce better, stronger and more workable solutions, yet across the board many organisations are falling short. “We see in nature that when different ecosystems meet in river deltas, that’s where the most innovation, the most new life is created,” says Jerónimo. “Our challenge was to create a safe space for people to unleash their full potential, and a big part of that is that everyone needed to have the courage to be in a place of patience and trust.”
Much like how a great artwork will flow from a space of inspiration and creativity, Jerónimo and his team believe that the solution to social problems will come not through anxious activity, but by leaving egos at the door and creating the conditions for inspiration and emergence. “People started to precede their statements with things like ‘I’m not sure why I’m telling you this,’ or, ‘I feel very uncomfortable telling you this because I can’t explain where it is coming from,’” he said. “Tapped into this kind of inspiration, topics that are very rooted in our psyche like gender, race and privilege were deconstructed and new perspectives emerged.”
The starting point of the living labs is that they are built on a foundation of radical trust, where the only accountability is not to boards or investors, but to future generations. A big part of the puzzle, unsurprisingly, is giving individuals the opportunity to do the kind of ‘inner work’ necessary to be able to facilitate new forms of collaboration. As so much of social change work is gripped by identity politics resulting, Jerónimo says, in a culture of “shame and blame”, it’s about processing and healing from trauma and therefore no longer being defined by it. It’s not so much about flattening difference in as much as working towards a recognition of shared humanity.
“If humanity consciousness doesn’t catch up - if we don’t invest in things like human collaboration technology - then robots, machines and computers will just leave us behind.”
In recent years science has emerged indicating that trauma can actually write itself into our DNA, allowing it to be passed through generations. “There is a collective healing that needs to happen,” he says. “We’ve all been screwed up in different ways - and if it’s not in our personal story then it’s in our family, or our community.” Considering the atrocities and violence carried out in all human societies both on an institutional and familial level over the past several hundred years, starting to heal this trauma is no mean feat, but this ‘quantum leap’ is desperately needed if humanity is to save itself.
Whether it’s research into mystical experiences on psychedelics, or the discovery that trees and plants have the ability to communicate with each other, Jerónimo sees the living labs as building on a new wave of science which is using spiritual inquiry as a starting point for research. “In neuroscience and quantum physics, scientists are starting to ask very spiritual questions about the very essence of life, of awareness and matter,” he says. “There is an incredible opportunity for us to step into that and recognise that although science has given us so much, there are also some things which it cannot rationally explain.” From here, we can start to weave new myths about what it means to be human. “These new forms of secular spirituality don’t have one truth that it upholds, but it does empower and inspire people to be their higher selves,” he says.
The implications of not investing into this kind of human Research and Development could be huge. “If humanity consciousness doesn’t catch up then robots, machines and computers will just leave us behind.”
So how do we design experiences for people so that they may begin to touch on magic and start to fully explore the potential of the complex, organic software that exists in our heads? In order to attract a Silicon Valley level of investment, Jerónimo is taking a Silicon Valley approach, and dreaming big. The goal is to eventually roll out living laboratories in various locations across the world; created from cohorts of people who are in some way or another deeply embedded in their local communities and the issues faced there, but lack the possibility to escape the “hamster wheel". Then, they will be freed from the need to earn money for a living for a number of years as they experiment with new ways of being and working together.
In a current global climate where division is rife and pressure to act is mounting, to speak seriously about creating large-scale social change programmes with the sole purpose to explore what it means to be human and live in connection with one and other may seem unlikely, even naive, but Jerónimo believes that ambitious, utopian-level solutions are the only way out of the mess we find ourselves in as a species. “We need to dare to go there," he says. “Because if we have the courage to go there, that’s when we’re going to go beyond the boundaries of what is currently defined as normal and ordinary and unleash the kinds of innovations on the level that we need right now."
“The most important thing to remember is that we’re not inventing anything new here. What actually seems new is actually old, very old. Our task as a generation is to think about how we can translate this wisdom into new stories, new myths, so that people can feel inspired to leave the comfort of what is, and step into something new.”
Words by Tarn Rodgers Johns
Tarn is the editor-in-chief of Emerge. Raised in the UK and based in Berlin, she is driven by curiosity and an incessant but largely unsatisfied desire to get to the bottom of everything. She is interested in psychology, human creativity and the changing world around us.
Photos by Steffen Stäuber
Steffen is the founder of Create Meaning, a Consulting Studio based in Berlin.