Pure Inspiration: Echoing Green at 25

On Friday I had the privilege of attending Echoing Green’s 25th Anniversary All Fellows Conference. For those who aren't familiar with Echoing Green (EG), it is a NYC-based non-profit with a huge global impact. It provides a two year Echoing Green fellowship for early stage social entrepreneurs, which consists of financial support, services and access to a rich community of fellow entrepreneurs and supporters. In the last selection cycle EG received over 3,500 applications from 128 countries for the usual 30 spots within the fellowship cohort, making it more than selective with an acceptance rate of less than 1%. Last year was the launch of EG’s Black Male Achievement Fellowship in collaboration with the Open Society Foundation. Echoing Green is also, like its peer Ashoka, a pioneer of the growing field of social entrepreneurship and a thought leader in this movement.

The conference was integrated with the annual All Fellows Conference, but was also open to alumni of the fellowship dating back to the early 1990's and former Echoing Green staff members (yay!) in honor of the 25th anniversary celebration. While it may seem odd to jump at the opportunity to use a day of vacation to attend an all-day conference hosted by an organization you worked for, for only a year, five years ago, I made sure that I was there. Simply put, this event was some much needed food for my soul.

There was no red carpet, no staged photo area, no press, but the event, which also honored Ed Cohen, respected venture capitalist and the founder of Echoing Green, did attract stars, just of a very unique breed. Former EG Fellows present included Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, Michael Brown & Allen Khazei, co-founders of City Year, Vanessa Kirsch, co-founder of Public Allies and founder of NewProfit, and Van Jones, co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Green For All.  These giants of social entrepreneurship not only founded some of the largest public service organizations in the nation, but they also contributed to introducing groundbreaking legislation like the National and Community Service Trust Act (AmeriCorps, 1993) and the Energy Independence and Security Act (Green Jobs Act, 2007).

But it was not the mere presence of these famous social entrepreneurs that made the morning plenary sessions so moving. It was the familial intimacy displayed in a room of almost 300 participants. Cheryl Dorsey, EG president and another giant within the movement, spoke briefly on EG’s history and current trajectory. What struck me is how she punctuated her very informal, mic-less speech by pointing to folks within the audience, entrepreneurs from every stage of EG history, and integrated their personal and professional stories into that of the organization like an all-encompassing hug. Yes, the successes of Echoing Green Fellows and their respective ventures are amazing, but what was truly inspiring was the litany of personal thanks directed at Ed Cohen for his life-changing, compassionate confidence and investment in people. Not people in the abstract, ‘all of humanity’ sense, but in real individuals drowning in debt with only their ideas and passion to hold on to. “Ed Cohen has the highest degree of empathy for other people,” one alumnus stated. There were several direct ‘I love you’s,’ numerous forms of ‘you have changed my life’ and countless accounts of how Mr. Cohen and EG had stepped in as a lifeline in various personal and organizational crises.

Then Ed Cohen spoke. Surprisingly zen, he noted that the phrase “perseverance further” was one of the most recurring in the I-Ching Chinese philosophy. He thanked others for the success of EG and went about sharing his meditations, illustrating his talk with stories, his own paintings and selected poetry. One of his major themes: collaboration. “The greatest power among social change people is in working together,” he insisted, after explaining how several EG Fellows collaborated with each other and other partners to be the first to invest equity capital in Native American reservations. The poetry, as he explained, was inevitable. Echoing Green itself was given the name of a William Blake poem. Ever the lover of this written form, Mr. Cohen pulled out a couple of well-used hardcovers and read the room of 300 change makers two poems: Try to Praise The Mutilated World by Adam Zagajewski and Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy.

Saturated, we broke for lunch, which was filled with exclamations and hugs as people reconnected. The afternoon was divided into ‘Braintrust sessions’ in which guests, staff, and alumni provided ideas and recommendations to newer Fellows facing challenges. I realized more than ever how buzzed I get connecting people and helping them pursue their ideas and passions. I found myself adding to my own list of things to accomplish in life: I aspire not only to make the impact of a social entrepreneur someday, but to also have made the impact of being an ‘Ed Cohen’ to a network of change makers. An ambitious challenge indeed, but one I take on joyfully.