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By Mike Stephens, CEO of Entrepreneurial Spark.

I’m not a software engineer. I don’t know what a container, stack or kernel is, and I find even trying to describe an API a bit like trying to explain the offside rule. And until May 2016, I had never heard of “Open Source”.

So it was with fascination that I listened to Jim Whitehurst (Red Hat CEO) on a stage at a Scaling Up conference in Atlanta. He was evangelising about what having an open culture can do for an organisation, and the growth of the open source movement. I learned about what can happen when you stop trying to control everything and unlock the power of collaboration around a shared purpose.

And I thought “I have GOT to get involved in that!”

You see, I was working for Entrepreneurial Spark and we shared a lot of the same values. Entrepreneurial Spark is an accelerator for entrepreneurs that focuses on building great people who build great businesses.  We help to create communities, both physical and virtual, where entrepreneurs can come to be inspired and challenged, and to collaborate with other entrepreneurs and mentors. And we had a lot in common with the open principles that Jim was describing:

  •         Our programmes were free to access, so they were inclusive for as many people as possible.
  •         We were a meritocracy – gathering ideas from around the world and enabling our fantastic team to use them to support entrepreneurs.
  •         We focussed intensely on building collaborative communities – entrepreneurs helping each other rather than solely looking to us for support.
  •         We were a people business.

The problem we are trying to solve is that support for entrepreneurs is disconnected. They are the people solving the problems of today and tomorrow, driving growth and creating the jobs of the future for our children. So we all have a stake in their success. 

However, the support mechanisms around them are not inclusive or effective – there are many accelerators and incubators, but mostly in major cities and with high barriers to entry. Public sector support exists but does not integrate well with private sector support and intellectual property is hoarded behind paywalls that many entrepreneurs cannot afford to scale.

We believe a radically different approach is required. 

What if we could bring all of these stakeholders together with the entrepreneurs themselves, around a shared agenda of ensuring that more entrepreneurs survive and grow? Could we get everyone to contribute to building something bigger in the same model as open source software?

How Red Hat Catalysed Our Idea

Since Jim and Red Hat had inspired the idea, I figured they would be the best people to help us explore it. We did deep research into the organisation and the more I read the more certain I was that we were on the right track.

Right from the start it felt like there was a great culture fit. Red Hat’s EMEA Office of Technology (EOT) understood what we were trying to achieve straight away, and agreed to take part in our planned ideation. I was thrilled! Here was an organisation that shared our belief in the power of people and mindset, a passion for new ideas and sharing them to create positive impact in the world around them. Here was a decisive team that moved fast, worked together and took action.

Our objective was to understand how open source principles could be applied to a non-tech business to create the same global impact as it has in the software world.

The Red Hat crew felt like part of our team. They are passionate advocates of the open source way. Their enthusiasm for open principles bubbled out of them and was matched by their deep knowledge. We drew heavily from them! Red Hat framed the session with a number of useful tools that help us accelerate towards an outcome. We had a Kanban board to keep us on track, and an impact mapping session to identify some concrete steps and how they linked to our goals. Having not used these tools before I was impressed by how well they were explained and implemented by the Red Hat team .

Our team received an immersion into the world of open organisations, and the core principles that guide collaborative innovation. The biggest mindset shift for us was getting away from the idea that this was mainly about having a platform. We learned that the most important focus is on building a community of like-minded people who share a common purpose, and then working out how to connect them in a valuable way.

Key things I learned:

  1. Open source isn’t just about software. It’s bigger than that – cultural, ideological, backed by vision, people and purpose and enabled by technology.
  2. That if good people, healthy practices and clear processes  aren’t in place then collaboration on the actual technology won’t happen.
  3. The importance of transparency and authenticity in drawing people to collaborate.


The Future

The workshop gave us a clear sense of direction and a defined playing field. We went in with a blank piece of paper and an open mind, and came out with fresh insight and tools that allowed us to redefine our mission and make a bold action plan. What we have mapped out with Red Hat’s support has the potential to change the lives of millions of people across the globe, rebalance economies and create opportunities for those willing to take them.

I believe the open source way can work for us and our goals, and it has the potential to revolutionise our industry in the same way that it has for software. I urge other organisations who are still working in a top-down, siloed, command & control setting to take a peek over the wall, reach out and try something different. You could be amazed at what you will receive back when you let go.

The EMEA Office of Technology helps enterprise customers understand how and why they might work with Red Hat, before they make a technology decision. Part of this remit includes working with organisations to strategically use open source software, methodologies & principles. 


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