Enacting social change and a heart-full of vulnerability

Alice Marsh

November 20, 2019

I first met Alice at an event our mutual friend organises called Idea Show & Tell. Alice was talking about an idea of encouraging charities to work collaboratively and not fight over the limited resources available. She has also co-founded The Social Experiment, a programme that brings socially minded people together over a weekend to equip them with tools and empower them. Alice is such a genuine person and we are so happy to have her as a friend! It’s our total pleasure to introduce you to her on Storyo.

Alice, could you share some background on where your journey has begun to where you are now?

I adored science at school. I was also a debater. Geeeeeky. With these two loves, I was presented with two wildly original study options by my careers adviser: medicine or law. I couldn’t decide so I chose to do law and neuroscience at the same time. At university, I wasn’t ultra invested in the academic side of things. Instead I was heavily involved with Ignite Consultants, a strategic consultancy for not for profits in the Dunedin community. I fell in love with finding creative solutions to societal and environmental issues. I also had my first taste of entrepreneurship, and fell in love with that too.

Despite these new loves, I got a job at a large corporate law firm because that’s what everyone else was doing. I used to be so concerned about people’s perception of me. I immediately knew it wasn’t the career for me, so I left after six months. Everyone thought I was nuts but it was just one of those things where I had to rip the band-aid off. I didn’t feel inspired by the work I was doing and I knew there would be something better suited for me out there. I moved to a boutique intellectual property strategy consultancy. I learned heaps about innovation and startups and cool companies.

Then I was presented with an incredible opportunity to combine science, business and societal and environmental impact, at Kiwi Innovation Network. KiwiNet empowers scientists across the country to take their research to market. It is an example of genuine collaboration, with a network of Universities and Crown Research Institutes sharing knowledge, contacts and funding. This role challenged the traditional notion of ‘science’. Rather than science being stuck in the lab, I got to champion scientists to take their research out to the communities and environments it was designed to impact. So cool! This was my most recent role and I left in May to work on other things full time (more on that later).

Alice Marsh in a big hug with people from Social Experiment

Tell us more about The Social Experiment (SoX)? You’ve had over 200 people go through the experience, what are some of the biggest takeaways you’ve had?

I created The Social Experiment after having one too many conversations with incredible people who were stuck on taking action on their ideas. It truly was an experiment initially, we had just intended to run one experiment to bring 20 friends together to create solutions to issues they cared about. We were super curious about what would happen. We kept it really simple, and a couple of weeks after having the idea we had a six-strong female team who all brought unique experience to the programme, created a private Facebook page, asked people to shoulder tap people they thought would be interested and got a friend to suss a free venue for a weekend. Through that first experiment, we discovered the deep mindset barriers that people experience around taking action and their change-making potential. We identified an unquestionable desire for vulnerable experiences and human connection. While epic programmes already exist, mindset work is often the missing link.

It has grown organically from there. We have designed a successful experiential curriculum that integrates mindset coaching and entrepreneurial pedagogy, secured contracts with Callaghan Innovation and Ministry of Youth Development, facilitated 11 Experiments, created an online follow-up program, and have over 200 graduates.

While that sounds great, it hasn’t been all rosey. A big challenge we’ve faced is the nay-sayers. A lot of people think this is weird, or woo, or unnecessary. Other people perhaps have the wrong idea about who we are, and it can be difficult to communicate what we do effectively. We truly believe everyone is amazing. We simply want to remove any mindset barriers in the way of people taking action on what they really care about. You just have to ignore the nay-sayers though, otherwise it is truly crippling. There have been moments where I can’t sleep with someone’s judgment or opinion going around and around in my head. The best thing in the face of this challenge has been a team, we’re all in it together.

Another challenge has been aligning on strategy. There are so many ways this could go and it can be a struggle to stay grounded and focused!

Ultimately we want The Social Experiment to become a global movement of action. Action is the only thing that changes reality!

See www.thesocialexperiment.co or email hello@thesocialexperiment.co if you’re interested in attending or hosting an Experiment at your workplace or in you community. We’d love to hear from you!

A notebook from The Social Experiment (SoX) that says: “Humans in Action”

Let’s talk about The Good Portal. This  has been a mission for you for a few years. What is The Good Portal and how is it going? What can we help with?

The Good Portal is a searchable, usable platform to find any of the 28,000 registered New Zealand charities. I noticed a few years ago that it's not easy to find charities online and started to investigate the sector. I had the idea to create a listing platform that will impact the sector through the provision of independent and beautifully presented charity data. Nonprofits bring people together to make an impact on the issues they care about the most. Having accessible information to make decisions about nonprofits and the work they do is essential to making the sector more effective and efficient.

The theory of change is that by increasing data breadth, depth and quality and tools to aid nonprofits, funders, volunteers and people in need, it will lead to better funding decisions influenced by data, simplified funding systems, an easier connection between charities and their beneficiaries, fast learning among nonprofits, greater collaboration and trust in the nonprofit sector.

It definitely had a little (big) nap for the last couple of years. Thinking about it, perhaps my inaction on the Good Portal spurred the creation of a program like The Social Experiment! I have had major mindset barriers about my ability to pull something like this off, and I’m constantly facing off with them. Like, I don’t know how to create a web-based social enterprise?! I don’t get the internet! I am constantly forgiving myself for not making this happen sooner. But, ultimately, I hope that everything I’ve done in between will contribute to making it more useful than originally planned. I’ve kept at it because I think it needs to exist. Being able to find charities is good for everyone.

The game-changer for me getting it off the ground was simply asking for help. My amazing friend Kiran Patel runs Idea Show and Tell which is like the reverse of a pitch night. I shared about what I needed to get it going and connected with Steven (one of the creators of Storyo!). With his help I’ve been able to launch a beta version. I’m currently testing this beta version before adding functionality and growing its presence. If you are involved with a charity, email me at hello@thegoodportal.nz, sign up for updates at www.thegoodportal.nz, or if you’re keen to be involved in making it happen get in touch.

We tend to only see the highlight reels of other people’s lives which could, of course, make us feel unworthy or worse than. Would you mind sharing some of your personal challenges that you experienced whether it is through your career or purpose searching journey?

It’s scary to answer these types of questions. I immediately want to protect myself from vulnerability. Even though sharing is what I preach to people, I’m super stingey when it comes to sharing myself. I also really do try to look forward rather than backwards but I’m beginning to understand how powerful revisiting my past can be. I get so scared it looks like a pity party, because I am hyper-aware of my privilege. Anyway those are all my caveats!

A big personal challenge for me is that I have a belief that I’m not smart. It holds me back a lot, because I feel I don’t know ‘enough’ to actually create something successful. Like I can create something good enough, but what about something amazing? I look at everyone else and feel like they know more than me, or they would know what to do in my situation, or they get something that I don’t. When I tell people this they’re like “oh but you’re so smart!” and I understand it seems that way, but I truly don’t feel that way.

I’ve had a couple of health incidents. I had a serious concussion last year. This was when I realised I genuinely see myself as a production unit. This is a massive work-on for me still, I have to remind myself that I’m not defined by my outputs and it's okay to not produce results. When my brain and body couldn’t work for many months, I really struggled with who I was, because I couldn’t attach my identity to activities, projects etc. I couldn’t really socialise either, so having so much time on my own unable to do anything was quite honestly a massive challenge for me. It ultimately made me a human being instead of a human doing. I was diagnosed with rheumatic fever in my second year at university. I spent the next three years getting penicillin shots in my butt, and felt the equivalent of a hangover most days as a result. I’m all good now, and the saddest thing about this situation is that I’m only good because of my privilege. The statistics for rheumatic fever in poverty are heinous and it’s a glaring example of systemic and blatant racism in the healthcare sector.

I’ve been hit with the inescapable human experience of grief too. In my final year of university, my ex-partner, Dillon, committed suicide. This was pretty hard to grapple with. I probably soldiered on a bit hard and it still definitely impacts me. Then this May, my uncle Malcolm, who was my absolute idol on how to live life, passed away from bowel cancer. I find death extremely confronting and scary. These situations have been such determinants in me continuing to take risks, live life as best I can and do what I love, but I’m bloody scared at the same time.

Could you share some of the interesting / quirky  projects you have worked on in the past? Something that stands out?

I love experimenting with ideas and seeing if they stick. A lot of them don’t, but I love the process! Is three too many to list? Focus is clearly not one of my strengths.

Last year I got kind of obsessed with fashion sustainability and challenged myself to make a genuinely sustainable range of pyjamas, Jami. This was so incredibly random for me as I have no experience in this space, but I wanted to try. So I talked to a bunch of experts, got so deep in research on sustainable fabrics, had patterns made, found an epic ethical New Zealand manufacturer, the works. But it got to a point when I couldn’t hand on heart say that the creation of these pyjamas was sustainable and wouldn’t have a negative impact on the planet. This was a wild realisation actually. If seaweed fabric becomes mainstream and affordable, maybe I’ll kick off on that again, but right now it’s near impossible! Madness!

I discovered  a wildly successful yoghurt (Icelandic Skyr) on my university exchange in Denmark. I started investigating what is on our shelves, then developed it myself in New Zealand and took it to market. It completely failed a year later, and I experienced shame and embarrassment. Through that I discovered that failure is the most potent learning device. I committed to being a life-long 'f-learner’, and to always choose action over fear. The event has continuously impacted my understanding and empathy for others’ resistance to taking action!

Last year I discovered that very few New Zealanders knew about the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which we had committed to as a nation. I created ‘Narrative Imperative’, a Sustainable Development Goal storytelling initiative that had 200 moving written entries, and engaged over 5000 people. It has recently been profiled in the Prime Minister’s first Voluntary National Review on the SDGs received by the UN. Planning is in progress for the 2019 edition, with the intention it runs until 2030. We don’t actually have enough human capital to make this happen anymore, so if anyone is keen to pick this up you’re welcome to take it and run with it.  www.narrativeimperative.org

Alice Marsh at one of the Social Experiments

We have these wonderful conversations about problems and social issues. What are your thoughts on the luck factor in people’s lives? What role has luck / privilege played in your life?

I am incredibly privileged. I am from a stable, loving, white, middle-class family. I have never wanted for anything. I have had very little pressure to be a certain way and I have had the emotional support to take risks. For a long long time, and still residually, I have felt a lot of guilt about this. Like a lot. I know wholeheartedly that my privilege has been the platform for everything wonderful in my life. That it provided the opportunities that I have taken. I’m going to be corny and put in a quote here, but it’s one that bounces around my mind constantly. ‘Those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act’ - Albert Einstein. I have the privilege to access information, to learn, to have the freedom to experiment, so I have a duty to act. To act on what’s important. I actually get overwhelmed with gratitude, and I still cannot understand how or why I got a functioning body, a good brain, etc. like why me? And the only existential way I can kind of assimilate that is that I’m supposed to take it by the horns and do something with it, for the world, so that’s what I’m trying to do. I just need to get out of my own way!

On any given day, what makes you feel like it was a good day?

Always the human connection. I can think of a specific experience of pure joy / humans are amazing when I was visiting Wellington recently. I’d reached out to two amazing women (coincidentally whose story I would want to read about on here) who have founded two incredible, impactful businesses, for some advice. I was so humbled that both of them offered up their time. I had back to back meetings with them, both with so much energy and generosity. After that I walked in the Wellington sunshine along the waterfront listening to music grinning ear to ear. I think it was the purposeful conversation, genuine collaboration, walking, sunshine and music. That’s a good day for me, and luckily I have those moments regularly cause there are incredible people around every corner.

Alice Marsh and her whanau

What’s next for you?

I left my job earlier this year to work on The Social Experiment and The Good Portal full time. Getting them thriving is my core focus for the next year. I’ve moved to Dunedin to live with my parents while I do this.

I’m actually writing this from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I came to Addis with one of my best friends (hi, Sophia) to attend the Social Enterprise World Forum. I wanted to connect with likeminded humans and get inspired and learn from the activity that is happening across the African continent (and the world). It was a mind-blowing conference, we could really learn from the social and environmental innovation that’s happening here.

More generally, being in Ethiopia, the community, inclusivity and kindness is kind of overwhelming and I’m really present to the things we sometimes miss when we’re ultra focused on productivity and ‘more’. I also slept on a live volcano here which was extremely life affirming - it’s like looking at the stars, but you’re looking at the core of the earth.

I’m heading to London to work on The Social Experiment with my London team mate Hannah after this, which is ultra exciting. After that, another stint of mahi in Dunedin, then I’m planning to do my Masters in New York in September 2020 (just in time for their election, eek).

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?

Julia Capon - Do Good Jobs

Ashlyn Baum - Accreditron / Traject

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