‘Shut up and Listen’: how supporting small business can achieve real change

In his TED talk, “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen” (one of my favourites), Dr Ernesto Sirolli gives one of the most powerful and engaging calls to inaction that I have ever seen. While packed full of humorous anecdotes, especially concerning his time as a young man working for international aid organisations in Africa, Sirolli’s talk also plainly outlines the devastating effects of paternalistic attitudes to aid distribution. In his words, “Every single project they set up failed… everything we touched we killed”.

The famous story he tells in his talk (I strongly encourage you to watch or listen to the whole thing here, in his wonderful voice) and the inspiration for his book, Ripples from the Zambezi, is his experience in Zambia with an Italian aid organization. As he tells it:

It was a project where we Italians decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food. So we arrived there with Italian seeds in southern Zambia in this absolutely magnificent valley going down to the Zambezi River. And we taught the local people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini. And of course, the local people had absolutely no interest in doing that, so we paid them to come and work… and sometimes they would show up. And we were amazed that the local people in such a fertile valley would not have any agriculture! But, instead of asking them how come they were not growing anything, we simply said, ‘thank God we’re here – just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation!’

And of course, everything in Africa grew beautifully and we had these magnificent tomatoes. In Italy, a tomato would grow to this size. In Zambia, to this size (think: melon)! And we were telling the Zambians, ‘look how easy agriculture is’. (Then) when the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came up from the river and they ate everything. And we said to the Zambians, ‘my God, the hippos!’ And the Zambians said, ‘yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here’. (We said) ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’, and they said ‘You never asked’.

Enterprise Facilitation

Dr Sirolli became thoroughly disillusioned with the efforts of international aid programs after a number of years overseeing training and managing volunteers in various well-intentioned projects. He was in a position to see that projects were failing in their ultimate objectives to produce a sustainable and effective outcomes in the developing world, and noticed that the people involved in these failing projects weren’t telling anyone because they thought it must have been unique; one bad project in a program for the greater good… except that it was happening all over.

The Esperance Experience

So in 1985 Ernesto Sirolli pioneered a new approach of delivering economic ‘aid’ to communities in crisis, something he termed ‘Enterprise Facilitation®. At this time Sirolli found himself in the small community of Esperance, WA, in a time when the town’s main industry, fishing, was in a downturn created by the introduction of quotas. The industry was shedding jobs, which caused a significant increase in unemployment in the town and negative flow-on effects to the local economy.

Dr Sirolli firmly believed that the best way to stimulate growth was to help people develop their pre-existing passions, their ‘art’ and their skills into viable businesses.  His original project was with Mauri, who wanted to set up a fish smoking business but was mired down in health red tape, and who eventually built a successful gourmet product that was exported to capital cities around Australia. He then went on to help a cooperative of local fishermen sell to the Japanese sashimi market (instead of selling to the tuna cannery, where their product was one fifth of the price of the sashimi market).

What Dr Sirolli found was that the economic success of the various small business ventures that he facilitated in the town created an elevated sense of pride in the town, and a momentum that encouraged more and more people passionate about their particular idea to come to him for support. In the period from 1985 to 1988, 45 operating businesses were started in Esperance, with combined revenue of approximately 7.1 Million and directly adding 77 new full time jobs to the economy. The Esperance small business centre still operates successfully today.

So how does the method work?

In 1996 Dr Sirolli founded the The Sirolli Institute, a non-profit corporation that was formed to take his idea of ‘Enterprise Facilitation®’ out to more communities. The method was built on Sirolli’s belief and experience that most people wish to improve themselves in some way, regardless of culture, location or economic situation.

And one of the most striking things I took from his talk was the idea that the people that are really passionate about their ideas don’t generally turn up to community meetings or other public forums. They often aren’t the ones that are talking the loudest or longest on their ideas for changing the community. This is particularly evident in indigenous cultures (throughout the world) and other social environments that prevent people, particularly on the lower rungs of the social ladder, from speaking up. The challenge is to find these people and have one-on-one interactions, to give them total confidentiality and win their trust so that they share their ideas. Instead of going in with any pre-conceived notions of the best way to fix community problems, the facilitator literally spends the time, “shuts up and listens” to people, seeks to understand their passion, and only then can talk through the process of figuring out what support the business needs, or indeed if it is viable. With the support of the facilitator, the individual entrepreneur can identify their strengths and weaknesses in product development, marketing and financial management, and where the weaknesses exist the facilitator can help to find someone to fill the gap.

In the method prescribed by the Sirolli Institute, the facilitator is trained by the Institute, but is selected and supported by a local board of business people, which meets voluntarily and regularly on a confidential basis to use their skills and networks to help clients link to resources, information, mentors, advisors and business partners. The central tenet of the method is to offer free, confidential business management and networking advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and existing small businesses.

While it’s important to have support for the projects from community leaders and gatekeepers, it’s equally important that the space is provided so that ideas are developed organically, so that individuals in the community have ownership and use their own passion and skills to drive the business.

What is happening in Australia now?

After being inspired by the TED talk I was motivated to delve a little further into the impact of Enterprise Facilitation® in Australia.  It’s interesting that the ‘Esperance Experience’, which apparently inspired more than 250 communities around the world to adopt the model of a “people-centred, bottom up approach” seems to be almost unknown, and certainly unheralded now. In fact, in a recent newspaper article concerning three projects recently started in Tasmania, “Esperance Shire President Malcolm Heasman said the project did not come up much in conversation”.

While Sirolli initially received small amounts of funding from governments to run ‘demonstration projects’, part of the problem appears to have been the lack of will to sustain the funding from governments and communities.  A good example is in the article mentioned above, which criticizes the lack of successful business from the last 2 years of state government funding. As it generally takes up to 5 years for the average business to become profitable, this may represent a mindset that is incompatible with the method itself. Even though the projects generally only require funding to cover a full time salary of the facilitator plus some overheads (the board and other business support must be offered voluntarily), the method requires a lot of patience and the project is simply not able to report on much of it’s progress because of confidentiality issues.

Some quick google research tells me that Enterprise Facilitation programs in Australia at the moment include (but possibly not limited to):

  • The Cobar Enterprise Facilitation project, with the objective of future-proofing Cobar from downturns in the mining industry. In this case the project was supported by the local government, but council withdrew funding due to it’s own financial issues the slack was picked up by mining companies in the area as part of their support for the community and by local businesses. The project appears to be quite successful with 107 clients resulting in 42 new businesses being started in Cobar, as well as the creation of 92 jobs, $1.5million in new or additional income in the town and $500,000 in capital expenditure (info here).
  • 3 projects in different regions of Tasmania are currently running, supported by funding from the Tasmanian Government. There are no results to report as yet.

Going Forward

Incubators and accelerators for start-up businesses are all the rage in cities. But what if it would be possible to stimulate our rural and regional towns in the same way? What if more highly skilled business people were passionate about improving the economic situation and well-being of people in remote and regional areas (or even lower socio-economic areas within the cities) of our own country instead of jetting off abroad on volunteerism ‘holidays’? What if they were motivated to make a real impact by sharing their skills, contacts and networks with people who are driven to create economic wealth in these areas?

There appears to be push towards policies where economic development is community-driven and away from the paternalistic and unworkable top-down policies from the government.  This move partly comes from the fact that, like Sirolli talks about in Africa, many of our ‘interventionist’ policies have been utter failures when it comes to real outcomes, not just economically, but on a social level in healthcare, education and general well-being of communities.

Dr Ernesto Sirolli’s concept and methods to drive growth through small business seem like a sensible way to achieve better economic outcomes in communities, both for the people themselves and in the community as a whole. But whether governments, businesses and communities can stick with funding these types of programs to the point where the ball really starts rolling remains to be seen.

The information in this blog comes mostly from the Sirolli Institute and Dr Ernesto Sirolli’s pHD thesis; a very good read which you can download here.

Is enterprise facilitation a good model for community development? How could a longer-term approach to funding this approach be instigated? Is government funding essential or should we look to more private partnerships such as the one in Cobar? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

One comment on “‘Shut up and Listen’: how supporting small business can achieve real change
  1. Melanie we are working with Rio Tinto and BHP who are employing Enterprise Facilitators as part of their Community Engagement programs in the Hunter Valley and the Pilbara. We were wrong trying to work with government, too slow and too political (every new government disposes or re-names programs created by the previous one!) We are also working with Deloitte in WA running short courses for entrepreneurs and with Curtin University. My 36 Enterprise Facilitation projects in WA were renamed BEC and changed names for 20 years until recently when they were finally killed. The BEC were managed by the Small Business Administration who had initially opposed their establishment…you can imagine the love lost! Enterprise Facilitation has never stopped being applied and our telephone has never stopped ringing for the past 30 years. The TED Talk has confirmed that there is a keen interest for the method (and the ideas behind it) especially among Millennials and corporations willing to engage communities in a non patronizing, non paternalistic way.

    Thanks for your research and kind words. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if still interested.

    Ernesto Sirolli

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