Confidence, the golden mole and a new era of engineering
I hope this finds you well. I’ve had a big chunk of time off since I last wrote. Now that my husband Khilen and I live and work remotely in rural Portugal, we crave big city culture on holiday. So we had an amazing time topping up on art, music and food in New York for five days, before escaping to stunning countryside in Hudson Valley.
This month I sat down with my brilliant friend Lauren Currie to talk about her work building a confidence revolution with and for women and non-binary people. I’ve also been pulling together a list of great resources and system changing projects you might be interested in.
Next week Khilen and I set off on a big road trip across Europe to the Cotswolds for two months, dogs in tow. We’re looking forward to some quality time with family and friends after much time apart during the pandemic. System Changers will be back in the New Year, including a gathering IRL!
Wishing you a joyful and restful end to the year, thank you for reading,
System Changer Profile: Lauren Currie
“Women are extraordinary. We are not born feeling less than. When we unlearn this feeling incredible things happen. The problem is big and there’s so much to do. But we’re doing it, and it’s working. Members of our community are advocating for themselves, securing higher salaries, leaving unhealthy relationships, and starting businesses. We’re not reaching 3 million people a month yet, but we will one day.”
Lauren Currie is the Founder of UPFRONT, an organisation dedicated to changing confidence, visibility, and power for 1 million women and non-binary people. She’s also the chairperson of Pregnant Then Screwed, an organisation dedicated to ending maternity discrimination.
Her work has been featured in The Guardian, Design Week, and Creative Review and she’s been awarded an OBE for her services to design and diversity. She’s been named a “Woman Changing the World Under 30” by ELLE magazine, “one of the UK’s Top Business Women Under 35” by Management Today, and "One of the UK's top 50 Creative Leaders" by Creative Review.
Lauren and I met when I hired the organisation she worked for at the time, NOBL, to support a project I was leading at a VC fund. We’ve been friends ever since and I’ve learned a lot from working with her.
I took UPFRONT’s first online course in 2020 when I was emerging from a career break. The experience helped me to re-wire my brain around confidence and visibility and I’ve seen it happening for so many people who join. The success stories give me goosebumps every week.
But UPFRONT is not just impacting individual lives, it’s making waves through families, organisations, communities, industries and culture at large. Lauren is a systems thinker and she has her eyes set on large-scale systemic change when it comes to confidence.
It’s been a joy to see her take UPFRONT from strength to strength, so I’m excited to share her journey with you. You can find a full transcript of our conversation below.
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System Changer resources and tools
When you’re feeling burned out: Karen Walrond’s book ‘The Lightmaker’s Manifesto: How to Work for Change without Losing Your Joy’ is a great tool for preventing or overcoming burnout. She combines thoughtfully designed exercises with encouraging conversations with activists and thought leaders such as Valarie Kaur, Brené Brown, Tarana Burke, and Zuri Adele.
When you need a new message for climate change: Hannah Ritchie is Head of Research at Our World in Data which aims to make the knowledge on the world’s largest problems more accessible and understandable. She is convinced we need a new narrative around climate change, as she argues in her piece for Wired: ‘Stop Telling Kids They’ll Die From Climate Change.’
When you need to solve a complicated, ill-defined problem. Paul Graham is a programmer, writer, and investor. As well as starting the first software as a service company in 1995, he’s known for his role co-founding the highly respected startup incubator, Y Combinator. He’s been writing online since 2001 and his website now gets around 25 million page views per year. I enjoyed this short reminder on the importance or reading and writing for creative people.
When you want to take stock and set intentions for next year: YearCompass are on a mission to bring self knowledge to as many people as possible around the world. Their free booklet helps you reflect on the year, uncover your patterns, focus on what’s important and set intentions for the year ahead.
When you’re navigating the emotional terrain of climate: The All We Can Save Project is on a mission to “nurture the leaderful climate community we need for a life-giving future.” They’ve teamed up with Dr Britt Way - who investigates the connection between climate change and mental health at Stanford and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine - to create a brilliant shortlist of resources for working with climate emotions.
When you’re looking for inspiration: "I know a poem can’t stop a tank. But the reverse is also true.” Simon Schama’s new TV series reflects on the enduring power of culture in shaping our world. From The Handmaid's Tale to The Thick of It, he explores how art has defined what matters to us all. Watch the series here and read his essay about the series here.
When you want to learn more about shifting systems: The System Innovation Initiative connects knowledge and practice on system innovation to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs who want to have more systemic impact and meet big societal challenges in new ways. This week their ‘Learning Festival 2022: Making The System Shift’ brought together 50 of the world's boldest innovators for an inspiring deep-dive into the practical realities of shifting systems to a better future in health, education, food, economic development and beyond. Read an overview of the festival here and watch the recordings here.
System Changer projects and opportunities
Crypto and ESG: How do they work together? My former colleague and friend Hannah Leach runs VentureESG, which is on a mission to help the VC sector recognise the importance of ESG and to provide resources to make it a standard part of diligence, portfolio management and fund management. Today, in their final insights session of the year, they take on one of the most-talked about venture sectors over the last 18 months to explore how to ‘ESG-safeguard' crypto going forward. The big question: could new web3 and blockchain technologies ultimately even be forces for good? Sign up here.
Start 2023 by reflecting on your systemic practice and development. The School of System Change has designed a beautiful way to kickstart the new year. ‘33days of systemic reflections’ will involve daily writing prompts and invitations to experiment, helping you translate your big intentions into everyday practices you can tend to. The initiative welcomes you into a community of peers working in systems change and wraps up with an optional reflection call. Sign up and pay what you can here.
The extraordinary life and legacy of a young black man who became one of the greats. The best exhibition we went to in New York was Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure. Organised and curated by his family, the exhibition of over 200 never-before-seen and rarely shown paintings, drawings, multimedia presentations, ephemera, and artifacts tell the story of Jean-Michel from an intimate perspective, intertwining his artistic endeavours with his personal life, influences, and the times in which he lived. There’s still time to visit if you’re in New York.
A new era of engineering is here. Some of humanity’s most urgent problems require physical engineering, but engineers are held back by a stark lack of fit-for-purpose collaboration tools. I’m over the moon for my friend Pari Singh who’s just announced an $8.5m seed round to take on this problem with his company Flow Engineering. Pari and his team are building the first collaboration platform for hardware engineering teams designing complex systems. Their mission is to vastly accelerate hardware invention by building critical software infrastructure that accelerates the baseline engineering process worldwide. Their product Flow helps teams to bring products to market faster by seamlessly integrating and synchronising their engineering models. Read their announcement here and Pari’s piece about how engineering is evolving, and what they’re doing to supercharge it, here.
Investing in a better tech industry. Mozilla Ventures, a first-of-its-kind impact venture fund to invest in startups that push the internet - and the tech industry - in a better direction, launches early next year with an initial $35m. The fund will be led by Managing Partner Mohamed Nanabhay who brings a decade of experience investing in digital media businesses designed to advance democracy and free speech. Read their announcement here.
Inspiring awe and love for the world’s most endangered animals. Katherine Rundell’s book ‘The Golden Mole’ highlights the extraordinary abilities and stories associated with a range of remarkable creatures in real danger of dying out. “I wanted to offer a kind of salute to the startling astonishment with which we share the living world.” Her enthusiasm for nature is infectious, and the book is beautifully illustrated by Talya Baldwin. It would make a brilliant Christmas present.
Leadership on nature’s side. The Bio Leadership Project is on a mission to change the story of leadership by working with nature. They are a movement of people and organisations changing human systems to be more resilient, regenerative, and designed to protect and regenerate our planet. Their Fellowship, a “human mycelium of exciting innovations and collaborations across the world” is a nine month programme providing learning, connection and support to people who are working to make a positive difference for all people and our Earth. Apply now to join their next programme, starting in February 2023.
Exploring change as an essential part of human experience. Munroe Bergdorf is a writer, model, and activist. Like so many others, I see her as one of the most inspiring and committed leaders of our time, which is why I’m so excited about her new book Transitional. “In this life-affirming, heartfelt and intimate book, activist and model Munroe Bergdorf shares reflections from her own life to illustrate how transitioning is an essential part of all of our lives. Through the story of one woman's extraordinary mission to live with authenticity, Transitional shows us how to heal, how to build a stronger community and how to evolve as a society out of shame and into pride.”
A personal reflection
Whilst away, Khilen and I went for a walk on the Hudson Valley Rail Trail, a stretch of converted railway. As we set off we grumbled about our preference for a circular route, but the long straight line through the landscape of frozen forests and lakes had unexpected benefits. For the entirety of the walk, hundreds of honking wild geese flew over us from one side to the other, quite closely due to the elevation of the railway, and we witnessed a brief cross-section of their long migration south for the winter. The sun was setting and glowing on their white underbellies, reminding me of the line “you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” in Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Wild Geese’.
According to scientists, one of the reasons geese fly in a V-shaped formation is to conserve their energy. Each bird flies slightly above the bird in front of them, resulting in a reduction of wind resistance. The birds take turns being in the front, falling back when they get tired. In this way, the geese can fly for a long time before they must stop for rest. Watching the lines of geese flying overhead got me thinking about where I am in the V right now, and where I really want or need to be. So I thought I’d share that with you incase it prompts some helpful reflection. As this year draws to a close and you look ahead to another, is it time for you to lead, or to rest, or are you transitioning from one to the other?
System Changer Profile: Lauren Currie
UPFRONT has a great origin story, can you tell us how it came about?
In 2016, I stood on a stage at a conference in Bristol as the only woman speaker in an all male line-up. It happened to me all too often, so, feeling frustrated and keen to do something about it, I put a post-it on the mirror in the women’s toilet at the venue asking whether more women wanted to be on stage, what was stopping them, and to get in touch and tell me about it. It was clear in the response that yes, more people did want to be in the limelight, but fear was holding them back.
So UPFRONT began as a really practical invitation to share the experience of being onstage. We put a couch on stages at events, inviting people to simply see what it felt like to be up there in the lights, in front of big audiences, to help them dress-rehearse the experience.
The UPFRONT couch helped over 500 people to get over stage fright on every continent except Antarctica. The data told us that people who shared the stage on the UPFRONT couch were 30% more likely to speak on stage after their experience.
Encouraged by the results, I then started to run workshops to help people build confidence in lots of different ways, and the momentum has been building since then.
So tell us about UPFRONT today, what do you do?
I went full time in April 2021 after 6 years of side hustling. In 2 years we’ve gone from zero to 1 million pounds in revenue.
We’re a real grown-up organisation with a team of 6, and product market fit! We’re on a mission to change confidence for 1 million women and non-binary people.
We’re doing this in three ways. We provide a six week online course in all things confidence, public speaking and power. We call each cohort a Bond, which is the collective noun for women. We also have an online community called Global Bond which is for women learning to use their power and how to stand up for themselves and for others. And we also create a lot of content. For example, our podcast UPFRONT Moment helps people to kick start their week with self-compassion, confidence and agency.
And how’s it going?
Since our first online course launched in August 2020, we’ve welcomed thousands of women from over 50 countries. The results have been transformational. This still blows my mind! We work with clients like Nike, Just Eat Takeaway, Citizens Advice, The NHS, and Pleo.
Our latest Bond, Bond 6, welcomed 512 women from over 25 different countries. And Global Bond is now home to alumni from Bonds 1,2,3,4,5 and 6 - all committed to learning how to UPFRONT in every area of their life. Our next course, Bond 7, starts in June 2023.
How would you describe your role as a System Changer on this mission? What do you do?
I operate directly in the middle of a venn diagram. On one side we’re teaching women and non-binary how to use the power they already have and on the other side we’re changing the system. This is why our mantra is changing confidence, not women. Women are fine - it’s the system that needs to change.
We’re creating change at a personal level and a community level at the same time. We do this very intentionally in how we work with individuals and teams.
My role is to learn how to be unapologetically myself in my mission and vision for how I want the world to be better. The more I love and look after myself, the greater UPFRONT’s impact is. I have no doubt that the change I seek is possible and I’m the right person to drive that change. Of course, this is bad news for the status quo, so I need to work extra hard at being focused, intentional and building my business my way.
A huge part of my role is listening. Listening to the women we serve, women who have fought this fight before me and women with lived experiences I do not have.
I see myself as an energiser - and I don’t need batteries. The fire I feel for creating this change is extraordinary and it’s my job to build a team who fan those flames, and give people everything they need to start their own fires all over the world. From living rooms to boardrooms and the school gates.
Outside of UPFRONT, I’m chairperson of Pregnant Then Screwed who are doing remarkable work to change policy and make the UK a better place to be a mother.
The impact of your work is far-reaching, how are you driving systemic change?
Oh wow there are so many interesting examples. I’ll share a few that I’m really proud of.
We’re helping working mothers to fight injustice in the workplace. One of our recent graduates, Donna Patterson, recently took her employer Morrisons to court for maternity discrimination, and she won a £60,000 payout. Donna cross-examined eight witnesses on her own, and it took her 5 days. Donna’s confidence isn’t about being loud, or what others say and do. It’s about Donna. It’s the voice in her head that says “I know who I am, I know what I can do.” Donna’s win is huge for our community because so many of us have had our confidence crushed by toxicity, discrimination, and systemic injustice. It’s a huge win for anyone who’s been dismissed, ignored and punished for having a baby.
We’re helping women to feel more empowered in their families. There are countless examples of women in our community who have developed the confidence they need to stand up for themselves in their romantic relationships and to leave toxic relationships. Women have told us they are looking after themselves more, saying no more, asking for more help and more proactively defining the role they actually want in their families. Women are teaching their daughters some of the techniques we teach in the course and that gives us goosebumps.
We’re helping women to engage more actively in politics. Our members are holding the government to account on energy policy, building social change initiatives in their local communities, and getting involved in running political parties.
What does your support system look like?
My main support system is my partner Chris who recently joined UPFRONT and is now our COO. Chris is incredibly smart (a different kind of smart to me) and strategic and logical so he helps me to stay focused on the long term plan. I work with an incredible coach and this year I’ve built a relationship with a mentor, James Routledge, who is now a key pillar in my support system. The Bond supports me in all sorts of amazing ways and they are my invisible army everywhere I go.
What are your superpowers?
I’m incredibly driven and always have been. I am incredibly motivated. I care so much. I feel such a fire in me for this work.
I have three super powers. I help people to feel brave and do things they used to think impossible. I ask for help when I need it. And I have a bias towards action. I’m a doer. This is borne from my design education. I’m extremely action-oriented. I make stuff and put it out there quickly so that I can make it better with feedback.
My values are honesty, imagination, courage, non-conformity, leadership and contribution. These values are my compass and when I’m really living them I feel like a superhero.
What’s in your toolkit?
The Bond is my toolkit. I’m surrounded by ordinary yet extraordinary women. My toolkit has changed dramatically since moving from London to Sweden two years ago. The forest and the lake are a huge source of energy and support. I run and swim most days. And tea - I drink cups of tea all day long.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned working on this mission?
Women are extraordinary. We are not born feeling less than, it is driven into us at an early age. When we unlearn this feeling incredible things happen.
The problem is big and there’s so much to do. But we’re doing it, and it’s working. Members of our community are advocating for themselves, securing higher salaries, leaving unhealthy relationships, and starting businesses. We’re not reaching 3 million people a month yet, but we will.
What have you learned about yourself doing this work?
The UPFRONT answer to this question is that I’m really fucking good at what I do! Which I would never, ever have said 3 years ago. This work feels easy and right to me. I know I’m in the right place doing the right thing. I’ve learned it’s my personality, my life up until this point and how I see the world that means I am the right person to do this work at this time.
How are you currently working on your personal growth?
I love therapy, coaching, journalling - all of it. It’s not always easy or pleasant but I know it’s non-negotiable if I want to thrive and create the impact I know I’m capable of making. I’ve signed up to run my first marathon next summer so that’s a very live growth project!
What does the world look like in ten years’ time if UPFRONT has been wildly successful?
It’s a world where a lack of confidence and a lack of community is never the reason why a woman doesn’t do the things she wants to do.
What’s next for UPFRONT?
We’re hosting our very first conference in Glasgow on 11th March. I’m so excited and I hope people reading this will join us! Bond 7 launches on 5th June, and we’re hosting Private Bonds for organisations in February.
If you could ask readers to do one thing to support your mission, what would it be?
Come and join us! Taking power is an incredible thing to do. Community, action, and hope are vital right now. We need safe, inclusive spaces where we can be ourselves in all our states of joy, celebration, anger, and activism.
UPFRONT feels like a very warm hug and a kick up the bum at the same time. We’re telling stories, asking questions and building a movement that has generosity, inclusion and kindness at its core. If you choose to spend time with us you will begin to work and think 10, 100, 1000 times bigger.
Sign up for Bond 7 here. Find Lauren online here and listen to the UPFRONT Moment podcast here.
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