Entrepreneur studies what it really means to love your neighbor

“Men hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can’t communicate with each other; they can’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.” – Martin Luther King

By Jon Kontz for Praxis

Entrepreneurs disrupt the ways neighbors connect to each other. The everyday connections around food, commerce, and transportation through which neighbors form community have undergone tremendous change. Neighborhoods that used to be fully engaged communities are becoming series of garage doors, drive-thrus, and Amazon delivery persons. My phone makes it easier to find almost everything, but a side effect of this disruption is that I am less likely to choose to attend to and relate to my actual neighbors.

Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor” resonates with me. But as a stereotypically ambitious Millennial entrepreneur coming to the end of a two-year sabbatical, I have had the gift of an uncommon span of time to ponder the critical question provoked by Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10: “Who is my neighbor?”

I want to change the world for the better, but I tend to insulate myself from the vulnerability, unpredictability and complexity of my community. I know I need to be a good neighbor, yet I feel pressed to choose between community and opportunity. And unless I insist on asking myself the “Who Is My Neighbor?” question, it’s easier than ever to choose the neighbor who offers the most opportunity.

Choosing to be a neighbor is choosing risk. To some extent it is relinquishing control over attention and resources. I was comfortable choosing a Compassion child as my neighbor. But committing to one who lives next door is harder for me; next-door neighbors offer more risk in closer proximity.

Could I bury myself in community and protect my ambition to change the world?

Being real neighbors

The Clapham Sect, a group that started at least 25 ventures over the course of 50 years in the early 19th century in England, suggests some interesting parallels to my generation of entrepreneurs. They pursued improbable outcomes, and their achievements matched their ambition. They actually changed the world, and they lived as a committed community. Their mutuality transformed a loss by one into a loss by all, and a victory by one into a victory by all. They felt such a bond that most of their core ended up moving to the Village of Clapham, after which their group was named. They chose one another as literal neighbors because of their close friendship.

What made them famous, however, was their choice to invest themselves deeply in another neighbor with whom they had almost nothing in common and appeared to offer nothing to them: African slaves. They became neighbors to the slave in radical and sacrificial ways, embracing as their own the needs of this chosen neighbor in a public, missional sense.

Yet what has convicted me and captured my imagination is a third choice that is less well known, though still profound: They chose to be committed neighbors to others in the Village of Clapham in the more quietly inconvenient, next-door sense.

Through their commitment to slave-as-neighbor, and especially through their commitment to villager-as-neighbor, they chose the complex situations I tend to avoid. While I struggle to choose neighbors who might need something from me, let alone those who might sap my resources and health and consume my vocation, they embraced the limitations and risks of their neighbors near as well as far.

Hannah More, a Clapham educator, author, and activist for women’s rights, became known for one such venture. In an effort to lift a destitute neighbor out of poverty by assisting her in the sale of her goods, More discovered that her neighbor had a latent talent for writing poetry. With More’s publishing help, the newly minted poet became a sensation, creating an overnight windfall of profits that would change her prospects for the future. More insightfully set up a trust that would give her access to the interest but not the windfall itself. Accused of fraud by the ungrateful neighbor she had sacrificially assisted out of poverty, More was humiliated at the blow to her reputation. In situations like this, More and others committed their resources and vocations to next-door neighbors. They didn’t divert their attention or time, but rather chose to accept and navigate the complexity.

The Clapham Sect made many quietly inconvenient choices like Hannah More’s. These choices are noteworthy because they shaped the posture these innovators would need to change the world. They would need the skill to remain hopeful in the midst of near-imperceptible progress; the insight to discern right from wrong in messy situations; and the perspective to embrace personal discomfort. All these were formed through the everyday commitments of being neighbors. Though they ultimately would square off against the established religious, economic, and cultural forces of their day, their virtues were formed in much more nuanced and less public situations. As they practiced committing actual resources to actual neighbors in physical places, excellence within complexity became their way of life, even as the stakes grew to world-changing scale.

Developing neighbor skills

The past two years have been a radical experiment for me. I sold my suburban home, paused a successful company, and moved to a rented house for a two-year “sabbatical from self-interest” 1,000 miles from home. My wife and I chose to commit ourselves to a group of people, many of whom we could see from our front window. We poured concrete, talked to the police a lot more than we ever had, started a Bible study, and lent our second car to a homeless neighbor until he got back on his feet.

We began to see that the personal ambition we had pursued in our previous season had come at some cost to our community, and to our character. The separation of our relationships from our resources, and our vocation from the people we saw every day, was a separation we had come to expect within our neighborhoods, churches, and companies. Yet while we had developed the resource-capacity to be valuable neighbors, we were deficient in the skills and habits needed to practice commitment within the complexities of community.

We found that it was predictably difficult to take Jesus’ advice to his disciples in Luke 12 to become generous and open-handed neighbors. Our era of efficiency requires imagination to explore ways to connect, let alone to deeply interact with, our next-door neighbors. As a result, we found ourselves in situations that grew in risk and discomfort but that yielded unexpected results.

By way of example, a young software engineer down the street was itching for the chance to work on a project of his own. I own a business that needed a web app to do a specific type of proposal, and I could not find existing software to accommodate our needs. Though I could have hired a professional firm, the young engineer and his wife were coming to our Bible study, and eager to experiment with entrepreneurship, so I offered him a trial position to work alongside me to write the app. He was very excited for the opportunity to use his skills on our team, but he quickly started silently missing his milestones, and evading our efforts to help him discover the obstacles. The entire time, our personal connection grew as he attended the Bible study and we ran into each other downtown, but professionally I was bewildered. I couldn’t help him succeed.

With careful thought and preparation, I offered to release him from his commitment, which he accepted. But we were still neighbors, so while I was disappointed in the result of my financial investment, albeit experimental, we remained friendly and mutually committed neighbors. Most importantly, I think we each became better and more skillful neighbors for it – an investment that promises to pay dividends in future complex situations.

While my wife and I had thought that the choice to be next-door neighbors was inversely related to changing the world, we instead found that committing to our neighbors turned our community into a whiteboard for the Divine Hand to show up through our work and change the world – and to change us in many ways we didn’t expect.

For example, I realized that, in my professional life, the products I make as an entrepreneur either decrease or increase neighbors’ ability to remain committed and connected to one another. This hit me as I helped design a technology to facilitate medical referrals. Local communities of doctors use medical referrals to connect their patients with other doctors. When designing our product, we had a choice to make. We could decrease the relational dimension between doctors and patients in ways that would increase efficiency, such as having the patient schedule the referral on their smartphone after they left the office, having the doctor schedule for them, or by having a call-center somewhere decide where to send the patient.

However, those choices to optimize efficiency would have sub-optimized the relational currency between the doctor and the patient in a time of transition, which would decrease the likelihood that vulnerable patient populations would stay connected to their care plan once they were no longer with their doctor. So we decided instead on a design that would allow the doctor to choose and schedule the medical referral with the patient present, scheduling the appointment as an extension and outflow of their relationship. To create the infrastructure to enable near-instantaneous medical referral scheduling turned out to be difficult, but it has allowed the communities that use our product to stay committed neighbors as they enjoy the many benefits that technology has to offer healthcare.

To disrupt in a way that preserves communities’ ability to remain committed neighbors takes a special vision, an alternative imagination. It takes a script much deeper than personal ambition; it takes a vision for healthy community and the commitment to be a committed neighbor.

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