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Global Shapers - Embracing diversity

by Charles (Chip) Johnson Jr.

March 4, 2013

When I was selected to Chair the inaugural Charlotte Hub of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community, I was honored.  But that honeymoon period soon faded into a worrying sense of intimidation and wariness about the challenges to come. 

You see, my fellow Global Shapers are unlike any group with whom I have ever worked; among our ranks is a leading digital media executive, a successful entrepreneur, the executive director of a world class, international non-profit, and several community leaders who would make almost any twenty-something’s calendar look like a kindergartener’s post-snack time class schedule... and everyone in the group is under the age of 30. 

Our group’s first task from the World Economic Forum was to select at least one project idea for the 2012 calendar year.  Despite our diverse perspectives on a wide range of issues, we shared a few commonalities: (i) inherent drive, (ii) a love of Charlotte, (iii) and a commitment to use the Global Shapers platform to actually accomplish something – a collective belief that talk is cheap; actions speak louder than words. 

Fueled by our own pressure to quickly select a project idea, our group chose youth unemployment as the issue that we wanted to tackle with our project.  We soon identified the framework of a project centered on a competition that would provide mentoring, education, and guidance to young entrepreneurs in Charlotte and ultimately provide seed funding these entrepreneurs could use to launch their businesses.  Feedback from Global Shapers Hubs around the world suggested that selecting a project had been one of the biggest challenges for fledgling hubs, but we had already taken that crucial first step, and I took a cautious sigh of relief that group dynamics were going to be easier than I had originally expected.

It is, without question, an accomplished, intimidating, and diverse group, and candidly, the diversity of the group was, in many ways, what concerned me most about my ability to be a successful leader.  Let me explain why.  As someone who considers himself to be a progressive thinker, I value the role that diversity plays in ensuring fairness and equality of opportunity, but working in diverse groups also has its challenges.  I’ve learned through experience that peer leadership is dissimilar from corporate leadership in that one must use a softer touch – a peer leader cannot simply rely on the advantages afforded by rank when disagreements arise (in other words “we’re going to do it this way because I say so, and that’s final!”). 

Said differently, a peer leader must build consensus through the exchange of ideas to achieve success, and consensus building is easy when everyone starts with the same perspectives and has common goals.   However, consensus building is much more challenging when the stakeholders have different backgrounds, different interests, and different ways of gauging success.

Over the coming months, the first real organizational friction began to occur as we debated issues ranging from what types of business models should be permitted to compete in the competition, how much money our winners should be granted, and whether or not to charge admission to our final event attendees.  Candidly, these conversations were inefficient and sometimes contentious.  But a funny thing happened during the course of these debates: we learned.  We learned about one another’s strengths and weaknesses, we learned about how we could most efficiently use the group’s time, and, most importantly, we learned to trust one another. 

After working out most of the important details, we entered the execution phase.  Once we started dividing up specific tasks, the attribute of our group that I most feared, diversity, became one of our most important assets.  Subject matter experts within our group stepped forward to take ownership of certain aspects of the project and achieved results that no other member could have claimed.  I could give dozens of examples, but a few specific ones are highly relevant. 

·       Raquel Velez, our technologist, designed our website and technology backbone, allowing us to manage our project and share our updates efficiently with the community. 

·       Ben Harrison, our resident entrepreneur and recent recipient of the Charlotte Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, leveraged his substantial rolodex in the startup community to recruit mentors and educators who served as valuable resources for our participants. 

·       Meghann Gunderman, our non-profit guru, created a sponsorship plan to raise funds to finance our project and to gain the support of important stakeholders in our community. 

·       Aisha Alexander and Jake Rosen used their design talents and PR know-how to ensure that our project was well-represented on paper and that it received exposure from the local media.  We all pitched in to recruit participants from the Charlotte community.

·       Amy Chiou, a dynamo on the Charlotte young professional scene, utilized her event planning prowess to ensure that our final event went off without a hitch.

The outcome was a final project that exceeded all of our internal metrics for success, achieved recognition on an international stage from the World Economic Forum, and has received overwhelming support from the Charlotte community.  What makes me most proud of our success is the fact that every member pitched in and that we each brought something unique to the table.  

Now our group faces a new test: expansion.  The World Economic Forum has challenged us to grow from our current level of 10 members to between 15 and 20 members.  I am confident that our biggest challenge during expansion will not be finding talented individuals – there are plenty of young, talented and driven people in Charlotte – our biggest challenge will be to find those individuals who can bring different expertise to the table, who can challenge the thinking of our current members, and who can complement the talents of those who we currently list among our own ranks. 

Said differently, we should challenge ourselves to not simply maintain the diversity we have established so far, but to expand upon it.  Diversity, I’ve learned, is not some abstract concept that should simply be accepted on philosophical grounds, and it’s not a risky proposition that should be feared.  Diversity is a tool that we must embrace to fully unlock the potential of the talent in our community. 

The Charlotte Global Shapers are currently accepting nominations from the community.  If you are or know of a young leader in the Charlotte area under the age of 30 who would be a good fit for the Global Shapers community, please send the nominee’s name and e-mail address to  The application deadline is 12pm EST on Friday, March 22, 2013.


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Tags: Global Shapers, WEF, Chip Johnson

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