The holidays teem with tension between conspicuous consumption and a spirit of generosity.
That’s also what it can feel like, year round, to run a business that seeks both profits and abundance. Abundance is a word that gets thrown around in nonprofit, political, and social-justice circles to mean a lot of different things, from advancing equity to not hoarding opportunity. In the business world, we are quick to say we operate from abundance when we do something nice for clients or colleagues, or try to pivot fights over resources (the so-called scarcity mindset) toward solutions where more people might benefit. What is much harder but necessary is to fix and fight the factors that make abundance so hard to practice in the first place.
After years of trial and error in this space, I’ve learned that abundance requires us to reject both the traditional, singular, ruthless ways of operating and the protections we have devised to cope. Think frustration over business meetings occurring over golf being met with a ban on after hours drinks.
Abundance is a new path, perhaps more akin to how non-Western and Indigenous communities operated for centuries. To be abundant and to ask others to operate as if they are, I realize, is a form of privilege. Yet abundance is a necessary pillar of business, especially for people of color, because it is also the ultimate power play.
What does a practice of abundance actually look like? Some ideas:
Working with competitors and sharing information.
Secret: There are actually very few secrets. Our tendency to be cagey when people ask for ideas, contact information, the “how did you do that” of it all, serves nobody. In 2023, as the economy grew ever less certain (and I expect the same in 2024), one strategy that served my company well was to link arms with alleged competitors and create efficiencies by sharing services or costs around events or staffing. Abundant businesses might work out commission structures or referral fees for one another, knowing there are ways for uplift to be mutual.
I can see funders or advertisers getting confused when I ask if I might pass on their information to someone else who they perceive to be a competitor of my company. But that action demonstrates two traits on my part: generosity and confidence. If we are trying to create ecosystems where our ideas, our organizations, and our communities thrive, we must be willing to share.
Relationships, and the time to create and grow them, matter.
What CEOs on the golf course know is that deals seldom occur via Zoom. The rejection of such wheeling and dealing by predominantly white men is well intentioned but hardly eradicates the clubby behavior. How to combat it? Create your own spaces and your own collisions for opportunity.
Effective sales people know the power of showing up. Over the last year, I made a real intention to do the same thing. What I found was that literally meeting people where they are—from art galleries to hole-in-the-wall restaurants—with no ask or agenda made them more likely to open up to me about their needs, priorities and possibilities. Eventually, I found that, say, a $5,000 investment in a conference or even a $50 dinner could yield exponentially more in deals, social capital, and true partnership.
It’s exhausting, but I assure you that I have never regretted the voice telling me: Go. You never know. People tell you the truth in person, in ways that I find they can’t over Zoom. Who has the real power in the organization? Who is obsessed with video on Instagram versus LinkedIn posts? When will that budget be decided? Why is there no money for that initiative anymore?
I’ve also tried to favor interactions beyond the usual industry meetups; a panel discussion in front of 500 people feels more rehearsed than drinks with six decision-makers in their organizations. Finally, I’ve learned that a dependence on relationships can backfire; clients might be demanding, mean-spirited, and not aligned in how they work. Cutting them, and quickly, is a demonstration of abundance because it sends a clear message, both internally to staff and externally to the marketplace, about the types of people we want to work with, and the relationships we actually value for the long haul.
You need a budget to operate from abundance.
Actions of abundance as I’ve described them—showing up, conferences, picking up the meal, giving up time—are expensive. As businesses, especially nascent ones, we are often taught to manage day-to-day expenses, maybe cash flow with an eye toward payroll every two weeks, but hardly the long-term value that operating from abundance unlocks.
A few months ago, I was talking to a friend who was trying to grow his food business. He makes a dish that blends parts of his culture from here and there, and I can attest it is unique and delicious. I asked why he hadn't tried to set up in one of New York City’s popular night markets.
“I can’t afford to,” he said. “You have to price it at $5 and I usually sell for double that.” But I thought of the ecosystem that these markets represent, the marketing and the media that result, and I realized his decision was a short-sighted one. My friend saw the idea of setting up as a money loser—“I can’t afford to”—versus the long-tail benefits.
Abundance is filled with such tradeoffs and requires countless calculations among risk, reward, and the unknown. It’s rarely something we budget for, or teach, as a part of the costs of doing business.
Pass abundance onto your staff.
It is very difficult for staff to practice these methods if they are not feeling whole. Signs of abundant workplaces include livable wages, paying 100% health insurance premiums, training and equipment budgets, and a culture of care for the days you are sad, sick, or grieving. It is so hard to launch a company with those features. I’ve found that being honest and transparent about a desire to build toward them, though, goes a long way in getting teams to understand that abundance includes them, too. Any company purporting to operate from abundance must include its own human capital in that strategy.
Don’t just say no.
One problem with the framework of abundance is that it can set up a dynamic of charity from one party to another, rather than both parties operating for mutual benefit. That’s exactly what’s happening on the golf course while we rule followers come up with concepts like, “Don’t do business with friends.”
Over the last few years, there’s been an outcry over the act of someone trying to “pick your brain.” In women’s empowerment circles, for example, irate colleagues tell you to respond with an hourly rate or a simple refusal. “No is a complete sentence,” is something I hear a lot.
But an abundance mindset requires us to say yes more often, especially when our gut tells us that there might be long-term benefit or a chance at real connection. It means being comfortable that a conversation with a complete stranger might be extractive or useless—but it also might lead to something else. While it’s acceptable to say no to set boundaries, that philosophy can be short-sighted. You give what you get. You can’t get help if you don’t ask. And you don’t get help if you don’t give it.
Energy is the thing.
By trying to build a more abundant mindset, I’ve ended up building a more positive one. When someone asks me how I am doing, I try really hard as a CEO not to say “tired” or “overwhelmed.” I’ll try to redirect—honestly—to whatever I am actually feeling invigorated or excited about. That redirection changes people’s demeanor toward me and gets them to share my enthusiasm.
When we talk about operating with a sense of abundance, such energy makes all the difference and inspires people to support your product, your mission and, ultimately, you. This path rests on a healthy line of credit, a penchant for risk, and a belief that others will come around to meeting abundance with abundance—if only we give each other a chance.