Opportunity Collaboration – The ‘UnConference’ – By Kristin Oberdorf

We’ve all been there- attending a work conference. Maybe you were lucky enough to be in a new city for a few days, or maybe even another country. But odds are, you ended up running around even busier than you were back at work, plus all those emails waiting for you in your inbox upon return to your hotel room every night.

Despite the rush of it all, I am lucky enough to attend a few conferences a year, usually in the United States. I’m always grateful for those opportunities to connect with colleagues old and new and excited to watch a few thought-provoking presentations. But I’ll shamefully admit it, I am often more eager to grab coffee with a colleague in the middle of the afternoon rather than sit through another PowerPoint presentation.

So imagine my surprise when my boss Nadim Matta offered me the opportunity to try something very, very different.

It’s called Opportunity Collaboration and it’s an ‘Unconference’ at a beach resort in Ixtapa, Mexico. Like anyone else, as soon as I heard Ixtapa, Mexico, I was sold.  But it took me far longer to truly understand and appreciate the “Unconference” model, and that’s actually where the true beauty of this event lies.

Opportunity Collaboration’s mission is to strengthen the dialogue on sustainable ways to end poverty by convening thought leaders in social change from around the world. It does this by unleashing delegates (a.k.a. attendees) at a beach resort in Mexico for four and a half days of deeply personal, relaxed, and purposeful conversation about who we are and why we do what we do. No PowerPoints, no pitches, and no posturing. We’re encouraged to walk into every conversation or chance encounter with one core question, “what can I do to help you in your life’s work?”

In that simple question lies the elegant ethos of Opportunity Collaboration, which is that nobody can impact societal challenges alone. We need to share ideas, best practices, technology, and yes, even our failures. We need to understand that our organizations are imperfect and can benefit from the genius of others in partnership, not in competition. But fostering this balance between partnership and competition in a conference setting can be a challenge, one that Opportunity Collaboration specifically works to overcome. It does this by choreographing a focus on people and ideas, not work and projects.

Every morning for two hours following breakfast was the single mandatory session of the day. It’s called “colloquium” and during our time at Opportunity Collaboration, our colloquium was like our home. We met with the same fifteen people every morning and left our work at the door. Instead of discussing our company and our projects, we reflected on and shared our personal connections to poverty, power, and systems. We shared our personal histories with poverty and privilege going back at least two generations, we reflected on our earliest childhood memories of feeling powerful and powerless, and we talked about our roles in the systems we inhabit and create. And on the morning of day four it all culminated in a discussion and reflection on collaboration: when it has worked, and when it has failed. These deeply intimate conversations at the start of each day set the tone for the remainder of our day: encouraged us to be vulnerable, reminded us that we were among truly kindred spirits, and above all helped us to reconnect with ourselves in order to better connect with others.

The remainders of our days were filled with optional sessions and meal-time conversations, designed and led by other delegates. Each delegate also has a personal mailbox, and all day long people send each other notes to meet by the pool for a drink or on the beach in the water just to chat. Can you imagine…just to chat?!? Time set aside in the daily conference agenda just to chat one-on-one, or in small groups, with whomever you want to connect or re-connect with on deeply personal and professional levels.

Opportunity Collaboration reminds us that we can’t solve tough societal problems alone, but on a much more personal level, it also reminds us that we also can’t do it without taking care of ourselves. As leaders, as colleagues, as parents, as children, as students. Herein lies the magic of a pristine beach in Mexico, and why in addition to the colloquium and other discussion sessions, the agenda is full of optional activities like yoga, beach volleyball, soccer, and meditation. I had more than one conversation about how to deal with the stress of a start-up and how to strike a work-life balance that won’t run you or your colleagues ragged.

The question that Opportunity Collaboration urges us to explore are crucially important: Why do I do what I do? How can I learn from and share with others to truly make an impact in the world? How do I take care of myself as I do this work? If leaders don’t make the time to answer these questions for themselves on a regular basis, their colleagues and staff likely won’t have a chance to either, leaving organizations with lost potential and burnt out dreams.