Lauren Xie is the co-founder of Lively Worlds, a think-and-do tank that engages in research, education, and advising at the intersection of theory and practice to create a regenerative future. Rather than focusing on reducing harm, Lively Worlds aims to make a net positive impact for social justice and sustainability by promoting an anti-exploitative, anti-extractive future in which individuals thrive, equal power structures are developed, and ecosystems can be restored. The company has created the Oxford Praxis Lab and runs workshops with different organisations on topics such as antifragility, leadership, and power and privilege. Lauren received her MSc and her MBA from the University of Oxford, and is primarily interested in the potential of a regenerative future.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Doing the MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at Oxford was a transformative experience. It made me realise how many ideas from the critical social sciences and humanities are really under-represented in actual organisations. Lively Worlds started when I was having coffee with my friend from the MSc, Stephanie Wolff (who is also now on the team!), and we realised that we spent so much time engaging in research which would only be read by a handful of people, and how a lot of academic work just sits there instead of benefiting a regenerative future. The academic and the practitioner inform each other, and many of us are both, so it is important that they’re not viewed as separate: I’m very interested in praxis, the idea that there should be no distinction between intellectual thinking and actually being and acting in the world. So we thought about converting our dissertations into blogs as a way of democratizing the knowledge and putting it in more accessible terms. This then evolved into Lively Worlds.
During my previous work experience in international development in Indonesia, I was also noticing that a lot of initiatives that are really well-intentioned often have unintended negative consequences due to blind spots and systemic factors. The MSc then gave me the language to better understand this and to better see just how pervasive this problem was, not just in international development, but all sectors that are trying to ‘do good’ – like social enterprises, philanthropy, and public sector programmes. I thought, “it can be done better”, and if the ideas coming out of the interdisciplinary social sciences and humanities research were applied more in decision-making by people in management positions, then these companies would be designed more effectively and produce more holistic and durable positive impacts for people and planet in the process.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I see entrepreneurship as praxis—the sustained interplay between interdisciplinary academic theory and practice. It is at once an artistic and creative practice, a process of individual and collective transformation, and a process ridden with challenges, tensions, contradictions—and thus, possibility. One of the ideas behind why praxis is so powerful is that when intentionally developed as a capability, it can enable us to broaden our sense of what is possible and transcend conventional patterns of thinking and acting.
While some entrepreneurs wouldn’t explicitly recognize their work as praxis, as entrepreneurs trying to birth something in the world, we are constantly drawing from different theoretical paradigms about how the world works and how we make sense of it. Consciously or unconsciously, these ideas impact how we make decisions around our business model, who we approach for funding, what advice we take on versus dismiss, and perhaps most importantly, how our personal values translate into consequences (for better or for worse) for stakeholders and our ecosystems.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
There was a lot of continuous testing, trial and error, and experimentation. But a turning point was having a conversation with George Monbiot, who writes a lot about environmental activism and the youth climate movement. The Oxford Global Leadership Initiative put us in touch in 2019, and our conversation led me to a complete pivot away from the consultancy work we were doing in the short-term, and instead towards working on leveraging the networks and research we have right here, right now in Oxford. That way, we could ensure we have continuity and a hub to connect with even after we leave Oxford. Moreover, the conversation encouraged me to zoom out and engage in deeper systems research and reflection. My team and I then began exploring a much deeper process in reconceptualising Lively Worlds as a think-and-do tank.
I had also been receiving a lot of negative energy from people who had been entrenched in the ways of the old paradigm. I quickly realised how that was draining me and was not the most effective way to create change. I wanted to work with people who were open to new ideas. The conversation with Monbiot, who really believes young people are the future, helped me release myself from the chains of how I thought I had to design this initiative.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
You need resilience when it comes to learning and feedback – not letting negative feedback get you down to the point where you don’t feel like continuing the project anymore. I’ve had many moments like that.
But you should also be actively seeking advice, and that advice should come from a diverse range of stakeholders within the sector you’re involved in. Talking only to people who you view as more senior or as expert often reinforces systems that are no longer working. It inhibits young people’s ability to use their youth – their creativity and having fewer inhibitions – to their own advantage. So talk to different kinds of people.
There’s also a lot of pressure in the entrepreneurial world to move at 110%. A lot of conventional wisdom says this is important, but I think one of the major issues in the way that new initiatives are designed today is that people aren’t able to integrate fast and slow thinking. Rather than necessarily continuing down the rabbit hole, entrepreneurs could engage in deep reflection and ask deep questions about themselves. Sarah Whatmore, who’ a professor at Oxford, talks about ‘slowing down’ reasoning as crucial in our responses to addressing the world’s complex environmental challenges. I encourage entrepreneurs to set aside times to stop, pause, and reflect. That’s a skill I would encourage, and having a diverse group of supporters who can keep you in check can also be useful.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I like learning how to translate academic concepts, which can sometimes appear overwhelming and isolating, in ways that are more accessible and inviting. I’ve seen other people do it, so I know it can be done. Breaking down the binaries which enforce systems of power – whether it be between science and politics, or nature and society – is also a rewarding part of my work as an entrepreneur.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Building Belonging is an initiative that works to develop a global digital community where everyone belongs. They have leading activists and practitioners who work in social justice, sustainability, and spirituality who are all having these conversations – I’ve been really impressed by the kinds of people Brian Stout, the founder, has been able to pull together. It has an inclusive framing, working as an umbrella to get people whose ideas resonate with each other to build belonging in small groups of 5-7 people. These groups then expand on larger scales.
I also find Bound Beyond inspiring – it’s still in its proposal phase, but it’s a very ambitious project led by Steve Waddell. They aim to use existing regenerative projects in local communities around the world as case studies for lessons in how to design next generation economies.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’m already in contact with them, so no questions for now!
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
My learning journey has been gradual and incremental. There have been hiccups along the way. I’ve definitely learned the importance of authenticity: there were points where we were trying to edit the framework of Lively Worlds in a way that might be perceived as less radical, but there’s a fine line between reframing the project for accessibility, and reframing it in a way that compromises the integrity of the change we are trying to make in the world.
Lively Worlds is also the first time I’ve experimented with radically different leadership styles, informed by the theoretical concepts I had learned during my MSc. Sometimes people I’ve recruited realize after some time that they don’t necessarily align with what we’re doing, or don’t have the time and energy to invest into Lively Worlds that they thought they had, and letting them go rather than using my energy to sustaining those working relationships is part of the emergent process. Emergence is the idea of sensing what is in the present moment and being receptive and adaptive to change, as opposed to the conventional paradigm of needing to know all the steps before beginning. The other side to this is that I am trying to be open and receptive to letting people come in their own time and support Lively Worlds in ways that align with their personal journeys. It’s beautiful to see how much solidarity there is in our team as a result, because those who stay are continuously renewing their choice to stay and are 100% intrinsically-driven as well.
How have you funded your ideas?
I’ve had a lot of freedom in the ways I’ve been able to explore the project, due to both my privilege of having been awarded a scholarship for my Oxford studies and my risk appetite. From being awarded a scholarship for my MBA and not having to pay for the education, and from having some previous savings, I’ve been able to work on this. The staff is made up of all volunteers, who are all ‘100% powered by passion’!
We’re not focused on raising conventional investment for the next phase of Lively Worlds. We’re looking at being partially funded by clients we advise through our work on antifragile organizations, as well as catalytic philanthropic funding to take us to the next level. There may also be opportunities of getting a company or foundation to sponsor a pilot of a Global Regenerative Leaders Program, a digital learning journey aimed at supporting experienced leaders to deep-dive into complexity, develop the capability of intentional praxis while exploring powerful interdisciplinary theories, engage in deep reflection in community, and ultimately, pivot into regenerative careers with renewed passion and purpose.
Since the conversation with George Monbiot, my team and I have intentionally decided to pause our focus on the financial aspect in the short-term: we didn’t want to end up as a specialty consultancy warped to fill an obvious market (entrenched in the conventional business paradigm) without the systemic impact we want to achieve. Moreover, I had designed the Oxford Praxis Lab as an idea that could be sustained without funding insofar as it is a student-led society and has the ability to scale across university campuses as such. However, as we shift into a new phase now that we’ve found significant grounding and traction in our strategy, we are elevating financial viability again as a priority.
For us, financial stability is a means to be able to sustain and grow the work rather than the main goal. Because existing markets are grounded in the old economic paradigm, social enterprises can be very restricted in the scope of their impact when the impact must align with profit, insofar as much deeply needed and valuable work—especially systems transforming work—for addressing the world’s complex challenges are not currently financially valued by existing markets. As such, Lively Worlds is likely looking at a hybrid model in the future, partially funded by sculpting new market demand for antifragile and regenerative learning while also being funded by philanthropy.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The breadth of opportunities, the vibrancy of different academic departments, programmes, and student organisations, are all very fulfilling and enriching.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would recommend Carol Sanford’s book, The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes. I’d also encourage entrepreneurs to use the tools in the Skoll Centre’s Map the System competition, which would be particularly helpful for people unfamiliar with systems thinking.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I have experienced discrimination, especially at the beginning of setting up Lively Worlds. People would make comments that demonstrated that they were sceptical of the idea or my ability. I think if I looked different to how I do, I would never have gotten some of the comments I have received.
But it’s also hard to tell how much of it is because they perceive me as a young, woman of color, and how much of it is a projection of their own personal experiences. Carol Sanford writes about how feedback is a toxic and un-regenerative practice: she says it’s just a projection of the person who is giving the feedback, as they place their own experiences, opinions, and insecurities onto another person. This can be disempowering. Individuals could instead be in charge of their own development and self-reflection, asking themselves, ‘how can I develop the competencies and skills I need to take myself to the next level?’ Recently, I’ve been able to come back to Sanford’s advice whenever I get feedback. I can think, ‘that feedback came from their partial worldview. But maybe there are bits and pieces of that that can be helpful.’ That way, I internalise less negativity.
Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Develop a network of other women entrepreneurs for support. Also do your research on how women entrepreneurs are often treated differently (e.g., by investors and others) so that you can be better prepared to see when those situations may arise and respond intentionally and strategically.
Any last words of advice?
Keep up the great work, and keep your head up. Despite the challenges you may face, persistence is so important. Also, actively choosing to spend time with those who lift you up and encourage you—this has really helped me with my resilience and drive when I have felt lows in the process. The learning process is inimitable – it’s so rewarding, and will stay with you.