10 Who is a fellow?

The Shuttleworth Foundation supports individuals who are brave enough to reimagine the world, and brave enough to try to change it. Finding those individuals is necessarily messy.

If the preexisting conditions for change agents were known, we could simply place a job offer in World Changer Weekly and find fellows by checking off a list of required skills. The reality is there is no mould, and the search requires a little bit of magic. We sift through hundreds of applications, giving each its due, looking for the rare person who has the vision, the ability to articulate that vision, and the skills to make it reality. They also have to understand the value of the fellowship. We are primarily looking for those who haven’t already found their champion sponsor.

Fellows are not bound by any specific level of education, number of years of experience in the workplace, location or nationality. They can work alone or have an organisation, which can be for-profit or not-for-profit. They might be building software or hardware, or creating policy, or none of the above. Simply put: a fellow doesn’t fit into any standard template. We have to trust the magic – and we are getting better at it.

Past victories are no guarantee of future success, so while it’s nice to see a list of accomplishments, we do not make a decision based on what’s already been done but rather on what we feel can happen. Proven expertise is nice but is no substitute for vision and leadership. We make bets on motivated potential rather than on history and achievement. Fellows are dropouts and doctors, students and professors, enthusiastic upstarts and seasoned veterans.

The fellowship can be for anyone, but it is not for everyone. It involves brutal honesty, learning through mistakes, embracing the uncomfortable, and learning from failure as much as success. It requires a deep commitment to a vision and an ability to move forward and adapt. We seek fellows who embrace their own power, take initiative, create their own plans, evaluate the success of their current approach and respond in real time as appropriate. A sense of community is crucial, and each new fellow adds to it, so we seek those who will bring an open mind and a willingness to share. Some in the fellowship refer to this as the “no-assholes” criteria.

Integral to the fellowship is the idea that when we say yes to a potential fellow, it is 100%. There are almost no conditions imposed. Some of our fellows do their work at great personal risk: activists working in legal grey areas, conservationists braving dangerous environments, doctors in war-torn areas. This risk does not glamourise or prioritise these fellows, nor does it sway our decision. We strive to ensure the risk is understood clearly by both fellow and Foundation. We are clear about our values, and we discuss whether funding will place them in increased danger. Beyond that conversation, the choice hinges on the same question as with any other fellow: is this an individual who can enact systemic change in the world through their work? When the answer is yes, it is 100%.