11 Connecting

The application process is designed to be as lightweight as possible. It starts with a video and a form that sets six essay subjects asking clean, simple questions that carve a narrative and act as a basis for conversation and partnership. They are:

  1. Tell us about the world as you see it.
  2. What change do you want to make in the world? (A description of the status quo and context in which you will be working)
  3. What do you believe has prevented this change to date? (A description of what you want to change about the status quo, in the world, your personal vision for this area)
  4. What are you going to do to get there? (Describe the innovations or questions you would like to explore during the fellowship year)
  5. What challenges or uncertainties do you expect to face? (A description of what you actually plan to do during the year)
  6. What part does openness play in your idea?

These questions create space for applicants to share their vision and are designed to help everyone understand the essence of what, why and how a change will manifest. Prospective applicants often ask us to narrow down the parameters for applications and be more specific, but we have no plans to change the current format. We want to be surprised and intrigued by applicants. No matter how unconventional the idea may be, we find it is useful for applicants to think through the vision and implementation, regardless of the outcome of their application.

A key component is the application video, intended to offer a glimpse into the person behind the application. Some applicants worry that we expect some epic Hollywood trailer with a voice-over by Morgan Freeman. This is not the case. The video production quality only matters as far as being able to hear and see enough to understand the message. Applications are not public, although applicants are free to share theirs as they wish.

Helen, Karien and Jason review every application. It is an all-consuming process – rightly so, given its importance.

After initial review, applicants are selected for a deeper interview, framed as a conversation to explore ideas in more depth. We ask hard questions up front to help find the right fit. Over time we’ve become bolder about this – people trust us with their dreams, and we take that very seriously. Blunt conversations honour that. Where there is no fit, we’ve learnt to be upfront and say so directly, along with our reasons.

Jesse von Doom’s application video speaks to the importance of both the video and the interviews in the process. When reviewing videos, we ask ourselves “Is this someone we believe has the passion and drive to pursue their idea and who can also inspire others to join their cause?” Jesse’s initial video, now a comic legend in the group, was not funny at all. In fact, it was hopeless. It was shot in a dreary grey concrete room. Jesse, sitting in a poorly lit corner, spoke ever so slightly too slowly. He seemed despondent at best; more likely defeated. This was not someone we felt could rally himself, let alone anyone else.

We resolved to pass on him, but after being urged by a trusted fellow to reconsider, we agreed to an interview. It was a wholly different experience. We got to meet the real Jesse – and his passion, determination and potential to change an inequitable system was clear.

We learnt to look beyond presentation and really dig for substance. Even the most passionate and committed people feel disheartened from time to time. Trying to change the world can be hard on a person. The art lies in recognising when someone deserves a closer look.

The final selection is made from a shortlist compiled after completing all interviews and internal debates, and checking references. In the early days, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder philanthropist, reviewed all of the shortlisted applications and chose new fellows. As we grew, it became clear that this was no longer optimal. The decision process was as important as the decision. Inspired by the fellowship itself, we now invite a one time honorary steward to make the decision. Having a different person make this important call in every round ensures constant rejuvenation, and serves as an independent check against potential bias or nepotism.

Saying no to applicants is not fun. Each one commits a part of themselves to the process, and they will be disappointed, so we try to alleviate the tension by making and communicating decisions as quickly as possible. Applicants receive honest – sometimes uncomfortable – feedback on their application and the reasons for our decision. When true, we tell people we believe they have fellow potential and invite them to reapply in the future. Eleven of the 46 fellows to date were unsuccessful in their first application.

After months of work, our reward is the joyful moment when someone is told they’ve been selected. They will be welcomed into a space we cherish and protect. The fellowship has been shaped by those who came before and is moulded more by each new fellow. As every fellowship is individual, so is every reaction to good news at the end of the process.

Astra Taylor did her “happy dance” when we called to invite her into the fellowship. She had spent her life fighting hard for social change, and we were offering to join her. The “happy dance” was real. Others are wildly professional on the phone and later let out the emotion over email. It’s a special moment when we accept someone who has applied multiple times, finally seeing their efforts pay off. Alasdair Davies had been given a Shuttleworth Foundation sticker years before he became a fellow, and chose not to use it before making his initial application. That application was unsuccessful, and the sticker stayed in the drawer. But he took the feedback and promised himself that he would keep honing his vision. On the third attempt, he got in. The sticker clings to his laptop to this day.

We have worked hard on making the process a positive experience. We own it in a personal way and want to connect as humans. We consider an applicant’s personality, how they would affect the group dynamic, whether they share and reflect our values, and if they represent a diversity of context, culture and perspective. We look for people who will expand our horizons, evolve our view of the world, and truly benefit from the shared wisdom and experience of the fellowship.