Founder-phoria: can we get over our obsession with ‘founders’?

“Hi, my name is Aliénor, and I’m the coordinator of the group”
“Great, and are you also the founder?
I sigh.
“Yes, I’m also the founder. Well, the co-founder, I would say. But why does it matter?”
“It just does.”

I have been introducing myself a lot lately for graduate school applications and potential jobs, and came to the realization that our society is suffering from what I like to call founder-phoria, an unhealthy obsession with founders.

This had never occurred to me before, as I was focused on ‘selling’ a cause through my personal story when speaking to the media and at conferences. However, introducing myself in this new context meant the situation was reversed: I needed to sell myself through my work for a cause. Through this process, I noticed a tangible change in how people reacted to the actual titles I hold in various groups. Suddenly, whether I was a “founder” mattered tremendously to my interlocutor. Worse, even, it seemed to matter less which kind of group I had created, what it had achieved, and how it was run. All that I was being asked was: did you or did you not start this group?

Don’t get me wrong, being a founder is hard. I have been starting groups from scratch since I was a kid, and every layer of administrative obstacles that I faced surely cost me a few years of life. On top of this, it is difficult to find funding, to continuously justify why your group matters compared to pre-existing ones, and to stand alone for a while until more join you. So yes, being a founder is an achievement. Even more so if you are a Black, Indigenous, Brown, Female, Queer, Trans, Young or Disabled founder. But this doesn’t make founder-phoria any less real.

I argue below that is founder-phoria is an unhealthy habit for several reasons: focusing on founders as a recruiter or a jury might prevent you from finding the best candidates, because you mistakenly take that status as a signal of quality. Furthermore, this focus can be detrimental to advancing the causes that matter to your organization. Finally, you contribute to a culture where resume-building actions trump society-improving ones.

Having the word founder on my resume has led me to being congratulated and praised before I could even share what I had achieved with the group. In a world of imperfect information, recruiters and juries must find some signals of quality, and often the title “founder” is taken as a guarantee. While it can be a sign of leadership and passion, it can also be the result of an inability to work with others, a need for recognition instead of a desire to make real change, or even an egocentric tendency to believe one’s ideas are best. Simply starting a group is easy. Starting a successful group is the real challenge. I have seen countless University clubs and associations form, host one event, create social media accounts and then fall into oblivion, within months. I have encountered dozens of “founders” that were the sole members of their organization, and therefore had no leadership or managerial experience. I continuously meet people who start an initiative without being able to justify why the pre-existing ones tackling the same issue are not enough. And yet, when I speak to my academic adviser about which achievements I should highlight, it is the title of “founder” that she repeatedly goes back to.

This founder-phoria is not only mistaken, but it is also harmful. It’s very origin seems confusing to me, as if in some sort of twisted continuation of the terra nullus doctrine, it is as if being the “first one” on an issue matters most. But being the founder of a non-profit doesn’t mean you didn’t steal the ideas you are advocating for and being the founder of a sustainable start-up doesn’t mean your success doesn’t partly rely on the unpaid work of community organizers that fought for sustainability to even make it on the public agenda. And while we can’t control for every person that will appropriate or exploit someone else’s fight, we can at least make sure not to encourage it by only rewarding founders. The environmental world is a typical example: I have been contacted by many young people wanting to create their own group and consult me on how to do so successfully. Some are much needed, because they complement what exists. But in all honesty, many of these ideas are an exact replication of what I have seen twenty times before. This tendency to re-invent the wheel therefore means precious time and energy is wasted, while pre-existing groups who already spent time on building their foundations search for new organizers to bring fresh ideas and more hands on-deck. One might argue I have little proof that founder-phoria is responsible for it… Well, a quick glance at the ‘About Us’ page of the groups I am thinking of comforts me in saying that founder-phoria is at least partially guilty. These groups all have a tendency to highlight the foundation story before the group even had their first meeting, include of a whole biography for each executive member before a single achievement can be named, and still fails to provide an explanation as to why this new group is needed.

By prioritizing the title of “founder” over other considerations, recruiters and selection committees actually encourage people to take leadership for their resume’s sake, not to enact lasting change. It is easy to see why this is morally wrong, but is it really that big of a deal? In the social justice, climate justice but even in the on-campus world, it actually is a huge deal. Every new group that forms with no intention of actively contributing to the cause dilutes the message and the resources available to others. In groups that don’t offer training and don’t empower their members to learn, grow and take leadership, important organizing potential is wasted so that these empty shells can exist to give their executive boards a semblance of importance. In an era where inequalities are stringent and our ecosystems are collapsing, we cannot afford wasting organizing potential. Reducing the focus on founders will not be the ultimate solution to this issue, but it will create a culture where achievements matter more than titles.

What do we try to measure when we use “founder” as an indicator of quality? A person’s commitment to a cause and ability to lead, maybe? Perhaps also their willingness to fight harder when times get tough, and their agility in galvanizing support for a project that has not yet been made mainstream. Many founders have these qualities, but I have also seen them in those who take on leadership in pre-existing organizations. They enter the group with novel ideas, dedicate time and energy to the improvement of the organization and deliver performances that rival those of the co-founders. Our founder-phoria is standing in the way of greater achievements, and the sooner we open our minds to the possibility that a title cannot hold the whole truth, the better we will collectively be.

Picture of hands united. Image by Michal Jarmoluk.

Special thanks to James Hannay for helping me edit this piece.

Climate Justice Activist originally from South of France, now a settler in Toronto . Organizer with Fridays for Future Toronto.

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