On Impact: From Leafcutter Ants to Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

By: Vikki Tam

There it was: a green dash line crawling against the moist brown earth. Each dash
seemed slightly jagged, yet the line itself was defiantly straight and stretched for as far as my eye could see.

As I bent down for a closer look, I realized that the “line” was in fact a legion of hard-at-work leafcutter ants (the foragers, specifically), transporting little fragments of leaves back to their underground nest. I was in Chiapas, Mexico, where dramatic Mayan ruins mesmerize even the worldliest travelers. But I would argue that these ants—the dominant herbivores of the New World tropics trudging home to feed millions of their brethren—were just as impressive.

What remarkable creatures they seemed to be! Stalwart and disciplined, single-minded in focus. They inspired me to revisit the works of one of my intellectual heroes, Edward O. Wilson, the famed evolutionary biologist who spent much of his career studying leafcutter ants (among other… ants). I came to learn that next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex societies on earth. (I won’t go into detail about the different castes of leafcutter ants or how they turn vegetation into a fungus; it’s all quite fascinating.) Their success, according to Wilson, relied on “eusociality”—“the condition of multiple generations organized into groups by means of an altruistic division of labor.”

Eusociality is a relatively recent and somewhat controversial intellectual shift from earlier theories of the “selfish gene” and “kin selection” as the primary force behind the evolution of advanced social behavior. To wildly oversimplify, Wilson maintained that groups in which individuals are hardwired to behave altruistically outcompete and out-survive other groups. Ultimately, this group selection shapes the instincts that make individuals altruistic toward one another, and it encourages group-oriented traits such as empathy, generosity and collaboration. In short, it’s responsible for the better angels of our nature.

Perhaps it was a matter of overactive synapses, but pondering these leafcutter ants and their nature got me thinking about humans and our own group instinct. Eusociality explains how Homo sapiens have come to dominate the earth. Of course, culture, history and politics are equally part of the human condition; over time, these influences have wrought the specific and narrower boundaries by which we define a group. These boundaries persist, shift, dissolve and re-form, sometimes in pernicious ways. They have spawned behaviors that account for much of what we read in the news every day: “clientelism” (nepotism, corruption, and so on), political extremism, religious fundamentalism, sectarian violence and all forms of discrimination.

This is why I continue to be deeply moved and inspired by the mission and work of our global pro bono partners in economic development—Endeavor and Acumen. For what are they doing if not creating a new kind of group? Endeavor’s impact comes from a global “tribe” of high-impact entrepreneurs who scale to create thousands of jobs and millions in revenue, and pay it forward by inspiring, mentoring and investing in the next generation of entrepreneurs. When asked about their motivation to help others, these entrepreneurs invariably spoke of a “natural affinity” and a “profound connection” with other entrepreneurs, and the almost innate desire to “just be helpful” because they similarly benefited from the generous support of others. This “contagion effect” multiplies the impact of a few outsized successes and builds thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems from Buenos Aires to Istanbul (read our co-authored article with Endeavor, “Making Entrepreneurship Contagious”). Similarly, Acumen entrepreneurs and Fellows are an intrepid “tribe” with a shared moral imagination that builds scalable businesses to serve the poor where governments and traditional aid have fallen short.

Both organizations are redefining the group in a way that is, at once, more inclusive and expansive. They are creating a new tribalism that neutralizes other more limiting, divisive forms of “-isms” and fuels a powerful force for positive social change.

I long for the day when the group instinct will no longer be solely etched by the obvious markers of identity—race, clan, class, gender, religion and so on. I long for a tribe that is defined by something far more elemental—the urge to innovate, the hunger to excel, the capacity to empathize, the desire to connect and to give. I can only dream that this new kind of group instinct can be hardwired. Perhaps it can only be a chimera; but then again, human beings are not ants: we are infinitely more capable of rewiring ourselves.

Vikki Tam is the head of Bain’s global Social Impact Practice. In addition, she leads our global pro bono economic development partnerships with organizations like Endeavor and Acumen. Vikki joined Bain in 1998 and is a partner in Bain’s New York office.

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