Ben Keene on the Power of Tribes – Leaders + Disrupters

Ben Keene on the Power of Tribes – Leaders + Disrupters

Exciting things are happening in the world – we’ll be picking the brains of the people behind them in our new Leaders + Disrupters blog series, inspired by the talks we’ve held for our members at The Collective Old Oak.

At The Collective we’re obsessed with the idea of community – it’s what fuels our mission to create better ways of living for the future. That’s why we thought it would be awesome to have a chat with serial tribe-builder Ben Keene.

Ben in a nutshell:

Founder of Tribewanted – builders of off-grid community tourism experiences and co-living in Africa, Asia & Europe.

Tribe leader at Escape the City – on a mission to help people escape unfulfilling work and build careers they care about.

Founder of Rebel Book Club – not your average book club.

Ben shares with us his thoughts on the power of tribes in the 21st Century, and how to build and be part of effective communities. 

First things first, what is a ‘tribe’?

Traditionally, a tribe has been defined as a group of people connected to a place, usually the land that they’re from. The few indigenous tribes that are left in the world tend to have the strongest possible relationship with their physical environment - that’s how their culture is defined.

Looking at 2016, and the way groups are forming in the more globalised world, with freedom of movement, 24/7 connection online, the ability to say we’re going to build something new and we need people to do it – that’s what I would describe as a modern day tribe.

It’s usually one or two people saying: hi, we’re over here, we believe there’s a better way to work/live in a city/get more out of books – we’re going to do it, who wants to come along? It’s a group of people connected to an idea, who have a purpose, and it usually involves some leadership.

Why are tribes, or communities, important?

The way I see it, in many parts of the world people are craving belonging. If you were going to be hyper-simplistic – divide the world into north-south, developed-undeveloped, rich-poor – essentially in all of the places labeled ‘poor’ or ‘developing’ the thing that’s actually really strong is a sense of cultural identity and community. One of the things we seem to have sacrificed in our capitalist development and industrialisation – the pursuit of convenience – is our sense of belonging to a group of people.

You can look at what’s happening right now in this country with Brexit and the questions being asked around the referendum – who are we? What is our sense of identity? And I think one of the reasons Brexit was voted in was because people felt a need to protect our culture and identity, who we belong to, these islands… from where I’m sitting, all else aside, I can understand that nostalgia…

In all sorts of facets of society, we’re always wanting to feel like we belong. In the core tribal community, the family, that starts with childhood, and then as you go out into the world you’re still looking for relationships and friendships. It’s a basic human desire to be part of something; we’re social animals.

How do you think a need for community is playing out for the millennial generation?

My ‘big picture’ thought on this relates to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – with basic needs like shelter, food and water at the bottom, and at the top self-actualisation and fulfillment. 


Today, self-actualisation is almost the starting point for many Millennials, who are fortunate enough to have all of those other needs already met. If you start aged 16-35 – first half of your adult life – asking questions like: how do I really want to spend my time? How do I have the best possible impact? How can I explore the world around me? – instead of getting trapped in the cycle of work – it’s a sign of exciting times.

By 2025, 70% of the work force will be Gen Y-ers or younger. If their mindset is fulfillment and purpose and being part of communities as a default setting, that makes me very optimistic about the future. Community is really crucial here, because you can’t achieve it by yourself.

What are some important lessons you’ve learnt from building communities?

It’s important to have that clarity on why you’re doing what you’re doing – if you’re not clear from day 1 about your reasons, it’s hard to get things off the ground. What I’ve increasingly learnt as well is that the more you can show what you’re not, the more chance you have of getting momentum and building a strong community.

Something that’s talked about a lot as well in start ups, regarding communities especially, is the idea that your early adopters are often very different to what your main audience become. We saw this with Tribewanted. Of the first 20 or so people that turned up on the island, 10 of them were pretty out-there personalities – in a small, conservative Fijian island community that was really disruptive. But after 6 months, it kind of leveled out, and it became clear who our core audience actually were.

What are the secrets to maintaining a healthy community?

For me, what binds tribes and makes them successful is the 3 Rs: Ritual, Rhythm and Respect. In terms of ritual, from Day 1 you should be really clear about what it is that you do that’s unique to you. In our book club we design a cocktail every month around the theme of the book; we have a vote every month from 3 books to 1; we have a power-hour on a Sunday night.

Rhythm is creating security in your community around structure. For our Tribes at Escape, we’ll be in this room together every Wednesday night for the next 12 weeks – what we do each session will change, but there’s an overarching structure.

Respect is the hardest. When we have the first session with a Tribe at Escape, we bring everyone together and ask them how they want this to work – how do they think they should be treated and behave. After a big brainstorming session, we come together and write up the Rules of The Road. At Tribewanted, very simply, traditional local culture drove our behavior. That was Rule Number 1. Rule Number 2 was that everybody washes up their plates so, regardless of what level of accommodation you’ve booked, everyone feels on the same level, which creates a sense of being in this together.

What tips do you have for people joining a new community?

Just be clear about why you’re going in. Make sure the community is really aligned with what you’re looking for. The cool thing about joining communities in cities like London is that most offer a taster experience – a meet up, joining online first.  At that point the thing to do is be open-minded. When you go to something for the first time, like a first date, you instinctively judge people quite quickly – we want to put people in boxes. Sometimes our instincts our correct, but other times you need to let it play out a little bit


Interview by Grace Waters

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