I learned the following Ethiopian proverb the other day: If spiderwebs unite, they can tie up an elephant. I learned this from Thomas P. Furey, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Nigeria. Furey used those words at the closing session of the seventh Leon H. Sullivan Summit in Nigeria in July, when he called on delegates to be “ambassadors” for Africa and unleash the promise of the continent. “Ambassadorship is really about citizens from all countries working together to promote change,” he said. “If spiderwebs unite, they can tie up an elephant. For all of us to succeed in our missions in Africa, we need all of you to take your jobs seriously as ambassadors and to weave webs.”
In the United States, power networking guru George Fraser is one of the most famous proponents and practitioners of the spiderweb theory. For five days at his 2006 PowerNetworking Conference in Atlanta, he and his battalion of high-powered speakers pounded out the message to some 3,000 attendees that business is about relationships, and relationships are built through networking.
Nets, webs—they’re one and the same when it comes to the business of good business.
Uniting webs is a lesson to which small suppliers will need to pay heed if they want to survive in today’s commercial environment. In industries across the board—most notably in construction, which is the subject of this issue’s Industry Focus—suppliers of goods and services may find themselves shut out of major contracts if, individually, they do not have the range of skills to meet the requirements of those contracts. Rather than make a multitude of little requests for this and that product or this and that service, prime contractors are bundling their needs and putting the bundles out to bid. Obviously, united webs of companies, or, in the lingo of big business, “consortia,” stand the best chance of tying up those bundles and bringing them home.
Lee Jasper, the mayor of London’s point man on race relations, puts the spiderweb theory into a pan-African context. As reported in the article “London Bridge” in the Finance & Economy section of this issue, Jasper urges companies in the African diaspora to form join ventures with Black-owned companies in London and jointly go after business, not only in London, but also in the wider European Union.
Is it enough to come together to tackle a single elephant? What happens once that elephant is tied up? Is the unity of webs strong enough to keep it under control? Should the unity be sustained to go after other elephants? And if it should, can it be sustained to do so?
These questions do not apply to business alone. Take civic participation, the subject of the Final Word column in this issue of TNJ.
Elephants don’t walk alone; there’s always a family of them or a herd, suggests Melanie Campbell, executive director and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation Inc. and author of this issue’s Final Word. Winning the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in Congress this summer does not mean the voting rights battle is over, Campbell says. The joint effort that tied up the congressional elephant must be sustained to take on the other elephants lumbering down the trail in the form of lawsuits, she says.
There is no question that when spiderwebs unite, they can tie up an elephant. And what happens next depends on the strength of the uniting weave.
By Rosalind McLymont