Knowmads Business School: Empowering and enabling knowmads

Knowmads Business School: Empowering and enabling knowmads

by Pieter Spinder

The world is facing huge challenges, and they are growing daily, in severity, scale and in complexity. It is no exaggeration to say that they are not going to go away. Indeed, they will get worse, unless we start to find solutions, and we find them soon. If we are going to survive, we desperately need the next generation to be smarter, more adaptable, and better prepared than any that has gone before. Our only chance is to improve the way we teach our young; to equip our young people with the skills and the attitudes that might steer this world of ours to a far safer place than it presently looks likely. The question is, is that what our current education system does? (Introduction from Goodrich, 2009)

Figure 6. Knowmads Business School logo


The beginning of the Knowmads Business School in Amsterdam

The idea of the Knowmads Business School began in June 2009, with four people who were previously involved in the Kaospilot Netherlands post-graduate program and the University of Applied Sciences of Amsterdam. Originating from our experiences through our work in the field of education, we wanted to do something meaningful and different, based, among other insights and desires, on the ideas that coincided with those presented by Daryl Goodrich (2009).

From our perspective, the current education system does not provide enough young people who can create change. Ecological, social, and economic transformations are taking place, and with “old,” industrial approaches still lingering in business and education, we will not be able to transform to the extent we need to by looking at the situation as a “crisis” (Knowmads looks at it as transformation, much like nature manages to transform continuously). Transformation starts with personal transformation. When one has a connection with him- or herself, then one can make a connection with the outside world and with the surrounding environment.

To us, it seemed strange to have a program with a fixed curriculum that lasted a traditional period of three to four years, while the transformations taking place in the rest of the world were happening much faster.

And, what about personal learning needs? How is it possible to say that only in the third semester of the third year you are permitted to take a course in marketing, while it might be that a student already has a pressing need for it, is interested in it, or wants to take it during an earlier semester? Moreover, why work with case studies published in books, when one can learn from real challenges, real life assignments with companies, interactions with governments, and work with non-governmental organizations? Why make education a dress rehearsal instead of an encounter with real life?

When creating Knowmads, we did not want to approach students as empty buckets to be filled with knowledge. We instead consider them as young professionals. We wanted to give them the possibility to co-create with us with partnering companies and institutions, and make use of the knowledge that already exists. We had many questions, and no answers.

That is when we decided to leap into action.

We wanted to do something different. We wanted to change the game of education, and bring something meaningful and beautiful into the world. Our aim was to bring joy into the field by guiding young people to follow their own passions, and work to make things happen which would bring smiles on their faces, ourselves, our collaborators, and our environment.

  • We constructed a framework based on our responses to four driving questions:
  • In what world do we want to live? Sustainability and social innovation.
  • What do I want to contribute/change? Personal leadership.
  • How can I best organize to get it done? Entrepreneurship and new business design.
  • How do I bring it in the world? Marketing and creativity.

We checked with John Moravec, father of the knowmads concept and terminology, if the idea of a school, as a platform, partly based on his theory about knowmadic living, learning, and working looked good to him. He was very happy about the idea, so we registered some domain names, built a website at, and started to talk with potential business partners about our idea. We did not have a building; we did not have a program; we did not have students; we did not know who would facilitate it; and, we did not have money to launch the program. Fortunately, we recruited partners who liked the opportunity of getting to work together with a diverse group of young, international professionals on particular business challenges they were experiencing that related to the above four questions.

Recruited through our website, Facebook, Twitter, and informational meetings, 12 young people joined Knowmads in Amsterdam in February 2010. At our first application workshop, participants from the USA, Canada, Brazil, South Korea, Switzerland, Germany, and The Netherlands attended. This group had to tell their friends and parents they were going to attend a “school” in Amsterdam (we prefer to call it a “platform”). They did not know where it would be located within the city, had to pay a €4,500 entrance fee, and they had to acknowledge that Knowmads Business School was outside of the Dutch formal education system, so they could not receive an official diploma at the end of the program. We called this group the “Knowmads Pioneers.” They wanted to challenge themselves and the outside world. They were the people who wanted to change the game. And, they did… and continue to do so in their professional work.

How we do things at the Knowmads Business School

Our program is implemented by Knowmads staff and by our invited lecturers/contributors. It is centered on co-creation among students, lecturers, and staff around various assignments. Our lecturers are always experts in their field, and throughout the year, students work on assignments for our partnering organizations. Our program has a few core workshops and tools that we offer to every team of students, such as: deep democracy, nonviolent communication, business model canvas creation, Startup Wheel, Chaordic Stepping Stones, sales, marketing, and project management. Other workshops support assignments or group processes knowmads students may be engaged in at any particular moment. In the first year, the students decided to form a legal entity together: Knowmads U.A. (a cooperative), which to this day is used by students as a vehicle to earn money through their completion of their real world assignments.

The Knowmads staff brings in four assignments per year, which connect explicitly to the four organizing questions. The students work on these together with leaders from each collaborating organization and/or one or more of their employees. After the partnering company delivers their challenge, the students create a working plan, which includes a financial proposal for services. Once the partner accepts the quote, the tribe (as the students started calling themselves) starts working, coached by the Knowmads staff. The aim is to create a win-win-win situation, for the students, for our partnering organization, and for our broader society. In addition to the program, we encourage our students to work on their own projects and businesses as practicing knowmads. One or more experts sourced from the Knowmads network also coach each student during the year.

The core points of our program is that we work, in our educational experiences and with the real life assignments, with our heads (knowledge), our hearts (feeling) and our hands (doing/action). We further work to connect these to idealism (dreams), talents, and other disciplines.

Figure 7. Knowmads Business School “Wigwam”


At Knowmads, we base our program year on individual learning needs, in a team-based environment, which is structured on modern organizational theories (see, e.g., Sharmer, 2007). During the first half-year, students experience a considerable amount of un-learning (a need to get rid of old patterns), and during this unlearning, we try to find the individual- and team-level knowledge needed to bring ourselves a step, or several steps, further in our learning journeys, so we can implement this in our daily practice.

The Internet is a basic working environment for Knowmads. We collaborate through online project management tools (e.g., DropBox), and maintain our own online video channels. Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are tools we cannot ignore if we wish to work together. As the world becomes smaller and smaller through the application of technologies, and more accessible through online tools, we try to choose which collaborative technologies are the most useful to co-create with our partners and the community we serve.

We believe in bringing nice, good and inspiring things into the world, and inspiring through fun processes and projects that are beautiful and beneficial to the people and the planet we live on. We do these things at Knowmads because we believe in the power of “you reap what you sow.” And, by doing so, we find that people return to us to do more good projects most of the time.

We can have an impact by being honest to ourselves, and by being honest to the outside world. We do not do things because we have been doing these practices for centuries, but we check within ourselves to determine what it is that we really want to do. We connect this to people, and then design with, not for, to build and implement services and products that make the world a better place. By working with leaders in companies, big and small, we have the possibility to create, together, the changes that we think are needed. As stated before, Knowmads is not a dress rehearsal. We work on real assignments with the goal to create real value (i.e., money, knowledge, and sponsorships). We don’t talk about case studies. We create real stuff.

As every startup entrepreneur is aware, it is hard to start something completely from scratch. Especially, since we are comprised as an original combination of education and business approaches, we are no exception. Because the Knowmads Business School is a completely new concept, it is difficult for us to secure funding from traditional sources. We started two years ago with 12 students. In February 2013, we are planning to admit 15 new students, and, by then, 42 will have “graduated.” Other institutions and startups around the world are already adopting the Knowmads concept. We are engaged directly with startups in Israel, and we are connected to the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam through a Knowmadic Learning Lab minor program.

Today, students pay an entrance fee of €5,500. With this money, we provide school grounds (a building to work in), Internet, coaching, process facilitation, and compensation for the people who come from inside and outside of the school to lead the assignment workshops. By working on our assignments, the students also have the potential to earn while they learn. We enroll new tribes of Knowmads twice a year, in August and February. By doing, so the tribes are very much connected, and there is a sense of community. One of the core beliefs of Knowmads is that there is a lot of invisible, peer-to-peer learning that occurs between tribes. Therefore, each half year, the more “senior” tribe has an opportunity to work on assignments and projects together from the newest tribe that joined the school.

After the one-year program, the students can choose to stay at the school to incubate their dream business (some of them do this already during the year), coached by Knowmads staff, in what we call the Knowmads Greenhouse. In the first year alone, our students, who worked on 50 assignments, started five companies. The staff brought only four of these assignments in.

Despite our “earning while learning” philosophy, it is hard to earn back the entrance fee, but this is seen by most of the students as a bonus – and a challenge. When we started Knowmads, it was important for us to set a balance in learning and earning. If we only did projects, we would become a “doing a project” school, which would not be ideal. Our approach is to get the students connected with the Knowmads community, which encourages them to find out where their passions are, why they want to bring something into the world, and how to do that by practicing and learning with real life assignments, and with real life companies.

What we did and do at Knowmads

The first two years ran by us rapidly, and we accomplished a lot. We offered over 125 workshops, including Seth Godin on “shipping,” Moraan Gilad on deep democracy, Patrick van der Pijl on business model canvassing, Godert van Hardenbroek on sustainability in action, Kristian Harder on social media, Tsi-la Piran on personal leadership and spirituality in action, Charley Davis on money, Fokke Wijnstra on value-based working, Wim Vrolijk on sales, and more. Most of the workshops were conducted in an action learning format, to build an authentic connection with the themes of the assignment, and to apply the content of the workshop to the assignments we where working on. In an appendix to this book, you will find a list of key workshops we offered up to November 2012.

Here are some of our early assignments for partnering organizations:

  • We engaged in a creativity and marketing assignment for KLM Airlines, and pitched the concept of “social seating” (being able to review the LinkedIn and Facebook profiles of people seated near you on a flight so you may have a better chance of engaging in conversation with somebody you like).
  • For Royal Haskoning, we worked on an assignment for making workplace sustainability visible in large corporate environments.
  • For the WereldWinkels chain of fair trade shops in The Netherlands, we worked to reinvent fair trade marketing, and make it accessible and interesting for the broader public.
  • We worked on an assignment for T-Mobile, and organized a Diversity Journey for 15 European human resource managers in Amsterdam.
  • We developed content for the PICNIC Festival in Amsterdam.
  • Achmea asked us to help them devise a launch for a special insurance product marketed toward self-employed workers.

…and, some 40 other bigger and smaller assignments – all in the first year.

The future of Knowmads

We believe that the solutions to some of the challenges humanity faces may be solved through creative and entrepreneurial behavior, and also on a platform where you work as you learn. By doing so, we work and learn with real assignments, and share our knowledge, feelings, and action within a diverse group of people. We love the way we do things, and we learn a lot by making mistakes. Knowmads is a learning organization, and shapes itself during the process when the process needs it. Just like real life.

We learn a lot during our lives. It is a long road with no end in sight, and there are mountains of invisible learning to be crossed. When one can catch his or her passion, find a way to get the knowledge and the skills to work with other people, young and old, we have a superb starting point.

Everybody has within him- or herself a fire for something. Some fires are big, some are smaller, and some just do not look like fire, but look like black coal. What we try to do at Knowmads is blow some air onto this coal, which everybody has inside of them. We breathe in fresh oxygen to start the fires within our students, and unbelievable stuff happens. Whoosh!

Knowmads, welcome home!



Goodrich, D. (Director). (2009). We are the people we have been waiting for. UK: New Moon Television.

Scharmer, C. O. (2007). Theory U: Leading from the emerging future (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning.

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