CEED’s mission to build a community of entrepreneurs became fundamentally more difficult with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the heart of the CEED center’s programming is hosting peer groups to facilitate discussion and connections between entrepreneurs. It is during regular face-to-face meetings between entrepreneurs that trust develops and the best peer learning occurs, but social distancing requirements necessitated switching to all online events. So, our team had to get creative to provide the same meaningful learnings in the virtual world. Here are our 5 top takeaways on how to promote peer learning even when being physically present isn’t possible:

1. Keep it interactive – When you make the switch to online meetings it can be easy for whoever is leading the discussion to go into lecture mode. Reading the body language or mood of the audience is a challenge and those listening have the whole internet at their fingertips to provide ready distraction, so meeting leaders should keep their speeches or presentations short and focus on drawing the attendees into the conversation. On Zoom, using “breakout rooms” to encourage discussion and the chat feature to allow people to ask questions in real-time during a presentation have been very effective tools for our community.

2. Take advantage of the global opportunity—While many CEEDers were disappointed about being socially distanced from their fellow entrepreneurs for months, CEED Global took the opportunity to try and bring together CEEDers from different centers. The response to the Global Leaders Talks was overwhelming and we are excited to keep building more virtual inter-center networking opportunities in the post-COVID world.

3. Valuable Networking is possible – The Global Leaders Talks gave entrepreneurs the chance to feel connected to each other while listening to advice from topic experts, but CEED Morocco and CEED Tunisia took that concept a step further through several networking events. They hosted a virtual panel of women business owners from Morocco, Tunisia, and Indonesia discussing their pandemic response plans and which included time for all the CEED members to ask questions. They also ran a virtual networking session that brought together 70 women entrepreneurs from both countries to network in small groups based on industry. The feedback from these events was that they had all the energy of an in-person event with the added benefit of a more geographically diverse audience.

4. Less might really be more – It’s been exciting to see how many incredible online events have been and are being hosted. In many ways, the necessity of taking formerly in-person events online actually democratizes access to them. But, the longer the pandemic and social distancing requirements continue the more what we’re calling “Zoom fatigue” is setting in. There are more events than people have time to attend and choosing which events will be most worth your while is a struggle. In scheduling events, it is important to clearly define the value-add for attendees so they can prioritize attending those meetings that will be most impactful. In our case, as engaging as the Global Leaders Talk series has been, we are seeing now that entrepreneurs must now be fully focused on restarting their businesses. So, we are pausing for July and August but will resume the series in September with a focus switch from managing the crisis to succeeding in the new normal.

5. Learn from the data—While Zoom fatigue is a very real risk, one advantage of the platform is the ability to learn from the data analytics. With engagement reports, data on when participants join and sign off, and built-in polling, improving CEED’s programming based on feedback is easier than ever before. Are morning or afternoon sessions better attended? When is the best time to capture an engaged audience? Why does energy increase 20-minutes into the conversation and decline at minute 42? The answers to these questions can be found in a Zoom report, and answering them makes for an even better meeting, webinar, or virtual event the next time around.