July 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
Two weeks in Uganda is a crash course in humility.
I am an ant, on day 16, crawling on the surface of the world’s most complex continent – a speck of a speck in a history reaching back centuries beyond my Scottish ancestors.
Mosquito bites down my right arm, razor burn down my left leg and three notebooks of hand written pages in six different colors of colored pen, here I am trying to pin down a piece of the enormity that is Africa rising and taking her place in the global market.
And I am tired.
Three things remain consistent: world over: water, sun and Guinness. This weekend, I set out in search of all three.
A thousand shillings and a boda ride later, I was walking into the Swim and Dive, just shy of Agenda 200 on Namugongo road where I left twin sweat marks on the back of my driver’s faux leather seat.
I convinced the life guard I just wanted to lay on one of the soggy, plastic chairs and he waived my 5,000 shilling “swim fee” after a back and forth of the same conversation for several moments.
“You only want to sit on that chair – that chair there?”
“I just want to sit there.”
“You don’t want to swim, you only want to sit?”
“I only want to sit.”
“So you will not swim?”
“I will not swim.”
“No, it’s ok. You go.”
Social entrepreneurship is what I imagine an enduro must feel like – simultaneously washed up at your weakest and best in a place beyond where you’ve ever pushed yourself before. I imagine there must be some place where you want to quit, then a point of numb exhaustion, pushing forward for god knows what reason except that you said you would, and then your second wind arrives, and suddenly you’re in it to win again. There’s some type of clearing ahead – and, at the end, a finish line.
In 16 days, I’ve been stolen from, double crossed, left to find my own way in a city I couldn’t map out if you asked me to, cut my supply chain in half, fired and hired a manager, threw out an entire set of designs and started from scratch – loved and hated Uganda at once. And, in a series of small, acutely personal ways, I have been reborn.
I’ve laid awake until 4 AM, had nightmares like a scared little girl in the dark, resolved through my issues with people I love but hadn’t forgiven, and people I needed to left go. I’ve been stressed to the point of delirium, staring at my mosquito net in sheer, anxious exhaustion, unwilling to turn out the light. I’ve been afraid of losing the things I love most in my life, methodically aware of what I have grown to love – people, a home in Brooklyn, my family, and how I would feel if I lost any of it. Alone with myself, I’ve discovered that I’ve been rubbed raw by exposing the things at the heart of me.
“I’m living out the things I always wanted most,” I told Onyait in the kitchen. Electricity out. Dark. Candles. Peeling potatoes for an hour.
The people, the place, the job. I’ve done the work to get to the edge. It’s scary out here, living your dream. You’ve got a hell of a lot more to lose than when you stayed comfortable with the things that were only marginally important to you. Out here is no man’s land, all passion and fire and love for things you know you couldn’t stand to lose.
“You’re at your best,” T told me over a bad internet connection to San Francisco, two days later.
He told me we can only mimic the desperation that occurs before our best work. When it comes, it sharpens us. The real genius, the masterpiece, comes at the end of our rope – the jagged edge of disaster before you just might topple…and don’t.
Out beyond what we’ve endured is where innovation happens. I don’t mean shiny, New York technological innovation on a pitch platform stage or an air conditioned contest room. I mean hot mess innovation – the kind when there’s red dirt under your finger nails and hair on your legs and a pounding desperation behind your need to find a solution or lose years of work in a place where you have no favors to call in before you make your next move.
That’s when you get smart.
I sat down and started writing, with the sun and water and Guinness last week. Two Guinness and six pages of writing later, I knew I’d learned more in my two week humility crash course than I perhaps had in the past six months.
“Your impact will be measured by your profitability.” That was the first one. I scrawled it into my notebook as T was saying it, warning me not to get too emotional, but to instead focus on good business, and let the social good fall in line underneath it. The next work day, my lead artisan and I let 10 workers go, choosing to focus on quality instead of numbers – women with the most intense initiative, instead of women with the most intense need.
Number two was to create competition, instead of competing against myself. Thousands of people earn their place in a global market every hour, and I learned that I have to teach the women I work with to do the same. Show up on time. Put your best foot forward. If its not good enough, do it over again – and do it better, this time. Incentive. Competition. Broadened understanding. These things are my job to bring to the table, even when it doesn’t feel good. And, I’ve learned it almost never does. The other half of my job? Decrease the competition happening against me within my own supply chain – things like laziness, misunderstanding, dishonesty, bad vibes.
Number three: test everything. “There is a life cycle to working with you,” T explained. “It lasts only as long as a woman works for it to.” When he said it, I pictured myself as the last in a long line of worn out matatus – NGOs and nonprofits, hand outs and free rides to no where except the place you started. Here, you have to begin where we all do – with waking up and trying your very best. And I have begun to ask that of each of the women I work with, as I do myself. I’ve found, in the midst of it, that they have been asked for their suffering, their disease, their sad stories – but not, recently, for their very best. And perhaps that will be the most healing request of all, over time.
Four was the most important. I learned that even the strongest, most persistent of people have a breaking point. I’ve got to know before I get there, and set up boundaries, guards – lines of clarity between me and the great big, guilt ridden abyss that exists if I let myself get sucked into the wrong vortex of mixing business and development work.
God. What am I made up of? That’s how I feel when I walk out of certain situations in development.
Skin. Blood. Family. Desire. Doubt. Blind Drive. Blinding fear. Experience. Memory. Love.
Who am I?
I am all the things I love, and the things I hate – the things I cannot handle, and the things I can. I am my breaking point, and the things I do to save myself so I don’t go beyond it. I am the people who love me – the things I have learned, the rage filled drive to beat the intellectual obstacles, the technological issues, the desire to do better in business than I saw my former bosses and mentors do within the constraints of aid, before I began this journey. I am every hour of effort between me and profit earned on the back of my biggest dreams.
I am everything that has brought me here. But I am more than that.
I am my second wind, and my vision of the finish line.
I am in this to win.
June 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
I met Grace during my first trip to her village, but it wasn’t until I started Nakate that she and I were able to sit down and talk.
Grace has a round, mud and thatched hut on the edge of Kakooge where she is a mother both to her own children and to her late children’s children – 12, in all, and she cares for them by herself.
I told Grace she must keep busy, and she laughed with me. She poured us milk tea in the afternoon shade of the banana trees around her home, and Grace asked me a pointed question.
“Why did you choose to work with women like me?”
She said that she knew I could have chosen a career as a doctor, a woman in finance, or a female lawyer – that there was much opportunity in the United States for girls like me, both for education and for business. She said she thought I should have taken one of those opportunities, and expressed her concern for me and my career. Why had I come to Uganda to work with impoverished women? Why had I thrown away professional opportunity?
She asked if I had brought shame to my family.
That day was the beginning for me – the start of when I really knew what it was that I was doing with Nakate.
I was creating new stories.
See, the only story Grace had ever been told was one of her poverty and weakness – her need for help. She had been given money by nonprofits. Her children had been handed sponsorships at a local school. But Grace had never been told that her talent and strength as a woman was worth partnering with – that her unique skill set was important to the global market – enough so that a young, enterprising American woman would want to work with her over being a doctor or lawyer.
That day, I was able to tell Grace that working with her was a job that gave me respect at home in the USA, that my parents and grandparents were proud of me, and it was a career choice that I considered just as dignified as working in finance, law or the medical field.
I watched Grace sit a little taller, after that.
“I never knew,” she told me. “I’m glad to be doing business with you.”
That’s the heart of our work, at Nakate – empowering individual women to see their own talent and power through design. We want them to understand that they are businesswomen – enterprising, brilliant females in a global market.
That’s their new story.
Tomorrow, as I take off for Uganda – you can join me through shopping our online store (40% off just through today with code NEWSTOCK). Alternatively, you can join me in creating impact here.
December 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
I spent two hours at a Buddhist shrine in Chelsea this weekend, sitting and feeling my legs ache while I tried to find my center.
“You’re going to feel yourself pulled off course,” my instructor said. “That’s ok. Acknowledge it – ‘thought’ – and pull yourself back to the breath.”
There’s nothing that feels immediately natural about meditation. Here you are on a cushion in a room full of other people with your eyes wide open, trying not to get too caught up staring at one single spot while you focus on your breathing.
I’ve rarely spent time in total stillness by the time the gong rings to end the session. But when I’m tempted to get mad at myself for planning my week out instead of finding my center, I remember that I show up at this studio in Chelsea because meditation isn’t about perfection but, rather, about learning to hold your seat – to stay in the moment without changing its discomfort and imperfection.
It’s just this kind of thinking – “gentle thinking” – that brings me back to recognize that this exact moment, with the room full of people and the ache in my knees – is important. And, therein lies the secret to meditation.
The concepts I learn through this practice have proved to be some of the most helpful tools I’ve discovered in my journey as a young female business owner in New York.
The process of building a business without financial backing takes 4-5 years, with at least your first two typically spent in the red. Proof of concept can often take a year in itself, and the mistakes you’ll make after that will take both your money and your time.
What all of that adds up to is a whole lot of imperfect discomfort that I’ve learned you can’t build anything worth holding onto without. No matter what way you slice it, a business is built on thousands of individual moments that need your attention before you can move forward. And, sometimes, it feels like its going to be forever before someone rings the gong and welcomes you into the next phase.
When my heart is tired and my brain hurts and my emotions are all pushing me to give it up, the principles of meditation are teaching me to stay with the right now. Not when I’m making x amount of money, or manage to take on x amount of new accounts. Right now. This moment, with the recent mistakes and the present frustrations.
I’m learning to “hold my seat” – to engage fully with this exact stage of my business, just like each moment on the cushion.
Here are a few reasons why that is so important:
The future builds off this moment.
I’m often tempted to run ahead to the next thing – to do what’s more exciting or let my thoughts wander out to six months from now, but the truth is that each individual phase of building is vitally important to the next. If I hadn’t spent a year providing my concept, or several months on strategic planning, or made mistakes that showed me what direction not to continue in, our business never would have moved forward to the next phase.
This moment is teaching me something I need to know.
In hindsight, some of the most seemingly “wasteful” moments of my business have taught me absolutely vital skills. I saw this last year, after helping my former guide through a medical emergency in Uganda. I was glad to help – but I struggled, over those weeks. I was there to do business and ended up spending hours in medical clinics and hospitals, arguing with drivers and handling payments.
While all that time felt genuinely wasted due to a corrupt health-care system, those weeks taught me cultural insights that now prove useful to me every day.
This moment deserves my attention.
In meditation you learn that things you typically ignore, like your breath and the feeling of your stomach filling with air, are actually tools. While seeming insignificant, they can actually be the key to handling your life’s largest stress areas well. And, I’ve found that seemingly mundane or unexciting tasks I’d like to ignore make up the foundation of my business – things like market research, accounting, inventory are each important in their own right, and need to be done well in order for the business as a whole entity to flow smoothly.
This moment will give me strength for the next one.
I was once told that building a business like running a marathon. This means that endurance is required. And, the only way that you can learn to get comfortable with endurance is by starting with where you’re at. Slowing down and breathing through one moment is what gets me through the next.
So – Breathe. Stop. Stay.
Give this imperfect, messy moment your very best.
November 11, 2012 § 4 Comments
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default. —J.K. Rowling
There is no confusion in my mind about the reason I started my business. I didn’t start it because I felt bad for African women, and I didn’t start it because I had to. I started it because I was desperate for meaning in my life. My religious background hadn’t provided it. Traveling as it were hadn’t provided it. My failed dating relationships hadn’t provided it. And, so, I was left with people. I began to believe that people provide life with meaning, and I wanted to partner with people in such a way that every second I spent laboring over my career path could be traced back to another person’s life, and its positive effects there.
I wanted to wake up every morning knowing someone else’s life was being bettered for it. I knew that was the only way I was going to feel alive, while I was working.
That was the light of my dream. That was my bottom line.
My company made more money than I expected it to, in year one. Which is fantastic. However, I look back on our budget and the way we spent money, and I wonder who the hell put me in charge.
Oh yeah, I did. And, I didn’t forgive myself for that for a long time.
I put the wrong person in charge of quality control, and she cost me thousands of dollars. I spent money on the wrong fashion shows, and I played around with the wrong branding. I supported myself out of the company account, when I really should have landed a part job so that I wouldn’t suck from our finances. I bought in bulk, when I should have streamlined. I did too many sale events, and I looked to the wrong target market.
I even moved to the wrong town.
By the time I had landed in New York City, started re-working our company, and begun meeting with an entrepreneur coach, I was sure I was the worst project manager in the whole world of social enterprise. I didn’t know where to start. In fact, I didn’t even want to get out bed.
We met three times in that first month. By the end of our first projects together, she sat down and gave me an assignment.
I was to look in the mirror every day, and tell myself that I was a, “brilliant entrepreneur, headed toward success and financial stability.”
I was positive she was full of it. I even found it a little humorous. However, after 40 days of looking in the mirror and telling myself I was brilliant and headed to success, I began to believe it (this whole mirror thing works). A week later, I accepted the fact that that was true because I failed gloriously. Gloriously! I had spent money, time and resources in most of the wrong places, yes, but after I let go of all that dead dross, I found that my baby business was still alive, under all the dead branches I’d buried it under. And, it was ready to grow. I was ready to grow.
Thanks to my failures, I knew what direction I needed to head in. Doors had been slammed shut. Tides had risen around me. And, all I had to do was hang on to the things I had learned I was good at – and chase after those like my life depended on it.
Pema Chodron writes that, “All this messy stuff is your richness, but saying this once is not going to convince you,” and I don’t think that there is a better description of the gift that failure can be, if you are able to put it in proper perspective.
Here’s what I learned about failure, in running-your-own-social-enterprise year number one:
1. It’s going to happen.
Hooray! You’re going to fail! There’s just no way out. You’re going to owe someone money and not be able to pay it. You’re going to pick a shitty product. You’re going to wish you hadn’t done XYZ. You’re doing to feel like you are the biggest schlep ever.
Grab yourself a bottle of tequila, and some Grey’s Anatomy. It’s gonna hit you hard, and you’re going to feel like a worthless, penniless fool who needs to get a real job. When this happens, stay far away from LinkedIn, your friends in finance and – a word to the wise? – don’t date a corporate sales expert.
Just trust me on that one.
2. It’s going to make you better
After you cure your tequila hangover (chilaquiles for the win!), settle back in to your desk and recognize that this made you better. Whatever it is you lost, you’re going to have to think of it as a transaction. You gave up a resource, a dollar amount, a relationship, for a certain amount of knowledge – and its going to stay with you for the rest of your life.
Just a few things I learned through wasted resources and money? How to streamline a production process, the importance of hiring the right people on the ground, what a target audience means and how to find it – and, ruthless focus. If its not in your business plan or branding, it’s a no. A firm no. And, it’s a no again.
3. It’s not you – it’s the process
One of the hardest things for me to get past was that it wasn’t my fault. Yes, it was my job to run this company. But, no, it wasn’t my job to know how to do it perfectly from the get go. Yes, there were artisans partnering with me who could use the money I was sending much quicker than it was coming. But, no. I was not responsible for their livelihoods, and it was not my job to fix their situation – it was my job to build the best company I could, over the long term: one that may not sell their product well this year, but would be doing it well in two, or three – and still doing it well in fifteen, or twenty.
4. Start over
One of the hardest concepts for me to get past was that I could start over, at year two. Because I put so much effort and time into year one, I really felt like I was cheating on my past self to call my year two a year one. But, that’s exactly what it was. I started over with a new business plan, new team members, new management and new designs. And, the only way to do that with a clear mind and a narrow focus was to do it with a clean slate. I began over again with the knowledge I’d gained from my year of failures, and I began again.
5. Celebrate your success
It’s really easy to look back and see all the things you didn’t do – and a little more difficult to celebrate what you are doing well now. But, lo and behold, I am three times the business leader I was last November. And, we are finally reaping the benefits of that change. I see my company growing. I see sales taking off.
I see the changes I made post failure creating a platform off of which I believe we can really do some beautiful things in this world…and I have my failures to thank for that.
Maybe they turned me into a brilliant entrepreneur after all.
At least that’s what I told myself in the mirror this morning.