When Getting Away Means Getting in Touch with What's Important
When I first arrived at the Laureate Global Fellowship retreat, I admit to questioning, with some cynicism, if a workshop was the right place for me to be in the midst of myriad work emergencies. PING, the non-profit that I founded in Southern Africa, had been growing rapidly over the past few years and was in a precarious position. Many of our projects were being taken over by local government and rumors were flying that much of our funding for upcoming work was being slashed. To try and rectify the situation, several of my team members and I were starting a for-profit arm that would sustain the non-profit and its mission. I was busier than ever. I walked off the plane with the slightly arrogant swagger of someone who thought her time was better spent working directly on her business (especially at this emergency juncture) than on meeting new people and attending workshops.
To my surprise, within a few hours of meeting the other fellows, I forgot all about my organization’s issues and was swapping war stories with the most impressive group of young entrepreneurs I had ever encountered. I will not go into detail about each amazing fellow, but because this fellowship supports entrepreneurs at different stages from all over the world, I met people who had overcome some of the struggles I was dealing with, and some who made me reminisce about the early "good old days" of my venture before it became larger and more political. The individuals I met through this fellowship reminded me of where I came from and where I want to go.
As impressed as I was with all the people I met the day I arrived, I remember an anxious conversation I had with another fellow. We were unsure whether the training would be like some we had attended before—generic instructions related to running a venture and pithy advice on leadership. We laughed, thinking that we would rather go explore Brazil with our newfound friends and potential future collaborators than endure sessions where trainers speak at us, not with us. To be honest, I was also apprehensive at the thought of the staff picking through my venture detail-by-detail during this period of reinvention.
In the opening workshop session, Ashok Regmi, Director of the YouthActionNet program, stood up and communicated something monumental to each of us. He said that first and foremost, he believes that we are bigger than our ventures, and although our organizational accomplishments contributed to our selection, our fellowship experience would focus on what we needed as individuals—both with our ventures, but more importantly, apart from our ventures. He went on to explain that many of us will not run our ventures forever—and that is okay. It may be our third or fourth venture that is our ultimate calling, or something else entirely. The authenticity of his words snapped me to attention despite my jetlag.
I viewed myself as so intertwined with and defined by my venture that the thought of people investing in me apart from it was shocking. I quickly learned that the YouthActionNet staff planned to adapt the workshop content to focus on the most relevant issues for the group. They didn’t want to cross modules off a list of required content; they wanted to conduct the workshop in a way that was intellectually stimulating and fresh. The workshop materials, including lessons from the incredible facilitator Dr. James Toole, were customized to our wants and needs in real time. Lessons on organizational design were combined with a focus on us being healthy, happy, and fulfilled people with the mantra that we have to take care ourselves in order to accomplish truly meaningful milestones with our work.
The fellowship retreat was a revitalizing environment for entrepreneurs that have grown their businesses from the ground up, a support group for the entrepreneurial soul. Sometimes it is exactly this sort of support that you ignore as a young entrepreneur and actually need.
There are no sure formulas for success in entrepreneurship, but I do believe that entrepreneurs have to pay serious attention to what is driving us and keeping our dreams afloat. We need the constant hustle, the experience of satisfying our first customer, the adrenaline from all-nighters before a morning deadline, the moments of defeat that later become a part of our success narrative, and, as shallow as it sounds, we need money to keep the organization running and put food on our own table.
But, more than anything else, when we hit a tough juncture, we need other people. Entrepreneurship can be an isolating journey. We have our teams, who often rely on us for their living, and our family members and friends, who seem to view us as either extremely inspiring or completely insane, but in addition to those people, we also desperately need our peers—the ones who just "get it.”
When the world is giving us no evidence to believe in our abilities, our peers are validation that our work is not in vain. They nod confirmation that we are not crazy. As entrepreneurs we often expect ourselves to generate these sentiments internally, but sometimes we hit a wall and need help. In those times we need each other to be living, dreaming, suffering, inspiring, world-conquering reasons to believe in better things for our world. And in this fellowship, in the other fellows and the staff, I found some of the best reasons to believe.
Katy Digovich is a 2013 Laureate Global Fellow and Director/Co-Founder of PING (Positive Innovation for the Next Generation), a Botswana-based nonprofit that develops mobile health and education tools and mentors local youth in basic to advanced IT skills. Watch this video to learn more about Katy and her work.