The Journey Within: An Interview on Authentic Leadership with Yoga Journal Publisher Jeff Tkach

Interview by Alison Berman, Founder of Anchor & Leap

“Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.” ―Pablo Picasso
 

Like the artist’s ability to transform a yellow spot into the sun, great leaders have the capacity to transform a group of individuals into a cohesive team, a hard business into a fluid organization. And a cornerstone of this ability to evoke transformation is authenticity.

But how do you identify those leaders?

When the word “authenticity” first entered the boardroom lexicon, it signified a new breed of leadership. It echoed the possibility of a more human element entering business. But talk of authenticity among leaders began to precede practice, and an overly simplified definition of the term came into popular use. The actual practice of authenticity in leadership requires tremendous effort, fortitude, and a willingness to engage in trial and error. And because of this, finding leaders who are truly practicing authenticity can feel elusive—even impossible at times. It is dedicated practice, rather than preaching, that sets these two groups of leaders apart.

Yoga Journal’s Publisher Jeff Tkach is determined to bring mindfulness, meditation, and humanity into the office; to introduce a more sustainable rhythm to our workplaces, one that emphasizes the spirituality to our work—the why we do what we do. Jeff lives with his wife Jackie in Boulder, Colorado and is completing Naropa University’s Authentic Leadership Certificate Program. The practice of self-inquiry, however, has been a core element of Jeff’s daily life for nearly two decades. Prior to Yoga Journal Jeff was the Group Publisher of Climbing Magazine and Backpacker Magazine and gained his roots in media at Rodale, Inc.’s Organic Gardening Magazine where he worked for seven years, and as Publisher for the last two. 

“there is a need in corporate America, in our professional lives, for bringing our whole selves to the workplace.”

Alison: How do you personally define authentic leadership?

Jeff: I don’t want to use cliché language, but I think it is to be your true self in all settings including at work. On a deeper level, I think authentic leadership is a willingness to go beyond the norm, to get out of your comfort zone and go the extra step to be the most loving, kind, patient, inspiring person you can possibly be, and amidst all the chaos. It takes a little more to be an authentic leader, it takes a lot more actually, and I think you don't ever get it fully right, but you strive for it.

 

Alison: Leadership is a largely discussed subject right now. What specifically attracted you to a program on authentic leadership?

Jeff: I feel like there is a real need in corporate America, in our professional lives, for bringing our whole selves to the workplace. I think that there is a lack of this in many places. We work in a culture that is moving way too fast and the pace at which corporate America is being forced to operate at is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable to our marriages, to our personal lives, to our families, to ourselves, to our health, to the environment. And I think that our speed is causing us to make a lot of mistakes and to do a lot of damage.  When I say speed I mean not just the pace at which we work, but the lack of a real sustainable rhythm to our work cultures and our places of work; the demands we are asked to do, the margins we are being asked to make, the bottom line mentality that is so pervasive. I think that what is missing is the spirituality to our work, the beauty, the why we do what we do. I want to be part of a movement that brings more of that into our places of work. And that is really what the program is all about.

Alison: During the program at Naropa, has there been a myth about leadership that has been dispelled?  

Jeff: I’m not sure that there is any one in particular that I can identify with, but I think what the program has done for me is that it has given me reassurance that the kind of leader that I want to be in the world is possible in the corporate setting, and that the ideas that they are bringing forth can be implemented. For example, one of the things we talk about is mindfulness and meditation and how that can actually help a leader to be more present with his people and how that can really change the whole dynamic. One of the things I do now is at the beginning of every meeting I do a moment of silence and pause. If you look at anyone’s Outlook calendar, every 30 minutes there is a meeting, and that rhythm becomes so unfocused. How much are you really listening after you just sat in a meeting right before? So I think the myth that has been broken down for me is just that it can be done.

“I think that there is a lack of a sustainable rhythm to our work cultures and places of work; the demands, the margins, the bottom line mentality that is so pervasive. What is missing is the spirituality to our work, the beauty, the why we do what we do. I want to be part of a movement that brings more of that into our places of work.”

Alison: So much has changed in the world of business even just in the past year. What do you think is a quality that is absolutely critical for an authentic leader today?  

Jeff: Love. I love the author Tim Sanders; he wrote a book called, Love is the Killer App. He wrote the book about 10 years ago and he was an executive at Yahoo. His theory is that if you can literally focus on love, and in all forms, take that word for whatever it means, true compassion, presence, all the things that are adjectives of love—and bring that to work, that is what is game changing. A lot of people are afraid to do that because of how they might be perceived or the kind of humility that it takes, but I think that is what we are all striving for.

 

Alison: Anchor & Leap looks at the idea of the flow state and when an individual is really tapped into their peak performance. When do you feel that you are at your best? In a leadership setting, what are some of the conditions that help you feel that you are “on fire?”

Jeff: A couple things. For me, it has to start with my own personal health. When I am doing good self care, when I’m exercising, riding my bike, getting good sleep, eating properly, and I feel good, then I show up and I am my best. But I also think another dynamic is when my team really feels my support—when they are flowing, when they are feeling supported and feeling that love, when they are feeling inspired, and we are all flowing, I think that is the perfect formula.

Jeff Tkach speaking on authentic leadership at Naropa University.

Alison: Susan Skjei referenced the Dalai Lama’s remarks on leadership, explaining one of his main points: we can talk about leadership and how we should be, but the time we really know who a leader is, is during a time of challenge and who we become during those times of challenge. What are your thoughts on this idea?

“Yoga is truly a spiritual practice at the core of it. We are really making it about, “How can yoga improve my physical body and how can I look better?” When in reality it should be, “How can yoga transform me, and then how can I transform the world as a result of that transformation?”

Jeff: I think that you really discover a lot about who you are when you have to lead through adversity. It’s funny because my wife actually said something to me this morning, which is both related and unrelated. She said, “People don't remember you for whether or not you hit your numbers. They remember you for how you were, how you treated people, how you handled yourself in challenging times. You are remembered for how you take care of the people who work for you. Not by whether you always achieve your numbers.”
 

Alison: What has been a failure that you have experienced that with hindsight, you see was critical to your development and journey? For a bit of context, this is a question I’m asking in multiple interviews to see how our perspectives on our “failures” evolves as we move beyond them.  

Jeff: The job that I took when I came out here to Boulder was to be the Group Publisher of two outdoor brands, Backpacker Magazine and Climbing Magazine. And honestly, year over year, the number did not improve. I was in that job for one full year and it was really hard for me because I am a performer. I am used to delivering the number, I’m used to showing growth, and in this case I gave it all I could, I really did, and it has been a hard pill for me to swallow. My company still promoted me, which is humbling, and I got moved into a bigger role, and a role that is more me.

But I still struggle with, “Wow, I wish I could have improved that.” But in reality, that job taught me so much about myself that it wasn't a failure. There is a euphemism that says that you fail forward and I think that in hindsight, it really didn't matter that I didn't make those numbers. I did improve the culture and the spirit, and helped build that into the people that I worked with.
And in hindsight, that is a win.

“I was fortunate to have some good mentors at a young age who built in to me to follow my passion first and to never compromise putting your passion with your profession. That has been my guiding light.”

Alison: Throughout your professional journey have there been specific people or experiences that have inspired the path you have taken?

Jeff: I’ve read a lot of Bob Rodale’s work and always felt that he was such a visionary and very fringe and unconventional when it came to health and health wisdom. He definitely inspired my personal life behaviors and practices. In terms of career path, I was fortunate to have some good mentors at a pretty young age who built in to me to follow my passion first and to never compromise putting your passion with your profession. And that has been my guiding light. I have taken a couple of turns where I followed new opportunities or financial gain, and they never really went that well. I’ve always been at my best when I couple passion with profession.

  

Alison: Is there a project at Yoga Journal at present that you are particularly excited about?

Jeff: A couple. It is going to be our 40th anniversary this year over at Yoga Journal. Yoga in America has gone through a lot of evolution and iterations over the last 40 years, and the larger global yoga community often criticizes the way that Americans do yoga because we have commercialized it so much. In a lot of ways, there is almost this dishonest kindness to a lot of people who practice yoga—I don't feel like we really embrace selfless service. The Sanskrit word is Seva and that literally means selfless service. Yoga is truly a spiritual practice at the core of it and we are really making it about, “How can yoga improve my physical body and how can I look better?” When in reality it should be, “How can yoga transform me, and then how can I transform the world as a result of that transformation?” So we are launching something called the Good Karma Awards in our 40th Anniversary issue in September and we are going to honor 13 people who are using yoga to do good in the world.  These are people who are truly taking yoga off the mat and doing good, doing service. We are hoping that this is a point of inspiration for our audience to do the same thing.

 

Alison: Is there an accomplishment in your life that you feel most proud of?  

Jeff: Getting married. I waited a long time to find the woman I chose to marry and I was really intentional about that. I also had to do a lot of work on myself to get to a point where I was ready to be with a person like that. I think that marriage is probably the most incredible discovery of my life. And I think that it has only added to my life. It took a lot of work to get here and stay patient and wait for the right person that I knew would help me become the best version of myself, but it was worth the wait.

Alison: Wow, congratulations on that! 

Jeff: How is that for sappiness?

Alison: It is perfect; it is completely authentic!

Alison: The last question I want to ask is whether there is anything we have not talked about that you would like to cover?

Jeff: When you were asking me and I was riffing on what makes me who I am and how do I show up and be my best at work. Spiritual practice has been a huge part of my life for my whole adult life. I don’t want to go too “wooey” on you but I do have a daily ritual, where in the morning I do find silence, solitude, meditation, whatever you want to call it, and I definitely carve out 15 minutes or so a day to journal or to read something spiritually provoking. I’d say that that has been one thing that has always been a constant for me and I feel that that is my foundation. That would be my one little secret ingredient that I would love to share.

Alison: Do you adhere to that on a daily basis?

Jeff: Everyday, yes. Every single day. There have probably been less than 20 days in the last 15 years where that doesn't happen.

  

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Posted on April 23, 2015 .

CHALLENGING Perceived Limits: A Conversation with Endurance Cyclist Mike Cotty

“The essence of exploration is a journey that you're not quite sure how or when it'll end."


At the start of any new journey, the ultimate outcome is always unknown. Whether a cyclist is racing along a smooth asphalt road, or a climber is navigating across mixed terrain, the journey unfolds as the individual advances.

For British endurance cyclist Mike Cotty, the physical element of his solo endurance challenges is just one piece of a larger whole, where on each ride he aims to break through the perceived limitations of the body and mind.

Most recently Mike tested this during his epic ride from Conegliano, Italy, to Chamonix, France, dubbed “The Road to Mont Blanc”, a 1,000 kilometer (621 miles) non-stop, 50+ hour ride across the Dolomites, Eastern Alps and Swiss Alps. The passage included climbing over 21 mountains and 21,000 meters, which is equivalent to ascending Mount Everest almost 2.5 times, but in a single ride.

Mike grew up in Romsey, a small town in the county of Hampshire, England. He began cycling at age 12 and the sport immediately felt deeply rooted within him. After realizing that he wasn’t on track to become a pro cyclist, Mike got qualified as an engineer when he was 21. In 2001 Mike landed a job at Cannondale Bicycles in Switzerland, moved abroad, and started his career within the industry he loved. As the years rolled forward, Mike intrinsically knew that a traditional path was not for him and instead carved his own multi-disciplinary career within the cycling industry through setting personal endurance challenges and founding cycling media consultancy, Media-24, in 2012.

Whatever your medium of work and expression in life, Mike inspires all on the power of training our minds to harness our real potential, to carve our own path in life, and what sheer willpower and determination can achieve when focused at that very thing you love. His story makes it clear that you don’t have to be super man or even a pro sponsored athlete to make your passion your living. You just need the right mindset.

Mike Climbing The Stelvio Pass, a mountain pass in northern Italy, elevation of 9,045 ft. It is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps, and the second highest in the Alps, just 43 ft below France's Col de l'Iseran (9,088 ft).

Mike Climbing The Stelvio Pass, a mountain pass in northern Italy, elevation of 9,045 ft. It is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps, and the second highest in the Alps, just 43 ft below France's Col de l'Iseran (9,088 ft).

Alison: In your cycling career to date, what ride do you feel most proud of?

Mike: The ride I feel the most proud of may not have been my biggest ride, but it was the first personal challenge that I did, which was in 2011, when I traversed across the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. I had been cycling since I was 12 years old and I was about 31, and I had done a lot of different events, and big endurance races, but not personal challenges. I wanted to enjoy exactly what I get a lot of pleasure from—and that was purely just being on the bike and being right merged in the heart of nature and in the mountains.

Cycling for me, especially at the hardest moments of the challenges, puts me right into the present moment where I’m literally just focused on that precise second or minute of my life. And then the timeline just moves along; it’s that present moment that just moves along.

I’ve progressed the rides since then, but on that ride I learned so much because, at the time, I didn't know my mental and physical capacity, so I didn't really know if I could achieve what I wanted to. It was a very spiritual experience for me and completing it was such a magical moment in my life. I had just a couple of friends and my girlfriend with me. Completing it was not really the end goal; it was about the experience. It's the trying, it’s all the emotions that you feel when you step outside of your comfort zone to do something.

In that ride I was trying to take myself back to the essence of why I enjoy cycling and what I get from it. From that one experience it went from that proud moment to thinking, “Hang on a minute, there’s more to this.” It was an incredible journey and I learned so much from the physical side, the mental side, and the emotional side, from feeling connected to what I do as an individual and then to the experience itself. Then I started thinking, “How can I use this and bring this to other people?” So that was a really important moment for me and one that also really opened my eyes up to the world again, which I will always be grateful for. 

 

Alison: When you are in the midst of these epic physical feats, where does your mind go? How do you keep yourself going?

Mike: I’ve always had a fascination with body and mind ever since I was in school; the idea of perceived limitations and of what can be achieved. No matter what you are doing, someone will say something to you like, “It can’t be done, that’s impossible,” and I was never trying to prove to anyone that if they say it can’t be done, I’ll go and do it. That is the furthest thing from what I am trying to do. It is more that my own mind asks questions and I think, “I wonder if you apply the right training and a methodical approach, if you eat well and rest well—if you put all the pieces together, I wonder if my physical mind, body, and presence can actually achieve something like that.” So the challenges are really out of intrigue of what I can potentially do. 

Mike with Mont Blanc in the background.

Mike with Mont Blanc in the background.

In terms of how I get through the hard moments, the hard moments come, but I am just so focused. I look back and remember those moments were so hard, but what is great about cycling, and what I’ve managed to find, is that it is one of the only things that brings me back to the present moment. If I’m thinking, how do I get through the hard moments, normally the hard moments come when you are thinking about the future like, “I’ve got another climb, I’ve got another 10 hours, 20 hours, another night.” All these things are really negative on your head and exhausting because your mind is continually racing and thinking, “What am I going to do, can I really make it?” I just try to take that right back to the very moment when I’m riding and say to myself, “What am I doing now?” And I think, “Okay, I’m turning my legs, I’m going up a climb,” and I’ve got to deal with that second as it happens. And then I deal with the next moment, and the next moment and the next moment. If you are really present in what you are doing and if you ask yourself the question, “What am I really worried or stressed about?” you’re either stressed about the past or the future. 

We put these boundaries on ourselves that we can or cannot, and then just breaking them down and getting back in the moment, and believing in what you are doing. Then every time you go a little bit further, and a little bit further.

If that’s your mindset then you are going to have that stress throughout the ride or throughout anything you are doing in life. So cycling for me, especially at the hardest moments of the challenges, puts me right into the present moment where I’m literally just focused on that precise second or minute of my life to get through, to get through, to get through. And then the timeline just moves along; it’s that present moment that just moves along. I don't really think about the future or the past, I’m just right focused on breathing and moving and doing what I believe in and trained so hard for. It is that present moment that keeps me going. It’s just an incredible feeling.

One of your questions touched on the flow state and that is the flow moment, when your mind is right on the present time with what you are doing, that’s when you tap into that subconscious state where pain seems to disappear and you reach another level. It’s a fascinating feeling and quite hard to explain, but I think it all comes down to really being focused on what you are really doing and harnessing your mind energy, not to be thinking about anything else but literally just what you are doing in that second in time. 

Mike at the summit of the Galibier at night during Les Alpes, 2013.

Mike at the summit of the Galibier at night during Les Alpes, 2013.

Of course you are not always going to have success, but that doesn’t mean that you are a failure. It means there is a different path to be taken and you have to learn from it. You may never get to where you initially thought is the right place for you, but that is not a failure.

Alison: This makes me think about the first mountain I climbed. I was 13, so it also wasn't my biggest climb, but probably the most meaningful. I remember at first thinking, “How am I going to climb this?” Then when I was in the moment it was just one foot, one foot, one foot, looking at each step, making sure it was smart. And in that moment, it’s weird, time goes away, fears melt away, and it is just that narrowed in total focus. 

Mike: It is such a cool feeling. I wish I could give that feeling to more people. Some of what we (Media-24) are doing is about trying to get people back into nature, back into that feeling, because I think that is the most powerful feeling in the world. When I really break it down and look back, I see that the best times were when I was perfectly focused on what I was doing, and the hardest times were when I was thinking about the future. 

Alison: Definitely. One thing Anchor & Leap looks at is how do you tap into that optimal place of flow in your life, where the fears aren’t bogging you down, or all of the uncertainty and questioning.

Mike: I think that's really important. The last challenge I did was the 1,000K challenge, and it was quite a bit bigger than anything I had attempted before. I felt really stressed and that taught me so much for my next challenge because I wasted so much anxiety and stress. Months and months of this where I didn't sleep and I would just think, “Can I do this?” And I did it. So I look back now and think that I could have eliminated most of my stress and anxiety if I was just focused on what I was doing. It’s a mindset. It’s about looking at the mindset and focusing on what you are doing now and instead of looking at the future going, “What if”. I should have been saying, ‘Hey, this is going okay now so lets just keep on doing that and deal with it when it comes to it.” I think others can learn a lot just by looking at their mindset and it is something I am trying to learn more about.

Mike at the start of Les Alpes, 2013.

Mike at the start of Les Alpes, 2013.

You don’t have to be this super self-confident and gifted athlete or business person, you just have to have this authentic will to know that you can do it.

Alison: I read a quote of yours where you said, “Whatever you think your boundary is, if you can get to that point but then step a little bit further, the whole world opens up again.” Can you tell me more about your thinking and inspiration behind this idea? 

Mike: You can’t really think about that moment before getting there. If you are just really in the moment of what you are doing, it is just mind blowing what you can achieve. It goes back to what I was saying about perceived limitations. We put these boundaries on ourselves that we can or cannot, and then just breaking them down and getting back in the moment, and believing in what you are doing. Then every time you go a little bit further, and a little bit further. This has taught me a lot, just from getting on and doing and experiencing and looking at it from a slightly different angle afterwards and thinking, “Wow, how on earth did I do that?” And I don't know, but I think it is really just being in the moment. 

Alison: Definitely. Linking that back to our conversation on authenticity, I don't think an individual can get to that point if they don't have an authentic relationship with themselves too. 

Mike: I think that's a good point and another to add there is that I really have to put the training time in to give me that confidence; my personality is not just super confident. One thing I do have is the willpower, just to keep at it when the chips are down; I have this burning ambition inside. And I see that the only thing that is really going to stop me in a challenge or in business is my own mind. Of course you are not always going to have success, but that doesn't mean that you are a failure. It means there is a different path to be taken and you have to learn from it. It is just a journey and it is an incredible journey from where you are now to where you want to be. You may never get to where you initially thought is the right place for you, but that is not a failure. That is one of the most amazing things, that you don't have to be this super self-confident and gifted athlete or business person, you just have to have this authentic will to know that you can do it and know that there is something special there. And that’s what I have always lived by. If you are authentic about what you believe in, then it’s just a matter of time until you find that right path that is going to lead you down hopefully to the fulfillment that you want from life.

If you take all of your experience and you just use it for yourself and never give back, then there is zero point in doing it. I wouldn’t need to work nearly as hard as I do if I was just doing it for myself.
Mike climbing the Passo Giau during The Road to Mont Blanc.

Mike climbing the Passo Giau during The Road to Mont Blanc.

Alison: What would you say is the ultimate impact that you are looking to have on the world through your work and also through the kind of person that you try to be? 

Mike: I’d say the ultimate impact for me, which has sort of been an evolution for many years, is really to be able to use all of my skills, experience, and knowledge to really serve others to help them to believe and realize that anyone can do what they want. Take cycling out of it, cycling is just a mechanism that I found to experience this, but the formula is exactly the same. It’s just really having the belief and being authentic and if I can use my experience and skills to serve others and help inspire and educate, then that’s really what makes me fulfilled and smile inside. Every time I help someone realize that this isn’t a magic trick, this is open to everyone, you just have to have a little bit of guidance, a little bit of belief, and then you have to work like crazy and you can do some amazing things.

Alison: I love that idea that it’s not magic, and that cycling for you is the way in which you tap into it but it is something accessible to everyone.

Mike: I really believe in that. I wanted to be a professional cyclist when I was younger. That was my dream and my goal and I was training hard. But I was just a kid and the opportunity to work for Cannondale came when I was 21 and I was at a juncture and ultimately I made the decision to go into the bicycling industry. From a purely athletic perspective I had to be honest with myself and I wasn't a winner straight from school. And I thought, “How can I offer a different service within the cycling world that could benefit people, and for much longer than a professional cycling career?” I looked at this all and realized I wanted to give service to all these other people, and that it wasn't really about me. 

Then I started thinking how we could use these endurance challenges to give back, as well as with the rest of Media-24, thinking about how we can serve others to reach that fulfillment in their own life. I think I said in the podcast, “If you take all of your experience and you just use it for yourself and never give back, then there is zero point in doing it." I wouldn’t need to work nearly as hard as I do if I’m just doing it for myself, there’s just no point. I could work 7 hours a day instead of 15. But it’s worth it because we are doing projects where we are trying to help others. And if I always live by that, I feel like I can do no wrong. 

Mike preparing for The Road to Mont Blanc, 2014.

Mike preparing for The Road to Mont Blanc, 2014.

Alison: Looking back at all of this and your journey, what have been some of the lessons that you’ve learned that maybe you weren’t expecting to learn? 

Mike: Probably the biggest one that springs to mind would be just quite how organic and connected you can be within business, because the traditional route to business, at least from my upbringing, is you finish school, you may go to college, then you may start a job, and you go through the run. I’ve learned that it’s not just about this standard path. When I was a kid and growing up, I thought that was what you were supposed to do. My dad was in finance and had a very 9-5 career for his whole life. This all taught me that the more you realize that that does not have to be the way of life, you can make changes. So much of this learning has been through organic learning and experience, and there wasn’t a textbook. You expect to be taught, you expect someone to say, “Now do this,” and you get on and do it and then they say, “Great, now do that.” But every time I was in that work situation that was when I said, "2 years maximum." The moment I got out of that line of thinking, was when I started to learn a lot more. You don't just learn about yourself, you learn about the world and about what you really can achieve. There’s a saying, “Failure is never there,” because it might not go how you want it to, but as long as you believe in what you’re doing, you will just keep going. I didn't realize how much just doing it my own way would serve me in the future, just through pure belief.  

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Posted on April 7, 2015 .

A Perpetual State of Jumping: Interviewing SheJumps Co-Founder Claire Smallwood

In 2005, Claire met fellow professional skier Lynsey Dyer at a freeskiing competition and they immediately bonded. In fact, you could probably say that encounter impacted the course of Claire’s life.

At the time, Lynsey and Vanessa Pierce had created SheJumps, which was originally a blog where they wrote profiles about amazing women—unsung heroes. The idea was to use these profiles to inspire other women to jump, take risks, and reach their highest potential. In 2007 Claire became a co-founder of SheJumps along with Lynsey and Vanessa, helping to turn SheJumps into the nonprofit that it is today. By 2008, and without a lawyer, Claire succeeded in getting SheJumps 501(c)3 status, and helped redefine the mission, to increase participation in outdoor activities. Claire is now Executive Director of the organization and in 2014 received Toyota's Everyday Hero Award for her work on behalf of SheJumps. 

“In the mountains it is always okay to reverse and turn around and decide that you haven’t made the right choice—but we like to take that and apply that to life.”

Pushing and inspiring women to jump for their dreams isn’t a fluffy vision, it is how Claire lives her life—in a perpetual stage of “jumping” and self-growth. She is stubborn (to use her own words), motivated by the potential of women, and won’t take no for an answer. Which is perfect, because her actions while evolving SheJumps speak so clearly to anyone out to create a meaningful impact and big life. Claire is a jumper—and here’s some of her story.


Anchor & Leap: SheJumps often talks about “unsung heroes” out in the world. Can you tell me more about how that idea resonates with the organization?

Claire Smallwood, Co-founder of SheJumps

Claire Smallwood, Co-founder of SheJumps

Claire: There are a lot of people who do things because it is just in their nature and it would be impossible not to do. We interviewed a woman on SheJumps who’s daughter has down syndrome. She wrote to us explaining that to her, her daughter was the best SheJumper because her daughter was the first one to practice every day and the last one to leave. She wasn’t the fastest, but she did it every single day. And that’s a story that isn’t going to necessarily get press.

At SheJumps we see the value in sharing stories like that because it helps other people come out of their shadows and find out that there is really something magical inside of them and that everyone has something that drives them.  And the stories of unsung heroes help that thing come to life in the people who read them.

 


Anchor & Leap: In your own words, can you tell me the mission of SheJumps?  

Claire: I would say that at the core of SheJumps, we want to create opportunities for women of all ages and backgrounds to get outside. That is at the very core of our mission, but what I think goes beyond that is that we are looking to build a community of women who are willing to help each other reach their highest potential and to take risks, whether that be in the outdoors or just in life. It’s about realizing that you have a great amount of potential within yourself to live the life you’ve always imagined, and that it is about constantly reevaluating that.

At SheJumps we believe that some of that reevaluation happens in the outdoors and that nature is one of our greatest teachers. So it’s a matter of knowing that and paying respect to that. In the mountains it is always okay to reverse and turn around and decide that you haven’t made the right choice—but we like to take that and apply that to life. And also using that to help guide you as you make your way through the adventure. SheJumps creates the mentality of,  “If she can do it, so can I.”

“I think there is a direct correlation between experience in the outdoors and sports, with women finding themselves in those leadership positions. I want SheJumps to play a pivotal role in cultivating those leaders.”

Anchor & Leap: What is the primary long-term impact you want to achieve through SheJumps? 
 

Claire: I specifically want to see SheJumps be the leading resource for women’s outdoor education. If I back up though, the biggest tangible goal is to truly connect women with their natural environment and feeling self sufficient in it, and that can done through many different types of experiences. I want SheJumps to be the go to place so that a woman of any age, background, and ability can find either some way to connect with another female in a meaningful way or to have an impactful experience in the outdoors. 

People say they want to see more women in leadership positions, and I think there is a direct correlation between experience in the outdoors and sports with women finding themselves in those leadership positions. I want SheJumps to play a pivotal role in creating a really fertile environment to cultivate more of those leaders.  

Anchor & Leap: Have you ever taken a big risk in order to continue pursuing what you love? Or a big risk that ended up largely impacting your journey?
 

Claire: I think the biggest risk that really impacted me was in June 2012 I got in a ski accident and blew my knee out pretty badly and have had two surgeries since then. Prior to that I felt like things in my life were going pretty well. Up to 2012 everything with SheJumps was going well, it was growing and I kept it to a size I was comfortable with—even though everyone wanted to see it grow. Then I got in this accident and I was forced to sit on a couch for 6 weeks and reevaluate everything that was going on in my life. One of the things that came up was the SheJumps had (and has) great potential, but that I wasn’t taking it or myself serious enough in terms of being the Executive Director.

“Believing is a risk in a way because there are always a million excuses for why you can’t do something.”

What I mean by this is not just letting that role come to me but to really step into that role in a new way. Leading up to January 2013 was when we did a really big rebrand and restructuring of the organization and I started to really challenge myself in that role. I now see that manifesting that and taking my own advice that you can do anything, is realizing in a really big way that SheJumps has the opportunity to really change lives for a lot of people. And that is so scary sometimes but also so fulfilling. 

So for me it is this constant jump that I am in right now. Sometimes I get really overwhelmed, I pretty much do the work of five people, and I start to think, “I don’t know if I’m qualified for all of this, maybe someone else should take over.” Then I realize that yeah, someone else could take over and I’m sure they could do a great job, but I’m not done yet. I want to see SheJumps get to where I know that it can be and have a strong foundation with a legacy that can live on forever. 

The jump for me has been stepping into my own and realizing that I can run a national organization without ever having run a nonprofit before and that I can do a good job at it. Believing that is a risk in a way because there are always a million excuses for why you can’t do something. I look forward to maintaining this perpetual stage of jumping, so to speak, as SheJumps continues to grow over the next 3-5 years as we have planned with our next programs and initiatives and see SheJumps really make that big change in the world.

Anchor & Leap: I love the idea of the perpetual stage of jumping! I read an article recently that explained that when we put ourselves in really hard positions that it can create an ongoing internal questioning of, “Can I really do this?” And that slight discomfort is key to a life of growth.

Claire: Yeah I think I would definitely fall into that category.

 

Anchor & Leap: At what point did you realize skiing was more than a passion and what you wanted to dedicate your life to?  


Claire: When I was in fifth grade I went on a ski trip with my elementary school where we all went up to the mountain—that was a transformative experience because all of a sudden, I got to be on the mountain and get to know people in a new way. I was always outgoing but never the most popular kid in school and so for me I felt this freedom and ability to express myself and my tenacity and attitude of, “I’m just going to go do this.” 

Claire skiing in Ushuaia, Argentina

Claire skiing in Ushuaia, Argentina

Everyone was the same on the mountain and I think there was a moment when that really hit me. Then when I was a little older, watching my older brother compete in freeskiing as the sport was really just getting going, and seeing him progress and also that there weren’t a lot of women freeskiing. I realized that I had an incredible passion for it and I thought, “I want to do that!” and then from there skiing just become this vehicle of self expression. I needed to ski to keep myself sane and it was a part of my real identity that was totally unique.

Later on, when I was on the mountain one day, I realized that I felt the most inspired and happy when I was with women and, that at the end of the day, it was the female professional skiers who really motivated me because I thought, “If she can do it, so can I.”  

Anchor & Leap: It’s fascinating to see how passion comes up in different person’s lives and that for you, there was something that skiing just spoke to so deeply. You can’t really choose it, whether it’s skiing or making a piece of artwork—it seems like it is always there and the person just has to discover it.

Claire: Absolutely, and I remember this really clear moment in time when I was a junior in high school, and I had never owned a new pair of skis, or anything new until I was 18. And that year I went to my local ski shop and I was buying these old skis that had old crappy rental bindings on them. I had saved up for them and then realized I was literally $2 short. So I ran out to my car and scrounged up $2 in change. I didn’t even think about it at the time but after that I didn’t have any money to go skiing! But when you’re in the moment, it doesn’t matter because you are so driven by your passion and you just go for it.


Anchor & Leap: Through all of your work with SheJumps and the challenges along the way of creating a nonprofit, what continues to fuel your passion and motivation?

Claire: I think I have always been a very driven person so there is that aspect of myself that translates to what I do with SheJumps and just not giving up. So one motivating factor for me is the idea that if you keep working at something that it will finally pay off. And that self-determination of, “Dammit, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it.”

I also get really motivated with SheJumps by seeing as a team how much we have grown, and specifically with Lynsey Dyer with the film Pretty Faces. I think the film tells a really incredible story and shows how women are more dynamic and that we are all more than just really good skiers. Working with Lynsey on that project was really a pivotal experience for me.

When I went on tour with the project, I drove 7,000 miles in two months, driving all around the country, was raising money, promoting the film, promoting SheJumps, and standing up on stage and seeing these theaters filled with women and kids and dads and boyfriends and husbands and all these people and they are just cheering and they are all so excited. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. It was an incredibly rejuvenating experience. While it was exhausting to be working so much on the tour, I felt like I was reconnecting with the reason of why we were doing this. The reason why was to connect with the dads too and with the little girls who are looking at the girls in magazines and thinking, “Oh, that’s what I’m supposed to look like and do” and then standing there as this real female in front of them and showing them that they can do whatever they want to and be whoever they want to be. And, that you don’t have to the best at it, but just go try.

Also, one of the most important ongoing things that motivates me is building the team of regional coordinators for SheJumps. These are women who volunteer for SheJumps from all across the country and they are so phenomenal. Last year we had 88 events in 20 different states, creating close to 2,000 new opportunities for women to get outside. Working with these incredible women is so inspiring—seeing how they donate their time, reaching out to partners, making events happen, figuring out what the community needs. Because the truth is, I could be alone at the top as Executive Director and it would mean nothing without this team that is willing to make these programs happen.

To know that that community of regional coordinators is there and growing, we have 26, shows me that women are willing to get outside of their comfort zone and give back in a way that is staggering to how most people consider volunteer their time, which is usually for an hour. We are talking about women who are volunteering up to 20 hours a week. So I would say that when I want to throw the towel in, I remember that I have these amazing regional coordinators who are also there with me on that level. And that is pretty moving in and of itself.

“If you don’t know, you’re not scared.” And I didn’t know so I just went for it because it was something I was passionate about and I wanted to know that I tried to do this.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Posted on March 11, 2015 .

It’s Bigger Than an Idea: the Journey of the Founders of Ideapod

The process of leaving the known and stepping into uncertainty is a persistent conversation among founders and also established organizations.

Game-changing ideas and innovations often occur amidst that realm of uncertainty. Co-founders Justin Brown and Mark Bakacs decided to embark on that journey in September 2012 when they quit their occupations and committed entirely to building Ideapod, a social media platform that connects inspiring people around the world through ideas.

“Think about how much more productive we could be as a society if we collected important ideas and had them available to the public”

With the belief that ideas have the power to change the world for the better, Ideapod brings together great minds across the world to collaborate and tackle critical global issues. The platform launched in beta as invite-only in February 2014 with the expectation to become available to the public in 2015, and is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for a mobile app.

Photo by Lauren Kallen

Photo by Lauren Kallen

Once logged in, users create profiles and can post their ideas in 1,000 characters or less, comment on the ideas of others, and create related ideas to build conversation. A collection of noteworthy thinkers are currently using Ideapod to post about their fascinations, including Jason Silva, host of National Geographic’s TV series Brain Games, whose posts range from topics such as Hacking Your Flow State to The Ecstasy of Art.
 

Prior to creating Ideapod, Justin was pursuing a double doctorate in International Political Economy and International Policy, and Mark was practicing law. Both felt frustrated in their previous environments and used to meet regularly at a coffee shop in London’s Borough Market to discuss potential business opportunities. After exploring their two predicaments, the vision of Ideapod was born.
 

During Justin’s Ph.D. program, great thinkers and ideas inspired him, but he saw a divide in the sharing of information across academia and the general public. Simultaneously, Mark had begun exploring a concept for a social media platform that was focused specifically on connecting people around important ideas. He explains, “Think about how much more productive we could be as a society if we collected important ideas and had them available to the public.”

Founders, Justin Brown (left) and Mark Bakacs (right). Photo by Lauren Kallen

Founders, Justin Brown (left) and Mark Bakacs (right). Photo by Lauren Kallen

“It was a big step to leave behind a salary and was as much a logistical question as an emotional challenge to muster up the courage to step away from the known”

Mark describes his transition from practicing law to working full time on Ideapod as a 6-month process that started back in March of 2012 when it became obvious that Ideapod could no longer just be a part time job, “It was a big step to leave behind a salary and was as much a logistical question as an emotional challenge to muster up the courage to step away from the known,” says Mark.
 

From Justin’s perspective, their full-time leap into Ideapod caused some significant challenges but also created an environment that forced them to be continuously creative along the way. On a personal viewpoint, both Justin and Mark feel the uncertainty of the last few years has forced them to go through considerable personal growth, building deeper emotional intelligence and a resilience to the countless obstacles of entrepreneurship.

“Ideapod is so much bigger than us so in one-way or another, Ideapod will survive”

Part of what continuously pushes Ideapod forward is the entire team’s commitment to the vision of Ideapod, and their belief that the platform can potentially allow social movements to develop and gain traction.
 

“Ideapod is so much bigger than us so in one-way or another, Ideapod will survive”, says Mark. Yes, “ideas are the lifeblood of an entrepreneur”, as a recent article in the Wall Street Journal states, but Ideapod is after more. It is after transforming our world for the better through harnessing the power of ideas and collaboration. 

This interview was originally featured on WeWork Magazine

Posted on February 23, 2015 and filed under Interview.

From Non-profit to Social Enterprise: Interview with the Founders of ThinkImpact

How do we build the next generation of authentic leaders? A generation of mission-driven entrepreneurs, risk-takers, and bold-thinkers? How might we redesign education programs for college students to further develop these skills?  

Meet ThinkImpact, a social enterprise offering experiential education based study abroad programs to college students that focus on bridging the gap between theoretical textbook learning and hands-on field training—all through the lens of social entrepreneurship and design thinking.

Their study abroad programs, known as “Institutes,” are offered across three countries (Rwanda, South Africa and Panama), where students work directly with community members on social innovation and entrepreneurship projects. Through these projects, over 100 micro-enterprises have been launched, creating over 300 jobs.

Students often say, “It really opened my eyes to what I could do, rather than what I thought I should do.”

Interestingly, ThinkImpact was not always a for-profit social enterprise, in fact it began as a non-profit that Founder Saul Garlick built back when he was in college. With the help of Kate Loose, Jess Morse, and Patrick Keane, ThinkImpact transitioned to a for-profit social enterprise in 2011. Kate began her journey with ThinkImpact as a Global Development Intern in South Africa in the summer between junior and senior year at Cornell, and later came on board as a Co-Founder during ThinkImpact’s large rebrand and transition to becoming for-profit, “My focus was on the operations, especially global operations—building the experience of the programs, hiring all of the global staff, managing all of our programs, overseeing the international bank accounts.”
 

This interview explores the entrepreneurial journeys of Founder Saul Garlick and Co-Founder Kate Loose, the obstacles overcome, the organization's mission for impact, and lessons learned while converting ThinkImpact to a for-profit social enterprise.   

Kate Loose (left) and Saul Garlick (right) in Rwanda

Kate Loose (left) and Saul Garlick (right) in Rwanda

Anchor & Leap: In your own words, can you tell me the mission of ThinkImpact?

Saul: In my own words, we are trying to create opportunities for people from all walks of life, and we do that through connecting people who would otherwise never meet each other, to work through a process that they otherwise may never know, to accomplish something they otherwise would have never realized.

  

Anchor & Leap: How does ThinkImpact’s model of experiential education impact the scholars during the programs and within such a unique context?  


Saul: I think the number one takeaway for the students is that is broadens how they think about their future. So students go on the program and have many types of expectations or assumptions about what they should be doing in their lives. And then they go on a program like this, and it challenges their assumptions and tests them to think differently about everything. You begin thinking differently about what is poverty, what is wealth. You begin thinking differently about what is a good use of your time and how you work with others. You think about entrepreneurial problem solving.
 

I think we live in a world right now that has glorified entrepreneurs and where we all want to be a Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos, a hero. I think that that creates a false scenario and makes us look at people as those who can and those who can’t. And I don’t believe in that. What I like about our program is the extremely challenging experience of working through a design thinking process across cultures, and how that helps you realize how much more you are capable of. Students often say, “It really opened my eyes to what I could do, rather than what I thought I should do.”

“You begin thinking differently about what is poverty, what is wealth. You begin thinking differently about what is a good use of your time and how you work with others.”

I think it also really nurtures team-building skills. You have to be able to work with other people, work through challenges and process things. People get very political, territorial, and angry when they are in a difficult work situation and this program forces you to deal with people who speak a different language and don’t care about time the way you do and you have to work though that—and that is incredibly valuable in the work place. It sets students up for much for more success in their careers and we get that testimonial a lot from alumni. These are all things that experiential learning does for the scholars, and it increases confidence too.

Anchor & Leap: When you say that the students felt that it opened their eyes to what they could do, not what they should do, I think it even takes a level of confidence to be able to see that, and then act in accordance with that realization.

Saul: Exactly. A lot of our alumni have gone on to start enterprises and they were not necessarily entrepreneurs when they went on our program. But now they think of themselves as entrepreneurial, they now ask themselves, “Why not?”

From left to right: Jessica Morse, Saul Garlick, Abdallah Mohamed, Kate Loose, Patrick Keane at the White House.

From left to right: Jessica Morse, Saul Garlick, Abdallah Mohamed, Kate Loose, Patrick Keane at the White House.

Anchor & Leap: While transitioning ThinkImpact from a non-profit to a for-profit business, what has been a large area of learning for you? 

Kate: I think the biggest lesson for me has been how important the team is. I came to ThinkImpact right out of college and tried to grow this company so I didn’t have any formal training managing a team, much less a global team across five countries. Many people we worked with were also much older than me. So that was definitely a challenge, figuring out how to hire the right people, then training them, and learning to keep them on board and really creating a great experience for them. What that means is that they are really learning and meeting their goals and simultaneously contributing to the company.  

The management and leadership challenges have been the best ones for me, experiencing the ups and downs and seeing how important a great team is to the success of a company. This has been such a valuable lesson and also sparked a passion in how to unleash potential in people and help them to develop as leaders and great managers. I think it is really rare to have a great manager so I have become very interested in trying to develop myself as that, and then also my other teammates and working with them as much as possible.

  

Anchor & Leap: Saul, when you decided you were committing 100% to pursuing your own venture, what were some of the internal struggles that you were faced with?


Saul: I made the decision when I was in school that I was going work on my non-profit instead of an internship I had, which felt like a low risk commitment because I was in school. And then I later decided not to ever apply for a job and just go full time after graduating. And to be perfectly honest, I never thought of an alternative.

I remember back in May of 2007 I volunteered on the Obama campaign. A buddy of mine was also involved and I thought maybe I would work for the Obama campaign. I met the man who ran travel for the White House and who became that role after Obama won and he gave me his number and told me to call him. But then I never called him; I never really thought that I was ever going to do anything else than this.

“I needed to be able to wake up every morning and say to myself that this is the right thing to be doing with my life—even if I’m screwing up and going left and right and figuring it out as I go.”

I had to convince my parents that I wasn’t crazy and they definitely thought that I was. But for me, I needed to be able to wake up every morning and say to myself that this is the right thing to be doing with my life—even if I’m screwing up and going left and right and figuring it out as I go. As an entrepreneur, I love starting things, I love ideas and I love working with others. So for me it was about figuring out how to do that to the max, and I just didn’t see an alternative. It was not a real internal struggle, I’m not going to lie; it was an obvious, it was the only thing I could think of myself doing.

Oil maker design team in Nyarubuye, Rwanda

Oil maker design team in Nyarubuye, Rwanda

Anchor & Leap: What were some of the reasons that made you transition ThinkImpact from non-profit to for-profit?


Saul: Practicing what we preach was number one. I didn’t like fundraising to pay the bills and I wanted to be able to raise money for the company in large dollar values. I also thought that if we were talking about market-based solutions to poverty, that we really needed to understand how the market works. As a non-profit there were also many stakeholders and I thought I could clean things up if I went to a business model. This doesn’t mean that I don’t love non-profits, because I do, and I serve on non-profit boards. I am a huge fan of brining non-profits where there are market failures and service gaps in society and think non-profits are critical for the social fabric of society, but I also felt that I couldn’t scale what I was doing in that model.

Kate: The non-profit model didn’t speak to me as much as the model of for-profit. I really love the structure of thinking about this organization like a business. Then the impact is really engrained in what the business does, so the for-profit side really excited me and how to grow a model for a profitable social enterprise. Also, at the point in time we were doing this, social enterprise was pretty new.

Anchor & Leap: I can understand that and think an exciting part of social enterprise is when you create a market-based solution to a social challenge that becomes a self-sustaining enterprise. To me, that feels like a “hack” to the system.

 

Founder Saul Garlick

Founder Saul Garlick

Anchor & Leap: In your own personal journey, has there been a single most transformative experience along the way?


Saul: There have been a couple of highlights. One was being exposed to poverty in a very authentic way, and in a place that had historically been repressed and oppressed. The second experience was in 2007 when I brought a group of students back out and I saw the school that I had originally funded through Student Movement, and a couple classrooms were in disrepair. I didn’t realize at the time how that would affect me. The school had moved things over to the new classroom and shuttered the old ones. After seeing that, I think I had the wrong reaction, which was to immediately mobilize to fix the classrooms and make the rooms functioning again. But that is not how you create lasting change, and I learned that because I had messed up. We did many other projects that had the opposite fate, one of our projects was a school in Kenya where we built a few classrooms and then another organization came in and built a few classrooms and now it is a vibrant school.

“I am a both/and kind of guy—I want to make a huge difference in the world, and I want to use business to do it. And that’s hard to do.”

Another important experience has been through the time I spent in the village and the feedback I would get from people about what was really working. Some of that feedback was surprising. My host dad in South Africa once told me that the most important thing in that community was the small scholarship we had created, because it motivated all of the other students to pursue it, and that in turn, it had changed the dynamics of why kids were working hard. I hadn’t thought about that impact originally. 
 

Later on, a guy named Jerry Hildebrand exposed me to social entrepreneurship. He was a very inspirational person and exposed me to new ideas and got me really interested in the world of business and impact. I had been focused on impact and then I started thinking about business. I think American culture has a funny attitude around money; we all love it but we hate to talk about it. But my broader point is that I am a both/and kind of guy—I want to make a huge difference in the world, and I want to use business to do it. And that’s hard to do. So my other point is that there is a lot of talk around the value and potential of social entrepreneurship and social impact, and I’m not sure if everyone understands just how difficult it is to do that. 

 

Anchor & Leap: What were some of the obstacles you came across along your journey, particularly ones that you were not anticipating?


Saul: When I was transitioning ThinkImpact to for-profit back in 2010, I went down to South Africa with this guy who had been an entrepreneur, he was retired at something like 40, and he said to me, “If you are starting a business, you need to follow the TOE principle.” And I thought, “What’s the TOE principle?” He explained that it meant, “Think Of Everything,” and I thought, “Wouldn’t that be nice, if I could think of everything.” But what he meant by that is that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. That literally everything will go wrong.

“Anytime you are doing something new that no one understands, it is going to be hard. Hard in the sense that it’s going to be full of surprises that are disappointing, but you work through them and take them one day at a time.”

I think many people enter a business or enterprise and they think that it’s going to be hard to raise money, hard to motivate a team, and hard to finalize the product.  But actually those things are the high level items that seem to be the hard part, but if you grind at them, you will figure them out. Those things don’t bother me as much because I know we will figure them out. It’s going to take iteration, and I take a design thinking approach to everything I do, so I am okay with that. The really hard part is the daily small things that come up that blow your mind. It’s the resignations of employees, it’s the people you have to fire, it’s the banking issues, it’s the procedures that need building. It’s the smaller things that really make a company function well, and those are the things you can’t really anticipate what it’s going to take.

I’m actually doing two companies right now, I have ThinkImpact and then I have another office and another company downtown called Unleesh. With the second company, I get to enter it with the knowledge of everything I didn’t get right at first here, so I can get started faster, but I’m still making tons of mistakes. And that is just the nature of the thing. Anytime you are doing something new that no one understands, it is going to be hard. Hard in the sense that it’s going to be full of surprises that are disappointing, but you work through them and take them one day at a time. 

 

Anchor & Leap: As you push through all of these obstacles, what continues to inspire you to keep going?


Saul: The way I described it in another interview is that there is this tiny tiny light down the path, and you see it and you know what it could be—you just have to get there. And you think, “I’m going to get there, I’m going to get to that little tiny thing that I see that is far off in the distance, and I’m not going to shake it.” You know that you will not shake it. I’m not the kind of entrepreneur who just wants to build something that I can exit. I’m not trying to flip a business or make quick wins and I really don’t think that is very inspiring.

“Something I say to all of the scholars on our program is, “People are people everywhere,” because as you spend time in a community, you realize that we are all exactly the same and it’s crazy that people don’t have equal access to opportunity.”

What I think is inspiring and I am motivated by is solving a broader societal problem. So for me, that broader problem is lack of access to opportunity—it’s unfair that I was born here and therefore I have more opportunity in my life than someone who was born in Dixie, South Africa. That’s not fair, because we are all people. Something I say to all of the scholars on our program is, “People are people everywhere,” because as you spend time in a community, you realize that we are all exactly the same and it’s crazy that people don’t have equal access to opportunity. So with everything I am doing, whether with ThinkImpact or Unleesh, everything is about developing opportunities. And, that is also an unwinnable goal, because I am never going to be done.

I also think that when I’m in the worst moments of the rollercoaster ride of entrepreneurship, there are two things that I can do to recalibrate. One is to reassess my vision and to ask myself what I’m doing here and what is worth working for. When I remember that I’m doing this because there are people’s lives that could be getting access to new opportunity, then it’s worth working for.

A scholar in Panama designing pots

A scholar in Panama designing pots

The second thing is that you always need to get perspective on what hardship is. I could have a really long day at the office and get some really bad news, but okay, I have food, I have a family, I have my health—things are good. I remember when I was in South Africa many years ago and went into a gold mine for my first time and saw what miners used to do in South Africa. They would risk their lives every day to extract rocks for rich white people, and then I think to myself, “They had it hard. I don’t have it hard, I have it challenging, I have it interesting, I have it disappointing sometimes.” It’s about getting perspective on what other people have to do to make a living.

 

 

 

Anchor & Leap: Definitely. I think perspective is something that ties through so much. For example, the perspective created when you say to the scholars, “People are people everywhere.” I think that is a perspective that really shifts someone’s ability to impact a community; when they view someone as another human just like themselves. Period.  

“Awareness definitely matters, but it is what we do that matters. What we think is fine, but what we do in the world is actually what effects people in the world.”

Saul: Right, and every person you come across has a story. Every person you come across has something on their mind that’s bothering them and something that they are hoping for. If you think about that with every person you meet along the way, suddenly you start behaving like a person. Every person you meet has something to offer. Not in the way that you should use people, but that everyone has value and I am reminded of that every day. It’s amazing how narrow I can get about things and then someone who has a completely different background from me can just throw me off, and in an awesome way. So making sure we are really empowering people to explore their potential, to me, is one of the most important things.
 

Anchor & Leap: From our conversation, it sounds like ThinkImpact also serves to awaken people to their potential?   


Saul: It is a little like that, but the truth of the matter is that it’s actually the hard skills that we train too, because it’s not just about awareness. Awareness definitely matters, but it is what we do that matters. What we think is fine, but what we do in the world is actually what effects people in the world.

 

Anchor & Leap: Is there anything I have not asked that you would like to cover?

“I really believe that we think we are taking a leap, but really it’s just the first hurdle and there will be lots of hurdles after that, and there will be lots of hurdles no matter what we do.”

Saul: The cliché—anything worth doing is hard and challenging. I really believe that we think we are taking a leap, but really it’s just the first hurdle and there will be lots of hurdles after that, and there will be lots of hurdles no matter what we do. I would rather the hurdle of how to raise $150,000 in a week, over the hurdle of having been in a job I hate for a year and figuring out how to get out of it. I would rather never regret and push myself to try something and overcome whatever economic or human resource hurdle that exists, than feel like I’m not making a difference, or contributing, or living to my full potential. So what I would say to is to do whatever you think is going to be the path to your full potential.

Anchor & Leap: I definitely hear that philosophy; I just left my job! I think any program that makes you think in a way that you haven’t thought before, or question your work on a deeper level is critical. It is not easy to get yourself to go against what is viewed as “success” and what the common track is. It really takes a lot.

Saul: Right, and you don’t want to be numb to the world; the world is way too interesting. At ThinkImpact we call it, a curious culture of creativity, and I love that energy.  

“I would rather never regret and push myself to try something and overcome whatever economic or human resource hurdle that exists, than feel like I’m not making a difference, or contributing, or living to my full potential.”


Posted on February 18, 2015 .

Jessica Semaan, From Airbnb to Launching The Passion Co.

The word passion stems from the Latin verb patere, meaning to suffer—an amusing origin for a word largely associated with the very antithesis of suffering. Passion and suffering have a tumultuous relationship. Why?

In western models of success, blending passion and purpose is often deprioritized as a career objective. And adhering to that model, many choose careers that are not representative of what fuels their inner fire. Thus, journeying to a fulfilling career and pushing from what looks wise on paper, to what brings a richer experience to life, can be an uphill climb.
 

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”    — The most common regret of the dying


This is the headlining quote on The Passion Co.’s website, a company offering in-person community based programs that help people discover, clarify, and pursue their passions. If, after reading that, you are wondering what that might look like, the Founder Jessica Semaan acts as a living demonstration of what is means to align your passion with your life’s work. And being around that energy is contagious.

Jessica was born and raised in Lebanon and moved to the US to attend Stanford Business School, after which she joined Airbnb as an early employee. Jessica created The Passion Co. in early 2013, while at Airbnb, and has since been growing it on the side, up until a week ago, when she took the leap, and jumped entirely into her own company. During this journey, Jessica’s career looked quite impressive on paper, though internally, she lacked fulfillment through her work—so she spent a year interviewing 100 people doing what they love and created her blog, Passion Stories. And this is how she uncovered her own passion, which is helping others find theirs. This interview explores Jessica’s journey prior to taking the leap, the uncertainty, and experiences that have fueled her along the way.

 

Anchor & Leap: How do you personally define passion?

Jessica: Passion is our soul coming alive, when we feel alive doing something.

 

Anchor & Leap: In your own words can you tell me the mission of The Passion Co. and also your personal mission?

The Passion Co. Founder, Jessica Semaan

The Passion Co. Founder, Jessica Semaan

Jessica: This mission of The Passion Co. is to inspire and enable a world where everyone is doing what they love and following their passions. My personal mission is to grow and to become a compassionate leader who is healing others and empowering others. I don’t see Passion Co. as me; I think Passion Co. is myself having that level of compassion and presence so that I can empower people around me to spread that message. 

Anchor & Leap: It sounds like if you were to talk about your overall goal for impact personally and with The Passion Co. they would be similar?

Jessica: There is definitely a focused overall impact of what I am creating, but there is definitely also my personal impact, which is that I want to be a compassionate leader. Learning the true sense of leadership, I think, is something to work on over a lifetime. And that part of it is also learning how to give unconditional love to people. 

 

Anchor & Leap: Were there specific people or experiences that inspired the path that you took?

“I quit when I knew I felt confident enough to deal with uncertainty.”

Jessica: I was definitely inspired by a manager of mine, Chip Conley. He is one of my hero’s. He’s a hospitality guru, a writer, a speaker, and he’s on the board of Burning Man. He sold his business for hundreds of millions of dollars and joined Airbnb as a very senior person and I was asked to work for him. I remember when I was at business school that I had heard about him because he also went to Stanford Business School, and I remember thinking, “He’s someone that I want my life to look like,” and then he happened to become my boss. It was crazy. And I remember I looked at him and thought, “That’s my life, I want to be speaking, I want to be writing, I want to be inspiring people and leading them and I want to be doing something that comes from my soul.” And at Airbnb he was next to me doing just that and I learned so much from him.


Anchor & Leap: At what point did passion call you? When did it strike you and ask you to listen?

Jessica: I remember in my job at Airbnb I was invited to speak at a conference and it was a big conference. At the beginning everyone was saying to me, “Oh my gosh, this is a big deal, how are you going to do it?” I hadn’t found myself so excited about something in a while, and I was spending my nights preparing for the talk and testing it with people. I ended up going on stage and doing an incredible job presenting.

As soon as I stepped on stage I felt alive; alive in a way that I had never felt before. I didn’t need to think about what I needed to say next, it just came naturally. I felt effortless and this is when I knew that my passion was going to be about expressing myself in some way.

 

Anchor & Leap: During a Passion Co. workshop, you spoke about how even if someone does not love their job, they can ask themselves if there is an aspect about it that does speak to them and brings their passion to life. It sounds like this experience created that for you? 

Jessica: Yes, and to your point, when you start noticing these little things, they are clues. Because when you are writing off your job, you are not giving yourself the permission to notice the things that you may be enjoying in it. So if you are someone saying, “I just hate my job, I hate everything about it,” it’s probably not true, maybe there are a few things that you like about it. So once you notice the clues, you amplify them or you switch to something where they come up more.


Anchor & Leap: During that time when you stepped on stage and came alive, I’m guessing you entered a state of flow. Once you came out of that space, were there persistent questions that came to you?

Jessica: Definitely. A lot of people started asking me to speak and I started thinking, “What if I spoke about my journey of finding what I love?” So this all acted as little clues, realizing I’m doing these passion interviews on the side, and what if I taught something, because teaching also puts me in flow. Really all forms of self-expression do. So it was definitely little by little and reinforcement from outside when I would go teach something and than people would ask me to come back. You start getting positive feedback and that makes you want to do more.  

 

Anchor & Leap: Your last week at Airbnb is this week. At what point did you decide to commit 100% to your company?  

Jessica: I think it was when I started seeing everything that we were putting out start selling out and then my vision became clearer. I see us becoming something like the next Oprah brand for millennials that is about living your authentic life, and in all aspects. So I was clear on that, on the vision, and that what I was doing was working. Throughout this process, my confidence also picked up. If I had quit my job a year ago my confidence would have been lower, now my confidence is in a strong place and can keep growing. I feel that you have to slowly grow your confidence because if I had to quit all of a sudden and then something went wrong with the business, it probably would have been harder for me to overcome it than now. I quit when I knew I felt confident enough to deal with uncertainty.
 

Anchor & Leap: Can you tell me about your experience with uncertainty over the past few years?

Jessica: I grew up during the civil war in Lebanon, so I thrive on uncertainty. My comfort zone is uncertainty, which has great advantages in the startup world, but it also has disadvantages because sometimes I seek uncertainty. So there could be an easy way to do something, and I might end up going about it the challenging way. So that is the nuance there that I note and try to be aware of because I thrive in chaos and uncertainty.

Anchor & Leap: Wow, the individual experience of what makes us “come alive” is so personally unique. It’s fascinating that uncertainty plays such a part of that for you.

Jessica: Yes, and there were times when I didn’t know if we were going to survive a bombing or that I would ever make it out of Lebanon.  

Anchor & Leap: And how old were you during that period?

Jessica: It was up until I was 10, so my young years, and the wars with Israel were throughout. We always had a mini war somewhere.   

Anchor & Leap: I cannot really imagine growing up in that kind of environment. It’s hard because when we talk about empathy, we want to be able empathize with someone else’s environment, even when we haven’t experienced it. 

Jessica: What you can empathize with is not the environment, but the emotion. I’m sure you’ve had days where you felt lost, confused or scared, and I think human emotions are all the same. There is obviously a level of trauma, but you can get trauma from being in a car accident. You can empathize that way.  

 

Anchor & Leap: What lessons has creating The Passion Co. taught you that you were not expecting to learn?

Jessica: It taught me to never hire fast! Really take your time in knowing people. Especially when it’s your company, you can’t afford having the wrong people on your team. Right now I really want to get to know someone well and work with them for a while before I’m ready for them to join my team.  I’ve also learned that there are so many people out there who want to help me! I thought it was just going to be me, but everyday people write and show up and ask to help me and I’m very shocked.

Anchor & Leap: I think when you are doing something that is an expression of something you are very passionate about that there is an authenticity that is contagious to people.

Jessica: Yeah definitely. And I also learned how much fear there is in people’s lives and that the reason that many people do not do what they want to do is because of fear. Period.

Posted on January 27, 2015 and filed under Interview.

Nature as a Classroom: An Interview with Coco Loehr on Experiential Education

Classroom can be defined through many different constructs. Its standard definition, “A room, typically in a school, in which a class of students is taught,” lends to our traditional model of education. But when the definition is broadened, we can view any environment in which learning occurs, to be a classroom. And with this definition, comes great possibility.

Caroline “Coco" Loehr is one of two instructors of Mountain Classroom, a 10-week experiential education program offered by Proctor Academy, a boarding school in Andover, New Hampshire. Over the course of the term, 10 students and two instructors travel across the country in a biodiesel and solar panel powered mini bus and study literature, history, outdoor skills, and natural science—and all through the philosophy of place-based learning. The course equally emphasizes developing soft skills such as conflict resolution, decision-making, and building self-reliance. As both an alumni of Proctor and of Mountain Classroom, Coco is in a unique situation to lead the program. Mountain Classroom left a deep imprint on her life and the path she took thereafter.  

“I remember about halfway through my senior year I knew the things that I really loved were teaching and education, ice and glaciers, and backcountry expeditions. I knew that whatever I ended up doing would include two to three of those things.”

Before going to Skidmore College to study Geoscience, Coco took a year off and embarked on multiple outdoor adventures including a cross-country road trip filled with outdoor expeditions as well as a NOLS and Outward Bound course. After Skidmore she went on to Colorado College and earned a Masters of Arts in Teaching, which she completed in tandem with a partnership program at the High Mountain Institute. If you ask Coco what she loves “ice and glaciers!” may be two of the first words you hear, and with a level of enthusiasm that makes you question why you haven’t dropped your life and moved to Patagonia. Coco’s answers during the interview give a glimpse into her journey to experiential education, her passion for teaching, and a few insights from the field.  

 

Anchor & Leap: By the time you got to Skidmore, did you already know that you wanted to go into education?
 

Coco: It’s funny, I didn’t know that I did but I was talking with my sister over Christmas and she said to me, “I remember you telling me your sophomore year of high school that when you grew up you wanted to teach science somewhere in Maine.” And I was like, “Really? I didn’t realize I had an awareness of that in high school, but apparently I did.” I do remember completing Mountain Classroom and thinking that being an instructor would be a pretty fun position. Then, throughout college, I got more and more into science and kept thinking that I might just want to do research so I worked in Alaska for a couple summers doing glaciological research and then I remember thinking that I wanted to go to Antarctica and work down there.

I also started running an outing club and teaching courses once a week at Skidmore on knot tying and anchor building and I really liked that. Then I began to remember that teaching was something I really wanted to do, so I started to get more invested in it. I started tutoring at the public school in town and started tutoring students at Skidmore. I remember about halfway through my senior year I knew the things that I really loved were teaching and education, ice and glaciers, and backcountry expeditions. I knew that whatever I ended up doing would include two to three of those things.

 

Anchor & Leap: Was there ever an “aha moment” when you thought, “Yes! Education is 100% my path,” and then decided to commit to it?
 

Coco: I distinctly remember walking out of Heidi Johnson’s biology class during high school one day and thinking about how excited I felt after that class and how much I really loved what we were learning. I felt like she had inspired me to want to continue with science into college and then it all of a sudden dawned on me, “Whoa, how cool would it be to be in her position and to get to be the person that instigates that curiosity or fire.” You know, when you see students’ eyes light up about something new and they just get so excited.

In terms of committing to it, I feel like I probably committed to it without even realizing it, just in accepting to go to Colorado College for the Masters in Teaching. I tend to not analyze things until I’m present and in them. There was definitely a moment in the spring when I was trying to decide whether or not I was going to lead Mountain Classroom specifically. I had been student teaching at a public school in the fall and then I was at High Mountain Institute in the spring, which is a lot like Mountain Classroom. I was having a huge debate about whether I wanted to go public or private and I remember realizing that I have a lot of years and that I can do both. That’s when I decided, “Okay, Mountain Classroom.” It’s a position that doesn’t open up often so I was going to go for it.
 

Anchor & Leap: I like asking people this question about when they committed 100% because for some people, it is a really intense process to come to and make the choice, while for others they seem to simply be in it and the commitment just unfolds.

Anchor & Leap: In your own words can you briefly tell me the mission of Mountain Classroom?

“A big part of Mountain Classroom is allowing students to wake up from their everyday life—from their life back at home, and from their life in the classroom in the traditional academic setting.”

Coco: I would say, and this is something we’ve been saying a lot this semester, that a big part of Mountain Classroom is allowing students to wake up from their everyday life—from their life back at home, and from their life in the classroom in the traditional academic setting.

And I guess what I mean by wake up, is to have students understand what it means to turn their senses on. So everyplace we go to we try to introduce them to the place that they are in through all of their senses, and in that, we hope to convert every space into a place and that students are connecting with these spots around the country. And, we hope that in that process they discover a meaningful learning experience because they are deeply connected through all of their senses. I remember feeling so present when I was on Mountain Classroom and feeling like I had never taken things in as much as I did before that.

 

Anchor & Leap: What inspired you to teach in an untraditional learning environment rather than in a traditional classroom setting?
 

Coco: That was a really tough decision for me because I was able to benefit from the non-traditional and I loved it. It definitely set me on the path that I am on. But, I know that there is a part of me that wants to be working in a public school setting with students that don’t necessarily have the choice to have that and to be able to provide that learning in some other type of way. What I had written my thesis on was place-based education, which is what we do on Mountain Classroom, but how to do that in a public school setting in a way that is affordable both in terms of time and money.

I guess what allowed me to make the decision to go back to this environment to teach in a non-traditional classroom is that it is my ideal form of education; being able to learn about exactly where you are and in a holistic way. So I felt like by having this experience of teaching in an environment that is the ideal form of education, through my eyes, I’d be able to bring that to more traditional classrooms later on.

 

Anchor & Leap: So far in your time as an educator for high school students, what have been some of the lessons that you’ve learned that you were not expecting to learn?
 

Coco: I remember thinking that, for me, student classroom management would be really hard in a traditional setting and in a backcountry setting. I have a hard time with that authoritative voice. And it is a challenge, but what I’ve found is that the students who tend to be the most challenging in those situations, that when you put them at a task that they really like, they can end up being the biggest help to you—and making you laugh and remember that they’re students, they’re kids, and not to get bent out of shape or think that it is something that someone is doing to undermine you. It’s just that they are students, and that is their job.

I remember I had this one student when I was first teaching. I was teaching 9th grade earth science and there was this one kid who was off the walls. He would be up standing on the table and yelling and I just decided to make him my classroom assistant, kind of like my Vanna White kind of guy. So he would always come up to the front of the class and help illustrate and demonstrate what we were doing and he became so awesome and made me laugh all the time, it was so fun. I think when you can take the energy of those negative experiences and then somehow harness it and put it in the right direction it can be really exciting.

“I think when you can take the energy of those negative experiences and then somehow harness it and put it in the right direction it can be really exciting.”

Anchor & Leap: I love that! I also think it says a lot about you as a teacher. I think many teachers just want students to conform to their exact lesson plan and teaching style and be a perfect “student” in the diligent and traditional sense.

 

Anchor & Leap: Throughout your journey to where you are now, were there specific people who impacted the path that you decided to take?
 

Coco: Yeah definitely. Some of the biggest influencers were Kayden Will who was my Mountain Classroom instructor. She got me really into doing observation-based science. While doing a species ID, that was the first time I had really sat down to draw plants or animals right in front of me. I remember really liking that process and thinking that it allowed me to see things with more detail. I was always into science but remember thinking I wanted to do more field science after that.

Annie MacKenzie has been a huge factor in coming back (to Proctor) and I think that’s because she was my advisor at Proctor and then I got to continually talk to her about Mountain Classroom after I left and would bug her about what I needed to do to get hired to lead Mountain Classroom and what the path is that I should be taking. So I’m not sure I would have pursued a Masters in teaching if it weren’t for Annie, and also for Patty Pond, the Director of Mountain Classroom. Annie and Patty both told me that I would need a decent amount of teaching experience so that definitely influenced my decision to go out to Colorado College.

Another person was one of my professors at Skidmore, Dick Lindemann. He was a geology professor and he was so passionate about tiny little fossils from the Devonian period and was just one of those guys that with every class he taught he was just extremely passionate. He always encouraged me to follow whatever I was passionate about so he really helped me develop my love for glaciers and helped me get out to Alaska. I would always go into his office and have awesome conversations with him about what it was I wanted to do and he was always just a big supporter of doing what I love so I also don’t know if I’d be at Mountain Classroom now if it weren’t for him.

Anchor & Leap: Do you have an idea of the kind of impact that you are trying to leave in the world or create?
 

Coco: It’s funny because we always have our students write S.M.A.R.T. goals. The acronym stands for a Specific, Measurable, Attainable, a Reach, and a Timeline. It helps students narrow their goals and set them to try to accomplish them. And so I recently made a goal for myself, for life—to have an interaction with nature be a part of the common core of the curriculum. Really what I care about is that kids interact with nature more often. I just think it is so important for our brains and on so many levels, and for our health. It’s amazing the research that has gone into that in showing how depression rates can go down and how it can be a really good alternative remedy for ADHD. And how students are now able to pick up on more details on their environment when they spend more time outside. I just think it is so, so important and that it can turn around and protect the places that they care about.

I think that often, and not to be negative, but there is a large disconnect between what we learn in school and the places we live in. Something cool about Mountain Classroom is that it’s such a small group that you can really see what everyone is doing, and not doing, and so that feedback loop is tightened. There’s not much time in between making a mistake or getting the feedback.
 

Posted on January 12, 2015 and filed under Interview.

Sarah Knapp: OutdoorFest

New York City is an incredible place. Some even call it magical. 

Dwellers of the city bask in its wonders and gloat that it is “the best city on earth.” Yet with everything New York is credited for having, it is equally known as one of the most challenging cities in which to lead a balanced life. This is especially true if you find solace through time spent in nature. And for this reason, the city both loses outdoor enthusiasts each year, and has gained the reputation of being an outdoor “unfriendly” city. When faced with how to blend urban life and nature, many New Yorkers who desire both are left feeling that they must choose one to leave behind.  But what if New Yorkers could both live in the city and love the outdoors? This, in fact, was Sarah Knapp’s inspiration when she created OutdoorFest.

“It’s not just about accessibility to the outdoors, it’s about connecting people with the outdoors and creating a community while doing so”

OutdoorFest is a 10-day festival that brings the outdoors to New York City through a series of events in Manhattan and surrounding boroughs. The first one took place this summer, and featured an impressive collection of events: stand up paddle boarding and sailing on the Hudson River, rock climbing at Brooklyn Boulders, surfing at the Far Rockaways, a nature walk with Ken Chaya through Central Park, and more.

 

Fascinated by OutdoorFest, I attended a female surfer meetup that screened AWAY, a documentary by Elisa Bates about the subculture of NYC surfing. That evening at the meetup, I sipped a local hard cider at an artsy surf shop on the Lower East Side, and watched in amazement as the seemingly displaced (and feisty) surfer gals of the city came out from their apartments and gathered together under one roof. And this undertaking, of constructing community, lies at the core of OutdoorFest.

                                     OutdoorFest’s VIP Launch Party at Biolite's rooftop in Dumbo.  

                                     OutdoorFest’s VIP Launch Party at Biolite's rooftop in Dumbo.  

Though the mission of OutdoorFest is to make the outdoor lifestyle accessible to urban dwellers, Sarah explains that, “it’s not just about accessibility to the outdoors, it’s about connecting people with the outdoors and creating a community while doing so.” When Sarah first moved to New York City, it took her a while to locate the outdoor community. Experiencing this, she set out to create a space for people to feel like they are a part of an outdoor enthusiast community while also living in the city.

Sarah Knapp, Founder, OutdoorFest

Sarah Knapp, Founder, OutdoorFest

Sarah’s vision is ultimately to bring OutdoorFest to other dense urban environments like Chicago and D.C., where people experience challenges to urban living, stating “If it were just a dedication to the outdoors, I would move, but it’s a dedication to the reality that people live in cities, and then caring about the livability of cities. I love going outside and want that for others; the answer for how to do that is by creating the space and community.”Sarah, through OutdoorFest, brought the hungry outdoor enthusiasts of the city exactly what they needed—community.

 

Curious to join this community and learn about upcoming events? Check out Mappy Hour, OutdoorFest’s monthly gathering of outdoor enthusiasts around maps, guidebooks, beer, and adventure stories.

 

This post was originally published on FOND Group.

 

Posted on December 15, 2014 .