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.