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Why You Shouldn't Start a Nonprofit

I know. It sounds very ironic, considering I’ve already helped start two.

But here’s the reality. I’ve taken numerous requests for “chats” about starting nonprofits. I want to help, but I’ve noticed I’m telling everyone the same thing. So in an effort to still be a nice person, and the reality that I haven’t slept in four months, I’ve decided to multitask and move all my “chats” online. I will not have all the answers, but I’ll try.

But before launching into the gritty details of starting a nonprofit, I need to preface it with an important piece of advice. “Just Don’t Do It.”

At least without being properly warned. If you haven’t launched a nonprofit, or haven’t worked for one before, here are six things you should prepare for:

1. Prepare to be broke.

An important fact usually unknown by the general public.  In truth, most founders and early staff don’t take salaries for at least the first year of the start-ups life-cycle. Sometimes longer.

I’ve heard countless founder war stories about sleeping on couches, or taking calls from our living rooms as we say, “Or… why don’t we meet at your office?” Invisible Children took advantage of being children, and moved back in with their parents. Krochet Kids spent nights crocheting, and waiting tables. Even though I joined charity: water nine months into their life-cycle, I joined the unpaid crew and made ends meet by babysitting at night and occasionally foot modeling (which is an entirely different blog post). Nothing says, “I just got my Masters Degree” like trying on other people’s shoes.

Apparently, you have to become poor to help the poor. You can’t offer equity, take a small business loan, or go after VC funding – so be prepared to eat a lot of mac and cheese, and take deep breaths as your credit card bill creeps passed your savings.

2. Prepare for the stress.

If you’re comfortable having your jaw permanently clenched in a state of anxiety, then maybe start-ups are for you.  For many people, it’s the stress kills them.  And it’s usually the stupid stuff. Like why ONE FREAKING PHOTO won’t upload on your website, that makes you want to take a hammer to your iPad.

You will be expected to do more with less, and move mountains to get there. So make a good to-do list.

3. Prepare for it to be 1,000 times harder.

“I’ve heard launching a non-profit is 1000 times harder than you think, but 1000 times more rewarding.”  A few people have referenced this myth. My take: Yes, it is 1,000 times harder. But no, it’s not 1,000 times more rewarding. Ok fine. It’s rewarding. But not ONE-THOUSAND TIMES. At least not at the start.

Ask me again in three years, once we’ve helped a million people, and I can sleep through the night without checking our paypal account balance.

4. Prepare for the “no.”

This is the biggest ego crusher for most start-ups, and why so many fail.  You start with wide eyes and big dreams and think, “Everyone’s going to want to help me!”  The truth is, nope. In fact, some of your close friends may not help, and that’s ok.

An old intern, Jenny Risch, who now works in nonprofit fundraising, has a good mantra. She says, “I’m prepared for three out of four people to turn me down. But I know eventually someone will say, “yes.” So I just keep asking.”

Don’t let the ‘no’s’ crush you. And don’t be offended when the world doesn’t shift rotations to help you find volunteers for your bingo night. Persistence is key.

5. Prepare to be boring.

Should be obvious, but if you’re working 15-hour days without pay, you generally have to give up the excitement and glamor.  Other founders may be able to dodge this one, but I’ve embraced it. A guy asked me a few months ago what I do for fun.  I told him I’m launching a start-up.

He said, “No, besides work.”

I stood stupefied for an awkward ten seconds before responding,  “Drink.  Sometimes I drink. With friends.”  Pretty mortifying that the only thing I could think of made me sound like an alcoholic. But it’s better than what I usually do for fun. Which is go downstairs to the deli, buy the large $3.29 bag of SmartPuff popcorn and eat the entire bag for dinner, while answering emails and watching The Mentalist.

Prepare for 80-hour work weeks and ok with your social life sucking for a few years.

6. Prepare for the “why.”

There are approximately 300 million people living in the US and 1 million registered charities. Not sure why we need one charity for every 300 people, but you better have a good reason for why you’re worthwhile.  What do you offer that’s different, and why do you deliver services better than anyone else?

For me, I’ve worked for some of the best orgs in the world,  and spent  years working across Africa. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t – and think Americans can channel their funds into better endeavors. I know, in the bottom of my heart, if we fund the solutions The Adventure Project’s working on, we can save millions more lives each year. If you don’t have the same passion and conviction as I do, then you might not survive your 26th box of mac and cheese.

Here’s my main point. Think long and hard before jumping in. 90% of all start-ups fail within the first few years. So make sure you have the energy, tenacity, and wisdom necessary for sustaining a start-up. Don’t launch a nonprofit for the glory or because you want to “help people.”   The real heroes are the 300 people who donate to that one nonprofit.  They have the brains to know that their dollars have the most impact by investing in visionaries crazy enough to start nonprofits.

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Homeless and Fortunately Broke.

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Homeless and Fortunately Broke.

Most people have no idea I was homeless.

I tried not to tell them. I didn’t want them to think my vision was wild and unsustainable. My co-founder and I didn’t take salaries for over a year, in order to pour more of our donations into the field. But nine months into bootstrapping our nonprofit, my credit card maxed out.

I threw my stuff into storage and trekked around NYC with one suitcase, a printer/scanner combo and coffeemaker.  My "few months" on couches quickly turned into ten. I thought it would be grueling. It turned into the best decision I’ve ever made.

In forcing me to ask others for help, I was overwhelmed by hospitality and friendship. And showered with a kindness that I can never quite repay.

Here’s 14 of the places I’ve stayed:

1. STACY POMMER’S – West 72nd Street -Stacy lives in a posh upper west side apartment, across from The Dakota on 72nd. She also happens to have a visual impairment, so we were ready with excuses if her condo board ever complained about her squatter on the 15th floor. As it turns out, my role as her “visual aid” only came in handy for reading the score of the football games, who is voted off on The Bachelor, and pasting a fake snake tattoo on her back so she can prank her friends at her birthday party. If you ever want to see your friends squirm, have a visually impaired girl ask them if her new tattoo of a hideous (and huge) cobra looks fantastic.

1. STACY POMMER’S – West 72nd Street -Stacy lives in a posh upper west side apartment, across from The Dakota on 72nd. She also happens to have a visual impairment, so we were ready with excuses if her condo board ever complained about her squatter on the 15th floor. As it turns out, my role as her “visual aid” only came in handy for reading the score of the football games, who is voted off on The Bachelor, and pasting a fake snake tattoo on her back so she can prank her friends at her birthday party. If you ever want to see your friends squirm, have a visually impaired girl ask them if her new tattoo of a hideous (and huge) cobra looks fantastic.

2. PEACE CORP’S 50th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION, Washington DC. Two weeks after my credit card maxed out, the Peace Corp Association called and announced that I had won a writing contest, worth $5,000. I just had to pick up the check at their gala. My younger cousin happened to be in DC that weekend for work and was able to sneak me into her room at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. I have never been in the Peace Corp, but when you are desperate, you enter any contest possible. I lived off the $5,000 grant for 8 months.

3. THE SANDERS. 100th Street and Riverside Drive, NYC. Carrie and I used to work together at charity: water. Now, she is on our board and the proud mom of two little boys.

4. THE STRAWS. Lafayette, California. Home at my parents’ house for a wedding. Laid in bed wishing my 31-year-old self could tell my 13-year-old self, “One day, you’ll regret begging dad to buy this freaking futon bunk bed!”

8. FORT LAUDERDALE AIRPORT. While on the west coast, a Primetime TV news network asked if I could meet them in Haiti to shoot our stove campaign. I took a red eye to NYC to get my passport, and another to get to Haiti. To save money I slept under a row of airport seats. Not gonna lie, this wasn’t the best idea I've ever had.

8. FORT LAUDERDALE AIRPORT. While on the west coast, a Primetime TV news network asked if I could meet them in Haiti to shoot our stove campaign. I took a red eye to NYC to get my passport, and another to get to Haiti. To save money I slept under a row of airport seats. Not gonna lie, this wasn’t the best idea I've ever had.

10. THE EX’s BACHELOR PAD, Upper West Side, NYC. An ex found out I was homeless and offered his apartment while he was at Davos. Apparently, last year he was “too busy” with his new job to continue dating, but not too busy to purchase some new “art.”

11. SOCIAL MEDIA WEEK WITH NOKIA, London, United Kingdom. Nokia flew me to London to speak as a "social innovator." Over a fancy dinner they asked if I would be interested in a potential partnership. I didn’t mention that my suitcase was full of Snickers bars, so that I wouldn’t have to spend any money eating while I was there.

12. ALEX ABELIN, East 13th Street, NYC. Alex was a Community Relations Manager for Google. Little did Alex know that being a “Community Manager” also meant housing all of the broke social entrepreneurs in his community.

I’m taking a small salary now, and on Friday I moved off Stacy’s couch. In a windfall of irony, ten friends and I rented a place in the Hamptons for June, just as a friend had her place open up in the east village. So now I have two places to live this month. I went from wheeling all my stuff up and down subway stairs like a sweaty hermit crab, to now taking conference calls on the beach.

Last Friday night I met a guy who said, “I think our generation is more interested in experiences and friendships. We’re not striving to get rich and attain more than ‘the Jones’. Our focus is on living and working for causes we care about.”  He added, ” I’m totally broke. But I love my life.”

Ironically, he happened to be telling me that as we stood in Adrian Greenier’s kitchen, as Adrian grilled-up steak for 50 “fearless” NYCers, as the invitation stated.

I looked around the room, filled with some of the most interesting and well, “fearless” people I am lucky enough to know and I said, “Ha. Me too.”

Fortunately broke.

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Mothers Day.

[Editors note: Just found this post in my drafts folder. I was so overwhelmed and sleep-deprived when I wrote it that I saved it for later proofing.] With our gala only a week away, I have reached the stage I’ll like to call...”unkept” (the most PC word I can think of). It’s from lack of sleep and stress - combined with the fact that I haven’t done any primping since December. So while some have sponsored the event, last night my mom sponsored my highlights. Yet another reminder that every hair on my head is thanks in part to my mom.

Growing up, our house was a neighborhood home-base. When my best friend Christina’s dad died when we were eight, our home became her latch-key house and Dorito refueling station. When Brian and Matt got in a huge bike accident in sixth grade, it was my mom who pulled Matt into our bathroom to mend and console him, careful to close the door so it was harder for us to hear him cry.

She was the PTA president, the swim team director and the Girl Scout Leader. I can still remember my mom’s voice as she yelled on a Scout Jamboree, “Erin, it is NOT ok to hide your leg in other peoples’ sleeping bags.” (Erin was born without a leg, but made up for it with really creative pranks).

Last time I was in Uganda visiting the health care promoters, I was struck by the similarities. Watching these women interact, I realized they were just like my own mom and her friends back home. They laughed together, looked out for one-another, and were completely unfazed by other children’s snot.

That’s just what moms do. They take 1,000 mini-actions every day to control the chaos and make things right. Whether it’s controlling their own kids or another parents, they have something in their DNA that enables them to say, “Hey, put your prosthetic leg back on RIGHT NOW and join us around this campfire.”

I’ve learned that this world is made up of a mom you are born to, and the ones who take you in along the way. The resiliency and character of a community is determined by the strength of its mothers.

I am not a mom, but if I am lucky enough to be one someday, I hope I turn out like mine.

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Being a female founder: four lessons I learned from my father.

I get asked quite often if it's hard to start an organization as a woman. The truth is I am not quite sure. I've never tried starting one as a man. But I do know that I owe my dad much of the credit (whether he knows it or not) for teaching me about what it takes to be an entrepreneur.

Here’s four lessons:

1. KEEP LEARNING

In 4th grade I signed up for basketball, but there weren't enough coaches. So my dad volunteered. Did he know anything about basketball? Nope. He went to Blockbuster and rented, "How to play basketball" starring Magic Johnson wearing a huge afro and Taylor Swifts shorts.

We were terrible, but I think we may have been doomed from the start. While other teams wore bright colors and were sponsored by Freddies Pizza, our uniforms were gray and sponsored by the local tire rotation business. I can still remember my dad during a halftime saying, "Remember what Magic says -- kiss that ball. Kiss it. Kiss it against that backboard." We lost. A lot. But it was better than not having a team at all.

He later went on to successfully coach both my sisters’ teams for multiple seasons and was our swim team “starter” (the guy who fires the gun) for over a decade.

When I was teaching myself how to code our website I kept thinking, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m going to figure this out. Thankfully, google is the new VHS.

2. INVEST IN PEOPLE

In 7th grade I spent the day with my dad as part of “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” where I spent the day watching my dad read files and depose a woman who clearly did not know which way was up. Biggest lessons I learned was: A. Being an attorney is nowhere near as exciting as Law and Order and B. never get deposed.

The first stop in our day was to the cafeteria for coffee.

"Becky meet ______ (I forgot her name). Now. You HAVE to try her tuna sandwich. She makes THE best tuna fish sandwich in the entire world. You want one?!” I declined, because it was, after-all, 9 AM.

I looked at this petite, middle-aged Asian woman in her cafeteria outfit and hairnet as she tried to modestly deflect the compliment, saying something like, "Oh no Jim, it's just a regular sandwich.” But her eyes were beaming. She was doing everything in her power to hold back a huge grin.

I remember thinking, "Wow, my dad just made this woman’s day."

I left the cafeteria determined to try and emulate my dad’s spirit and kindness. Here was my dad, a partner in a law firm he built, yet he took the time to get to know the names and people behind the cafeteria line. I mean sure, my dad loves food (apparently tuna), but it’s still a great example of the content of his character.

We rarely choose the people we come in contact with throughout the day, but we get to choose how we make them feel.

3. DON’T LET OTHERS TEAR YOU DOWN

It wasn't until I was out of graduate school that I accidently overheard my boss tell an advisor, "You know, to gain credibility we really need an older guy in Becky's role." Which was unfortunate because "old" and "male" were exactly the two traits I have no control over. To mitigate I dyed my hair dark brown, thinking the blond was giving off a "young" vibe. In another twist of fate the stylist accidently cut my hair like a mullet - so coincidently, I also looked kind of like a dude.

Still to this day I cannot call my Nana without her asking, "Are you still single?" Quickly followed by, "Your hairs not that brown color again, is it?" Then she reminds me that we are "both" natural blondes and need to stay that way.

Here's what my dad taught me - that my gender has absolutely no baring on what I want to achieve in life. I was taught to be stubborn and a fighter, but I was never taught that being a woman might be a disadvantage. If he did, I imagine I might be jagged or guarded. Instead, he gave me 24 years of feeling like I could do anything I set my mind to as an intelligent and hardworking person.

4. DON’T QUIT

My dad was telling me the other day that at a Bar Association meeting two firms announced that they were closing because of the economy. My dads own firm has had to do some major shifting this year, because one partner sadly and suddenly succumbed to a brain tumor and another is grieving the loss of his wife to breast cancer earlier this month.

I asked if he has considered a merger or acquisition. He said poetically, “No, I’m going to wait for all these other (expletive) firms to go under, and I’ll be the last one standing.”

Most businesses die not because they don’t have a great product, but because they don’t have the grit and fortitude to stomach the stress. Sometimes you just have to slog through it. There are great highs and low-lows. The highs are so much fun (like our gala) and the lows make you want to crawl under your desk and put your finger in a socket. As a nonprofit, finger-socket time always revolves around fundraising (or lack-there-of).

People have often advised me to focus on only creating jobs for women because women are "so hot right now" and we could “totally raise a lot of money if we ditch the men and pulled the ‘women helping women’ card.” Which is kind of true, unless you’re an animal. In the US we donate more money to causes supporting dogs, than women and girls. I’m tempted to create “jobs for dogs,” but only because that has such a great ring to it.

I remember being in Haiti after the earthquake and talking to Esther in our tent at night. She was upset because she met a man that afternoon cradling his toddler and crying, sitting on the rumble in the hot sun. The UN had finally arrived with food rations, but to stave off riots, only the female head of households were allowed to wait in line and collect it. This mans wife was killed, along with every female relative he knew. He looked at Esther crying and said, “I don’t remember the last time we ate. What am I going to do?”

There are many great men out there fighting to care for their families; we just don't hear their stories.

So I prefer to invest in the good ones. Because when you support great men, they raise strong daughters.

Happy Father’s day dad!

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Early Adopters.

A guy called last week and asked if I was still homeless. And, if I was taking a salary. Then said, "You should really updated your blog."

Oh... right!  That thing I haven't opened in nine months. Gotcha.

In truth, I want to write, but other great things have overtaken my life. So as an update: I have an apartment (I pay too much to sleep in my bedroom converted from the living room - welcome to Manhattan), I am taking a stipend (which is close to a salary, except for a few numbers missing) and The Adventure Project has our first office space (thanks to a supporter who is gifting us with two years of free rent and operations costs)!  So, on average, life is great.

So in an effort to update - I'm multitasking. Here's an email I wrote to our Advisers and Executive Board Members this week. Let's be honest, if you're reading this, you are an early adopter too.

.............

Hi Advisers,

Hello from our office! I’m sitting with two of our interns. It’s 7:30pm, yet they don’t seem to notice. My strategy has been to keep feeding them Starbursts and coffee in hopes that they just keep chugging along. So far it’s worked!

 

Last week Hong sat next to me and said, “Do you know why I applied here? I went to your website and you had stoves! My family was very poor in Vietnam and I remember when we got a stove and it was so helpful. As a child, I was in charge of it.”

Tonight I asked how old she was when she first managed the cooking fire.

“Five.” Then added, “Oh, but it’s not hard. Stoves are easy to use. You know?!”

Jessica, who sits next to her, asked for an explanation. Jess is from Indonesia, and is saving my life with her design skills. The gala branding is done by her.

In between the empty coffee cups, a space heater and folding chairs, we resemble a mash-up of Occupy Wall Street meets the United Nations.

But I love it.

Screen Shot 2013-04-02 at 6.59.44 PM

Late last night I came across the “early adopter” graph and immediately thought, “these are our operations supporters!” I had just returned from Alex Abelin’s “graduation” party. After eight years at Google, he’s moving on to pursue his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. He’ll always hold a special place in our hearts because he was the first one to join our advisory board as a monthly supporter (well, besides our parents). I won’t ever forget pitching him our vision while sitting on The Highline. He just said, “Awesome, I’m in.”

At one point or another, each of you on this email have said, “I’m in” to our vision. You have helped make it a reality. The twenty-two of you are the reason we’re here. Truly. In fact, last quarter, one-third of our entire operating expenses were covered by you.

This week we’re releasing our report on our impact in India, which I am attaching for you now. It’s a program representing what “development” should be about, and why we’re working hard to bring it to Africa. We’ve raised $18,000 towards our $150K goal of bringing the program to Uganda. So far, everything has been donated by individuals, as I haven't had much luck with foundations interested in piloting something new. Apparently, it's hard to find early adopters! We will keep hacking away until we get there.

On May 20th we will launch our 2nd Annual Spring Gala. We’ve got your ticket! Gansevoort Park Ave. has outdone themselves again, donating the $25,000 space and waiving numerous line items. Our major goal is to raise operational support so we can grow. Thanks to your support, we’ve remained consistent, but in order to scale we need people and systems. Ticket sales will support The Adventure Project. Ceci, our amazing Advisory Board President, will be following up with more details. If you want to fly in, we would love that!

Last quarter, we created jobs for 84 people, who will help 221,000 people in need.

I can’t quite picture what 200K+ people look like. I prefer to look at Hong and think - how cool would it be if years from now a young kid from Haiti was sitting across from me, telling me the same story.

We are fueled by spirited interns and early adopters.

Thank you for being “all in.”

Kindly,

Becky

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She's Not Poor.

Disclosure. And deep breath. This blog post is actually an email I sent yesterday to 20 people. It was my "safe" attempt to stand up for what I believe in. My goal for 2012 was to be bold, and I realized that by emailing only 20 people, I had already failed. So this is me. Being brave.

...

Hey there,

Emailing just good family and friends on this one. Basically people I trust and admire.

Some of you know I went to Haiti this week, mainly because a TV New Station wanted to film the stove program. Which meant we jumped at the chance to have them introduced to the stove vendors, and so proud to have something positive to say about Haiti on national news.

But when we got to there Saturday morning, with the two van loads full of gear, the producer met the stove vendor, turned to me and said, "She's not poor."

"Where are the tents? I thought we talked about tents?!"

We had never talked about tents. In fact, the vendors have done something remarkable - and are now selling 20 stoves per day - earning a daily commission of $60 - astronomical considering most people struggle on $2.

It's clear this wasn't the story they wanted to tell. We drove them to a tent camp instead, and they interviewed someone poor...they got their shots, and then stopped yelling at us. The "poor" woman was using a stove, so at least they asked her about it, and she spoke of the virtues...

I'm not mad at them - they were just getting shots that get ratings. But it made me realize that we probably have a long road to convince people that the true solutions are not always are sexy. They are not orphans, or vulnerable. They are quite the opposite. They are dignified and dynamic. The women will tell you their marketing strategies and explain their salespitch, but don't try to ask them if they are "so thankful for our support." They will look at you funny. They're appreciative, but as they rightly see it, they are the ones doing all the work.

So anyways. That leaves us with today - the first locally-produced and locally-sold Haitian social enterprise in the country (from what we can find). On the anniversary of the quake...

A glimpse of a stove might be on the news tonight, but you won't see an entrepreneur. Because she's not poor. How awesome.

 

Love,

Becky

 

PS: Since we don't have the national news, the next best thing is family and friends. We set up a campaign encouraging people to try and inspire two friends to donate (our own attempt at spreading the message to "go national")

I would love your help fundraising, tweeting, or sharing online:   Join Me In Helping Haiti Today: http://bit.ly/stovesforhaiti #StovesForHaiti

And if you want to donate. I realized my own page still doesn't have any friends:  :) http://stovesforhaiti.causevox.com/becky

 

 

 

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Holidays with the Straws - in photos

Traveling:Nothing is more exhilarating than traveling for the holidays. For me, that meant a layover in Vegas - which, in my mind, meant that the slots were now part of my fundraising plan. But when we landed, the stewardess announced that all passengers flying to San Francisco should just stay seated. I turned to my neighbor, and asked, "Aren't we supposed to leave at 3 pm?"

He responded, "No, we land in SF at 3."

I guess my ten lbs of quarters would to have to wait. I decided to call Jody.

About 30 minutes in, new passengers started to flood in, and soon after, and man with a huge bag leaned over and said, "Maam, you're in my seat."

I moved the phone away from my mouth, like most impolite people who talk on phones in public places, and said, "What? No, I am in 19C." As a dug through my purse for my ticket.

Then it hit me. I am on the wrong plane.

I hung up on Jody.

The only thing worse than realizing you are on the wrong plane, is realizing that they just announced that all rows could board, and suddenly, there are 100 people cramming their luggage down the aisle, struggling to jam them overhead.

"Excuse me" didn't work. Everyone thought I was trying to take their precious carry-on space. So finally I resorted to yelling, "I'm on the wrong plane!" Which, actually, was a good idea for getting people to move, but a bad idea in terms of security.

A startled man yelled back, "How did they let you on, then?!"

I didn't want to say, "Because I'm an idiot, and didn't get off the last one!" So instead I went with, "I don't know what happened! So weird, right?!" And then turned into that crazy person who climbs on the armrests, upstream, hitting everyone in the row with my purse filled with 10 lbs of quarters.

At the ticket counter I explained that JFK didn't give me a boarding pass for my 3 pm flight, and she said, "Wait! This plane has a no-show. It's about to leave, but here, let me get you on THIS flight!"

"Um, this plane I was just on?"

"Yes!" she exclaimed, as if she'd just saved my day. "But you have to run."

Row 20C. Exactly one row behind where I was originally. If there's such a thing as a walk of shame for flights, then that's what I did. All the people I had just pushed out of my way, were now staring in contempt. One guy yelled, "Oh, you again."

Happy Holidays!

...

 

christmas

 

 

 

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How Gabbie Tang is Changing the World

You most likely haven’t heard of Gabbie Tang.  But you should. She’s brilliant.

Gabbie Tang

Young, passionate and smart, Gabbie embodies her generation of talented young women, eager to leave a dent in the universe.

Gabbie just graduated with a Master’s from Columbia University. She could be working at Goldman Sachs, or any other firm dying to pay her six figures for her brains, personality and intellect. But she chose not to. Instead, she decided to help us launch our nonprofit. For free.

The Adventure Project has spent our first year working tirelessly to support entrepreneurs in India, Haiti, Kenya and Uganda. Entrepreneurs working to bring clean water and improved health for hundreds of thousands of people living on $1 per day. And in one year we’ve created jobs for 190 people. It’s a figure that makes me incredibly humble and proud. But, unfortunately for our staff, none of those 190 jobs are ours…because we haven’t taken salaries yet.

We built a grassroots organization on the idea that even small donations matter. And so, we’ve focused on receiving thousands of small donations. Our board isn’t made up of millionaires - they are our trusted advisors. One is even a fourth grade teacher from Iowa - our target audience. We haven’t received large corporate grants or a Michael Birch, and maybe that’s my fault. But I thought it was important to focus on creating results, first. Next year is salaries.

Which means, Gabbie has been working for us since August without pay. She moved in with her parents to save rent. And now, she comes into our office smelling of cupcakes, because she works a morning shift at a bakery. She’s even turned down a job because as she told me, “I just really believe in The Adventure Project, and I’d rather be here.”

It’s her passion that makes me incredibly thankful to have her on our team. And the reality that she’s working pro bono, that keeps me up at night. A good employee will get their work done on time. Gabbie will send me an email at 3 AM saying, “I finished. Oh, and I figured out how to make it better.” Gabbie is indispensable.

We rarely thank all the stars behind the scenes. The ones who work tirelessly to go above-and-beyond to help a nonprofit change the world. They stay up late without fanfare, Wall Street bonuses or corporate perks. They most likely will never be nominated as a CNN Hero, even though their work moves mountains.

Every founder I know is a visionary, but they would be nowhere without their staff. After all, it's their staff that moves their families to Peru, to launch Krochet Kids. Or lives in war-torn northern Uganda, to be behind the camera at Invisible Children. And most likely, there are at least a million "Gabbie Tang's," who work in window-less cubicles around the US, drinking stale coffee and working late… again.

We preach to millennials’ to ‘start something that matters.’ But I think it’s more important to tell them to ‘stand for something that matters.’ You don’t need to be a founder to be a hero.

Let’s be honest. Organizations are only as good as the people who work for them. Having the best staff means donations will be spent efficiently and will create the largest impact. The best donors I know understand that a strong organization is not a visionary founder or a cool logo, it’s people behind the organization.

They are the ones changing the world.

….

On a personal love note, this is a thank you to all those who have given their time to help launch our nonprofit this year. The ones who made videos, sold ornaments, and tweeted (relentlessly). Thank you to our advisors who grace us with their PR contacts, the pregnant moms in Colorado who are covered in soot from mailing coal, and Sarkissian Mason for donating their office space, so we have a place to sit. To our three graduate interns, Caitlin, Ryan and Brandy, you rock.  To our implementing partners around the world, you’re the true innovators. And to our board members who always respond to emails with an enthusiastic, “YES!” Thank you!

To my sister, Liz, who sat Jody and I down in Colorado last year and said, “You can do this!” And to my parents and sister Hanna, thanks for sneaking me food, and allowing us to outsource our crazy tasks to you!

A special ‘thanks’ to my Co-Founder Jody Landers, her husband Andy, and their six kids. Thanks for letting me share your mom! To Stacy, my funniest friend, for letting me sleep on your couch so I could live without a salary. Watching Law and Order would be so boring without you! Thank you for keeping me going.

To the 1,500 friends and supporters who have joined us in giving, we would be nowhere without you. You could be spending your money on lattes and vacations, instead you give so graciously. When I’m in Africa and people say, “Oh, you are American? Americans are so kind and generous.” You keep me saying, “I know. I’m so lucky.”

And to Gabbie Tang. Happy Birthday! This world is better because of you.

(To help me wish Gabbie Happy Birthday, could you please send her a tweet: @_Gabrielle)

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My Refugee Family

I didn't want to do it. At 23, I was living in Colorado, working an unpaid internship as a social worker. To make ends meet, I’d work a 4:30 AM shift at Starbucks and spend nights seating tables at a nice restaurant in Cherry Creek. It felt like I was barely creeping by; I was grouchy, overwhelmed and tired. So when my supervisor asked if I could help “assimilate” a family of recently arrived refugees, I politely declined. I had reached my limit.

But my supervisor persisted, and I didn’t have the heart to say no.

So suddenly, there I was, trekking four kids, two parents and one grandma throughout Denver. Taking them to the doctors so they could register for school, introducing crosswalks and coupons. And checking in a few times per month to ensure, basically, that nothing in the kitchen exploded.

I remember the entire family standing patiently outside my car, as I once spent 45 minutes struggling to buckle-in three car seats, mumbling to myself that this was the best birth control ever.

My refugee family was from Somalia, but the kids were born in a tent camp in Kenya. There were four girls, ages 10, 8, 6 and two. My attitude adjusted once I learned the eight-year-old needed a car seat. Life as refugees left the girls malnourished and stunted.

My once-resentful assignment became beautiful. Because I was seeing America with new eyes. A sterile medical office – how amazing! School. What an opportunity!

A friend and I took everyone to their first restaurant. But wasn't just a dinner, it was the best chicken leg. Ever.

America is a place where you can take your kids to the doctor if they get sick. We drink clean water out of fountains. Women are allowed to talk in public. And we have grocery stores. With so many apples!

I got to watch four girls transform from scared to gleeful, with saucers as eyes. Who would roll with hysterics as they learned how to open their front door, shake hands and say, "Hello. How are yoooou?"

I remember one visit where Mohammad, the dad, passed me a neatly folded piece of paper. I opened it carefully to reveal a temporary drivers license. I looked up to this man, and could only see the slits of his eyes, his grin was so wide. He got a job as a truck driver for the night-shift at Walmart. A job! What a gift.

….

It's been ten years since that mortifying day I sat huddled in the TV room of my sorority house. Watching in horror as four planes methodically crashed into our country. In a sense, I felt like a refugee that day. Terrified and lost. This was not a safe home anymore.

The time since 9.11 has not been easy. But it’s our response we should be proud of. We could have turned inward and reclusive, becoming xenophobic and hateful.  We instead, as a Nation, gave more. Breaking records to help strangers in Haiti, Indonesia and New Orleans.

We do it because, despite all our struggles, our kids will never be born in a tent in the middle of an overcrowded refugee camp. Most of us will never know what it's like to walk with our children for 35 days across a desert, praying for water and safety.  But we can empathize.

We experienced a deep tragedy on 9.11. But we are determined to not become inclusive or bitter. No tragedy can rob us of our ability to love others.

Instead, we continue as a Country where a nervous Muslim family with a golden ticket arrives in snowy Colorado wearing flip-flops, and are greeted by volunteers from the Denver Rescue Mission, carrying smiles and donated boots and coats.

A used coat. How amazing!

We’re Americans. What a blessing.

 

…..

Note: As most of you know, the drought/famine/insecurity in Somalia in now the "worst humanitarian crisis in the world," and the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is now the largest in the world. If you want to help, I would recommend giving to Concern Worldwide. I’ve been with them in Africa and saw their heroic response to the earthquake in Haiti. They’re a large, 25-year-old organization, but you might not of heard of them. They have a reputation as being humble. And just getting the job done, without need for fanfare or credit. They’re an Irish organization. Knowing the FDNY’s Irish roots, their character and heroism doesn’t surprise me at all.

My refugee experience was coordinated by Lutheran Family Services, who do amazing work. You can also apply to volunteer with International Rescue Committee. I promise, you will be thrilled by crosswalks and chicken legs.

Side note, side note. There’s a ton of other great organizations I didn’t mention, so if anyone feels like it, list them in the comments section below. Thanks for reading.

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Pivot, Parasites, Packing and Pipi - oh my!

I’ve officially failed as a professional blogger. Unless professional bloggers win sponsorship deals for their clean and post-free content, then I’m afraid that dream will have to wait. This summer I thought I’d become a blogging manic, like, I don’t know, Jody “blogging only takes five minutes” Landers. She told me that in the back of a van in Uganda. As she was blogging from her iPhone App. “See, I just posted it,” she said.

Blarg.

Regardless, I’ll justify my absence as being on a summer sabbatical. A time for meditation. Or… I am just really good at doing things and then NOT blogging about them.

I can blame it on The Adventure Project. We’ve been busy pivoting. Anyone who has ever “pivoted” before knows what a train wreck it feels like. Suddenly, you realize what isn’t working, and you need to change tracks before you go over a fallen bridge. It can best be visualized by this scene Jody emailed me, as we both worked a late night in front of our mutually falling apart MacBooks. Guess who is Ross and who’s Rachel?

The good news is start-ups that pivot a few times, generally raise 2.5x more money. That’s what I keep reminding myself as I occasionally slam my head on my desk. Or as count out my nickels to buy a diet coke.

...

I have also been busy this summer thinking I have parasites. Despite my three failed attempts to tell apathetic doctors, “I got sick in AFRICA (sometimes I say it slowly, so they will listen). Or rural India... or maybe Haiti. Probably eating something weird…” I am still undiagnosed.

But thank you free health clinic, for testing me for every STD imaginable. Shocker - all results were negative. I told you really lame 30-year-old single women do exist in this city! Really appreciate my request for a malaria blood test, to find you tested for syphilis instead.

I am feeling much better, so you can all hang out with me again...I guess now, especially men. Making note to add test results to my match.com profile.

...

I have also just finished packing and moving out of Brooklyn. In true fashion, I have moved, again. Except this time it's nowhere. Well, to be technical, it’s my friend, Stacy’s, couch. With my travel schedule, it makes more sense to crash there, than pay rent for a place when I’m never home. That’s a more political way of saying, “I’m still not taking income for our start-up yet, so I’m broke.” (Did you hear how high-pitched my voice got as you read that last sentence)?

...

But at least I am actually traveling. I just got back from Sweden, where I was at the Stockholm World Water Week conference. It was a fun experience, mainly because I joined the US Board of Akvo.org.

www.akvo.org

Akvo is a Dutch tech non-profit adding transparency to the humanitarian sector (the nerd in me trembles at the excitement of it all)! In essence, they’ve built platforms enabling organizations to connect donors to projects. For example, a water organization in Africa can send a text and photo from their phone saying, “We drilled 20 meters today, check it out” and the message will travel to all donors who contributed to that project. Rad, right? Great way to keep donors engaged, keep things transparent and “visualize the data.” (that’s a key phrase now, right)?

Akvo’s now expanding to the US, and that’s where I come in. The software is open-sourced, because they want to share it (hoorah for Europeans and their socialist-share-everything values)! It can also be used for other non-profit sectors too, such as building hospitals or schools. Email me if you want in.

At the conference, I was thrilled to connect with WaterAid to get an update on the fantastic well mechanics program underway in India. Update for that coming soon. Also excited to connect with two women - April Rinne and Kate Harawa. I love women who work in water, especially since it is the who ladies spend 200 million hours every day collecting it. April (@aprilrinne) is the Microcredit Director at Water.org and Kate is the Country Director of Malawi for Water for People.  They're both featured on page four of this press article.

In between meetings I spent the week falling in love with ikea, coveting natural blondes, and reconnecting with my homeland (since I’m 1/8th Swedish, it kind of counts, right)? I also ate a ton of cheese, which helped me get over my self-diagnosed dairy intolerance (from my fake parasites).

We all worked out of Thomas and Anke’s beautiful house. It was incredibly cool to have a strategy session with people who traveled in from all over the world. Everyone was very technie and very smart. Between my jetlag and the 20 hours of sunshine, I spent most of my time just trying not to look confused.

I also spent as much time as possible trying to clean dishes, so I wouldn’t be asked to cook. Technically, each of us were responsible for one night cooking dinner. Apparently Anke had not heard about my skills at reheating burritos. I finally had to explain that the only thing my mom taught me how to cook, was actually Swedish meatballs. But my family recipe involved a Knorr Swedish Meatball Seasoning packet, mixed with some milk, and poured over a ton of meatballs. We also ate it with a side of rice. Though I’m still trying to understand how rice is Swedish.

Anyways, photos from my Pipi Longstocking adventure are below.

stockholm

If you're bored, here’s a 4 min video Mark Charmer shot of Mark Nitzberg and I, the two “Akvo US reps.” Two bits of info if you watch it, #1. I was eating a granola bar and unprepared at the beginning. 2. Mark is probably tired of reliving the memory of being the 44th employee at Microsoft, who also made the “interesting” choice not to buy stock at the time…I'm sure he never dwells on it. Oh, and #3 – Do you think I have Canadian accent? What the heck is it?

 

 

 

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My Introduction to Shoe Giving.

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My Introduction to Shoe Giving.

romania 1

Sometimes I’m asked how I got into the “giving field.” In truth, it started when I received my bachelor’s degree in design. The issue is, I’m not a designer. What does a designer who isn’t a designer do? Apparently, head to Romania. I found a group-home accepting volunteers.  A missionary couple had rescued 33 children from a government orphanage, and needed help.  Watch out world, I thought, “I’m here!”

I arrived in the dead of winter, looking like a sorority girl in Aspen. I know this because the volunteer from NYC told me, “You look like a sorority girl in Aspen.” But I think Clair really meant “naïve,” and she was right on target. I knew nothing about how the world really works.

I’ll never be able to wrap my head around the horror those kids endured to survive in a communist orphanage.  I won’t send you to tears in this post, but let’s just say that when Bruce and Sandy Tanner arrived, they had to teach ten-year-olds how to walk. Because, since birth, the kids have never left their crib. The bubble I lived in had burst.

On the weekends Clair and I would leave the sleepy village to buy groceries in town. There, I’d see another shocking sight – street children.  I had never seen grubby, tattered kids before. Let alone hoards of children hanging out without adult supervision!  What was this?

Through broken English and a bit of sign language, one of the girls told me she wanted to go to school, but couldn’t without shoes.  Looking down I saw her little stubby toes poking out from broken foam flip-flops.  Lord have mercy, I thought!  It was a cool, negative ten degrees at the time, and the kids were dodging snow-covered trash heaps without any shoes. Something had to be done!

romania shoes for street kids 2

Clair and I took action, sent a few emails to friends, and the next week we were standing in a shoe store with a wad of cash and a dozen grubby children.  We became the Willy Wonkas of Shoe-ville. “Shoes for everyone,” we announced to cheers and screams.  And it felt great.  As kids jumped up and down in their new knock-off Nikes, Clair and I snapped pictures and beamed with pride. These kids will go to school because of us!  We’re such great people.

Until we arrived the next weekend.

We saw the kids.  But none of the shoes.  Their parents had sold them.

We felt. Stupid.

But on that day, I learned the most important lesson in my career:  Our greatest intentions aren’t always the greatest investments.  You can’t change the world without listening. And if you really want to create sustainable change, you have to create jobs. Give people the tools and resources to fish for themselves. So they can take care of their families, put food on the table, and send their kids to school. That’s what everyone wants in life, no matter where they live.

I saw the shoes as a gateway to school and a solution to a problem. Their parents saw the gift as a pawn to hawk for something more urgent…like food or medicine.  Who was I, pretending to play God?

I always smile when people ask what I think about TOMS Shoes, and their model of buying a pair and giving one away. They’ve received heat about how their massive shoe drops are putting local shoemakers in developing countries out of business. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it always reminds me of my stint as a shoe-giver in Romania.

While their model may not focus on long-term impact or creating jobs to improve local economies, they’re doing a hell of a job introducing Americans to a world outside themselves.  Converting people who might never have been interested in life outside “Aspen.” Those folks will go on to tell their friends about the shoes, and engage, even for a fleeting in second, in a conversation about helping.

TOMS Shoes is not a Social Enterprise. They are an Introduction.

Just don’t be shocked if a smart entrepreneur in Africa sells his kids new TOMS to buy his family food.

....

ADDITIONAL READING:

Here's a good article Daniela Papi, a social entrepreneur and general rockstar, wrote about the TOMS debate. If you have thoughts, please share in the comments section below.

 

QUESTION FOR YOU:

I received a great question last week.

"How do you get that first seed-funding? I know you will say persistence. What's next on the list after that?"

If you have experience with grabbing that first round - I'd love your story and tips and tricks for my next post. Email me here. Thanks!

 

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How I Lost My Voice by Yelling "Epic" 1,000 Times

I’m writing this in a bumpy van in Northern Uganda. Which is a strange juxtaposition from two week ago.  Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to my first Summit Series. Which essentially was a conference on a cruise ship. Or rather, an opportunity to meet all the entrepreneurs you idolize, and show them just how pale and idiotic you really are. (See video below for an example). Many had goals of pitching their start-ups, getting venture funding, or simply enjoying a long over-due vacation. My main goal was to not get seasick. Or throw up. Fortunately, I succeeded at both. But not without a few hiccups.

Summit Series

One thousand entrepreneurs’ met the boat in Miami before heading out to a “private island” in the Caribbean for three days. Seeing as how I’m new to this world of “hyper-achievers,” I figured I really only had my sarcasm to pull me through. Most of my conversations went like this:

(Note: these are actual transcripts)

Me: So what do you do?

Tim: Well, I launched an internet marketing company at 14, so I pretty much still do that.

Me: Oh.  So... you are kind of a late-bloomer, then?

...

Me: “What do you do now?”

Krystal: “Well, I don’t know, actually. Trying to figure out what’s next. I ran for Congress in the fall in Virginia. But... wasn’t elected.

Me: “Wait. How old are you?”

Her: Yea, I know. I was kind of the youngest. I’m 29.

She went on to say she’s now training for an “ultra-marathon” (50 miles) even though she’s never run before. Thought it’d be “fun.”

Forget the celebrities. I realized I fell down a rabbit hole filled with people who's parents never let them think small. On this boat there were no "normals."

……….

It was a place where big ideas weren’t just welcome, they were followed by, “Oh, that’s epic.” Just sold your company for half a billion. Sweet. Played basketball with Obama? Sounds rowdy. Flew solo around the world. Nice. Saved 500 humpback whales held hostage in the Congo? Well done! (May have made that last one up).

Most people were “techies” who designed some game-changing-something that I use on a regular basis.

Over a performance by The Roots, I met Pandora. Had a great chat with Restaurant.com, at the bar. LivingSocial was…social. And google was, well, everywhere. In the elevator I met about.me (who’s actually Pandora’s older brother).  I learned a lot… about.him.

It was like all of my computer applications suddenly developed faces and a love of rum and coke.

If that weren’t enough, most of the techies had a humanitarian “side-project,” like, defeating terrorism. Or saving a near-extinct species. Or ridding the world of bad denim.

...

I kept trying to scrub the “deer in headlights look” off my face.  I decided my strategy was to pretend I was, “one of them” by using the best tactics I’ve honed at the most-prestigious academy for high-powered networking. Sorority rush.

“Hi, I’m Becky. I co-founded a start-up that adds venture capital to support entrepreneurs in developing countries.” (Big smile, warm handshake, ask questions about them, not you). It was working really well. So well, I got invited to a “private” lunch for global philanthropists. As I shook hands around the table, a pretty brunette replied, “It’s nice to meet you, too.”

I leaned forward, and exuding sorority confidence, asked, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”

“Oh,” she said, seeming a bit surprised, but not put-off. “I’m Barbara.”

Just as these words left my mouth, “So nice to meet you, Barbara.” I realized whom I was sitting next to.

Barbara Bush.

Awesome, Bec, I thought, as I chugged my glass of wine. While your at it, why don’t you ask her where she grew up and what her parents do for a living.

…..

Now that I'm back at work, and my sunburn has finally peeled its last flake of tan off my body, I think there's three important things I learned about founders of start-ups:

1. They don't think small. Ever.

2. They act as if nothing's impossible. And then they prove that it isn't.

3. They are mainly men. Who live in San Francisco.

...

I'm also now realizing, there's two things I learned about myself:

1. Maybe, I'm actually... one of them?

I spent a lot of time on the boat thinking about how cool and interesting these entrepreneurs are, and how they put action and passion behind big ideas. I forgot to stop and think, "Maybe what you're doing is equally as epic?" After all, you were also invited on this boat...

In attempting to be modest and in keeping my head in the details, I often forget to look up and realize that what we're doing is, well, going to be big.

Instead, I should start saying, "Soon, Jody, myself, and our tribe are going to help over a million people out of poverty every year. We're also going to change how people give. And our goal is to be the biggest investor in social enterprise out there. So, you should give us a million dollars. Thanks."

Still working on that, "million dollars" part. But. After visiting our partners in Africa. We got that, "million people" in the bag.

...

Oh, and the second thing I learned is, "There's mainly men. Who live in San Francisco."

Maybe I should move home?

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/23289728]

I edited this 10 sec video for two reasons. #1 was to remind myself to close my mouth when I dance, because I look really dumb. #2 is to edit out all people, "in case they ever run for President."  That's a verbatim request from @joemarchese. He said it into the FlipVideo. Several times, when I watched it later.

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Becky Underwater.

So, I love water.  Shouldn't be a surprise to most people who know me. I think my affection started sometime around 18 months old, when my parents took me sailing.  Either it was my love for water that caused me to fall overboard, or it explains my nickname, "bowling ball head."

Becky on a boat

Thankfully, I learned to swim. Probably a wise idea for parents who have kids who like take off their lifevest so they can lean over the sides of boats. The next twenty years of my life could then be categorized as, "Becky's underwater."

(About to share some embarrassing pics. If you're someone who makes fun of me - please stop reading here. Thanks. If you're my sisters, I apologize in advance.)

 

These were the ADIDAS years.  All Day I Dreamed About Swimming. My whole family did, actually.  Here's our "portrait" ... for the CHURCH DIRECTORY!

 

 

I was so obsessed, in high school I began swimming 4 hours per day. I was lucky enough to swim in college, where (if you add it up) me, along with the rest of the team, basically spent an entire semester underwater.

 

Age 15 - 25: I spent my summers coaching my alma mater, the "mighty" seahorses.

To be perfectly honest - there was not one point during my swimming "career" where I knew anything about the water crisis.  It wasn't until I was working on my grad degree that I began to understand what 1 in 8 people live without.  I had earned a coveted internship at UNICEF, but the only spot available was in the Division of Water and Sanitation. I remember my mom saying, "I read somewhere that women have to walk really far for water."

"Oh," I thought. "Well, I've certainly spent a lot of time in the water, I guess it's only fitting that I now work for people without it." I thought I'd spend a year there, and then move on.

But from UNICEF, to charity: water, I was once again thrown in the pool. My new workout became pouring over spreadsheets and research papers, trying to find the solutions that were most-effective. I couldn't believe the stats. The people, all over the world, who need something so simple. Something I spent my childhood playing in.

Some believe that your name can be prophesy.  If so, I'm glad I'm no longer, "bowling ball head."  But whenever I'm traveling, and someone cannot pronounce or understand, "Becky".  I can usually always say, "You know the Old Testament?"

"My name's Rebecca. The woman at the well."

.......

I'm incredibly proud of this campaign today, in celebration of World Water Day. I'm proud because I didn't launch it.  It was volunteers and champions around the world.  My personal goal is to raise $200 today for clean water in India. If so, The Prem Rawat Foundation agreed to match it.  If you donate, I promise I will not post any embarrassing photos of you on my blog.  Well, I'll try not to.

donate here: http://www.theadventureproject.causevox.com/beckystraw

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/21299121]

ram rati and me

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Chipotle. A Love Affair.

Living on a budget is hard.  Especially in NY.  And especially when you’re not technically earning an income. Life lesson: You should probably make money before you spend it.  They should write that on a tea bag.  Or a Dove chocolate wrapper.  Somewhere I could’ve read it and taken note. But last week I spotted a special on Facebook.  Watch a commercial for a reality TV show, and you’ll earn a coupon for free Chipotle. My mouth dropped as my stomach grumbled, “I need this!”

There are only so many months a person can eat .99-cent mac & cheese and P&J sandwiches before going mad.  And I about was two-steps’ away from joining the Donner Party.

“I promise I’m working, Caitlin,” as I tried to mute my laptop before the commercial sprung to life. “I’m from California.  So I need this burrito.”  I didn’t want my intern to catch-on that her boss was downloading tex-mex instead of helping thirsty children.

It probably didn’t help my case that earlier that morning a fortune cookie store wouldn’t accept my Groupon code. I had to call and whisper, “Ummm… giant M&M, please….The one that’s bigger than a baby’s head. (seriously, it is). Yep.  That’s the one.”

Anyhow, I promise you I promptly logged back into my inbox and started working. And strategically scheduled my next meeting near the closest Chipotle.

__________________________

The problem with buy-one-get-one free was I didn’t know what to do with the second burrito.  So I put it in the freezer (isn’t that where people put food they aren’t ready to eat?).

What follows is the photo documentary I’d like to call, “The Unthawing.”  Turns out if you plan on eating your second burrito the very next day – you don’t need to freeze it into a 5 lbs brick of farm-fed meat and fresh corn salsa.  It could have gone in the fridge.  My roommates made me document the humiliating process. As they cackled.

burrito stage 1
Burrito. Stage 2. No movement
Burrito take 3.
Burrito finale
Well, you know what they say, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."  Think I read that in a fortune cookie.

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Hey Lady, Take It Off!

The morning after my last post I woke up with a headache. Some sort of bloggers hangover. I rolled over and thought, “What have I done?!” As my roommate, Amy, put it, “That post was SO personal, I can’t believe you blogged about that.” I rubbed my head and drank a pot of coffee. “Should I delete it?”

“Maybe no one will notice?” I thought.

But then I got a tweet from my dad. Too late. I forgot. My parents represent 50% of my subscribers. Probably should have thought of that before I hit publish.

Instead of deleting, I decided to do what I do best: work non-stop and hope it deletes itself.

But as I was working on this:

 

I realized something. I spent my entire time in India with Esther, trying to get women to lift up their veils and show us their faces. So we could share them with the world.  Kind of hypocritical of me to be insecure, eh?

 

Time to be myself – with all the glorious imperfections.

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Shine.

Today I spent my first day in India, eating very spicy things that I now regret, while writing about Cote d'Ivoire. Be prepared.  I am about to tell you about the time I traveled with my sorority sister through a rebel-held territory. I know what you’re thinking. Yes. That sounds exactly like Legally Blonde.

As strange as it sounds, I reconnected with Kendra two years ago in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. I was scouting water programs with my colleague and friend, Carrie, and Kendra was managing grants for the International Rescue Committee.

Cote d’Ivoire has a terrible water situation – in part because of a bitter civil war between the north and south, which led to a breakdown in services. Cote d’Ivoire is a beautiful country. It’s also where we get most of our chocolate. The situation is complex, but like most wars, it can be rooted back to the same common theme – you and I are different. So I’m right and your wrong.

We arrived to find a rebel-held north, a political south, and a ten-mile strip of land cutting the entire country in half, called “The Zone Of Confidence.” If you happen to be living in the zone, neither side will help you. So that’s where IRC went. And inevitably, where we were headed.

After several days of visiting villages and listening to local Chiefs, we befriended Daniel, our driver, translator, well rehab specialist, and all-around great guy.

Driving home from dinner one night we asked him about the war.  He began by answering our questions politely, but nothing more.

“Do you remember when the rebels came?”

“Yes,” he respond.

“Were you scared?”

“Yes,” his eyes focused on the road.

“What did you do?”

“What everyone else did.  I ran.”

But soon, through our endless curiosity and Daniel’s polite responses, we inadvertently unleashed a waterfall. A cascade of words came tumbling out of his mouth – so quickly that Kendra had to keep asking him to pause, so she could translate his rapid-fire French. Carrie and I sat in the back of the car, wide-eyed and spellbound. We were witnessing the release of a man who had spent years holding it in.

Daniel told us he was in the street when the rebels came. Terror took over. Everyone ran scrambling into “the bush.” And in the chaos and confusion he and his wife lost something. Their seven-year-old son.  And that’s where they spent the next two months. Living among snakes and hiding in trees. Praying their son was still alive.  Hoping a drug-fueled rebel with a machine gun didn't find them. Living a nightmare.

We had long arrived at our destination by the time Daniel finished his story.  But no one moved. He took a deep breath and said, “Thank you for letting me share….Thank you for listening.” I don’t think he realized how much he carried with him.

I lay my forehead against the cool windowpane into a sea of black. I imagined what this unlit city might look like from space. Utter darkness except for one overhead halo of light spilling out from our car. It was as if his story was finally bringing light from a deeper darkness. Daniel was able to share. And let it go.

After two months, Daniel and his family thought it safe to return. The rebels had overtaken the north and assumed the power they desired. They returned to find their house raided and everything stolen. Including hinges of doors and glass from windows. His car had most likely been driven to Liberia, he thought.

“They took everything but the clothes on my back.” Daniel chuckled, trying to diffuse the heaviness, “Literally. All I had left was the clothes I was wearing.”

“What did you do?” One of us asked.

“I sat on my cement floor of my house, my empty house, and cried.”

The IRC soon came to the rescue, as they do in so many countries, and Daniel was hired as a driver. And after observing how to repair wells, he learned how to fix them too. Soon after, Daniel became the well repair supervisor and community mobilizer.

I have been thinking of him a lot lately. Mainly when things are hard. Sometimes I’m angry and feel like I’m starting over. So I remind myself about his resiliency and perseverance. Usually while I’m cursing at accounting software.

Unfortunately things in Cote d’Ivoire have heated up again, and it pains me to no end. Recent elections left the old president refusing to step down, and the elected president trying to run the country out of a barricaded hotel room. Violence has resumed, and there are reports of kidnappings and mass graves.

Carrie and I are no longer at charity: water, and Kendra now works in the Congo.  I recently got a call from an old colleague, and she mentioned that the political situation has made it tough for donors to get reports on their wells. But traveling around taking pictures of wells amid violent unrest wouldn’t be wise.

I can empathize with those donors. Isn't it hard to believe in things we can’t see? But I’m lucky. I have seen the proof firsthand. And I know Daniel’s still out there. Driving around with the interior light on, fixing wells. And reminding me that this world is very small, so its best to keep helping strangers. Because you never know where your light can shine. Until you try.

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Sidenotes: I changed Daniel’s name. And Daniel’s seven-year-old son returned unharmed. His neighbors grabbed him before the rebels could, and hid him in the bush with their family. He returned three months later with only nightmares and stomach worms.

If interested in learning more about the situation in Cote d’Ivoire, here’s an article from today’s NYT: Mobs in Ivory Coast Attack United Nations Vehicles - http://nyti.ms/fyNJZa

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Love in a Time of Cholera.

The article I wrote for John Hopkins is here!  I guess they posted it on Wednesday and forgot to tell me.  Thanks to my shameless self-stalking, my Google AdWords pulled it up last night.  I was terrified that for two important days people had been reading my article and I wasn't there to respond to their comments!  Fortunately, I had everything under control...I scanned to the bottom quickly and read, Comments: Zero. I think four people have read it. And three of them are related. My dad said I should send it to The Today Show (not quite sure why), my mom found a typo, and my roommate agreed that the photo makes me look like I have a stink eye.

But it's my first article. And this is first time I've publicly stated, "Invest in dignity, for crying out loud!"  I hope you like it, or at least agree that my left eye is a little off.

http://globalwater.jhu.edu/magazine/article/love_in_a_time_of_cholera/

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A Modern Thanksgiving

This morning I woke up early and baked cinnamon rolls.  As long as your definition of baking involves turning on an oven, removing the plastic film from around the tray and putting them in the oven – then I baked them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I bought them last night during my traditional wait-until-the-last-minute-to-do-anything routine.  Grocery shopping in NYC is similar to waiting in line at the DMV; overcrowded with grumpy people who don’t want to be there, and have better things to do.

Anyone who has ever been to Trader Joes in Union Square knows what I’m talking about. You walk in. Get a cart, and get in line to check out.  Conveniently, the line wraps around the entire store.  So as you wait in line, you grab whatever food is within arms reach.

Fortunately, my roommate Chelsey and I were able to tag-team it.  While one person waits in line, the other makes a mad dash around the store, grabbing whatever they can carry. It’s kind of like playing Super Market Sweep. Really stressful, and you’re yelling back-and-forth about whether or not you can find the peanut butter pretzels while the other shrieks, “They’re right in front of you!”  Except unlike the game show, this experience ends with you standing on the sidewalk with a 20 lb turkey under one arm, unable to hail a cab.  A few Thanksgivings ago, I put my turkey and groceries in an empty suitcase, and wheeled it onto the 1 train.  I’m fairly certain these NYC traditions will never make it as a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Despite all the chaos, and the excuse to overindulge, this is a great holiday.  And I have a lot to be thankful for. It hasn’t been an easy year for many Americans (add my name to that list).  But I just keep telling myself, if you don’t experience hardship, it’s difficult to appreciate the good.

I am thankful to have met an amazing woman.  Last month, Esther Havens, Jody Landers and I took a redeye into Haiti- and squinted our way through the hot sun and humid heat to her tent in the middle of one of the largest displacement camps in the city.  Hundreds of thousands of people still live in tents throughout designated parts of Port au Prince.

We met Mary Ange in front of her tent, while her neighbor braided her hair.  We wanted to ask her about her stove, which was proudly sitting in the doorway.  While her neighbor pulled and prodded at her head, Mary told us with enthusiasm how she was, “more than happy” to have such a nice stove to cook with.  She calculated that she used to spend 50-70 Haitian Gourdes per day on buying charcoal.  Now she spends 25-30.

She went on to explain that with her savings, she bought spices. Which she lovingly wraps into individual servings and sells as tea throughout the camp. The business is allowing her to save money for something important, she said.  To send her seven-year-old daughter to school.

Her interview and success story was compelling, but it’s what she said next that has stuck with me. She casually pointed to the other tents surrounding hers and mentioned that after receiving the stove, she was able buy extra juice and food to give her neighbors. To make sure they’re taken care of.

I looked at this tall, beautiful women sitting in front of us in her colorful skirt and old track jersey and thought, “This year, this woman lost her house, her job, and even some of her family and friends.  She has so little, and yet, continues to give."

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I’m thankful for all the people in my life who wake up every day with a smile.  And continue to give of themselves. I am thankful for ready-made cinnamon rolls, suitcases, and roommates who don’t mind enjoying their coffee in a living room filled with coal.  Mary Ange, I am thankful for you.  For reminding me to give.

-Becky

"A modern Thanksgiving would celebrate two things: The people in our lives who give us the support and love we need to make a difference, and... The opportunity to build something bigger than ourselves, something worth contributing. The ability to make connections, to lend a hand, to invent and create."  - Seth Godin.

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AN ADVENTURE PROJECT.

Today marks a new adventure for me. Launching something big. Totally scary and nerve-wracking. Yet I believe it has the potential to grow into something we haven't fully realized. It's gets me out of bed at 5 AM, and has me passing out on the couch at midnight.  It feeds my addiction to help others.  In ways that are dignified and true.

I'm so grateful for the others. The ones who share this path with me. They have inspired me, lifted me up, and joined in fighting along-side. They are why I am here today. And why living room's such a mess.

This year has been hard. But this project marks my decision to make it better. I'm so thankful. For everything.

Email me if you'd like to join our tribe: beckystraw@theadventureproject.org

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