Yesterday, The Enliven Project was named a finalist for an Echoing Green Fellowship, which is such an incredible honor for me personally and an amazing opportunity for The Enliven Project. Echoing Green’s fellowship program provides seed support to emerging social entrepreneurs who have “big bold ideas” to change the world.  It’s been around for more than 20 years, and has provided launch funding to some amazing organizations you might know like Teach for America, Freelancers Union, The Polaris Project, and City Year.

I have never been a big fan of labels, and I didn’t think I was really an entrepreneur in any sense of the word. After all, I spent the first ten years of my career working for universities with big bureaucracies that were hundreds of years old, pretty much the antithesis of an entrepreneurial start-up. I consider myself more risk averse than the average entrepreneur, and with a career as the “person behind the person,” I wasn’t sure that I had the extroverted charisma and self-confidence that other entrepreneurs seemed to possess.  The stock market makes me anxious, I like systems, and I’ve never really invented anything (unless you count the orange juice maker I made in third grade). Plus, I’m well into my thirties and haven’t started up or spectacularly failed at something. There was no possible way that I could be a real live entrepreneur.

But as I started to explore my history and actions, I realized that the sparks were always there, but they just hadn’t been cultivated through a path of entrepreneurship. For example, in third grade, my parents celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. So I came up with a plan to throw them a surprise party. I convinced my 5-year old brother to pool his allowance with mine for decorations and utensils. And to keep it a secret. When we were left with a babysitter, I found the address book and started calling the guests on my list. I ran into some obstacles along the way: driving directions, a ruse, providing food for 30. So I asked for help: an aunt gave directions, a neighbor helped with the ruse, and each guest would bring food. Ultimately someone spilled the beans, but this did not deter me from future entrepreneurial projects like organizing my elementary school classmates to fight for recess and many other zany adventures.

Over the last 18 months, several people have been incredibly instrumental in supporting me through this identity shift, and I wanted to acknowledge them for their wisdom, advice, and support.

Michelle Kedem and Laura Gassner Otting: If you don’t know these ladies, you should.  Both of them are among the most wonderfully opinionated, outspoken, leaning in, network-y people I know. Both of them run non-profit search firms (On-Ramps and Non-Profit Professionals Advisory Group) that match leaders with meaningful roles. Both of them started these now very successful firms while they had very young children. Michelle and Laura helped me understand that insanity is just part of the hand you are dealt if you want to work and raise kids at the same time, and that the fear of insanity really shouldn’t prevent you from pursuing your dream.

Carolyn Laub: I met Carolyn at the Independent Sector Conference in San Francisco when I was in the early stages of thinking through The Enliven Project – well before our first infographic took off. After a brief chat at the conference (where we found out that we had Kevin Jennings in common!), she agreed to have lunch with me, Among many nuggets of wisdom, Carolyn urged me to believe in my vision and ground myself in it – despite the many differing opinions I’d hear about it.  She was also the person who convinced me to apply for Echoing Green – she was a fellow in the 1990s for her work with GSA Network.

Len Schlesinger: The former President of Babson College, this guy literally wrote the book on being an entrepreneur. Len believes entrepreneurs can be made, not born, which makes sense because Babson College teaches entrepreneurship worldwide. Just being around him and his energy makes you want to start something big and bold.  He’s a champion of talent, and an amazing balance of vision and execution.

Alan Khazei: Alan is the ultimate entrepreneur.  He founded City Year over 20 years ago, was one of the first Echoing Green Fellows, and founded Be the Change.  Alan was the first person who really believed in my ability to be entrepreneurial.  He hired me to be the 7th employee of Be the Change after I had spent 10 years working in organizations with thousands of employees – talk about a risky move!  At Be the Change, Inc., I learned to become more comfortable with executing plans that aren’t final, taking risks, and refining strategy as you go.

Carolyn Bess: Also a former Echoing Green Fellow, Carolyn has been a huge champion of this project.  The one word I would use to describe Carolyn is relentless. She is relentless in the pursuit of excellence for herself, for her work, and for anything  She’s another one who hasn’t been afraid to let her self and her life be truly transformed by just following her instincts.

My biggest lesson on this journey is that entrepreneurs come in all different kinds of packages. My package is unique, and I hope will bring the right kind of energy and spark to the issue of sexual violence:

  • A good sense of humor and an appropriate degree of irreverence
  • An ability to go beyond thinking outside of the box, and simply rejecting the concept of a box all together.
  • A comfort level with building the plane while it’s in the air.  This involves being able to see the end-product even when hurling yourself 700 miles through the air with no wind cover.
  • An instinct to swim, rather than sink, when thrown into the deep end – and in fact, feeling much more comfortable when I am stretching and learning rather than just treading water.

I still don’t love labels (and probably never will), but definitely appreciate the value that social entrepreneurs bring to the world.  I’m particularly excited about meeting a whole gang of them in New York for the finalist interview weekend! This is scary, pursuing a vision that I see so vividly and believe in so intensely. But it also feels like a calling or obligation.  Every conversation and meeting I have about The Enliven Project’s mission and goals feels like I am in exactly the right place. If I don’t execute this vision, who will? If I don’t try to convince people to help end sexual violence, who will?

As always, thank you for being a part of this journey with me!

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