Building an airborne vehicle mid-flight


This blog entry is specifically intended for readers engaged in or interested in social ventures.  Most of us don’t have much of a blueprint for what designing these kinds of organizations should be like or feel like. Plus we’re immersed in day-to-day necessities and lack a budget for professional development, so it’s hard to seek each other out.  Someday, some benefactor is going to develop a fund to invest in the training and education of practicing social entrepreneurs and find ways to gather us together.  I’ve no doubt I would avoid the reinventing a lot of wheels if I could just hang out with other directors of social ventures serving refugees.  In the meantime, I can contribute some occasional thoughts on the journey.  To that end I’ll offer a little interview of myself.  This is just a technique to allow me to be conversational.  Most likely, I’ll need to break it in a couple parts.  Let’s get started.  What is your job? I direct a non-profit social-venture start-up.

Okay, sure.  Lots of hyphens.  What does that mean?  Where it might be different than some other director positions is that we have one foot in business, and one in adult education.  And then a third in designing a non-profit umbrella… which of course makes us a bit grotesque, but that feels about right.

I’ve heard start-up entrepreneurs describe their job as trying to build an airplane while it’s in flight.   Yeah, that feels about right too.  Maybe airborne vehicle.  Capable of crashing.  It would have been nice to design and build this thing on the ground first—but that would have taken the backing of a well-funded non-profit.  Or a functioning business could have shifted its mission from primarily making money to primarily training.  But these two sectors [small business manufacturing and non-profit adult ed agency] don’t typically cross paths.  They don’t think alike.  So they don’t tend to fund big initiatives that might be outside their primary mission.  Yet the only way I could imagine us being effective in our mission [to jumpstart refugees into the job market] was at their intersection.  So we’re a hybrid and we’re building and we’re in flight.

Thus airborne vehicle.  Yes.  Not a conventional airplane.  There are lots of cool opportunities in a hybrid.  We’re figuring it out.  And we’re on board. For sure, this isn’t a drone.

Specifically what are some of things you do?  I manage granola production--sourcing, ordering, product improvement, more recently product development.

With your new granola bars.  Yes, touché.  Our incredibly delicious gluten-free Beautiful Bars that make great holiday gifts which you can order right here.

Go on.  I hire new employee/trainees and work with a job developer at a refugee resettlement agency to make these decisions.  The kitchen manager does most of the hands-on training simply by putting them to work, and as a refugee herself, she’s incredibly tuned in to what they need.  But I need to gather and document best practices into a training curriculum, so I’m involved. I spent a lot of time this year writing grants, which is essential because we need to raise money and we need some partners, but it’s also important vision and strategy work.  On the non-profit side, I'm helping develop a board of directors, which is a very cool experience.  We’re doing outreach and networking together, looking to expand our capacity and to develop financial partners, but we also have to keep our little vehicle airborne and mission-focused.  I do most of the day-to-day accounting and make a lot of daily financial decisions—where we’re going to spend money, where we’re going to wait, when we’ll borrow.  I have a few great volunteers—so I try to provide direction and feedback.  And essentially I do a lot of the marketing for the business, and most of it for the non-profit.

Like writing blog posts.  Okay, now you’re making fun of me. Plus I give interviews with myself.

So you wear lots of hats.  What’s your favorite.  The training—that’s why I got into this.  Refugees need that job training—and it can’t be effectively offered in a classroom.  Refugees have all the drive in the world, but they need on-ramps. If somebody plunked you down in a refugee camp in Jordan, you’d need to find a guide to stay safe and determine priorities and take survival seriously.  And if someone plunks a Syrian refugee down in Providence, they’re going to need a place to get up to speed and find their way without getting discouraged.  Our economic and cultural systems are complex.  That kind of guiding-into-complexity is the work I like to do.  Sometimes my (Iraqi) kitchen manager and I get into a tiff—usually it’s a misunderstanding that delays production or costs us money. Usually language-based.  But even in these tiffs, I get kind of jazzed because I know there’s learning happening for her or for me—usually both, and that always feels good.  In a lot of ways that’s my vision for Beautiful Day—to be the kind of organization that has the capacity to get to both sides of various language and cultural divides related to the workplace (proactively if possible) and then build or at least jury-rig a bridge.

And the least: I’ve been thinking about this.  A lot of what I have to do is outside the sweet spot of what I love to do and am good at.  I’ve always loved learning new things—but that can be stressful.  An example: to make our website I took a basic course in html and walked myself through a lot of videos and online guides.  It might be fair to say I hate web design.  It’s maybe more accurate to say that every time I’m working with code—even installing a widget in a Wordpress site—my heart rate goes up.  I can physically feel it.  Working with budgets is similar.  My admiration and interest in people who love these things is off the chart.  I used to find CFO’s exasperating.  Now I tend to marvel at the beauty and grace that they (and web designers) have in navigating what, for me, is strange terrain. My one [academic] request of my daughter, when she left for college, was that she take a computer science class.  Asking her felt like making a confession that I might have enjoyed programming if I’d been exposed to it earlier.  Learning a new language should feel like exploring a new world—so the raised heart-rate, for me, is a recognition that I’m not learning easily or that I’m afraid I won’t or can’t… um…

I can tell you want to make some random connection. Okay thanks.  It’s just that I think this raised heart-rate is what most of the people we are working with experience.  They will never fully operate in their sweet spot again.  That is only possible when facility and training, plus culture, and language, and a deep sense of being “home” are coinciding and integrated.  So then part of the trick is to learn to manage the raised heart-rate and limit its power—because, at least for most people, stress never actually facilitates learning.

I'm not saying I want to spend the rest of my career wearing and rotating all these hats.  But it’s a privilege to have the chance.  And…

Yes?  To be quite honest, I kind of need to switch gears right now.  I’m happy to pick up with this in a few days.

Got it.  Thanks.  Stay tuned.

And in the meantime? In the meantime, fans and supporters, get your granola orders in.  And it's the giving season.  If you'd like to make a tax deductible gift to our work you can do it right here.