Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Chasing Windmills

William was the only boy in a family of seven children, growing up on a small maize farm in the African country of Malawi.  At the age of fourteen, he had never been away from his home village of Masitala.  He attended school, but had never seen a computer or used the Internet.  His village didn’t even have electricity.

That year, a disastrous famine ravaged Malawi.  The lack of water for proper irrigation meant a huge decrease in crop production, bringing more than 70 percent of the population to the edge of starvation within five months.  William’s family could only eat one meal per day that consisted of three bites each of Nsima, a thick, starchy porridge made from maize.  Their health declined, and they all dropped physically down to almost nothing.

Much of the family’s limited earnings were spent on kerosene for cooking and heat, since there was no electricity.  With their income dwindling due to the much-reduced crop yield, the family had to cut expenses.  William dropped out of secondary school, because they could no longer afford to pay the 75 dollar per year school fee.  But despite hunger and limited resources, William was not simply going to accept this as his fate.  Instead, he decided to educate himself at the small community library.  He couldn’t read English very well, often absorbing the information through diagrams and pictures.  In the process, he came across an idea to potentially help his family.

William read as many science books as he could find in the library, particularly those on physics.  He thought to himself, ‘We don’t have enough water in Malawi, but we do have wind… what can I do with that wind so we can have something more?’  It was in Using Energy, an old American textbook, that William first saw a picture of a windmill. The small caption with the picture explained that, "windmills generate electricity and pump water."  Pumping water meant irrigation, a defense against dying crops and hunger.  And electricity meant less reliance on purchased kerosene.  William began studying books on windmills.

The books he found didn’t explain how to build anything, or exactly how windmills create electricity or pump water.  However, despite the language barrier and having no formal engineering experience or education, William began to figure it out on his own.  He decided to try to build a windmill to power his family's home.  Many people, including his own family, thought William was crazy.  But William knew that windmills didn’t fall out of the sky; in other words, someone had to build them, and if someone else could, so could he.

Having no money for materials, William went to a scrap yard.  There, he found such parts as a broken bicycle, a tractor fan, melted plastic pipes, a shock absorber and some old wire.  These items did not appear in the windmills in his books, but nevertheless, he used them to build the machine.  But would it work?  At first, it generated enough power for one light.  William learned more by tinkering, and continued to make improvements.  Soon, the windmill was powering four lights with switches, and had a circuit breaker that he fashioned out of nails, copper wire, and a magnet.  Building on this success, William constructed a second windmill that pumped water, irrigating the fields and supplying clean drinking water to his village.

Once the local newspapers picked up his story, it spread around the world.  In addition to bringing electricity and water to Masitala, his innovations earned William Kamkwamba the 2010 GO Ingenuity Award, a prize awarded to inventors and artists that promote the sharing of their ideas and skills with youth in developing nations.  He was invited to speak at the global conference on Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) in Tanzania, and he received a scholarship to return to school at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa.   After being featured in the Wall Street Journal and on the Daily Show, William came to the United States to begin his college career at Dartmouth.

Before he discovered the wonders of science, William was just a simple farmer.  But with desire and determination, he was able to change not just his life, but the entire landscape of his community and his home.  William's goal is to motivate those in situations similar to his own to change and improve their lives by whatever means possible, whether that means digging wells, educating their families, or even building windmills.  He says, “I tried, and I made it.  To all the people out there like me who are struggling with your dreams, trust yourself and believe, and whatever happens, don't give up.”

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ice, Ice Baby

Bev and Charlotte are two mothers who met while dropping their children at school.  It didn’t take long after meeting for them to discover their matching entrepreneurial spirits.  They discussed numerous ideas and projects, constantly coming up with new businesses to research and pursue.  Over the years, they filled up files with notes on their various plans and investigations, which included running their own newspaper, hosting murder mystery dinners, and operating an advertising and PR firm.  With so much drive, it was inevitable that something would break through for them.

Using their family members as guinea pigs, Bev and Charlotte also dedicated significant time to studying home remedies and herbal properties, and working up a variety of concoctions.  One day, they were talking to a friend who was suffering from a foot condition.  He was an Air Force pilot who had served three tours of duty, often wearing heavy boots for days at a time, so the affliction was pretty bad.  After some discussion, Bev and Charlotte felt sure that they could help with his problem.

Formulating a natural recipe, they bought the ingredients and cooked up the mixture on Charlotte’s stove.  They mailed it off to their friend and waited.  Eventually, they heard back from him that it had worked.  With that small success, it seemed they had found the right outlet for their ambitions.  The pair went into business making all-natural salves to deal with difficult skin issues.  They began selling to several health stores, herbal markets, and even doctor’s offices in their home state.

It was during this time that they came up with the idea for a unique candy made from an all-natural syrup with a unique name.  Xylitol originated as a safe sweetener that wouldn’t affect insulin levels in people with diabetes.  However, it was also determined to be beneficial to great dental health because germs and bacteria won’t stick to it.  Bev and Charlotte wanted to create a healthy candy that would taste so good that their grandchildren would eat it the same way they liked to eat sugary sweets.  There were a few varieties on the market, but none had the zing or burst of flavor the women felt was necessary in a delicious alternative to regular candy.

Being novices in the world of candy making, they weren’t limited by too much of the wrong information.  With little knowledge of the industry at large, they didn’t learn until later that making hard candies from Xylitol wasn’t thought to be possible.  Which really didn’t matter, because by then, they’d already made one.

Most hard candy is made by machines and formed into small pieces that are exactly the same size. Bev and Charlotte came up with a unique process that really makes their candy stand out from the competition. Their candy is made in large pans and when it hardens, it gets hit with a hammer, shattering the candy into different size pieces. The result is candy that looks like different sizes of ice chips and that’s how they got their name. Today, Ice Chips Candy is sold in 17 different flavors ranging from peppermint to piƱa colada.

It took less than a month for Bev and Charlotte to realize that their healthy Ice Chips Candy was a million dollar idea.  Everyone they talked to wanted it and told their friends.  People clamored for more flavors, and stores began asking to carry it.  Moving from the garage into a legitimate shop building, they hired office assistants, a bookkeeper, and their own husbands to help with the business.  Within three years, they had sales approaching a million dollars and were selling Ice Chips in all fifty states. They even employed their grandkids to teach them about business.

How did they go from two grannies in a garage to a multi-million dollar business? Here’s their advice on how to follow your dreams and make a big impact too:  “Begin with a passion to make your product the best it can be, then engage talented, successful people to hook up with your vision.  Together you can make anything possible!” 

There’s no minimum age to start living your dreams, and passion has no expiration date either. Bev and Charlotte are both grandmothers with 37 grandchildren between them.  What’s the perfect age to launch your dream?  How about…now!

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Own Your Future

We all have moments in our life when we discover what our purpose is.  Sometimes it’s apparent when we’re young, like when a child prodigy first picks up a musical instrument. Sometimes we discover our purpose when reflecting on pivotal moments from our past, like a unique job offer.  When people recognize the gift of their life, they don’t always know what to do with it.  But every now and then, magic happens, and a person’s passion aligns with their vocation.  This is one of those stories… 

Steve’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from Italy.  He found work as a laborer, but when he discovered the power of being a small business entrepreneur, it transformed his life. Steve’s father was an engineer and his mother a special education teacher.  She home-schooled Steve in his early years as he struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia.

At the age of seven, Steve’s father took him to hear a speech by John F. Kennedy, who was running for President.  Steve was too small to see over the crowd, but remembers Kennedy’s words as he described a program to inspire America’s youth to serve their country in what would become known as the Peace Corps.

After college, Steve worked at Ford Motor Company in their finance department.  In those days, Ford assigned numbers to every employee’s position with relation to their rank in the company hierarchy.  An assembly line worker might be a number 30, while the CEO was number 1.  After several years, Steve had earned quite a bit of responsibility and influence, but he was still 21 positions from the top.

Some years later, Steve moved to New York City and launched an import/export business.  It was small and a struggle to get off the ground, but as founder and top decision-maker, Steve was finally the number 1.  His life took an unexpected turn when he was mugged for a measly ten dollars while jogging in Central Park.

Steve met with a therapist who suggested a technique called flooding to help overcome the trauma of the experience.  In his case, it meant surrounding himself with inner-city teenagers, and so Steve became a special education teacher and asked to be assigned to one of the most dangerous schools in the city.

Steve quickly realized that he wasn’t a very good teacher.  One day, he asked a student who was acting out in class why he was being so unruly.  The response was simply, “You are a boring teacher.”  Steve asked if there was ever a time the student was interested in what he had to say.  The student said, “The time you talked about your import/export business.  I loved hearing how you bought and sold your products and made money doing that.”

Steve started talking more about business in class.  Then he made the leap that would change his life forever.  He started teaching his students how to start their own businesses.  He became certain he was on to something while teaching a class of at-risk students in the South Bronx.  This group was being kept out of school for various reasons, including selling drugs on school property and assaulting a teacher.  Steve was given permission to teach them entrepreneurship, and the results were amazing.  Not only did the majority end up back in school and graduate, but several started businesses that earned over $10,000.

Steve found his passion in empowering a generation of inner city youth to use entrepreneurship as a catalyst to live not only a better life, but the life of their dreams.  Twenty-five years later, the non-profit organization he founded, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), has reached over 500,000 students in 18 states and 9 countries.

I know this story well because I met Steve Mariotti in 1988, just when he was getting NFTE off the ground.  I was in my last year of college, and we were both speaking at an entrepreneurship conference.  Shortly thereafter, Steve made me an offer.  He asked me to give him one year of my life and help grow NFTE.  He said I wouldn’t make a lot of money, but promised that I’d never regret it.  His words inspired me, perhaps the way JFK’s words had inspired him, and I agreed, giving NFTE five years instead of just one.

Today is Steve’s 60th birthday, and I wrote this to wish him the very best.  But is it Steve’s story or mine?  Thanks to Steve’s and my time at NFTE, I went on to discover my own dream of empowering young people through what I call the mindset revolution.  Which means this can also be your story.  The two greatest days in your life are the day you’re born, and the day you discover why.  Seek out your why and take action.  When you do, you’ll live your dreams and make the world a better place!

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Free to be Kind

Lauren and her two siblings grew up in a sunny household in Orange County, California.  Their mother, an accomplished home chef and actress, and father, a prominent lawyer, gave their children everything possible, from skiing and snowboarding trips to frequent Disneyland visits.  Well liked and beautiful from an early age, Lauren was also a nationally ranked, competitive tennis player from childhood onward.  Her happy upbringing, striking looks, and natural intelligence made her popular, and she seemed destined for a smooth road through adolescence.

When middle school began, Lauren was part of a tight-knit group of friends.  However, part of the way through sixth grade, they suddenly turned on her over a boy.  Her former friends initiated a hate campaign centered on Lauren, and it seemed that nearly everyone in school joined in.  Continuing throughout seventh and eighth grades, they did whatever they could to make her feel alone and worthless, from throwing things at her during lunch to stealing her homework and ripping it up before class.  They would hover near her locker in order to see her combination so they could break in and steal her things.  And they would send boys to ask her out and then break up with her in front of people to maximize the embarrassment.

Lauren’s self-confidence vanished.  Her grades dropped drastically because she was so focused on the social abuse, to the point that she was scared to go to school each morning.  She refused to answer the phone, and finding places to hide on campus became a daily routine.  As the bullying continued, Lauren developed an eating disorder and battled depression for several years, finally leading to a suicide attempt because of how threatened and isolated she felt.  She was thirteen years old.

Lauren was able to recover with the help of her family and a youth organization outside of school, where she regained the ability to be comfortable with herself.  In high school, things were much better, mostly due to the new environment and chance for a fresh start with new classmates.  However, she continued to witness similar “mean girl” behavior, even if she was no longer the target.  Lauren was deeply affected by what had happened, and wanted to do something about it for others.  As she began to think about possible careers, her primary goal was to find one that would allow her to raise awareness of the emotional, verbal, and physical abuse that’s often present in female relationships.

In college, Lauren entered the film program, where she interned on the set of a Hollywood documentary about the problems with our world and what we can do to make it better.  It was then that she realized the enormous power a documentary film can have in bringing attention to an important cause.  Seeing an opportunity, Lauren and her friend Molly conceived their own film. 

The idea was to document their quest to find a common ground of kindness and mutual respect that could help end female bullying.  They would interview women and girls across the country about their lives and experiences to highlight similarities in search of a common female bond.  The goal was not to suggest that all females become best friends, but simply to promote a level of respect amongst one another.  They called the project “Finding Kind,” and pitched it to the Hollywood filmmaker Lauren had interned for.  He agreed to fund it.

Making the film inspired Lauren and Molly to launch their own non-profit organization to raise awareness of the negative effects of girl-against-girl abuse.  The pair traveled across the country four times in four years, screening “Finding Kind” in schools and promoting healthy dialogue.  They developed a curriculum to present with the film to further the notion of transformation through kindness, urging girls to start their own “kind clubs” that could foster communication and healing.

Lauren Parsekian is the co-CEO of The Kind Campaign, an organization dedicated to facilitating honest conversation between girls and women of all ages.  She is also the new wife of Aaron Paul, one of the stars of the hit show Breaking Bad.  Lauren is a driven activist who has dedicated her life to spreading kindness and bringing girl-against-girl bullying and violence to an end.

Take a pause today and say a few kind words to someone you think needs to hear them.  You’ll be amazed at how it affects them… and you.  As Lauren says, “You are free to be kind!”

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams