Fifteen months. I was supposed to stay there for six. This was my first hurrah outside of “conventional” life, outside of “society’s prescribed path to success,” and my first hike down this new-found path has been everything I hoped for. And, I am not just saying that to adorn an average experience with fake pearls of positivity — it was not all fun. In fact, it was hard, and challenging and refreshing and exhilarating — in parts, and all at the same time. It was exactly what I had signed up.
Learning a new language is hard — not just to get by, but to actually work in. I arrived in Guatemala almost dumb and deaf, hoping to somehow make an impact and learn at the same time. It’s difficult to add and gain value when you can’t communicate — that was the first mountain I needed to climb. But there were enough folks who spoke English, so I got by and it wasn’t all doomsday. And, the people at work and in the city never made me feel unable or uncomfortable. The support and the patience up this mountain have been humbling. In the end, I don’t think I ever summitted this Everest of proficiency in a new language, but I did come to terms with it, hitting a gear of fluidity that I was somewhat okay with.
There is something beautiful and thoroughly engaging about going to “work” to do exactly what you want to do — not for money, pride, status or power. Alterna, this non-profit that supports entrepreneurs of all sorts in and around Guatemala, gave me exactly that. I was a “Fellow” there to start off with, and soon embedded myself into their DNA, giving blood, sweat and tears as we shook things up. We not only re-branded externally, but we hit the reset button internally as well, emerging afresh. We served over 150 entrepreneurs in 2018 in some form or the other. Our signature event is a five-day workshop where twenty of our more advanced entrepreneurs go through a topsy-turvy journey — from questioning the existence of their businesses to embracing strategies that can exponentially grow their sales and impact. Imagine that, twenty entrepreneurs in one room, sizzling with infectious ideas and ambitious personalities, and us trying to rattle them. The vibe that the space has when all these atoms of energy collide is magical.
I will never forget the feeling after our first, re-thought workshop. All the effort, the fighting, the disagreements, the uncertainty and the moments of discomfort were worth it. We came out flying. Our entrepreneurs were overwhelmed with action-plans, introspection and gratitude. And for a hot second, we, the tribe of Alterna, could reflect. The inner explosion of accomplishment, contentment and pride that I felt that day was so pure, so real. It wasn’t about the money — I wasn’t making any nor did the entrepreneurs pay for this workshop. It was purely about the value that we had added, without any sort of ulterior motives and with only the success of our entrepreneurs in our mind. This feeling, the purity of it, is so important for my overtly rational self. In my five years of hustle in Corporate America, I had never felt this way.
It wasn’t all hunky-dory though. My love-affair with Alterna meant that I was invested — heart, soul and mind. And when you’re invested, your expectations sky-rocket. Some days were hard. Everything takes time, but everything takes a little bit more time in the non-profit world, and I was constantly battling my impatience. I was living a lot of what I had read about when it comes to the difficulties of the non-profit space — a lack of resources, a lack of investment in and on talent, living more or less at the mercy of our sponsors. It was daunting and frustrating, sometimes just like any other job, but this frustration came from the desire to make things better. It is so important to be bothered and frustrated because that’s what helps generate change. I think living is a lot about learning how to positively channel change out of things that genuinely bother you.
One thing that the non-profit space has in abundance is passion. That is sometimes the best part about it. But anything in excess is not necessarily good, right? How can we balance the passion of this space with a higher degree of result-centric rationality? When does passion become a moral license to do just enough to internally satisfy yourself, while not really changing the status quo? I have been thinking a lot about what comes in the way of progress, both internally within myself, and externally when it comes to this space.
Externally, how can we change this moral expectation of demanding extreme sanctity from folks working in the social impact space? Why can’t professionals in this space make good salaries, earn good bonuses for dedicating their life to a cause, and even make mistakes along the journey? How do we start changing that mindset? That’s why social enterprise makes so much sense. Social enterprise adds another dimension to traditional business by roping in morality, because morality is tied closely to what impact truly is. So, if we can combine the fruits of capitalistic business models with the morality of the impact space, holding the latter as the true driving force while keeping the cause as incorruptible as possible, I think we have a real chance at true, scalable impact. I want to embody this and find folks that are aligned.
Internally, I have been battling the idea of patience — what is patience? And how do you find the balance between patience enabling mediocrity versus impatience coming in the way of excellence? It is all about managing expectations, and it’s all about finding the right balance. But what is this “right” balance? I need more practice at practicing that.
It was the hardest when Alterna had won my heart over. I always knew I couldn’t commit myself to Alterna for a longer period, but when you’re invested, it’s that much harder to come to terms with it. Towards the end, it was like the nails were inching closer and closer. My duty was not to do but to empower, to leave behind as much value as I could, without really creating severe dependencies. I am a doer, so this was hard. But I need to be better at empowering, and all this was a lesson at that. My long-term goals lie in India — I will work on poverty alleviation through economic empowerment there. It makes the most amount of sense in terms of the impact I can make for a multitude of rational reasons, and that is and has to be the only way I should be making key decisions. Initially, I wrestled with the idea of starting something right away in India versus taking my time and learning along the way with experiences outside of India. The winner could not be clearer. The amount I have learnt about starting and running a social enterprise without investing any significant actual and emotional resources is incredible. I am so much smarter now, learning from the mistakes and successes of other social entrepreneurs without any self-serving bias that embroils them. The best way to learn is by doing, by embedding yourself not in case studies, but in what is real and could eventually become a case study. There are no formulaic “right” or “wrong” answers. Textbooks are guides for what works in general, but it is important to not be trapped by their rigidity. So, one more stop on this magical school bus and then here I come, India.
Guatemala, to me, was not about the volcanoes, the lakes, the crime or the people, it was about what I was doing there. Yes, the people around me were beautiful inside and out, with those volcanoes constantly exploding my sense of self, and the lake, absolutely stunning. But what defined my time there were the entrepreneurs I worked for and the colleagues I worked with. Everything else was icing on the cake. This icing was delicious though — I met some incredible people, breathed in volcanic air, jumped into the lake letting myself go to the all the Mayan beauty that for once didn’t have to revolve around rationality, saw bravery and struggle, learnt how to shut out love, never got robbed but sympathized with those that did, understood that it is important to have standards for yourself and the people around you, but it is also important to not project your ambition onto those who are not wired like you, cried a river embracing the joys and pains of work, life and introspection, felt more alone than ever and also more accompanied than most, earned more self-respect, laughed a lot, learnt a lot more, gave, got and cherished.
For all that and more, thank you.