The Courage Project
COURAGE IN A ROOM OF FEARS
My whole journey into social enterprise started with a trip to India when I was 17. The degree of poverty I had the horror and the gift of experiencing marked me forever. From a young age I has always loved fashion (thank you mom for all the matching dresses you made us). I went into fashion with the intention of doing something philanthropic. One day while riding The Tube during my semester abroad in London, I noticed a magazine left on the seat next to me. I opened its crinkled pages to find the story of EDUN, a company started by Ali Hewson and Bono. EDUN supports the security and encouragement of cotton production and trade in Africa. Not only were they creating economic opportunity for people in these underdeveloped areas, but they were also driving policy change around workforce compliance and conditions in Africa. EDUN discovered this happy medium between a profitable price point and creating safe and fair working conditions for the most vulnerable in the industry.
I was literally crying and having heart explosions while reading this story and I remember thinking: “This is it. This is the model”. This was before TOMS or any of the other social good fashion companies had been created, being a young girl from the suburbs of Detroit, this was the first idea of it’s kind I had been exposed to. That half hour on the tube was an influential moment for me - I went boldly to Facebook that night and searched the CEO of EDUN’s profile down, sent him a message asking for an internship and he wrote me back! This was basically the equivalent of the President giving me a personal phone call. SUCH an encouragement to me that early in my career. Such a reward for something that took me some courage to do. Moving to LA with $300 dollars to my name, that also took some courage. Leading a team of 70+ people, that takes courage. Going on air for QVC, that definitely takes some courage!
When I think about my journey into The Giving Keys, I reflect on the feeling of really wanting to do meaningful work and trying to find a way to make it happen. You essentially believe in something that doesn’t exist (ie. a sustainable employment model for people transitioning out of homelessness), but know will exist in the future. It’s scary to move into the unknown of what the realities of a company could or should look like. Now that company has grown to provide over 70 job opportunities to people transitioning out of homelessness. To me, courage isn’t the absence of fear, but rather standing up in the presence of fear. Moving through fear of the unknown is where courage appears.
One of our goals at The Giving Keys is to inspire other businesses to take an active role in bettering our world. Creating jobs for people who are experiencing homelessness, who were formerly incarcerated or kids aging out of the foster care system with nowhere to go in an inclusive company culture -- this is how we can break cycles of poverty in our communities today.
People want to make an impact but people also need stable careers and that’s what’s attractive about working for a social enterprise. You’re going to create so much more value for your employees by allowing them the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves; something that is actively changing the landscape and culture of their community. I’m grateful that I get to have that experience every single day when I come into work at The Giving Keys.
I don’t think that our goal in life should be to live in the absence of fear. It should be to show up every day with the courage to stand up in the midst of your fears. At The Giving Keys I am able to walk in each day, surrounded by a community of undying love and support that enables me to do just that – stand up, power through and triumph over my fears.
“If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” T.S. Elliot
Courage Matters Most When You Have a Mission
I grew up in San Francisco and moved to Boston for my bachelor’s degree. Boston College is a Catholic university with a heavy emphasis on vocation. At freshman orientation, they told us, “We’re not here to help you find a job, we’re here to help you find your calling.” That stayed with me. I kept thinking about what my calling was and how to find it.
It started with asking myself three things: What brings me joy? What am I best at? What does the world need? During college and after, I tried a lot of different experiences ranging from humanitarian work to office work. I never felt like it was my true calling. I’d find something I was good at, but it didn’t bring me joy. Then I’d find something I loved doing, but it wasn’t something the world needed. All of it was beneficial, but I was looking for something that checked all the boxes.
Ultimately, I moved back to SF and was working at a tech company when I came up with the idea for Soma. Soma’s mission is to hydrate the world. We make beautifully designed, sustainable water filters and water bottles. We also support the nonprofit charity: water to bring clean water those who need it most. Our goal is to create a product that makes the world healthier and happier.
It takes COURAGE to say, “Let’s do things with integrity.” Our competitors were coming out with products made with cheaper materials and larger profit margins. We use plant-based materials in our products and postconsumer waste elements in our packaging. We are committed to doing the right thing, even if it’s more expensive. In a profit-centric world, that’s not always an easy choice to make.
It takes time and dedication to make a big impact. You have to commit to it. As the saying goes, “Every overnight success takes at least five years.” My advice to someone looking to jump into a startup is to commit to a business that makes a real difference. Create something sustainable. Ask yourself, is this really your life’s work? If it’s not a strong “Yes!” keep looking for something that is more impactful. Mission-oriented projects are going to inspire you for a long time and you’ll be passionate about working hard on them.
Above all, stick to what you know is right, even when it’s challenging. It’s easy to be courageous about things that don’t matter. But COURAGE matters most when you have a mission.
Choosing COURAGE over fear
To me, COURAGE represents strength, guts, willingness, empowerment, trust and self-love.
It’s very important not to run away from the fears we have. I like to use my fears as a way of guiding me through life. Most of the time, the fear shows us exactly what we truly care about. For example, we can be scared of losing someone we love or we can be scared of failure when it comes to accomplishing something we’ve always dreamed of, but what that fear is showing us is how passionate we are. That’s when I say: “Jump! You've got this! It’s 100% worth it”.
I’ve been working with Beyoncé since 2013. I went on her Mrs. Carter World Tour and the following year I was a part of her On The Run World Tour with Jay-Z. It was completely amazing and the life I’d always dreamed of. In 2016 there was talks of a Formation World Tour coming around the corner, I didn't want to assume I was automatically going back on tour with her. I went back to the drawing board and decided to focus on a few personal projects.
Working with Beyoncé was me living out my number one dream as a dancer. Having accomplished that left me wondering what was going to be next. I felt this deep calling to share my passion in other ways. I wanted to somehow give back and help others. My close friend, Mel Mah, who had just toured with her dream artist Janet Jackson, felt the same way. We were both living out our dreams and wanted to find a way to mentor young girls who were chasing their dreams. After a lot of brainstorming, we decided to create an empowerment workshop dedicated to educating and inspiring young females called, “You Got This, Girl!”.
I was four hours away from boarding a 13-hour flight to Switzerland to dance at a private event with Christina Aguilera, when I got the call to join Beyoncé’s Formation World Tour. A world tour is huge - you’re working for a whole year and it’s a lot of stability, but I’d already started working on my passion project. I was torn between two dreams. Saying ‘no’ to the tour meant no safety net and I only had a few hours to decide. My family and my friends were all so supportive, but I was a nervous wreck when I had to say ‘no’ to Beyoncé. In response to my decision, she gave me her blessing and told me I was doing the right thing. The dream of “You Got This Girl!” was now a reality.
Finding your dream is mostly about listening. I think COURAGE exists within everyone, but it’s getting rid of the outside voices telling you what you should or shouldn’t be doing. When you push all of that aside and focus, the answer and COURAGE to do what you feel is right there in front of you. It’s inside all of us, but it takes COURAGE to reach for it and believe in that possibility.
Now that I’ve launched You Got This, Girl!, and I’m back to working with Beyoncé, I’ve made both of my dreams a reality! COURAGE is an opportunity to push yourself past your limits. It’s saying YES to the opportunity to grow. It’s living life to it’s fullest.
Seeing Courage Through
By making the decision to be courageous, you have to be willing to stake your claim and stick to your guns. Having courage can put you in a very isolated place, and doesn’t always make you popular. I see Courage as a verb: perpetual, not stagnant. It’s an ongoing decision. It’s a philosophy of digging into it and pushing forward.
I really admire the quality of resolve, people seeing something come to fruition. Nothing great is built fast, and I admire the people around me who have the resolve to engineer their ideas. I feel like LA is very much a city which trades on confidence. It’s not like other cities or other industries who trade on pedigrees or accolades. You have people who don’t necessarily have any of level of expertise, but are super passionate about what they do, or the causes they believe in, or the things they don’t agree with. In LA, people can become contagious and become leaders.
Through Apolis, we manage a portfolio of social enterprises along with our local manufacturers for our brand. Our biggest project is in Bangladesh, where we started with six women making farmer’s market bags for us. Now, there’s over 100 who work for this one project about 5 years later. When we were growing out this part of the business, we were forced to make some tough decisions which required courage.
As an example a few years back, someone hacked into the cop-op director’s email in Bangladesh and contacted us with updated wiring instructions for one of our larger deliveries for the season. This led us to wire $80K to an offshore account in China. We realized the person who emailed us was not the co-op director we had hosted in Los Angeles, but quickly decided we had to do whatever it took to wire $80K to the actual co-op--recognizing the possibility we would never recover the original wire. Although it was a difficult decision, we knew we had to do whatever it took to find the money to make it right -- we refused to put hardship on the women artisans. Six weeks later, we were able to recover the original wire.
As an entrepreneur, you’re always taking risks, and it never really gets easier. One of our most ambitious projects was when we started the Alchemy Works concept shop (next door to Apolis in downtown LA) . For us, we felt limited with what we could engage with just our Apolis shop, and we wanted to expand the community we could pull from. It’s how we came to the idea of a clubhouse/retail/event space/ gallery--anything goes. We are passionate about providing a space to accelerate community.
To start Alchemy Works, we basically took what was in our living room and put it into this space and committed to it. While so many things fell into place which made it work, it was still difficult to make it sustainable. Even in moments of success, a business is very challenging to sustain. It took courage for us to make the commitment to the business, but it has opened up so many doors. It’s a complement to what we do at Apolis, to carry other brands and support other things we love.
If you’re doing something with purpose, it takes courage. Building a business which does good is like preparing for a marathon. It’s more than a business, it’s a life decision. You must have the stamina to see it through.
How Gratitude Creates COURAGE
I'm afraid of almost everything.
I've been that way most of my life.
When I was young, my foster brothers and sisters were taken from our home without warning.
I made a clear decision... "don't ever lose anyone or anything ever again."
I developed a superpower.
An infinite ability to think of things to be afraid of.
I can tell you 36 ways you can die suddenly...at any moment.
It's impressive. Seriously.
For example, Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) has affected over 200 people without explanation. People just bursting into flames...sitting on a park bench.
See, anything can be scary.
The sun burning out and hyper freezing the earth made me anxious for over a year when I was in high school.
It was practical too.
This job might get me stuck in my career.
This relationship may end in flames.
This person might betray me.
Saying this to that person might end our relationship.
I cloaked my fear with a search for wisdom.
I hid all my fears behind the mask of "wanting to do the wise thing".
Fear is most addictive when it looks like wisdom.
The problem of course, is that is a terrible way to live.
Anxiety steals so much from us.
Bad for your brain.
Bad for your body.
Bad for your life.
Anxiety steals the precious moments with our loved ones.
Beautiful sunsets in the mountains were caked with a fear of avalanches.
Date nights were choked with a fear of being late to the next thing or a dread for the thing I had to do the next day.
Fear made my life smaller.
Courage became my obsession.
My goal to reach for.
I'd say to myself...
I MUST conquer this fear.
I MUST conquer this anxiety about...everything.
I MUST live a courageous life.
I set out to GET courage.
But I was wrong.
Courage is not a thing to acquire.
It's something that happens to you while you are being brave.
Courage is like a star.
If you look at it hard enough, it becomes impossible to see.
Courage, like love, is hard to find when you are searching for it.
Love gets confused for lust or sex.
Courage gets confused for recklessness, foolishness or hubris.
My road to courage was paved with gratitude.
My fear came from that thought I had as a kid, "DON'T LOSE ANYONE or ANYTHING EVER AGAIN". That thought evolved into the socially acceptable form of this idea: scarcity.
I don't want to skydive because I don't want to lose my life or my ability to walk.
I don't want to speak on that stage because I don't want to lose my sense of safety in this room.
I don't want to risk to fall in love because I don't want to get hurt.
I don't want to risk my finances or my relationships because I don't want to lose them.
One moment it struck me.
This is all a gift.
The legs beneath me as I walk and type this on my phone.
My hands that can divide micromovements into words on this smooth screen.
My frontal cortex which makes sense of the sentences I'm eking out to you right now.
My Hippocampus that is deciding that I'm not in danger and it's okay to reflect on "COURAGE".
It's all a gift.
I found that the more grateful I was every morning...the more courageous I became.
I was more grateful...I became less anxious.
Little by little I grew in my courage.
I was less anxious about taking risks.
I became less anxious about meetings and disappointing people and taking on more.
The more I realized that what I have is a gift from God, the less afraid I am to lose it or give it away.
My fear was not conquered by YouTube mashups of Rocky clips or quote graphics on Instagram about how "I CAN DO IT!"
My fear is conquered by my willingness to accept the gifts of this life.
This moment is...all a gift.
The more I'm dialed into that.
The more I began to ask, "What must happen here?"
"How do I survive this moment?" became "what must be done here?"
I've come this far on the generosity of God and other people...
I'm going to be okay.
It's all going to be okay.
I stopped asking, "what could go wrong today" and started asking "what does today need from me?".
This courage led me to finally launch AdoptTogether.org.
To help families afford adoption, we launched a platform that helps them raise funds.
I sat on the idea for a year.
"What if it fails?"
"What if it all goes wrong?"
"What if I get sued?"
None of that mattered.
Moreover, none of that happened.
Today we've helped over 2400 families raise almost 11 Million dollars.
This makes me both grateful...and brave.
The more grateful I became, the more courageous I was.
The more courageous I became, the more my life expanded and gave me more to be grateful for.
That is a cycle I'm happy be caught in.
Courage In Love
I’d like to provide a gentle encouragement: Courage is not the absence of fear, but the presence of love. Many of us equate courage with fearlessness. The entire concept of courage doesn't exist without fear. The stronger the fear is, the more courageous the act.
Courage isn't something that should be compared. Someone's fear of snails may sound silly to you. Yet, if they overcome that fear in order to achieve a goal, then that, by definition, is courage. Sometimes, simply telling the truth takes courage. George Orwell points out that, "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."
Courage is Sally Yates standing up to the most powerful office in the world to protect those who are being hurt, regardless of the repercussion. Courage is the Standing Rock youth standing up to a multibillion dollar energy corporation, several militarized police forces, rubber bullets, tear gas, and hoses, USACE, and the White House to protect the right to clean water for not only their future generations, but for millions of people they won’t ever know. Courage is immigrating to America and working undesirable jobs for a better future for your children, despite discrimination.
In the Bible, 1 John 4 talks about God’s command to everyone who loves Him to love our brother’s and sister’s. This is in the context of us ALL being children of God. It also says, in that same chapter, that "Perfect Love drives out fear." I believe this.
Now, I don't believe it means that fear goes away completely. I think it means that this love referenced is a love of prioritized actions. It's an active love that fights for those who fear their oppressors. It’s not always a pleasant feeling. In the moment of courage, we prioritize the love we have for another human being over protecting ourselves and our selfish interests. We can use the obstacle of fear, the sensation of fight or flight, and transfer that adrenaline from self-preservation into active affection, lending a hand to whoever is in need. That love sees obstacles as advantages. That love is a love of service and activism. That love is courage.
Leading a Courageous Life
When I think of courage, I think of letting go of anger. Ever since I can remember, I was filled with anger and hate towards the people who hurt me. If someone hurt me, I felt I had to hurt them too, just to get even. In an effort to deal with the intense feelings of dissatisfaction towards myself and others, I turned to drugs and made destructive choices.
About two years ago I finally realized, if I continued to hold hate in my heart I was going to fail everyone - most importantly, I was going to fail my kids and was on a path to destroying my life.
I decided to let go of fear and anger, and sought to replace it with courage. I had to teach myself not to let my past have a hold on me. It’s not something that is as easy as simply forgetting, but rather is an everyday statement I make to myself that I have to let go of my past mindset and let go of the people who told me I was worthless. With the courage I’ve learned from The Giving Keys community, I know I’m beating my old ways of thinking and my addiction.
I am still learning how to live courageously, and while I don’t always think I can do it, I think that’s part of the journey. When I get scared that this life is too good to be true, I have a tendency to want to sabotage myself and my dreams before I get hurt. But that doesn’t stop me from getting back up and pursuing my dreams again, stronger and harder the next time around.
When I think about the next steps after The Giving Keys, I feel a deep desire to build something fulfilling, more than just the next job. That’s when I decided to start my own cleaning business. I asked myself, “What can I do to pursue something better for my life? What can I build for me that I can be proud of?” It may be a small business today, but everyday I’m striving towards growing into a better tomorrow.
I describe courage as letting go of the people and the moments in the past that are holding you back. It’s knowing that I am not defined by my past, but rather am empowered by my present state of mind. To me, that’s courage.