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First Steps…

If you’re reading this and thinking about becoming a social entrepreneur, but not sure where to start, I can sympathize. My own path has traversed several continents and career paths. Read on to see how I finally got clarity through the best of sources – a childhood friend.

I was born in Athens, Greece in the early 1970s, back when my Indian parents didn’t know if they’d be having a girl or boy till I came out. When I was 3, they moved to Paris where I started pre-school. When I was 5, they moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) where my teacher slapped me because I made a lot of spelling mistakes. The first time I saw street-children in Calcutta I thought they were so lucky that they did not have to go to school.

I soon knew differently and remember handing a little boy my half-eaten ice cream. When I was eight, we moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I became a chocoholic. It was in Geneva, where a third grade kid asked me, “Don’t you feel guilty living here when people are starving in your country?” I didn’t like the question then, but I’m very grateful now that he asked it. When I was 12, we moved back to India, this time to Bombay (now Mumbai).  At fifteen, we moved to Singapore, just for 1 year. I completed my last three years of high school in Tokyo.

By the time I started college, I had more questions than answers. Three stood out:

1. How is it possible that such contrasting realities as the streets of Geneva and the streets of Mumbai co-exist?

2. Why do dysfunctional education systems (and teachers) exist when we know of better approaches to teaching and learning?

3. How can we create a world where the best aspects of different cultures/countries become a collective reality?

I choose to study Industrial Engineering in college – a major that my Dad had assured me would make me ‘highly employable’. Finding the answers to my questions was, for now, put on ‘hold.’ Flash forward to me, 25-years old, living in San Francisco, working as a management consultant and getting ready to take the next step in my career – a company sponsored MBA. My childhood friend from Geneva was visiting and we were taking a road trip. He asked me what I did and I took a long time explaining that to him. I answered: “I feel like I’m being exposed to a lot of different industries and learning valuable transferable skills”.  

Hmm… what did that mean exactly??

I asked him the same question. “Well, for me it was easy”, he replied. “I love kids, I love sports, and I feel kids do better when they are physically engaged. So I became a P.E. teacher. And I love it!”

The clarity of purpose in his response hit home to me – I had not been acknowledging my calling – I knew that I wanted to be an educator. A few months after that conversation, I decided to leave A.T. Kearney management consultants and get certified to teach English. A year later, you could find me in a classroom in Cuenca, Ecuador with active and engaged teenagers – I had found what floated my boat. Or had I?

Teaching English was one way to connect with people, but the curriculum didn’t allow much room for me to discuss ‘my three questions’.  It took me another two years of teaching high school, a graduate degree in International Education Policy, and a quite bit of luck to find myself where I needed to be. I was now 28 and I had just joined the Earth Charter Initiative, a global movement as their ‘Education Program Manager’.  Answering those 3 questions was now my job.

And as a result, here are three bits of wisdom I would like to share:

1. Listen to the questions that live within you – they will give you a hint as to what issues you can help to solve.

2. When someone asks you what your passion is and you can’t articulate it clearly, spend some time to understand what it is that truly drives you.

3. Don’t wait to follow your calling. Easier said than done, but the sooner you start, the sooner you can create real impact.

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