Friday, June 19, 2009

The Still Small Voice

Recently, I was honored to be asked to write up the DiscoverHope Founding story for an upcoming book called A Cup of Cappuccino for the Entrepreneurs Soul, kind of like "chicken soup for the soul" for entrepreneurs. I realized I had told this story many times in different ways, but never put it to paper. I just sent in the first draft and figured I would share it here for you, our DiscoverHope family.

The Still Small Voice

Flying high above the Andes Mountains, a voice kept echoing through my head over the hum of the old jet engines... “What are you doing, Maggie?” My hand skimmed the unused smoking ashtray attached to my seat and I began to wonder what made me trust getting on some old rickety plane passing through the clouds above the rugged caps and green valleys of Peru.

It was that damn still small voice in my head. The one that doesn’t go away if you ignore it. The one that likes to plant possibilities and ideas. The one that causes you to wonder your whole life long if you just let it go. Maybe it can be called God, Spirit, Universe, or any of the things that I comfortably believe all are the same great thing. What I did know was that this small voice came to me for months in 2003 everyday amidst my silent morning: “Go see con otros ojos.” And yes, the voice was half Spanish, which I figured was slightly comical inspiration.

I remember the first time I heard it. The phrase meant nothing to me: Go see with other eyes? It certainly didn’t sound like a slick business plan. So I kept asking for more. For months, images and thoughts started to form in my head until I finally had the answer: I needed to leave the boundaries of the United States to see myself from a different perspective, to see with “other eyes.”

Now, coming from a Midwestern family of eight children who are chock-full of successes in law, medicine, education, business, and professional sports, an announcement like “I’m leaving the country to see with other eyes!” is bound to meet confused silence. After all, I was leaving behind my community of friends, part-time undergrad teaching at San Diego State, six years of nonprofit work as a Program Director that I adored and also paid well, not to mention a good set of beaches and really good California wine…all so that I could go “create something” that kept resurfacing in me.

So when a mentor, entrepreneur, and friend Dan told me of his business trip to Cajamarca, Northern Peru and invited me along for a 2-week stint, I knew I was going because it felt exactly right. A week later, I told Dan I would be moving for an unknown amount of time to Cajamarca to create something there, and that he could drop me off in the mountains once his trip was over. Without question or hesitation, he said one word: “OK.” And the journey began.

The eight months of trip preparation was filled with the conundrum of doubt and excitement. I gave the organization I respected a long notice to have months to prepare someone new. I paid all my bills off. I sold my car. I gave away all my “stuff” to people who needed or wanted it. There was so much initial fear in letting go of things that seemed so important to me. Yet once they were out the door, I realized how little I needed them. On March 2, 2004, the day I left, I officially owed nothing and had no money to my name, a perfect zero.

But I knew what I wanted and what I had been directed to do: I wanted to explore the change-agent in me. I wanted to know about myself from a framework of newness that didn’t include the comforts of my own culture. I wanted to see myself as a person who could truly seize the opportunity to affect change in the world.

I’ve heard many people scoff at the phrase “Be the change” as if it is unobtainable. I didn’t and still don’t see it that way. We have the opportunity to change this world everyday! Changing the world is possible and easy for all of us—it means you follow your bliss by giving your greatest strengths to the world moment by moment. When you do this, others do everything in their power to help you succeed because they are magnetically drawn to you. This means that you inspire everyone you know to do the same, as they want the same feeling for themselves. Then they create their own paths and draw people to them. All of this equates to affecting countless people who are just like us. We (together) change the world.

In the rolling green farmlands of Peru at 8500 feet in March 2004, I found myself at the beginning of life amongst the gracious people of Cajamarca, a very blond woman in a traditional Latin culture 20 hours off a rocky rubble road from Lima.

My study of anthropology and communication led me to spending my first four months simply speaking to women, particularly because of their role in developing nations as having the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of their families. In my rusty but ever-improving Spanish, I spoke with women all day in fields, muddy kitchens, and in the streets. I asked them all the same question: “what do you need?” And then I learned my most important international development lesson of all time: listen.

After 800 cups of Nescafe coffee powder, it was unanimous…they wanted a “hand up”, not a hand out. They wanted income, to create jobs, to launch businesses, to use their own power to help transform their lives and the lives of their families. And with this, the still small voice that had guided me crystallized into the launch of a two-year pilot called HopeBank. HopeBank focused on giving women small microcredit loans averaging $100 to initiate small businesses, borrowing from best practice microcredit institutions like Grameen Bank, recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for their microcredit work and core belief that credit is a fundamental human right. And thanks to generous friends and family, I had $5000 in a savings account earmarked solely to help fund the project once it took form.

In 2006, I returned to the USA to formalize the nonprofit structure into a 501c3 public charity and HopeBank became the nonprofit DiscoverHope Fund (DHF) in February 2007. I now oversee our operations at our headquarters in Austin TX with an incredible Board of Directors, and work with our full-time Program Director in Cajamarca and an inspired group of over 20 volunteers who are key stakeholders in our story.

What I’ve learned from all of this is that we all share a common connection—a desire to realize potential…in ourselves, in each other, and in the world around us. DHF is founded upon the belief that one of the most powerful things you can do for another human being is to honor the potential in that person. When we do this, we awaken hope in their hearts. With hope, opportunity is born.

DHF provides microloans for macrodreams. Through microloan increments of $100, we invest in the entrepreneurial courage of women living in poverty so that they may grow their small businesses, cultivate their knowledge and skills, and create prosperity for themselves, their families, their communities, and the generations that follow. This money continues to give year after year and as women repay and reinvest, they create a way of life where they are responsible for their transformation. DHF knows that women believe in this ownership and responsibility as they’ve returned their money with a current 100% success payback rate to fund future loans. They do the work, we just get them started!

While microcredit is fishing pole to “teach a person to fish”, our model considers our next responsibility to teach women HOW to maximize the use of their fishing poles. We know that true change has to come from the resourcefulness and intelligence of the women we work with. To flourish, women need to be given the opportunity to maximize their skills as entrepreneurs, women, and mothers who have the ultimate responsibility for their children. We ask them what they need to flourish, we listen, and we connect them to the resources. They ask for literacy classes and learning the power of simple math and the alphabet. They participate in health projects and learn how to adopt behaviors of well-being for their families. They learn business and financial concepts. They partake in a myriad of skills development and personal readiness classes we offer. They become powerful agents of change—because they are ready and willing.

Trusting my vision has framed my life with transformative and positive power. I want my life to be a living expression of Hope. Even when the days are difficult (and they can be), I recall the magic in cultivating mastery in people to grow and help them step out of their boats to create vision. This lifts me again.

We all have a gift, something unique to express, to do, and to become. Look at yourself in the mirror. Ask yourself, what is the uniquely special gift which makes you? It is your responsibility to discover your unique gift. What is it? Do you already know?

And it is never too late to begin. MM

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