How Tragedy Made Me an Entrepreneur
Sometimes, it takes a trip to hell and back to really open your eyes. And sometimes, really opening your eyes can change your whole life. If you're an entrepreneur, that means it also changes the way you see your job—running the company you started.
I know this firsthand. During college, I was the driver in a traumatic car accident. My close friend Jessica was thrown from the car and killed immediately. I didn't know how—or have the will—to keep on living.
Thanks to my faith, love and encouragement from Jessica's mom (and support from many other loved ones), I was inspired to live not just for my own legacy, but also Jessica's legacy.
Tragedy led to a transformative moment that unbeknownst to me, planted the seed for my company.
So in 2005 during a chance visit to South Africa's Soweto Wine Festival, when I spoke with black vintners and learned that people of color were grossly underrepresented within the country's wine industry, I was poised to recognize the business opportunity in marketing their stories to the world, as well as to actualize my pledge to their and my family's lives in sustainable ways. Not long after I flew home from South Africa, Heritage Link Brands was born.
I'm certainly not alone in this experience of trials and tribulations serving as pathways to business transformation.
Howard Lutnick, CEO of investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, intimately knows tragedy. With offices only a few floors above where a plane struck one of the towers during the attacks of September 11, 2001, his company was hardest hit in terms of death toll—more than two thirds of its New York-based employees perished (nearly 700 people...including his brother). Lutnick only survived because he was dropping his son off at his first day of kindergarten. In a bittersweet comeback not free from controversy, both Lutnick and the company went through a rebuilding and renewal that included providing financial support to the families of those who perished, annually commemorating lost colleagues, and rallying the employees who remained to re-establish the firm.
I was recently inspired by a spiritual memoir by Pamay Bassey that deals with adversity and transformation, My 52 Weeks of Worship: Lessons from a Global, Spiritual, Interfaith Journey. The author, when faced with multiple tragedies in her life, turned her loss into an intriguing opportunity for self-reflection and personal growth. Her decision to take a year to visit a different place of worship every week, crossing the globe and an array of religious traditions, was courageous. The lessons she learned, fascinating. But what truly resonated with me was that as an entrepreneur, she balanced this spiritual journey while simultaneously running several businesses.
Here are four lessons that I pulled from My 52 Weeks of Worship about getting through adversity—they mirror lessons that myself and many other entrepreneurs have learned through business transformations.
1. Approaching any unfamiliar situation with an open heart and good intentions is the best first step. Again, bad things happen in business, and the effects can be particularly hard hitting for entrepreneurs. Staying positive will help you keep your wits about you.
2. Understand and respect your imperfections and the imperfections of others. Perfection is boring, and unacknowledged imperfections are dangerous. Entrepreneurs must seek innovative ways to work around such growth areas. Only then will we find the amazing "perfect imperfections" that make many of our businesses click.
3. Sometimes, it's nice just to be quiet, and listen. The last time you experienced a major problem, was your first thought to be still and listen? Probably not. But as you get wiser, you've likely learned just how crucial listening is to growing your business.
4. Be humble. Unchecked pride is a common reason for business challenges lasting far longer than necessary.
Reading this book allowed me to reflect again on the powerful role adversity, and overcoming it, has played in the lives of so many entrepreneurs. We're usually risk-takers. Increased risk and challenges go hand in hand. We could be hardheaded and resist our hard knocks. But most of us have learned the value of accepting adversity and actually allowing it to transform us, and our businesses.