Built To Serve
A Rockstar and A Rabbi
March 01, 2021
Built to Serve talks to acclaimed social entrepreneur Abby Falik about entrepreneurship, leadership, and Global Citizen Year, the nonprofit she founded, which she refers to as “the culmination of her life’s work.” Abby has been profiled by the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Goldman Sachs named her one of 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs, and Fast Company named her one of the 100 Most Creative People.
- We begin by talking to Abby about entrepreneurship. Abby shares that she has always had entrepreneurial leanings. She beautifully defines entrepreneurship as “a slow cook where seeds are dropped along the way – a connection of moments that get you to where you’re going.” She feels that she has been dropping the seeds that became Global Citizen Year for a long time.
- Ten years ago she launched this nonprofit to open up the time between high school and young adulthood and widen the path for young people to learn about who they are and who they are becoming before they embark upon their higher education and careers. We ask Abby what has changed for her since she launched the organization. She shares that her role has stayed much the same, but the team and their processes have changed – she had to learn to trust others, let go of things, and hire good people and allow them to grow.
- We ask Abby why she chose the nonprofit route - why is she built to serve? Abby shares that when in business school, nonprofit work was seen as the softer and easier work – when in fact it’s essential and in many ways harder. She likens running a nonprofit to running two businesses – a programmatic business and a fundraising business. She felt it would have muddied things to have had to focus on minimizing costs and maximizing revenue, and that “501c3 is not a management style.” So, she took her business skills and applied it to something that had social impact.
- We ask Abby if the challenges she has faced as a leader have changed her. She shares that she views leadership as a practice and not a position – which is a mantra at Global Citizen Year. Leadership is the reflection, questioning, and stretch of becoming your best self - humility and confidence both have to grow in proportion to each other.
- We ask Abby where she turned for leadership support and encouragement through the highs and lows. Abby says she was very lucky to have found herself a part of other communities of early stage entrepreneurs – the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation and ASHOKA Fellowship. She found that there were always people around who were a number of steps ahead of her that she could be inspired and intimidated by. She valued the ability to ask questions, be vulnerable, and feel supported.
- We ask Abby what is her BHAG? Abby wants to work together to chart a whole new pathway into young adulthood, where it becomes common and expected that people of all backgrounds have the opportunity for a rite of passage. She wants these people to find their people, their power and their purpose - to have an impact on the world we live in.
- We ask Abby - if she wasn’t leading this organization, what role would she want to have? Although Abby says that she can’t imagine doing anything else, she tells a story about being a monk in the forest - very reflective and inward focused. It ties to her belief that each unique part of yourself needs to be honored and developed to be your must impactful self. Abby says this is her goal for her team.
- We ask Abby what her relationship is like with money. Her answer: “Love and hate and love and hate. Abundance and scarcity. Fear and opportunity.” She is highly aware that money fuels and enables their mission. Yet at some level she can wish that it weren’t the constraint or the obstacle.
- We ask Abby about revenue – what are the key changes within her organizations that have evolved over time? Abby shares that she knew that she needed to create an experience that people were willing to pay for through a hybrid model. Experiences are offered to families who are able to pay tuition and have the mechanism in place to provide financial aid to those who couldn’t. She shares that this hybrid approach is not without its challenges, as they aren’t optimized for either revenue source. A market driven model would look different, and the philanthropic model can be murky, as donors don’t know where to place them since they aren’t focused exclusively on kids that are economically disadvantaged.
- When COVID hit they realized they couldn’t run a global fellowship in a pandemic, but they also recognized the need to support a record number of high school grads that can’t go to college as planned. So, they pivoted, developed the Academy, and the pivot became part of the path. She says that there is something promising about watching strategy emerge and redirecting time, energy, and talent to solving a new challenge. She shares, “The world is in transition. One chapter has ended, and the next chapter hasn’t begun, so it’s our job to envision what comes next. None of it is foretold – it is up to us.”
- We ask, if she could design or create anything that she feels is needed in the nonprofit space? Abby shares that she would reimagine the relationship between philanthropy and social impact. She believes we need donors who are building relationships with causes and leaders that are built on trust, that are not about contracting work with restrictions, but instead are a shared vision. Less restricted money, bigger bets, and the ability to dream big and make investments to solve the problems they are trying to solve. The current tenor holds us all back from moving the needle on the social challenges that are so intractable.
- We all know that solutions are intersectional, but the funding isn’t. With many funders you have to know your lane because they fund within a silo. Her organization straddles different categories, so they need to find donors who get it. It’s about humility at the end of the day - most effective philanthropists are the ones who show up and say how can I be of service. What is the most effective way for me to plug in to advance impact without dictating the how it gets done.
- We ask Abby what the best piece of advice is that she ever received: She shares a practical piece of advice about keeping organized from John Doerr, a venture capital investor, who before opening his computer to work each day wrote down what he intended to do on a post it note as a reminder that he is in the driver seat of his own to do list.
- The second piece of advice comes from a learning framework that they use with their fellows and with themselves. We all have a comfort zone, a panic zone, and a strike zone. In those periods where we start to feel complacent, ask yourself - what are the courageous steps into discomfort that you can take that don’t make you panic, but that actually help support a reorientation of who you are. This is what the world needs most.
www.abbyfalik.com for Abby Falik
www.globalcitizenyear.com for Global Citizen Year
www.revjen.com for Brian Joseph
https://www.fastcompany.com/person/abby-falik for Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People
https://www.fastcompany.com/person/abby-falik for Goldman Sach’s 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs