Life is Looking Up

I didn’t write all last semester. Take that as a good thing. Frankly, for now, I’m doing well. Life is looking up.

I got back from Argentina in late July. I chilled at home for a month. Post-abroad was a strange period of time, not because home-life was somehow unfamiliar, but because I had reached the end of a sentence and was about to begin a new one. My plans had always concluded with, “… and then I’ll go abroad, and then I’ll figure out what I’m doing after that, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”

Well, I’ve since crossed the bridge, or at least I’m halfway across it, though it feels like I’m about to cross a different bridge entirely. I think that second semester, senior year, may feel different from all other semesters, because, well, it’s the last one. This is the end! Of course it’s bittersweet. I’ve already been thinking (and saying, to the vexation of my friends), “I bet this, right now, is among the last five times that we will ____ (walk a certain route, attend a type of event, talk to a certain person). I’ve been counting down since day one. I’m probably counting down to end of my life, too. What’s the point of this, where does it get me? Nowhere, but I’m not sure if I can change the way I think.

Anyways, this last semester was generally great. Great classes, great housemates, great routines. Through new activities, I met many new and interesting people. My relationship is stable and fulfilling. Many days happened with a perfect balance of structure and spontaneity. There is an endearing transience to college, or at least that’s one way of looking at it. I could expound about each of my classes and projects and all of the intellectual innovations that happened to come my way, but I’ll just choose one because it encapsulates many things.

I took a class called Money and Social Change, with a visiting professor Joy Anderson, who is a real pioneer in the social sector and somewhat of a hard-assed business lady, extremely competent and demanding, if somewhat convinced of her points of view. The class was centered around learning about strategic philanthropy. Courtesy of the Learning by Giving Foundation, which sponsors roughly thirty other classes like this across the country, we, as a class, had $10K to give to local nonprofits in chunks of no less than $2,500. The challenge was to decide where that money should go. There are over 250 nonprofits in the local Middletown area: treatment facilities for the mentally ill, preschools, ambulances, libraries, international aid groups, etc. How does money create social change? At which leverage point is money most powerful?

As a theoretical counterpart to the grant-making process, Professor Anderson challenged each of us to develop our individual “Theories of Change“. Theory of Change (TOC) is a widely used theoretical framework that essentially asks, what is the change that you want to see in the world, and what is the concrete road map to get there? Dozens of theories of change could be formulated to address every social issue. For example, if you are trying to solve for homelessness in a city, you could postulate that providing backpacks filled with supplies directly to homeless folk, or at strategic points (shelters, etc) would have a certain effect on the homelessness rate. But another theory of change to “solve for” homelessness could focus on a different leverage point in the system, perhaps targeting income inequality among certain geographical/racial/gender groups, and identifying local, regional, or national public policy as the point to be acted upon in order to create that change.

There is often a broad divide between the micro and macro theorists, and strong arguments can be made for both sides. Soup kitchens are arguably just as important as structural, economic or governmental reform. However, some theories of change are more effective in certain ways than others. What is important is to be able to adopt each mindset and see the pros and cons with some degree of neutrality.

I built my theory of change off of the research that I did in Argentina. The end goal of my theory of change is to “increase the wealth of areas”. The mechanism by which I believe this can be accomplished is by increasing the amount of entrepreneurship (of certain types) in areas. The way that I propose to increase the amount of entrepreneurship in areas is through strategic education programs and media-based campaigns, those being necessarily broad terms: education programs could be “deep and narrow” — an after school entrepreneurship program for high school students— or “wide and shallow” — public policy that reforms public school curricula to encourage “entrepreneurial traits” and activity. Media campaigns could be “localized”, targeting specific groups of people through news articles, literature, or community programming, or they could be “massive”, using billboards, celebrity endorsements, or other pre-existing structures to disseminate a message to a very broad audience. Essentially, I am proposing that some areas of the world produce more and less entrepreneurship, and the reason for this is largely cultural. Therefore, if we want to increase the production of entrepreneurs, we need to strategically culture shift for innovation. This would need to be conducted with the utmost cultural sensitivity, and would therefore be founded upon a research agenda that identifies precisely what would and would not be acceptable and powerful in that specific area.

This theory of change business represents a real step forward in terms of my academic and professional focus. The second semester of senior year is about to begin. I get the awkward, “so, have you started thinking about next year?” almost daily at this point. Luckily, and due to all of the development encapsulated above, I have fairly solidly formed an idea of what I’m looking to do… in life. Immediately out of college, I would like to choose an area of the world (Boston, NYC, or San Francisco), join a startup team (Tech, Social, Social-Tech, etc) and become a valuable member of that team and the city’s larger startup community as a whole. From there, well I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

Alternatively, I’ll have a killer idea, assemble a killer team, get millions in seed funding and make a killing … yeah… while I’m earnestly working towards that goal every day, that plan is as unreliable as it gets, so I’m not banking on it. For now, it’s join a team, enter a community, meet people and get lucky.

I’m feeling OK about life after college. I have no doubt that I could be a useful member of a startup team, and I trust that I will continue to meet people and stick my feet in enough doors that one of them stays open. The next order of business, therefore, is this coming semester.

I am taking four classes, including Technology and Culture, Graphic Design (extremely excited for this!), and probably most excitingly, after months of preparation, I am co-leading a student forum which I have titled Out of Theory, Into Practice: Entrepreneurship Studies 101. Along with Katya Sapozhnina, a sophomore who founded the Wesleyan Entrepreneurship Society, I will be leading a course that starts with some relevant foundational theory and moves forward with an increasingly practical focus. Each week has a theme: “Market Economies in Capitalism”, “The Role of Networks”, “On the Origin of Ideas”, “What is Entrepreneurship?”, “Who are Entrepreneurs?”, “Cultural Trends of Entrepreneurship”, “The Ecology of Entrepreneurship”, “Lean Entrepreneurship”, “Social Entrepreneurship 1 & 2”, “Tech Entrepreneurship”, “Funding”… and so on.

The actualization of this course is deeply significant for me, because, as many of you know, I have encountered some very real personal and familial challenges through the course of my time in college. Around the time that I first “discovered” entrepreneurship, first semester, sophomore year, I jotted down two ideas on a sticky note: 1) a club for entrepreneurship at Wesleyan, (which Katya went ahead and founded, unbeknownst to me, while I was abroad in Buenos Aires) and 2) a student forum which would attempt to fill the gaping hole in Wesleyan’s course offering that neglects, well, everything “practical”: entrepreneurship, marketing, management, etc. However, the following semester, rugs were pulled out from under me and different trajectories took shape. I am therefore proud to be accomplishing something that is in line with my original trajectory, even if it’s several years later. To some extent, the realization of this goal is absolutely somewhat symbolic of my own re-alignment, healing, and resilience.

And this brings me to my final point, which is that today, January 13th, marks the two-year mark of my father’s death. I didn’t plan this coincidence, funnily enough. I just happened to have a free day and the right energy to write. But right about now, 11:45pm, two years ago, I had just gotten home from my dad’s place after living through some of the most surreal hours of my life. Extremely vivid memories, followed by months of blankness, followed by a lot of sadness that is with me today, though it’s different now. I will not begin to address how we, my immediate family, are doing, as reducing it to, “we’re doing OK,” is not useful nor accurate, and accommodates more to your comfort than to our actual state of being. Suffice to say that we’re sticking together and grateful for everyone who is helpful or understanding. Eternal thank-you’s for that.

But frankly, for now, I’m doing well. Life is looking up.

3 comments
  1. A fine blog/essay. We wish you the best, now (this last semester) and in the future (entrapreneurship). I recall loving my last college semester, since at this time there were no stresses at all. Have fun!!

  2. catherine cantrell said:

    Thank you, Alex, for sharing your mantisandme. I’ll respond tomorrow night when I get home from hiking with the Wednesday Wanderers. Love, Grandma Catherine

    Date: Tue, 14 Jan 2014 05:27:06 +0000 To: backpackingranny@hotmail.com

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