I began college with hopes of building a career in which I could be of service to others. At first, I thought that meant becoming a doctor. A career in medicine seemed like my best chance to make a difference.
Throughout college, I was lucky to be surrounded by people driven by idealistic causes. One particularly ambitious friend wanted to clear a landmine field in Cambodia. He took an entrepreneurial approach to crowdfunding this endeavor by getting his friends (and often their parents) to host fundraising dinners at a cost, collectively raising $50,000.
He inspired me to want to do similarly impactful work. I became involved in an arts-based trauma therapy program for kids living on the streets near Phnom Penh. I started by organizing similar fundraisers, but investing all that time and energy only made me want to do more. I wanted to see the impact for myself.
Knowing medical supplies were in high demand, I talked to doctors around Vancouver and filled four duffel bags with Western medical supplies—everything from antibiotics to bandages.
After landing in Bangkok, I hauled those bags through the Cambodia/Thailand border town Poipet. I spent the next few days in Siem Reap, where I delivered the medicine and volunteered at a hospital to revamp its archaic IT system.
Witnessing the challenges faced by a hospital with limited resources was difficult. Most of the people at intake were mothers and children with life-threatening diseases. They had usually traveled a day or two to the hospital and didn’t have anywhere to sleep that night. That first week was hard to process.
I continued on through Phnom Penh to see firsthand the projects I had fundraised for back home. Then I headed south to Sihanoukville, where I spent six weeks working with M’Lop Tapang, an organization focused on addressing community issues such as a lack of education, sexual abuse, drug addiction and basic health problems. It was impossible to witness the work being done in Sihanoukville and walk away unchanged.
If you, too, are vacillating between a path focused on those less fortunate and one focused on your own personal development, know that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Here are three valuable lessons I learned from my experiences in Cambodia.
1. Seek out people who are aligned with the vision.
By the time of my return visit, M’Lop Tapang had grown from about 20 people to more than 200. The same people who had left their comfortable Western lives so many years before were still there, persistent as ever. By banding together with like-minded people, they were able to make a meaningful, long-term impact.
I realized I could create a similar environment within my own businesses.
Starting a company, in and of itself, demands intensive collaboration. Early in my career, I worked with a good friend to create a health-related tech company to democratize access to a clinical experience online.
My friend is a doctor, so he provided the medical expertise, I provided the technical experience, and we worked with a designer to create a user-friendly site. Our complementary knowledge meant that we could quickly build a valuable product. One of us could not have done that alone. This is a hard lesson for many entrepreneurs to learn, but once you trust the people around you, you can achieve your goals far more efficiently.
2. Don’t try to fix or solve. Understand and support.
During my first trip to Cambodia, I spent a day in a small slum just outside of Sihanoukville where M’Lop Tapang was starting an outreach program to provide basic hygiene education to mothers and children.
Some of the kids had untreated infections and wounds. Their family’s daily budget couldn’t afford such simple medicine. Feeling powerless, I started fetching medical supplies from the nearby pharmacy. What I came to realize was that, while I might be able to temporarily alleviate a few small issues, I alone was not able to make the lasting impact needed. It became obvious how little I actually knew. I thought I would go and help people, but in reality, I had almost nothing to offer them.
I returned years later with a new perspective. Just as I had learned how important it is to trust the people you work with, I learned how much you stand to gain from listening to those you’re trying to benefit.
When my friend and I were building the health tech startup, we essentially locked ourselves in a room for a year and didn’t talk about it to anyone else until we were nearly done. We assumed that we knew what people wanted from the product we were building. We should have been seeking their input to find out what they truly needed.
Everyone has valuable perspectives to bring to the table. Remember that, and then listen to people.
3. Reverse-engineer your goals to find divergent solutions.
The first big shift in my life was deciding that I could impact more people as an entrepreneur than as a doctor. The second shift came years later when I realized that, even after establishing several companies, I still wasn’t making that impact.
I decided to start with the end goal and work backward: How could we build a system that enabled these communities to help themselves? This is divergent thinking in action—considering different approaches and perspectives.
What I learned by thinking in reverse is that there is no such thing as a “quick fix.” After 10 years of building companies, I’m finally teaming up with friends and fellow entrepreneurs to launch a program that teaches Cambodian youth about entrepreneurship and helps them build companies that address local issues.
It’s easy to believe that you’ve set yourself on a direct course to your end goal, but you should always be open to new paths that appear along the way. You may learn the most from those you set out to help and find a more rewarding route to your destination.