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Why Living in a Van for 12 Months Made Me an Awesome Entrepreneur

By January 2, 2015Blog

The dictionary defines a Social Entrepreneur as “a person who establishes an enterprise with the aim of solving social problems or effecting social change.” – for years ago, I probably would have agreed with this definition. Now I realise how insufficient this definition truly is.

When I was little, I would always look up to the Richard Brandsons of the world. I used to dream about their luxurious lives – being able to fly in private jets and drive in fast sports cars. I used to dream of being the boss. I used to have idealised ideas about what it would be like to do something that was going to change the world. I was so eager to begin my own entrepreneurial journey that on my 18th birthday I registered my first organisation – a charity – after I battled with anorexia amongst other mental health challenges my whole adolescence. The Rogue & Rouge Foundation (www.rogueandrouge.org.au) – ‘Rogue’ meaning a ‘rebel’ and ‘Rouge’ meaning red, which to me represented love and passion. I was The Passionate Rebel – on a mission to combat all the stigma attached to mental health concerns, and to eventually change the world.

I soon realised that starting your dreams isn’t as luxurious as I once thought – it comprised of working 3 part-time jobs (from night clubs, to waitressing to sales consulting), whilst studying full-time and also spending countless hours every day and sleepless night just to get my dreams off the ground. It seemed grim at times, but the little wins were the things that got me through. I felt every essence of me become challenged – I was tested over and over by the universe… “do you really  want this Nicole?” My integrity was continuously bought to my attention, and I learnt from a young age what responsibility really meant.

As a 19 year old, who had established a fairly successful charity that was helping young people access the support they needed – I had an experience that completely changed my perspective. I realised that I was hiding behind the clever brand I created. I wasn’t using my voice the way it needed to be used. I wasn’t truly standing up and fighting the good fight. I was hiding behind a mass amount of paperwork, and feeling validated by the pretty articles that were printed in the newspaper. So, just before my 20th birthday, I decided something needed to change. I decided to pack up everything I owned and change my direction completely. Many people in my life thought I was sabotaging what was becoming a successful career as a social entrepreneur – but regardless, I set my sails to the wind and trusted an unexplainable feeling deep inside of me.

In 2013, I lived in a van for 12 months to seek out the truth behind Australia’s education and health systems. I went on a quest to discover how our young people actually felt – instead of trusting the annual census and mental health reports. Little did I know at the time, as I was packing up my life and my business as I knew it, that the next 12 months wasn’t just a quest for the truth behind mental health – it was a complete personal, professional, spiritual, physical and emotional transformation.

I detached from my attachments – I let go of what was no longer serving me in all areas of my life. I began to understand what it meant to trust and live as a minimalist – and discovered that this was actually a joy, not a challenge. I started to realise that entrepreneurs are made from the very dreams that they dream. Our dreams create us – not visa versa. We become the dreamers once we allow ourselves to believe. I started to realise after a short time on the road that life is not about what we are programmed to believe – it is so, so much more. I learnt that we are all superheroes, and our epic journey’s are just waiting for us as soon as we surrender to our purpose. It wasn’t the 300 communities and school that we visited and spoke to that transformed me, or the 50 000 young people we met – it was the lessons that came with standing up for the thing I so deeply believed in – the lessons I learnt when I forced myself to use my own voice, and become completely and utterly raw and vulnerable.

There were 7 main factors of my learning that contributed to making a true entrepreneur out of me – and here’s what they were;

1.     Staying calm in compromising situations

A good entrepreneur should always have a practised ‘poker face’. When you have people that rely on you, that look up to you, it’s important that you’re able to handle challenge and adversity with a level head. Being able to put your emotions and fear aside to deal with compromising situations is definitely something you learn whilst living in a van for 12 months. After breaking down in Northern Western Australia – in the 50 degree heat, surrounded by nothing other than red dirt desert – I truly began to understood what fear was. Gut wrenching, heart-stopping, all-consuming fear. Walking through the desert to eventually reach an oil-rig where four 6’4 Aussie dudes greeted me saying “BLOOODY oath, haven’t seen a sheila in 4 weeks!” was nothing short of an experience. As we filled up the van with some diesel fuel that had spare and drove away, I understood the importance of defusing a stressful situation through first calming yourself down and thinking rationally. (I pretty much felt as cool as Bare-Grills surviving that one)

2.     Trust

Trusting in the universe was something I used to laugh at when people were guiding me to relinquish control. To me, rigid thinking, goal-setting and only trusting me, myself and I was the only way to get ahead. Being taught from a young age that ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ programmed me to trust nobody – let alone ‘the powers to be.’ Packing up my life and letting go of control, welcoming a new team and getting by on very little money really put my ability to trust and have faith in destiny to the test. What the universe deliver was beyond my wildest imagination. It was fate.

3.     Team Work

Rome was not built in a day – but more than that, Rome wasn’t built by one person. It takes a team to pull off something great. Being on the road forces you to rely on your team. I began to realise what you can achieve with the support of others, is so so much greater than what you’re able to achieve on your own.

4.     Being in the moment

One of the afternoons, driving through the South Australian countryside, it was becoming obvious that we weren’t going to make the next town by dark. For this reason, I made a point of pulling the van up and turning off the engine and the radio. We climbed to the roof of the vehicle and lay on the top. We were lying under a blanket of stars that became all-consuming. I had never seen stars like that before. I had never heard silence like that before. I understood what it meant to be completely present. I was transformed.

When you’re busy building a business, it can become tolling. You lose the passion and the joy you once experienced when everything was ‘new’. I realised how much more you have to give when you’re completely present – when you’re in awe of life and everything it offers – when you get taken over by a gratitude that is so much greater than you’re physical being. I understood what it meant to surrender to complete service – inspired by the realisation of how small we truly are and how precious our time really is.

5.     Dealing with constant change

A world-changing movement or business was never created from living in your comfort zone. Waking up in a new community every morning for a year made me realise how strong my comfort zone had become back home. I began to reflect on how this reflected in my decision making. Embracing and accepting constant change means you’re more equipped to take greater risks, be bolder, be stronger, be more courageous. This is what it means to be an entrepreneur – this is the true meaning of becoming a game changer.

6.     Creative inspiration from contrast

As my profile began to grow, I was getting asked to do speaking events in main cities whilst I was working in small communities sleeping in the van. One night I’d be in the van, or sleeping under the stars – and the next I’d be put up at the Radisson in Sydney or Melbourne. I realised that the lush, wealthy life I dreamed of as a kid had nothing to do with the spas and 5-star hotels – the richness actually lay in my experiences – and my experiences were heightened the more I experienced contrast. I became a lot less attached to where I was – and started to ask ‘what am I learning?’. It’s all a journey, and we can only understand things through experiencing contrast.

7.  Developing love and acceptance for all people 

Towards the end of the trip, we had parked the van up in a caravan park next to our new friend named Dave. Dave was around 65, looked very warn, and talked to us all afternoon about this life story – his love affairs, his loses, his medications – you name it, he talked about it. We listened all through the night – not really making comments of asking too many questions, just listening. By the time we went to bed we were exhausted – closing the van door and closing the curtain. 15 minutes later we hear a knocking on the window. I drew the curtain and saw Dave, just standing there looking at me. I opened the door and went to speak. He quickly put his finger up to my mouth and told me to ‘shhh’. He presented me with a cigarette and a can of coke, and proceeded to close our van door for us and walk off into the night.

It was a strange series of events – and one of many stories that deepened my appreciation of humans and just how random and complex we truly are. I was far from my private school girl roots and all the better for it. I was learning to appreciate everyone, without judgement and embrace them with sheer and utter love and acceptance.

So yes, a social entrepreneur is “a person who establishes an enterprise with the aim of solving social problems or effecting social change.” but what I know now is – the true change makers, the ones that really will make a difference in the world, are the ones that surrender to the dreams that make them. The ones who are crazy enough to believe what’s in their wildest imagination will eventually come to life. It’s not just about solving social problems – it’s about transforming yourself into the person you once dreamed you could be (and understanding that expectations are always different from reality).

Namaste beautiful people – go and be SUPERHEROES. Happy 2015 xo

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