It’s a perfect day in Washington, DC. It’s cold, but in a pleasant, fall way. What I love about this city is that it is nowhere as crowded as New York or San Francisco, and wherever you look there is a building that looks so perfect that it almost seems surreal, as if they popped up from your AP US History textbook into life.
As we walk the streets of Washington DC with Jack Kosakowski, the CEO of Junior Achievement, we recited lines that sounded familiar. These lines were the kind that have been embedded in our minds for months now. The same lines we would say to a customer, an investor, or a judge from the National Student Leadership Summit. Rachel Gorgas, wearing a beautiful green dress from Jack Wills, clings onto my arm and asks,
“Are you scared?”
I shrugged. Was I? Of course I was. We are about to enter The White House. I had every reason to be, except I wasn't. In a way, I was scared, but perhaps it's the months of exposure that Junior Achievement have given me or the unCalifornia kind of cold that made me almost numb.
It’s hard to imagine that this entire journey started from a time of pain and suffering. The night before, I joined Rachel and Jack for dinner at The Hamilton. We discussed about why we joined the program and how it’s changed our lives. A topic from this conversation hit me- what did make me start?
We all know the story of what I went through, but in reality what other factors lead to this achievement? To me it was more about believing. We live in a society where the kind of work Rachel and I do can be looked down on by some of our peers. Rachel and I are not only entrepreneurs but champions in our own way. Rachel’s team, CCA Today, won first place at the National Student Leadership Summit last summer, and my Herban Movement took home the Microsoft Social Innovation Award right here in Washington, DC exactly 5 months before we returned to Washington DC to continue our journey. A week before, we were plucked from our college-focused lives and told that we would have the opportunity to return to the city that brought us together, and meet some very important people in The White House. By now, we had already graduated from the program and given our titles and duties to a completely new set of people.
What I love about my work is that I get to surround myself with people like Rachel. Today, we met a new set of fellow millennial entrepreneurs. Urbana Anam and Jannatul “Alifa” Rowshan, two inspiring girls from New York City, make custom hijabs for Muslim women who want more fashionable options. Kenneth Huertas from Los Angeles founded a business that cleans cars in his area-with just one cup of water. And then there was Crystal Sanchez, who helped develop a locket that doubles as a communicator that people can wear, and the necklace had buttons that alert others in case they feel like they were being stalked or about to be harassed. We are all from different parts of the country, but we are united by one thing- we saw a problem, and we tackled it.
So, going back to the idea of believing. When I started Herban Movement, it was hard for people to believe in my group and what we do. There were lots of “what if”s surrounding what we were trying to achieve. But over the time, we realized one crucial factor to success- if you wanted people to believe in you, you first have to believe in yourself. Often times before an event, we would pant or sweat or choke out of fear of rejection. I was afraid of multiple things. What if we failed? What if we lost regionals, or nationals? What if no one cares?
I see today that the current group of students that I handed Herban Movement to is struggling with the same things we struggled with- fear. For some strange reason, some Millennials completely disregard the fact that the kind of work we do with Junior Achievement is life changing. For me, this was never a job, but a privilege. I get to travel around the country and meet amazing people, both peers with similar entrepreneurial mindsets and incredible professionals from different industries. I get to do things that not a lot of people my age do not get to do, like be on live TV, or become invited to The White House for an exclusive panel. But most of all, I get to share my story, and inspire others to walk the same path I did. Tell me, what’s wrong with that?
I was telling Megan Smith, U.S. Chief Technology Officer about why I think it’s completely foolish that some people think what I am doing is something that can be considered “lame.” On one side of the table sat the young entrepreneurs, and on the other side of the table sat White House representatives who took the time to listen to what we had to say, figures like The President's Science Advisor, Dr. John Holdren.
That’s right, they took the time to listen to us. A group of diverse Millennials from different parts of the country, all united by the same passion. Today, we had a voice, and big names were listening to us- including the biggest one in the country.
From the Eisenhower Building, we walked to the West Wing, and sat at the reception area where we continued our conversation. I was in awe of what these kids had done. And then the news came; he was ready for us.
And then there we were, in the doors of The Oval Office. We are welcomed by The President of the United States himself, President Barack Obama. I shake his hand and introduce myself, still in awe. We tell him about our stories, what we have innovated, and the aligned passion we share. It was very surreal speaking to The President. In the back of my mind I thought that a year ago, I would not have imagined this happening. But there I am standing in front of the leader of our nation, discussing entrepreneurship for my generation.
So, ladies and gentlemen, as I type this, I am currently on-board an airplane returning to California, still in awe, and still amazed. My mind floats higher than this airplane. Did that just happen? I will most likely not be releasing this post for a while. I am still lost in the clouds, wondering how a homeless teenager ended up within the walls of the grandest house in America.
If you are ever doubting yourself or anything, just remember- no one will believe in you unless you believe in yourself. Just as Rachel Gorgas says on her blog post, "If you believe something similar to what I believed, don’t let those lies keep you from doing perhaps what you’re truly meant to do. Don’t let the past define you or your future. Don’t let others’ envy or bitterness get in the way of your happiness."
I did not believe I was college material on my first years in high school. By the time I believed in myself my grades spiked significantly, but it was still too late. All the UC’s and CSU’s I applied to rejected me. Cogswell, fortunately, took me in. And once again, I started a new chapter of my life, walking an unfamiliar territory, with many challenges ahead of me. It's a big scary world out there, but I learned to trust myself and believe that I can do it- because I know I can.
Everything that has happened to me and my team, from the regional and national titles, the live TV experience, and being invited to speak to President Obama in The Oval Office, happened because I had an epiphany. At some point, while I was, as Juju Chang calls it, "couch surfin", I decided that I would believe in the voice in my head that told me to go for it. We live in a time where people with ideas at school can get bullied for being some kind of “nerd,” and the voices of people involved with non-profits like Junior Achievement are drowned by peer pressure. It is most definitely not lame to be a young entrepreneur. I got to shake Obama’s hand, and he gave me a Presidential Coin. What’s wrong with that?
Believe in yourself. Once you accept whatever you believe in as the truth, then others will start believing in you. You are your own person, do not let the pressure of society drown your ideas. And if you ever need someone to believe in you, you know where to find me. Follow the path your heart wants you to, and surround yourself with people who believe in what you have to say. And then, who knows? Perhaps the President will believe in you too.
Wednesday, November 25th held the most bright and promising day in Capital of the United States. The temperature read 46 degrees, but coming from the previous 30 degree London weather, suddenly the DC weather was nicely temperate to me. The sun was gleaming and warming the hearts of all the wanderers around the city. This city enchanted me as I thought of the rich history and the Junior Achievement memories associated here with the CCA Today team. All the hard work we did was showcased here, and I felt honored to be back.
On the day of November 25th, I strolled down the streets anticipating the day alongside one of my best friends who I met through Junior Achievement, and the CEO of the non-profit company that encourages the youth to achieve their academic goals. Joseph and I shot possible questions to each other, rehearsing our answers while reflecting on what we practiced over 5 months ago the last time we were here. I distinctly remember clinging on to Joseph and asking “aren’t you a bit scared?” For shortly we’d be pitching our companies to the leader of our country, and it all became too surreal to believe