When I wrote the business plan for One Degree in 2010, I was a young, fresh-faced, 29 year-old, ready to take on the world. I didn’t fully understand what it would mean for me to actually be working on One Degree for a decade. I knew it was going to be hard and tiring because I saw my former bosses, who founded their nonprofit organizations, get progressively more worn out.
While I witnessed the toll social entrepreneurship took on them, I wasn’t prepared for the uniquely exhausting toll of my journey as a POC startup founder. I found myself physically, mentally, and spiritually spent by the time 2020 rolled around (but if we’re honest, it started in 2018).
The toll that social entrepreneurship has taken
While any founder will tell you that their startup journey is difficult, I’d argue that nonprofit startups are the most difficult to start and then grow into a successful operation. However, founders of color don’t really talk about the toll that startups takes on them. Perhaps the personal and family sacrifices are the final straws that lead POC to leave nonprofits or not start organizations at all (with the rest of the issues being, of course, systemic racism within the nonprofit sector itself).
There’s a cost to sharing your story
“Telling your story” is very common practice in the nonprofit fundraising space. Before starting One Degree, I barely had any fundraising experience. So I attended workshops, got coaching, and went through accelerators to figure out how to raise money to support our mission. At every single fundraising workshop, they emphasized the importance of sharing my story — finding “compelling” narratives for why I started One Degree. These workshops and training sessions were quite cathartic, and honestly a bit like therapy, because they asked me to dig deep to unearth my origin story. I had a chance to excavate and understand some of my personal reasons for wanting to launch an organization. So that’s what I did. I dug deep and, as a result, you now can read plenty of articles, blog posts, and newsletters, watch TED talks, Youtube videos, and listen to podcasts, in which I share my personal story.
I poured my heart out every time I talked to a funder about my family’s immigration story and about my upbringing. But while I told stories of optimism and the American dream, they were wrapped with the trauma of immigration, racism, and classism. My trauma. And my family’s trauma.
Consequently, over the years funders supported and helped the organization grow. Now I’m not saying it was solely because of my personal story — because eventually we were able to also share stories of One Degree’s impact — but the story sharing component of these conversations played an important role in breaking the ice and getting folks to understand and get invested in who we are at our core.
While this fundraising success was great for the organization, there was a complicated shadow side to sharing stories about my family’s struggles. It put my family in an awkward and exposed situation. I put my family in this situation and felt like I exploited our story, and my parents were not happy about this at all. We got into fights and arguments that disrupted our family harmony. The last thing you need as a social entrepreneur is an unstable support system.
Filipinxs are a very proud people who are deeply devoted to family, and my parents felt that sharing these stories brought shame to our family. My parents also never liked attention being put on them or our family, and were happy being in the shadows. So when they read news articles and blog posts where I openly shared decades-old stories of our family, they felt like it cast a negative light on our family and on them as parents.
I now see where they are coming — it’s taken several years to understand. When I wrote down these stories, I wrote them with blinders on and with the singular goal of making One Degree successful. And this intense focus on making One Degree successful, led me to not hear my parents and to sacrifice my relationship with my parents. We’ve since repaired our relationship (I hope, if they’re reading this!), but I still have not figured out a way to “tell my story” without crossing this cultural line.
The vicious cycle of working twice as hard
It’s very common in the nonprofit sector for people to be burned out. It’s almost cliche at this point to even be talking about burn-out in the sector. But with that said, it’s doubly common in the nonprofit sector for people of color to be so burned out, that they’re battered, deep-fried, and crispy.
I’m sure this has something to do with the fact that only 8% of nonprofit executive directors are people of color and that only 4% of philanthropic funding goes to nonprofits led by POC.
How could we not be burned out when we get less money to do more work for, with, and by our communities?
To top it off, leaders of color have the mentality that brought us to our place of success: I’ve been told over and over again that I have to work twice as hard as white people to get to the same place. While it’s hard for me to calculate how hard I’ve been working in comparison to my white entrepreneur peers, I can say that the funding we’ve gotten has been nowhere near what white-led peer organizations have gotten. I don’t have the connections, the talk, nor “the look” that these other entrepreneurs have, so I worked twice as hard to make what limited resources we had work for our community.
What people also don’t really talk about is the pressure that you feel as a POC leader. There are so few of us POC leaders in the social impact space, and there are even fewer POC founders. I can’t even think of another current Filipinx-American founder and leader of an organization (although that doesn’t mean they’re not out there, and if you are, please contact me!).
And so in the back of my mind, when I’m up at 2 am working on a grant proposal or preparing for a meeting, I’m thinking: “Failure is not an option for me. I am not going to be the Filipinx-American founder who failed.” So I worked twice as hard, and made miracles happen.
I’m not saying that social entrepreneurship is not hard for anyone who takes this road, because it’s hard no matter what your background or experiences are, but in particular, there is an even more difficult toll that POC leaders don’t talk about on their bodies and souls.
It’s the mental gymnastics and the self-doubt. There’s an unhealthy expectation that I have put on myself and that the sector encourages: for us to mold ourselves, change ourselves, and kill ourselves to put our organizations first.
So I found myself exhausted, burned out, crispy fried, like Jollibee chicken. I found myself feeling jaded about philanthropy. I became short and argumentative with people, especially with my husband at home, who has been beyond patient with me over the last decade. I found myself deferring personal dreams, like growing our family, writing more, and exploring fun hobbies that other normal people do.
Frankly, I did not like who I was becoming.
The journey is long
Even though my career has been committed to making the world more equitable and just, the work of social justice is long, difficult, and can be fraught with peril.
The last 10 years of starting and running One Degree has just been one leg of the journey.
And if I’m going to continue the good work of making the world a more just and equitable place, I can’t do it as an empty husk of my former self. I can’t do this as a burnt, deep-fried lumpia of myself. I need to come back to it with a refreshed mind, body, and spirit.
I’m grateful to my friends, mentors, and coaches who kept reminding me that my organization would not fail if I took some time off. And taking a sabbatical is indeed the ultimate test for me to see if my organization was built to last.
This is why I negotiated to take a three-month sabbatical when One Degree was going through the merger process with Alluma. This sabbatical is quite a blessing, and I’m fully aware that very few people in their careers get the opportunity to take a sabbatical and take a break from their usual day-to-day work. This sabbatical is a massive privilege, and I’m incredibly grateful to my team for carrying the torch high while I’m on this much needed time of rest.
What I hope to get out of the sabbatical
Before taking on the rest of the journey, I need to hit the reset button.
As a highly regimented and structured professional, I want to try something new during my sabbatical. I want to try to be carefree, unstructured, and maybe even a little fun.
I also want to get some space from the way that I was feeling and being as a social entrepreneur. I need space from the “hustle” culture. I’m not saying hustling is a bad thing, but there’s a cost to full-time hustling, and I want to explore what’s on the other side.
I also want to get some space from the expectations that the sector has put on me and that I’ve put on myself. I want to see if I can disentangle myself from the mental gymnastics that POC go through to be accepted in the nonprofit sector.
And of course, during this sabbatical, I plan to rest and reconnect with myself and my family.
This won’t be my last
I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity for a sabbatical, and it definitely will not be my last, as I plan to make these a regular part of my professional life moving forward — perhaps once a decade? And I highly encourage everyone to do the same, if they can.
While I don’t think I’ll be able to stop sharing my story or working twice as hard when I get back to the office, I hope that this sabbatical will give me the needed space to explore ways to get back to the hard work of social justice in a more sustainable way and with more empathy toward the ones I love.