originally published on Thriving Blog
As a startup entrepreneur, I am constantly asked this question:
What’s your background and how did it prepare you to become an entrepreneur?
Of course I expect people to ask and wonder, and I often wonder the same thing. While I think it’s just fine to have a great idea, I also believe that the life experiences I’ve had have deeply and profoundly shaped my qualifications.
So, here is my answer according to what most people want to know: College degree? Check! User Experience Designer? Check! Content Strategist? Experience running a web development company? Check!
And since our startup is a wedding planning app, I must also answer according to my wedding planning experience: Recent bride? Check! Built the app with my husband during our engagement? Check! Used it to plan our own wedding? Check!
What you don’t know is that the single most important life event that prepared me to be doing exactly what I am doing now started when I was 13 years old.
I have been thinking a lot about this lately, and realized that my inclination towards entrepreneurship started 22 years ago.
Let me give you a little background. Growing up, my life was full of chaos all the time. Whether the crazy came from my father’s temper or his violent hands, no one was very happy. For some reason, I realized early on that I was smart. I could get good grades, and impressed teachers enough for them to pull me aside and inquire as to what I planned to do with my talents.
Since my family life also came with highly educated parents, I always knew college was not a question of if, but more a question of where.
To make matters even more complicated at home, when I was 10 years old my father pulled me aside and told me that I had to learn how to cook or no Nigerian man would pay a dowry on my behalf (another day I may tell the story of “The Bride Who Only Knew How to Boil & Salt Water”). To my frightened pre-adolescent ears, dowry was synonymous with drowning. So, I set a life-changing goal for myself: Figure out how to use my talents to get out of my house in a way that my parents would allow.
That meant getting into a really great college. My Nigerian parents were severely traditional and they had their eyes on Harvard and so my plan was this: get as far away as I can while still getting into a top college.
Of course California was the perfect choice. In my opinion, California was the place where freedom was just as evident as the sunshine and that’s where I was going. Plus, you could hardly get any farther away from Massachusetts and still be in the USA (if only Alaska had a top university…).
So there I was in my school library and my super-brilliant idea came to me. I would go to California somehow and that’s what would get me out of an arranged marriage and the continuous violence that filled the air in my parent’s house.
I was disrupting the Nigerian American industry of keeping the kids at home until marriage, and eventually choosing their spouses for them.
My MVP(minimum viable product) was to get into any college that was far enough to discourage my parents from visiting.
Going to California would be icing on the cake, but I knew that it would be quite difficult.
And so the journey began. Every year, I reviewed the acceptance requirements for UC Berkeley and Stanford. I also spoke to every teacher and school counselor who would hear me out, and I explained the situation. They were my investors and advisory board, writing letters of recommendation and doing everything they could to make sure I took advanced placement courses starting in my junior year.
I did not sleep much. I joined as many school clubs as I could in order to stay out of my house and do something that would help me get into college. I accepted my father’s 6pm curfew instead of fighting it so I could spend that time studying. I blocked out the bloodied faces of siblings (and often my own) by finding a book, learning more, winning spelling bees and high school scholarships. In essence, I wanted more for myself than what I was told was possible in my life. I wanted to thrive, and not just live or survive.
When I was 17 years old, the college acceptance letters started pouring in. I caressed the embossed school letterheads on each envelope. I looked for bigger packages and prayed small envelopes would stay away from my doorstep. I greeted the mailman, then headed to my room and shut the door as fast as I could. This journey had been a 4 year long odyssey and everything hinged on getting in. And everybody knows that four years to a teenager is 15 for an adult (I think nowadays they call that “internet time”).
During the summer of 1996, I boarded a plane to California. As I sat in my seat, I kept looking behind me to see if I was dreaming. Would my father suddenly board the plane and tell me I was not going? Would the stewardess call out my name and tell me there had been a mistake with my ticket and ask me to leave the plane? When the engine roared and I opened my eyes to see that I was still on that plane and about to change my life forever, I leaned back into the seat and laughed so hard! I had done it!
So, what has most prepared me to be an entrepreneur?
Here’s why: This experience taught me about dreaming big, facing my fears then doing something that seemed unbelievably impossible and living to tell about it. Sound familiar?
I have days when I feel overwhelmed and my fears creep in. I wonder what will become of our company and if we will succeed. But then, I sit back and remember that 13 year old girl who planned and executed her escape plan and I think: Girl, you’ve got this!
What life experience(s) prepared you to be an entrepreneur?