If you haven’t read Part 1 or Part 2 of our Transparency Series (on Jenny Rae’s journey before, during and after Bain and Company), make sure you start there – it will illuminate the back story to what we share here. Enjoy!
I sat in the gate area at Washington-Dulles airport, awaiting my first flight overseas. My head was newly shaved (I wore big earrings to make me feel less self-conscious – it was like my protective helmet was gone), I had a full backpack checked, and I wore practical, non-cute cargo shorts, a tank top, and new Chacos.
I was nervous – I’d been out of the country a few times before, but never like this. Sure, I’d visited Germany with a high school group, traipsed to Scotland with a friend for Thanksgiving on a $300 Priceline ticket, and visited Ghana twice to do service work and medical research. I’d even been on a cruise with my family. But before – well, I always had a plan, and had something safe to go back to.
My diploma was fresh in hand, I’d just completed a summer internship in PR with Burson-Marsteller, and it was time for the adventure of a lifetime. Sure, I was excited, but I was also scared – big time scared. I didn’t know how to process the unknown. So, I started to do something, anything, to keep my mind busy. I started learning my ABCs – in Spanish.
I have a musical ear, and the ability to pick up rudimentary forms of language easily, so it wasn’t long before I had the letters down – in fact, by the end of the flight, I felt like a real Latina princess. My best friend and traveling companion, Lawson, was sporting – she’d studied Spanish for 10 years and was confident, conversational and even funny in the language.
When we arrived in San Salvador, El Salvador – our first port of call – we were met by MaryBeth, a Catholic mission worker. She was not what you might expect – in her late 30s, she was from the Northeast US, had brown frizzy hair, wore soccer jerseys and Adidas flats, and rode a motorbike. She borrowed (maybe stole) a truck to come pick us up at the airport, and initiated us with the finest of El Salvadoran cuisine – Papusas at a local Papuseria (a shack on the side of the road with ~6 tables).
Not one to take things easy, I dove in to the local food, but no sooner did we place our order than a loud sound came from the shack next door. Like a real wide-eyed deer, I sat firmly at the table while everyone else dove for cover. Our first drive-by shooting (no injuries, thankfully), and we hadn’t been in country for 2 hours. Holy freaking cow – how was I going to make it for a year??
Lawson and I quickly made a pact to tell no-one anything bad or dangerous that happened (we figured we were in for it, anyhow, after encountering a shooting before our first sleep), and just to make the most of our newfound freedom. We were determined to make a difference, whatever that meant, and threw ourselves wholeheartedly into our three forms of engagement in each new country: historical reading (to understand the legacy of the country), service, and adventure.
For the next 4 weeks, we dove in. We heard loud music coming from a tiny room near our one-room 300 sq.ft. apartment one afternoon, and joined (one, and then subsequent) the culprit aerobics class. We ate street food. We sang karaoke with Japanese businessmen. We skinny dipped in volcanic lakes. We played soccer in local village games (I scored a game winning goal in a nail biter). We rode chicken buses, hitchhiked and fellowshipped with rural farmers. We hosted kids’ educational programs, athletic programs for women, domestic violence support meetings, and held English lessons. We even tried to cross a lake in a handmade canoe with one giant paddle in a looming thunderstorm.
In short, we fell in love with El Salvador and its people, but had no idea what we were doing.
I chronicled our whole trip in the first book I ever wrote, Going Global: An Around the World Adventure (it’s much more interesting than my consulting work, but much less widely read). As such, I won’t go into great detail about everything that happened on the trip, but I wanted to give you a taste for my lack of worldliness, my desire to dive in, and my utterly profound mix of confusion and abundant hope.
Why? When I began the trip, I really didn’t know much about some very important things. I had a myopic view of business. I’d persevered with a rebellious, pessimistic and armchair critic attitude toward the U.S. government. I had a passion for serving the poor but a misplaced hero complex.
But more important was what I didn’t have. I knew what I was good at, but didn’t have any idea what I liked to do. That first month on the road, this hit me in the face – for the first time in my life, I wasn’t paid or graded to do anything. I didn’t have to please anyone else. And I didn’t know how to operate. I couldn’t measure what we were doing. I couldn’t measure my performance. I couldn’t accumulate anything. I just had to be.
Our trip proceeded with fervor. We went into dump villages to train people on business in Guatemala. They literally lived on piles of trash, and were so beautiful and it was the saddest place I’d ever been but I still loved them. We turned down a retired dentist’s offer to spend months sailing on his boat (we met him in a bar, after all). We connected with a rural hospital in Honduras and served patients and assisted with surgeries for a wonderful week. We traveled to a mountain village in central Honduras and met people who changed our life. We rode a bus to the border of Honduras and Nicaragua, only to discover we hadn’t meant to go to that border crossing at all. While we were waiting at the border, we met people from a small city in California that I eventually (through an unusual chain of events) moved to 6 years later.
We chartered a plane to serve at an orphanage in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. We climbed a volcano and met the President of Nicaragua in a market. We hitchhiked to the most glorious beach in northwestern Costa Rica where we would have surfed if we knew how. We got hoodwinked by a fake taxi driver in Lima, Peru. We hiked the Inca Trail and were amazed by the endurance of ancient engineering. We slept on a bus and woke up in the most glorious Peruvian desert.
Then, all of a sudden, just a few short months after we started, it was time to move continents.
A culture shock day in Houston, a stopover in Europe, and we were in Zimbabwe. I hadn’t heard anything about Robert Mugabe, and imagined the Africa of lore – big animals, wild people, beautiful outfits. Our host smuggled currency to us in cargo pants (the currency had just been deregulated and hyperinflation was a thing, but foreign exchange was illegal). We rode horses on safari, watched hippos in the Zambezi and took in the majesty of Victoria Falls – in view, and by raft.
Then, all of a sudden, on a beach in Malawi, Lawson’s fiancé surprised her, they got engaged, and the whole trip changed.
Lawson was, and still is, one of life’s greatest gifts to me. She was one of the first people to tell me to do more, not less – to dream more, not less, to work more, not less, to go for more, not less. Her art is making things happen, and her ability to connect with people is world class.
And before I realized it, her engagement hit me. She said yes to a date, to plans, to a city, to a man. She had a future.
And the loneliness descended.
I didn’t realize how much I treasured having a companion on the “we’re figuring things out” journey. All of a sudden, Lawson was someone else’s companion, and I was alone. Even though we were still together daily, and even though we still shared everything, there was a new distance between us. Our futures were diverging. And it was up to me to figure out what mine would bring.
We finished our humble Christmas celebration (toothpaste for me, face cream for Lawson), and sent Romesh back to the U.S. We bused our way through Mozambique to South Africa, and while our next 4 weeks were planned full of safaris in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, when we received an offer to cat-sit in Cape Town, we realized how travel-fatigued we really were and gladly accepted.
I had a clear moment in Cape Town when I fell in love with the city. It was on our second night there, and I wasn’t sure what all the hype was – until we rounded the corner on our way to sundowners (a gorgeous South African sunset-watching friendly festive drinking tradition) over Camps Bay and it was the most beautiful setting and scenery I’d ever seen in my life – urban and raw and unspoiled and so full of color. And then, after I saw her beauty, Cape Town kept revealing her layers to me and I left 4 weeks later after learning how to speak clicks and dancing in the streets and building houses to replace shacks with Habitat for Humanity feeling like I had found a home. I knew I would return.
The trip seemed like it sped towards its end from there, although we still had a whole continent to explore. We got to sit in first class after getting bumped en route to Bangkok, and couldn’t believe our eyes when we landed in Asia. I mean, all those people and so much stuff on motorbikes and no rules and where were we?
We began playing a game called “what is the craziest thing you’ve seen on a motorbike?” You guys – fridges, full refrigerators. Families. Families with refrigerators. Banana trees. Bicycles. It was a study in incredulity.
In SE Asia, we worked with rescue and skills training centers for women that left the sex trade. When I say women, I mean that the youngest one was 8. She had been sold into sexual slavery by her family. It was raw work, and painful to know a new world that I didn’t like much, and some of the most beautiful days I have ever had in my life.
We visited cultural heritage sites in Bangkok, rode elephants in northern Thailand, ate too many crepes, rode bicycles and tuk-tuks, and camped on beaches in Ko Samui. I sat on a plastic lawn chair on a bus en route to Phnom Penh, discovered for the first time in my life that genocide had happened there after I was born (25% of the country’s population killed in a few short years – how had I not heard about this?), and entered Vietnam. I visited the American War Crimes museum and sat on a beach in Hue when I heard that the U.S. had declared war on Iraq and wondered if anyone had bothered to study this Vietnam war everyone in the U.S. seemed to have forgotten and thought we had won but there was a different story being told there. We visited peaceful Halong Bay and ate tarantulas and turned down puppy for dinner in Sapa, and we stood on the border of China.
Then, Lawson left to go plan her wedding, and I continued on.
A short wander through the back woods of Laos later, I met my first consultant – a woman on furlough from McKinsey who was traveling the world alone. She was badass – an Ironwoman, with a lot of money, and some real wisdom to share. I feared her and liked her and was terrified of her life – she was so accomplished and still searching for meaning too, and I thought maybe I would have things figured out by then but definitely hoped I might by ~15 years later when I was her age.
Back in Thailand, I sat outside one night and pondered my future. It was like I was having a conversation out loud, my thoughts were so clear. And I had to answer a question: did I still want to be a doctor? I had seen medical clinics in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, South Africa, Thailand and Cambodia. And while we loved loved loved so much of our trip, I came to a scary realization – those were my least favorite days. Why? I don’t much like sick people.
Then, a new thought crept in. I’d wanted to study medicine to change the world, to have a tool to serve the rich and the poor, to have something first to learn and later to teach. What if I could use another canvas to do that?
The key was this: I didn’t love medicine. I could do it. I could probably even be good at it. But now I had dealt with all of these great big feelings of sadness and compassion and justice and concern and wonder and I had a new mandate. I wanted to live and work, just not work for later. And I refused to believe what everyone said: that this trip was my last hurrah before a lifetime of mundanity. I was going for amazing, and I wasn’t going to stop until I got there.
So, when I thought back to my favorite days on the trip, I realized there was a theme. From our second day in El Salvador, I had studied the concrete industry – I wondered why the government kept choosing to repave old roads instead of creating new ones. In Guatemala, I researched cultural tourism and Spanish immersion training. In Honduras, I wanted to know how the hospital trained its nurses and bought its pharmaceuticals. In Nicaragua, I wanted to teach the children at the orphanage skills so they could make money when they were old enough to be on their own.
And on it went.
In short, I fell in love with business in a shack village. In a dump. In a rural, muddy orphanage. In a bustling Asian city. I fell in love with business everywhere.
I couldn’t get over the creativity of business. How it’s woven into the fabric of society. How people can do it badly and poorly and still do it. How much the same it is everywhere, and yet how different.
And all of a sudden, even though I had a new perspective on the world, and a new aloneness that I was still becoming comfortable with, and no school identity or family affiliation to rely on – the “it’s all on me” felt exciting and challenging and invigorating.
So, I wrapped up the trip and headed back to the U.S. with one last stopover in Taiwan. I decided I would continue having epic adventures, and I wouldn’t become lame and domesticated. I rode my bike and worked at a flower shop and was the worst take-out girl Outback had ever seen. I refilled the coffers for a few short months, and set my sights on the place I had first come alive: South Africa.
One night, an elderly woman from my church invited me to dinner at her simple, understated house. She served me grilled cheese and tomato soup and shared her epic love story and I thought she just wanted to hang out. But when I left, she handed me a card and I will never forget the way I felt when I opened that letter and out fell 10 $100 bills. The card said, “Have fun in South Africa.” And I cried and called her and yelped and bought a one-way ticket within a week.
What would I do? I didn’t know. I brought enough money to last 3 months and planned to make it up as I went. All I knew was that I was in love with business, and I was off to do something about it.
Next Transparency Series article, How I Started My First Consulting Business.