Why this CEO ditched Corporate America to launch a nonprofit

May 14, 2015, 2:45 PM UTC
Photograph by Sergio Villareal

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Describe one make or break moment in your career–how did you navigate it? is written by Erin Ganju, co-founder and CEO of Room to Read.

I had been working in international business development for several years when I finally realized that I needed to pursue my real passion: providing educational opportunities to those in poverty. But if I wanted to pursue my dreams I had to leave behind my comfortable, relatively predictable life in the corporate world for a whole new set of challenges.

This was going to be my make or break moment—diving head first into the nonprofit sector. I knew that even if I failed, what didn’t ‘break’ me would make me a stronger, wiser person. This welcoming of the unknown is what lies at the heart of every make or break moment. In fact, if you never experience this internal conflict then you’re probably not challenging yourself enough. It’s moments like this when we really discover what we’re capable of.

When my co-founders and I founded Room to Read in 2000 we were faced with a lot of unknowns: Would we be able to secure funding? Could we attract top talent to a startup? Would our program model lead to the kind of impact we were counting on for future funding? The risk was huge. And I often questioned my decision to leave the security I had, but every time I did I reminded myself of the enormous potential my company had.

In Silicon Valley, there’s a motto entrepreneurs live by: Fail forward. And, boy, did we embrace that mantra in our first office in San Francisco. We even created a new business model, ensuring that if we failed it would probably be so spectacular someone would be compelled to write us up as the business case of what not to do when launching a startup. We gave ourselves exactly one year to test our model. We implemented our programs in two countries, Nepal and Vietnam, and we attempted to raise enough funds to sustain the organization. If we couldn’t meet our goals in a year we would shut down.

Now, looking back at that first year, one key component of our model stands out: the fact that we set measurable goals and reported out our progress against them. Little did we know that this results-orientation approach combined with transparency to our donors would be so successful that it has become embedded in our business DNA. Today, these are the core principles by which we run the organization.

Fifteen years later, instead of being held up as an example of how not to start a nonprofit, Room to Read has been selected by The Brookings Institution as a case study on how to successfully scale one. During our first year as Room to Read a famous quote sat on my desk, and still sits there today. It’s by the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, you can. Boldness has a genius, magic and power to it.” So, find out what inspires a mixture of fear and excitement in you and run towards it. We can all benefit from a world where more people follow their dreams.

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