Big Changes - A message from John
An Oda Story
As I sit here on the front porch of Oda’s medical center during a particularly rainy monsoon morning, I thought I’d take some time to provide an update that strays from our normal posts. Historically I’ve done my best to highlight the works and achievements of our team, our students and our community rather than provide personal updates. I’ve prioritized making the people of Oda and the story of their amazing community the centerpiece of The Oda Foundation, as I’ve always found their stories far more compelling than my own journey and the perceived sacrifices that I’ve made along the way. Today, for what I believe to be good reason, I’ve decided write a bit about the evolution of our project, the intersection of my life and Oda, and my decision to attend Columbia Business School this fall.
Since 2012 I have spent eight to nine months a year living and working in remote Nepal, falling in love with the country and the people in the process. Despite the many challenges and cultural barriers that surround life out here, the people of Nepal and specifically the people of Oda have become family to me. In many ways it was these challenges that helped forge such a special connection. Living in a small mud home with no electricity, internet, or running water in one of the most remote places on earth was as tough as you might expect – and during my most overwhelming days I came to lean on our team and community for support. Despite many early challenges, doubts and insecurities our project slowly grew from that small mud cowshed into a fully functional hospital, our team of three grew to eighteen and our startup project became a well-respected development initiative with over 50,000 beneficiaries.
Evolution and Maturation
My goal has never changed…while our journey has had ups, downs, and hit almost every kind of bump – my personal mission has remained constant. I’ve always sought to put our local team in a position to succeed, striving to encourage their success and independence. With this is mind, since the day we saw our first patient I have remained focused on elevating our local team and “working myself out of a job.” I’ve always believed that a Nepali project should be Nepali (and not American) led, and while I still have lots of work to do, (largely relationship building & fundraising) our Nepali team, specifically my partner Karan Singh, has taken over ownership and control of the project. This operational stability has been a seminal achievement for our team and for the organization.
As a result of this rapid progress, I’ve spent much of the past 12 to 18 months consciously reducing my workload and responsibilities on the ground – most of the time serving as a cheerleader for our incredible Nepali team and Fellows as they continued to impress. On both accounts they have not disappointed – and in almost every way performed more competently and capably than I believe I could have.
The reality of our progress didn’t sink in until last year, as I was sitting with one of our Fellows I looked around our mountain top compound and exclaimed – “this is the realization of a dream”. While I would never delude myself into thinking our work was done, that moment on the mountain top brought into focus how much we had accomplished, and left me with a tremendous sense of pride in our team.
With this new reality in mind, I began to think about how I could best serve Oda and maximize my ability to live an impactful life. Since March of 2013 Oda has consumed almost all of my mental bandwidth. The Foundation has been My Life, however, our evolution and maturation led me to start wondering what life would look like as Oda became an important Part of My Life. This period led me to think about how I could step back from the day to day operations, keep learning, and still be able to meaningfully contribute.
A Big Change
When we started Oda I would acknowledge that I lacked critical social sector know-how and as a result was forced to quickly acquaint myself with the fields of public health, education, public policy, non-profit management and of course Nepali Language.
While I’ve always been a fan of learning by “jumping in to the deep end,” the development of our team has given me confidence that now is the right time to take a step back from my decreasing day-to-day responsibilities in Oda to think critically about my time on the ground. After an enormous amount of conversation, reflection, and research I decided that the best next step in my journey and that of the Foundation was for me to return to graduate school. With that said, I’ve decided to attend Business School at Columbia University this fall where I will focus on social entrepreneurship and enterprise. In addition to putting my experiences into a broader context, my time at Columbia will provide me with opportunities to develop a more defined framework for addressing the many challenges surrounding sustainable development. I return to school acutely aware of what I would like to achieve, and I believe this time will be imperative, as I evaluate next steps for The Foundation and my own life.
I have shared my decision to return to school with a number of close friends and family, however, despite making my decision several months ago I’ve been hesitant to broadcast it. This was due in large part to a deep insecurity that a large portion of our support stemmed from people who contributed to Oda because of a personal relationship with me and the perceived sacrifice that supporters believed that I was enduring to make a difference. This unfounded insecurity led me to the conclusion that if I spent less time in Nepal, people would care less about the project and ultimately care less about the people we are working so hard to support. In talking with friends, family, fellows and donors I have realized that while this may have been the case in year one or year two, it is certainly not the case today…I’ve also realized that this insecurity was self-important or even vain in many ways. The Oda Foundation has evolved into something much larger than one person, it is now an ecosystem consisting of our Nepali team, current and former fellows, donors, board and of course the tens of thousands of people we help in a given year. I have faith that anyone who has read this far is just as much a part of the Oda Foundation as I am…and while I may have worked to light the initial spark the number of torch bearers is now many. Our successes, our failures and the profound satisfaction that we are making a real difference are shared by all of us – a reality that is both humbling and reassuring.
What about the Foundation?
As I mentioned previously, my ability to take a small step back from the project is a seminal achievement and a testament to how far our team and our project have come. In our earliest days, I would spend my time on the ground actively managing the ins and outs of our operations. Since that time, my responsibilities have changed drastically – and while I still regularly have important conversations with Karan, the “trains run on time” in my absence. As a result, while in Oda I serve as an observer and a friend to our local team as they continue to thrive.
While I have relished this role, the lack of internet and a reliable cell phone connection have made it increasingly challenging to fulfill my responsibilities to the organization. At this point those responsibilities largely include relationship building and identifying the resources we need to sustain the project – as you can imagine that is a tall order when you don’t have email!
While at school during the next two years, I’ve made a commitment to wear two hats – as I work towards my degree and to share Oda’s story…and what better place to share our story than in New York City.
So what happens now?
So now the beat goes on. In just a few short weeks a team of three new Fellows will join our team on the ground to help provide the enthusiasm and energy which helps fuel our project. They will continue to provide rich social media content and serve as an intermediary to ensure that our sponsors, donors and followers continue to hear about the impactful work we are making each day.
I believe whole heartedly that my ability to pivot from 9 months a year in Nepal to 3 months a year in Nepal is one of our most significant accomplishments to date. I believe that this is the beginning of an exciting new chapter where our team will continue to lead the project to even greater heights…and I’m excited to be a part of this chapter, as my role and responsibilities evolve.
I wanted to end this post with something I wrote on our second Oda Foundation blog post four years ago. It is not particularly poetic, however, it captures the emotions that I felt at the time – and accurately predicted the emotions that I would experience over the next four years:
“At such an early stage in the game I can’t have every eventuality covered and I can’t expect to fundraise like a finely tuned machine…Rather, I am the squeaky bicycle doing my best to get moving in the right direction. I know full well, that this is just the beginning of my challenge and my struggles, but as I scroll through the pictures of the kids the smiles of the kids, I remember the sense of fulfillment I took away from my experience, and ultimately I remember why I’m doing this. Nobody ever said this was going to be easy, but as with everything the most satisfying things in life take time, dedication, and effort. They take falling down and getting back up…so to that end, despite the angst and the fear, the hope and the dream will keep this bike squeaking along.” – John, August 2013
Thank you all for reading – I’m excited to keep you posted on all of the exciting things to come!
*I would be remiss if I did not mention how bittersweet this decision has been. I am so proud of our team’s ability to run the show; however, I am profoundly sad about what that means. The people of Oda have become family to me – and the disappointment on the faces of the children when I let them know that I would not be returning until winter break cut deep. I imagine this is just a taste of what it feels like when you take the training wheels of your child’s bike or send them off to college. An odd and unsettling mix of pride and sadness as you realize that they don’t need you like they once did. I have been so blessed to have an opportunity to spend so much time in this magical community – and am eager to continue to work toward their and the projects continued success.
**In this post I write perceived sacrifices, because while there were many things I have missed or “sacrificed” along the way, I have been able to take far more from Oda than I have ever given. I have learned about international health, education and development however, above all else I’ve learned about myself through the incredible relationships I have built in Oda and in Nepal.