When I got accepted to the consulting trip in SE Asia through my MBA program I knew it would be an incredible experience, but I did not anticipate it would completely change my life. Thailand had been on my bucket list for years, but I never thought twice about Cambodia. Our trip started in Thailand with Bangkok, then Pattaya and ultimately Siem Reap, Cambodia.
I had read about Cambodia, the culture, the people, the corrupt government and violent history. But all of the pre-trip briefings, TV Shows, movies, pamphlets and books did not prepare me for what I saw and felt while in Cambodia.
Although the Cambodian people (Khmer) had an extremely violent past under a military regime, the people were optimistic, loving, and gracious. I had never seen so many smiling faces and felt so welcome in a foreign country. Their overwhelming generosity sparked a surge of inspiration into my heart and spirit. They live in despairing poverty, survived a genocide and here they were with open arms to an American stranger. I wanted to do more, give more and invoke the same inspiration in others. I just didn’t know how.
After speaking with the founders of the NGOs we worked with, I discovered they all had a similar story of “I traveled through Cambodia, fell in love with the people and culture, so I started an NGO and haven’t left since.” That may seem crazy to someone looking on from the outside, but being there, it made perfect sense.
One day we made a visit to the Spitler School. A school that provides education to over 500 impoverished children and promotes students to lift themselves from abject poverty through education. (http://spitlerschool.org). After meeting with the children at the school, I realized how important education was to this community and the amount of lives that can be changed by one organization. I wanted to help this school and all of the other organizations striving to help this community, but I didn’t want to just be another anonymous cash donation. Instead, I wanted to actively make a change and share my own knowledge and education.
Then I had a revelation. I decided to completely reposition my career path from tech startup to international social entrepreneurship. I have traveled to every continent, but being around the Khmer people and knowing I was making a difference in their lives changed me. I knew I couldn’t go back to my old life. I was in the early stages of my third start up, but I decided to drop everything to focus on an international social venture.
When I returned to the states I was hungry for similar programs and looked for organizations that enabled graduate students with consulting opportunities abroad with NGOs. The only opportunities I found were with MBA programs or internship providers for undergraduates. There are an abundance of for-profit organizations that connect undergraduates with companies abroad and plenty of “voluntourism” providers. However, not one focuses on international consulting projects for graduate students.
I discovered exactly how I could make a difference. I started networking like crazy, found incredible people who are passionate about social entrepreneurship and started ICON. I had found a way to not only assist non-profit organizations in promoting sustainable development, but also allow students to actively participate in making a difference, share their education and hopefully find the same inspiration I did.
This is our story, this was our start.