Did Obama or Your Boss Overstay Summer Vacation?

[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]

Every August, millions of Americans take vacations. And every year, the most powerful of them, their president, takes a lot of heat just for taking his—and also for where he goes. Powerful business executives, too, take hits for their choice and length of retreat.
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Remembering D-Day Soldiers in Coverage Worldwide

Seventy years ago on June 6, around 2,500 U.S. soldiers died in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in order to liberate our ally France. The French people have been forever grateful and commemorated this anniversary with a quiet and moving ceremony in the coastal town with U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President François Hollande in attendance.
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Entrepreneur Envy

[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]

My entrepreneurial past appeared on New Year’s Eve like a ghost visiting Ebenezer Scrooge. There it was, as plain as the tuna tacos I was eating at a local hot spot, although perhaps tinted by rose-colored glasses (like the blood orange margarita I wished I had ordered, too).

The agency I run, Havas PR North America, had just won a new client: LehighSiliconValley. I’d gotten an email offering us a new challenge from this incredible program that runs each January, created to take Lehigh University’s best and brightest, those associated with its Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation, on a learning trip to what it considers the hub of entrepreneurship.

I had been reading up on the institute’s benefactor, Dexter Baker, who had made Air Products the global success it became, and found one of his truisms—“Failure is a learning process”—fueling my resolutions to race back to the future. Never is that phrase truer than for an entrepreneur (or a city needing reinvention). And maybe that is why I became so envious of the young people in Silicon Valley right now and some of my clients who are following their entrepreneurial hearts.

Take Andrew Yang, founder of our pro bono client Venture for America (VFA), who realized that young people want and need the opportunity to help create jobs by working for small businesses, which are fueling America’s economic recovery. Yang was inspired by Teach for America, which places recent college graduates at schools in low-income communities for two years. VFA Fellows are placed at small businesses and paid about $38,000 a year, plus health benefits, after attending a five-week boot camp at Brown University like those that future consultants and investment bankers get in their early days on the job. Here is an excerpt from Andrew’s soon-to-be published book, Smart People Should Build Things, a blueprint for entrepreneurship and job creation:

I wasn’t very enterprising when I graduated from Brown in 1996. I had a general desire to be smart, accomplished, and successful—whatever that meant. So I went to law school and became a corporate attorney in New York. I figured out I was in the wrong place after a number of months working at the law firm. I left in less than a year and cofounded a dot-com company, Stargiving, which helped raise money for celebrity-affiliated nonprofits. It was extraordinarily difficult. My company failed spectacularly, but I recovered. I went to work for a mobile software company, Crisp Wireless, and then a health care software company, MMF Systems, over the next five years, eventually becoming the CEO of a test-prep company, Manhattan GMAT, in 2006.

I spent five years running Manhattan GMAT, helping young people get into business school. I taught our corporate classes of investment banking analysts and consultants at Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Company, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Deloitte, as well as hundreds of individual students over the years. Some were exactly where they wanted to be. But there seemed to be just as many top-notch young people who wondered why they didn’t like their jobs more. They sought a higher sense of engagement with their work and their careers. Sometimes they would put words to what they were looking for; they’d say they wanted “something entrepreneurial” or “to be really excited about something.”

By the time my company was acquired by Kaplan and its parent, the Washington Post Company, in 2009, I knew a few things. I knew that there were promising startups and growth companies all over the country that needed talent to expand and thrive. I knew firsthand that there was an army of talented, ambitious, somewhat directionless young people who’d love to work for a startup. And I knew that if we could connect these two groups, we’d help everyone: the individuals, the companies, cities and communities around the country, the economy, and society as a whole.

Another incredible new startup that we represent has a founder who’s entrepreneurial and really excited about something: nuggets for adults. Jason Hairston, the 30-something owner and chef of The Nugget Spot in Manhattan’s Union Square, is a very savvy purveyor of creative eats—nuggets crafted from chicken, pork, catfish, polenta and cheese. “We’ve designed ‘The Spot’ to be more than just a generic takeout box,” he says. “Fun, cozy, and just a bit retro, it’s perfect for sampling nugget after nugget with friends, or just stopping in to get your nugget fix after a long night out.”

Hairston, who used to work for überchef Bobby Flay, has created innovative combinations: pork with a coconut crust, chicken with a pretzel or cheese-cracker crust, and others, which you can pair with sauces like spiced butterscotch, Homemade Heat and roasted red pepper ranch. So from a relatively tiny storefront, this young foodie is making serious buzz and leading the kind of life that the LehighSiliconValley participants are just starting to dream about.

One, Grady Barth, says this: “The reason I am so interested in entrepreneurship is because I never knew before college what I was interested in regarding a certain field of study. Entrepreneurship gave me the inspiration to follow my wildest dreams and to have the confidence to know I could execute them. My personality is to go for things that most people wouldn’t, and entrepreneurship hit the nail on the head for me when it came to this. It is your idea that matters, and everyone is interested in what you have to bring to the table. Entrepreneurship is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. With it, you have the world as your canvas; it’s just waiting for you to initiate the first stroke.”

Yang, Hairston (who I think is the next Colonel Sanders) and another new client, Brooke Solis (another lawyer turned entrepreneur, who recently launched JustGoGirl for women with athletic leaks), and so many others are inventing new canvases all the time. I’m jealous, seriously jealous—but at the same time very proud of all the entrepreneurs I know and all the smart people who are building things. This year, I resolve to re-embrace my entrepreneurial roots and get really excited about all the new things I could potentially build.

[Photo: Jeremy Bales for The Nugget Spot]

If It Doesn’t Work, Shout Louder

Nearly one year ago, a teenage girl was shot by gunmen for defying a Taliban campaign to close schools in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Her name is Malala Yousafzai.

The gunshot wound did not stop her from traveling around the world and advocating for girls’ education, though. Her story inspired millions, and in the past year she spoke at the United Nations (on her 16th birthday), was a runner-up for Time’s Person of the Year and was honored by dozens of organizations for her tireless work on behalf of children’s education.

“I want to speak up for my rights,” she told the BBC on Monday. “And I also didn’t want my future to be just sitting in a room and be imprisoned in my four walls and just cooking and giving birth to children. I didn’t want to see my life in that way.” In her recently released autobiographyI Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, she writes, “I was spared for a reason: to use my life for helping people.” She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to educating the girls of her country, a country threatened by insurgencies and an economic crisis.

But Malala’s vision to achieve peace through human development and dialogue is not hers alone; it’s a vision shared by thousands around the globe, particularly the youth. She represents the millennial generation, one filled with hope and optimism in spite of the many global crises that challenge us. As a millennial, I believe our generation is profoundly affecting politics, media, business and activism. We see ourselves as integrated in the world, in our own communities.

At last week’s opening ceremony of the One Young World summit in Johannesburg, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, and musician and philanthropist Sir Bob Geldof addressed fervent young leaders from 190 countries at FNB Stadium. “You are lucky to have been born in an age where what was impossible is becoming possible. Each one of you is capable of changing the world,” said Professor Yunus. About 1,250 of us attended the summit, the largest youth gathering of its kind, now in its fourth year.

As youth delegates, we discussed, debated and worked toward solutions on global issues such as gender equality and youth unemployment. A selection of global leaders from the worlds of business, finance, arts and society engaged with us, as our counselors. This year’s leaders—among them South African politician and former political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada and journalist and activist Fatima Bhutto—hosted speaking sessions and fielded questions on matters including human rights, sustainable development and global health.

Perhaps one of the most inspiring moments during the conference was a special session in which Kathrada and former South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, both counselors, and delegate Nobulalu Lali Dangazele shared personal insights about former South African President Nelson Mandela. Visibly emotional, Pienaar, who captained the South Africa Springboks to victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, discussed Mandela’s humility and his deep compassion for people. “When he was released from Robben Island, he had forgiveness in his heart,” said Pienaar, with tears streaming down his face.

“When we came out of prison, everything was in white hands, everything,” recalled Kathrada, who was released a few months before Mandela. “The only way out was to work with our fellow past oppressors and work together to build one united nation.”

Lali Dangazele, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, beautifully described Mandela as “a beacon of hope and light” and added how visionary he is: “What his mind allowed him to do is trek forward and see 1994. He didn’t give up on that vision.”

Along with my fellow millennial One Young World Ambassadors, I left South Africa with goals and ideas on my mind and a strong desire to make a lasting impact in my community. I learned that to be an effective leader and agent of change, I need to be humble, visionary and compassionate. I returned to the United States realizing I am part of a movement started by the Mandelas, Kathradas and other brilliant thinkers and leaders of a previous generation, and continued by the Malalas of ours.

As Bob Geldof said at the summit: “If it doesn’t work, shout louder.”

[photo: Jennifer Zahid Chowdhury]

How Using My Brain Has Helped It Heal

[Originally posted on the Huffington Post.]

As we approached Brain Tumor Awareness Month (it’s every May), I had coincidentally been posting about my own repeated misadventures in and recent return visit to brain tumor land. Some of what I wrote or tweeted about might have sounded a bit crotchety (the stress of having to negotiate with insurance companies and my confusion about mankind in general, for instance) or odd (admitting that I was coping with stress and lack of control by watching videos of brain surgeries on a questionable Indian hospital website), but it could have been worse.

Just as I found out, strangely, that dealing with surgery to remove a meningioma and the subsequent recovery is harder for me with a family than when I was on my own, I’ve also become grateful that I can use my brain during this period instead of simply resting. The National Brain Tumor Society notes that for people who do choose to return to work, “the challenges … can help you move ahead on the road to recovery.”

Work gives me a focus, a framework, a welcome distraction—especially the work that feels good. One of the main projects helping me heal after my second craniotomy (the first was nearly six years ago) is to bring some healing to the families of the Sandy Hook tragedy. More than that: I credit this work with inspiring my recovery.

My agency, Havas PR North America, has gotten involved with the Emilie Parker Art Connection, founded by the family of one of the young victims. Newtown struck close to home—my partner, Jim, and I also live in a supposedly safe Connecticut community—and it’s a cause I would have been glad to wholeheartedly support under any circumstances. But with everything going on in my head this winter and spring, I threw myself into it as deeply as possible.

The Parker family and others needed my skill set and connections to the media, and I needed them: The still-active aftermath of Sandy Hook galvanized me to push myself to recover faster to help them, and I gave them the redoubled efforts of a PR pro who was extra determined not to let a personal setback stand in her way. I even persuaded Jim to stop at Havas’s Wilton, Conn., office on the way home from Massachusetts General Hospital two days after surgery so that I could see the team building the new Emilie Parker Art Connection website.

To be sure, I could have thrown myself into any number of projects at work or at home: I’ve always been an overachiever—a type A-plus (and as Jim will attest, I am understating my intensity)—and have always had trouble sitting still. I don’t know what to do with a hammock. More likely, show me a hammock on a Thursday and by Tuesday I’ll be importing hammocks and selling them to raise money for a Latin American village.

So taking a break from work just didn’t make sense. What would I do? Who would I be if I did nothing, even for a day? For me, clock watching isn’t being. I had done that for 19 hours in the ICU, and even there I monitored my BlackBerrys (yes, plural) relentlessly, provided unsolicited commentary to the Roman Catholic Church on its choice of a new leader and obsessed on the state of news coverage. Staying home and resting would have meant, well, just more time to watch those gruesome Indian videos.

Even though my surgery was a little over two months ago and I’m still technically on medical leave (I’m feeling much better, but the headaches can be paralyzing), I’m working as hard as ever. And thank heavens for that. Although the tumor has zapped my organizational skills, like the last time my entrepreneurial skills today (in addition to my hair) are intact and my media relations and negotiating skills are superlative.

A lifelong catnapper increasingly afflicted with insomnia, I pass the early morning hours thinking about new-business proposals, which relaxes me. When it was time to get the 50 sutures removed from my scalp, a procedure that could have been uncomfortable (to use one of the medical profession’s favorite euphemisms), I was so distracted by client emails and budget proposals that I didn’t even realize when the doctor was done.

About a week after surgery, in a moment of subtle levity (and clarity), I told Jim, who had by then returned to his classroom obligations at the University of Arizona, about an excursion I was making. I might have let him hear “CVS” instead of “CBS.” So while he thought I was headed to the drugstore, I was instead at an inspiring CBS shoot with the amazing Parker family in Newtown as they told the story of their 100-day journey since the tragedy. (I bribed Jim’s son to chauffeur me.)

And as with the Parkers and their eye on the future—on creating a legacy for Emilie and working toward a goal of stopping more senseless tragedies—my post-surgery clarity has led me to want to advocate for a better story for others. I was vigilant about getting regular scans after my first meningioma was successfully removed, so when my symptoms returned and then worsened, I dismissed them because my radiologists had given me the all clear. Three times. But they were obviously wrong. So I am here to passionately encourage listening to what your brain is saying and feeling, and to get a second opinion if you want to be sure.

No matter the trauma you face—and we all will, because life is never trauma-free—never underestimate the power of hard work, or working hard at your passion, to heal.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Ars Electronica]