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Always Learning

Start up entrepreneurs need to project confidence, vision, and intelligence. It's not easy to admit mistakes and make changes. I struggled with this when I was running my consulting practice. One of the best examples of how entrepreneurs can benefit from being open and honest about their mistakes and processing what they've learned from them comes from Daniela Papi-Thornton.

I met Daniela in Cambodia; she was the founder of Pepy Tours. Daniela's tour company was an outgrowth of a cross- country cycling trip she had undertaken in 2005, one in which environmental awareness took center stage. Over time, Daniela's company focused on environmental education spawned a non-profit organization, PEPY. PEPY now stands for Promoting Education, Empowering Youth. The expat team of volunteers rotating in for short term stints gave way to an increasing number of Cambodian staff. 

Daniela's great strength as an entrepreneur was (and still is) her ability to revise and change based on what she learns through her work. Imagine working in a foreign context, trying to direct a staff of local and international team members, and having a revelation one day that your core product - short term volunteering for international travelers - was not serving your primary mission. Daniela was brave enough to admit having taken a few steps down a path she learned was not the best, and she allowed her team to acknowledge what they had learned and change course. One great example was discontinuing visits during her tours to the renowned Stung Meanchey garbage dump in Phnom Penh. When Daniela recognized the role her company was unintentionally playing in exacerbating the problem of people living in the dump and stopped bringing her guests there, and she brought this problem into the open, helping other tour companies recognize and discuss the problems these visits had created.

As she notes in her blog, Lessons I Learned , she "started an education NGO in Cambodia ’by accident’ when I knew very little about development, Cambodia, or NGO management." Although looking back at her younger self might pain her in some ways, Daniela's ability to learn publicly and change course spread the benefit of her experiences wider than they could have than if she had kept them private. Tour operators routinely collide with the unintended consequences of their work; it takes courage to acknowledge and change course.  

See Daniela's latest TedX talk on social entrepreneurship here or take her class fall 2018 at Yale School of Management. 

Christina Beckmann