2016 in retrospective

2016 was a testing year. I have learned so much about the pros and cons of running my own business that I couldn’t have even imagined at the start of the journey. It hasn’t been easy admitting that my plan was all sorts of wrong to start with. But eventually I learned the hardest lesson – that of being able to admit failure.

What I call failure here isn’t really to some. I have been challenged about that. And it made me wonder about my choice of language. But the choice of words here is very conscious here. One of the most important lessons I have learned on the Angels & Witches journey was that I had to be able to admit failure in order to move on and devise a new plan. Before I was able to admit this lesson, I had spent quite a bit of time feeling sorry for myself and my original plan that did not work out. It wasn’t until I was ready to admit that my original plan has failed that I was ready to stop being a cry baby and work out a new one.

So 2016 taught me some humility. It has been a good year for learning, and as much as I have to admit most of it has not been pleasant (nobody likes to admit being wrong!), I love learning, so eventually I managed to see the silver lining.

2016 has also been the year of unexpected sources of learning. I have learned most about how to improve my business idea from some of the least expected places. One of the best learning experiences was also one of the worst at the same time. A woman in my business course told me I was being negative. In fact, I was the least positive person in the group, according to her. I sulked a little bit after I heard this. And then I thought ‘Get over yourself! If she said it, she must have had a reason. As much as you might not agree with it.’ And there it was, right in front of me – the answer. Perhaps I was, in fact, being a little bit on the defensive about my idea, because I presumed that people would make negative connotations about it since it was a feminist coffee shop?! Perhaps, I was making too many assumptions about how people would react to the word ‘feminist’ in it because of my past experiences and I needed to be able to see past those in order to create a positive vision for the space?

In order to understand my stream of consciousness at the time, you need to know where I’m coming from. My undergrad dissertation was about young women and their perceptions of feminism. My assumption at the start of the project was that British women would have an overwhelmingly positive image of feminism, compared to Polish ones, which was my comparison group. My research findings debunked my ideas. ALL women in my research group were generally negative about the idea of feminism in the 21st century.

Now, there are a couple of important caveats that I seem to have largely forgotten about to the findings. One – as my research project was based on in-depth interviews, my sample was quite small. Two – as I have completed the project in 2010, it has to be noted that feminism has had quite a resurgence  since.

In fact, at the end of the business course we had to pitch our ideas to a panel of professional business investors. And once I was able to get over that deep-seated fear of the terrible ‘f-word’ inside my head (despite my best intentions, I had carried it well into my feminist years), I managed to pass the frightening pitch phase, and with flying colours! I was not expecting to get such positive reactions from the non-feminist investors, considering my prior knowledge on people’s perceptions of feminism. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I still presumed that they would have negative connotations of the word ‘feminist’ but I managed to give them the most positive vision of Angels & Witches I could muster, and it worked! My passion for the idea was contagious. They were actually intrigued by it! They said it was original and thought that it had the potential to actually fill a gap in the market.

That was just a week after the confrontation with reality I had. And within that week I learned two priceless lessons. One – not to let the fears in my head get on top of me, my vision and mission. Two – speaking in public does not have to be the dreaded experience I had always thought it to be, it just takes a little bit of practice, and the right kind of attitude in order to do it well and to get over the fear of it.

These were two of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned during the past 12 months. I have been too stubborn to take those learnings at face value to start with but then I found more and more challenges like that along the way, and found a way to look at them with more of an open mind over time. And that changed everything for me. And then, very recently, I found this book that I did not even realise I was looking for in the first place, and it has helped me make sense of everything that I have learned so far. It brought it all together. I had already written about this book, and quoted it before. But I will do it again, in the hope that it helps other struggling young social entrepreneurs on their journey.

“The human capacity to sense dissonance in the present moment and see the potential for change strikes me as one of our most extraordinary gifts” (Brian J. Roberts). In other words, the challenges on our path can be the most important lessons learned – we just have to find it in us to be open enough to learn from them.

The moment that I found this book, I was actually looking for something pretty different. I was looking for a guide book on how to start a coffee shop. But what I found was much more valuable. It was, in fact, exactly what I needed at the time. It made me realise that I wasn’t alone in struggling with the challenge of being open-minded enough, and how important a skill it was to learn to be just that. I was looking for a recipe book, but instead I found so much more – one with an important lesson for life. I will strive to use this lesson in every new enterprise that I take up going forwards.

There have been other, less revolutionary and more everyday, but not less important, lessons learned along the way. For example, I have developed and perfected ways of motivating and inspiring myself. I have used most of those all my life, but I hadn’t really realised how important it was to know how to motivate myself until I found myself alone, inspiration drained, on this journey. It is incredibly simple to keep up ones motivation most of the time, if we know ourselves. It is knowing what inspires and motivates us that’s the hard part – and once we do, we just have to make it a part of our everyday routine to ensure that the methods work.

For me, it is meeting people, whether through books, online, or in real life. Books make me feel like I’m not alone on this journey. Too many of my predecessors have faced the same kinds of challenges that I do for me to lose spirit. Networking opportunities can be found everywhere. It is finding the right kind that is the trick. For me, networking with social entrepreneurs is most effective. They have the same kind of knowledge as any other business innovator, but because they do it for social reasons, not just for money, they tend to be much more inspiring than those who just have a competitive streak or want to be the next Branson. Don’t get me wrong, I always appreciate meeting people full of ideas, which all entrepreneurs tend to be. I just don’t quite get the idea of economic development for the sake of itself. There just has to be more t it. In order for humanity to survive. That’s all.

As I love learning, this year has been amazing, probably the most eye-opening 12 months of my life. It has also been challenging, unexpected, difficult and energy intense. But it was all worth it! I started out this year with a vague idea of opening a feminist coffee shop, and that idea developed in ways I could not have foreseen at the beginning of the journey. But I feel it is more grounded in reality now. I will be starting out next year with the idea of starting small, with a feminist stall, while looking for a long-term space, slowly, with less of a deadline, but more of an idea of finding something right. Just right. Slowly, but surely.

Wish me luck! And have a fruitful 2017 all!

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