It has now been months since many businesses shut down due to COVID-19. I don’t think it’s a surprise that many of our most well-known companies were born during or near crises. For example, Proctor and Gamble and was founded during the 1837 Crisis and Depression, and Microsoft during the Recession of 1975, and even Whatsapp, Venmo, and Uber in 2009 following the global financial recession.
Learning how to handle such an unprecedented crisis isn’t natural to most of us, but everyone can learn the process to shift their mindset to make the best decisions they can.
A Moment to Reflect
Prior to COVID-19, I was operating on autopilot, on a plane most weeks. I was busy “doing”. This period of disruption has given me the gift of time to pause, reflect and focus on “being”. Rarely are we afforded the luxury of so much time.
As I reflect, here are some stories of how I’ve reinvented myself during crises.
Graduating into Crisis
Like the rest of my graduating class in 2009, I couldn’t find a job. Three months later, I was volunteering at an orphanage in a rainforest outside of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Upon my arrival, my boss told me that he wanted me to lead the startup of a language school. The idea was that the proceeds from the school would support the staff at the orphanage, improve the infrastructure, and support programs for the children and adolescents.
Within just a few months, the school scaled up multi-fold. It was nowhere near easy, as our living conditions and the security situation weren’t great. It was one of the most challenging endeavors I took on, but it was also incredibly fulfilling to see the impact we immediately had. We developed accredited programs, extracurricular activities, study abroad partnerships, family homestay programs, and a wonderful community. It’s now a for-profit social enterprise and many schools around Latin America adopted our model of social innovation.
Translating Crisis into Opportunity
Several months later, I found myself in the small town of Reggio Calabria, Italy, without a job, once again. This time, it was the Euro crisis that was just starting up. At 22 years old, the only skills I could immediately put to use were my language skills.
With dial-up internet, my laptop, and an excellent partner, we managed to find freelance translation projects online. Using online freelance marketplaces, we managed to build a remote team of hundreds of freelance translators. Within just a few months, we had created a six-figure leading online translation business. I thought “this is it”, and that the success would last many years.
Within just a couple of years, things had started changing. The gig economy had grown significantly, meaning our competition was starting to hurt us, and Google Translate was getting better and better. Fortunately, our company was acquired right before Google Translate replaced our services a few years later.
When Things Fall Apart
Fast forward to 2016. I had gotten laid off, putting a ticking clock on my work visa that expired just as a two-alarm fire destroyed my home and belongings. It felt like one thing after another was conspiring to destroy everything I’d worked for.
It was the most challenging period of my life. It was also a blessing in disguise. I had learned to take risks—but I had never really failed, not like this.
In retrospect, it was a pause, and what I like to call my Eat, Pray, Self-Love trip. Since I was displaced, I gave myself the gift of travel and went to India, Bali and Thailand for a few months. It gave me the chance to reflect on what had happened and to own my decisions going forward. It wasn’t just “bad luck”—I was totally out of alignment.
Before the fire and getting laid off, I had dismissed my inner voice which was screaming how undervalued and unfulfilled I was truly feeling with my work, my social circle, and ultimately, with myself. Since I was so busy “doing”, and operating on autopilot, it was really hard for me to zoom out and evaluate what was actually happening until the epiphany moment right after the fire.
When I did the inner work, and reconnected with my network to ask for help, opportunities started showing up that felt much more aligned with who I truly am.
Create your own light at the end of the tunnel.
We’re wired for survival. It’s normal during crises to hunker down, even when we are literally ordered to shelter in place.
Find a door. If the door is shut, you open it. If you can’t find a door, make it. Make it by helping, others overcome their problems and their challenges. Create value. Share. Do the work that you can be proud of, work that gives you confidence that you can do it. No one and nothing can stop you from helping and creating value.
Once you learn that, you’re unstoppable.
Saleema Vellani teaches Entrepreneurship and Design Thinking at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of Innovation Starts With “I”. Sign up for her free monthly Impact Insights and follow her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.