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How Milestones Nudge Us Into Who We Are Becoming

Milestones have been on my mind lately.

Likely because I’m hitting one this year: 50 years young. 

Or because REDF is hitting one too: 25 years strong. 

Or maybe because I just cleared the milestone of my first four months on the job. (And I’m still standing, phew.)

The thing about milestones is that they, by design, have a before and an after. They mark a moment, and in that moment a change that will inform the future.

So this got me to thinking: how do milestones nudge us into who we are becoming?  

If I begin at the beginning, I should tell you that I am the product of a nurse and an entrepreneur. That I’m a first-generation Korean-American. A daughter of immigrants who came to this country for education and for enterprise – immigrants who grew up under the orange fire of the Korean War, who felt poverty in their bellies fighting over a potato for dinner split six ways, who grew tenacity in their blood by wanting for better. A daughter of a mom who drank knowledge as her nourishment, and a dad who believed in the elusive notion of the American dream. 

When I think back on it now, it shouldn’t surprise me that I’ve become a social entrepreneur – the veritable smoosh between the nurse healing wounds for the hurt, and the entrepreneur building businesses to last. 

As a true nerd in the work, I describe myself as a: social impact enthusiast, advocate, and entrepreneur who knows we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. And our job – or more like our opportunity – is to pave the way for others to stand on ours.

We do that at REDF as what I’d call a “venture catalyst” – investing in and driving demand for businesses that break down barriers to employment. Barriers that prevent talent all across our country from being seen – barriers like poverty, housing insecurity, and justice involvement. 

In these past two years, we have learned a thing or two about these barriers – not the least of which is that many were born of systemic inequities that disinvested and destabilized communities of color. Centuries-long inequities that culminated in a whole cadre of talent being unseen today. 

Truth be told, there are 10 million people in our country who struggle to be seen in today’s workplace. And REDF exists to back the entrepreneurs who see that 10 million – many because they were among them. 

Learning from these driven leaders, I walk into my new year with a few key lessons: 

  1. Keep betting on social entrepreneurs. Let’s face it. Small business is hard. With so many odds stacked against you, it’s no wonder that just one in five survives. REDF invests in small businesses that face an even higher bar: not just growing as a business, but growing as a mission – supporting and employing talent who face barriers to employment. We invest in entrepreneurs – and particularly entrepreneurs with the lived experience of the people they employ – because their insights, their instincts, and their hustle bring innovation to business and intention to mission. 
  2. Surface and strengthen the assets they bring. Often when you are the “giver” – be it a philanthropist, a professor, or anyone with perceived power – your lens can get narrowed. You may begin to think of the assets you give (money, knowledge, power) as a proxy for your expertise. We have made that mistake too. And like so many colleagues in the work, we are holding a mirror to our own practices to determine how we can best advance towards equity. With our current strategy to prioritize entrepreneurs of color and entrepreneurs with lived experience, we understand we have much to learn from the leaders most proximate to the communities we ultimately exist to serve. 
  3. Remember that community isn’t created; it’s cultivated. So much of this past year has been an awakening to the long and visible road ahead, a road that needs leaders who can care for themselves so that they can care for others. To support this care, we have actively sought to build community – spaces and places where leaders can come together as peers, stronger together, learning from and leaning into each other. A sense of community is what emerges when people see their stories in the stories of others. It’s as much a feeling as it is a fabric of what makes us feel whole. And in these past two years when the loneliness of leadership weighed on the shoulders of so many, we’re learning that beyond the capital and the capacity building we provide, community is the key to unlocking a platform for people to learn, sometimes to heal, and always to grow. 

Four months in, and these are the lessons I take into my milestone year. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence I came to this work now, at this fulcrum in my own life, and at this inflection point in REDF’s growth. But that’s the thing about milestones. They invite us to look within ourselves and feel the change underfoot. 

In that way, they nudge us into who we are becoming. 

Learn about our entrepreneurs and who they are becoming and join us in our movement to build a more inclusive economy. For everyone. 

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