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5 lessons learned

Caitlin with Love Mercy Intern Athena at the Zonta Young Women in Public Affairs dinner I was recently asked to […]
Caitlin with Love Mercy Intern Athena at the Zonta Young Women in Public Affairs dinner
I was recently asked to share the story of my career with a group of inspiring young women who are the end of their high school journey. It was an interesting chance for me to reflect on the last 10 years since leaving high school myself, and the highs and lows of starting an organization from scratch.
Here are 5 key lessons that I’ve learned along the way.

1. Know your motivation.
Coming from a long line of educators,  when I was growing up I wanted to be a teacher. On the eve of the university preferences deadline, I visited a UNSW open day and discovered a brand new degree, a Bachelor of International Studies in Development. I knew straight away that this degree was for me, and changed courses accordingly.

I was also given some great advice by a mentor, who told me to start collecting inspiring articles, job postings, and interviews that made me excited to study. A clear pattern emerged; social justice, compassion, and simple solutions to poverty. That process of following my instincts and changing directions,  while collecting little bits of inspiration, painted a clear picture for me of my starting point even though I had no idea where I was heading. At least I had my direction set. Having a clear idea of what motivated me and got my blood pumping was the best starting point I could have had.

2. Seek wise counsel, but know when to ignore it
 So how did I go from understanding my passions, to launching a not-for-profit? After meeting Eloise Wellings and Julius Achon, and many interesting chats, I remember reaching a clear conviction point. I looked at Eloise and said, “I am serious about this. Lets make it happen.” We decided to start Love Mercy in 2009, and I became the founding CEO at age 21. We built the organisation from the ground up. The first thing that I did was seek the advice of 5 key people in the not-for-profit industry. People who I knew personally and deeply trusted. Unfortunately their response was not what I had expected, and each of these mentors told me that I was crazy. That it was too big. Too difficult. That instead of creating an entire organisation, it would be better to fundraise instead. Their response was not unreasonable, but I needed to trust my instinct. The problem was that year in 2009, 13 people had died in Awake village from famine, and there were no other government or non-government organizations present who were offering any kind of support. I knew what we had to do. It is so important to have wise people positioned around you, to constantly ask for their advice and support, however in that moment, I needed to trust my gut first. 

3. Leap out of your comfort zone
We began with a simple goal, to find 11 sponsors for the orphans in Julius’ care, and we gave ourselves 12 months. We reached that goal after our first event, and so realised that the need in Uganda and the desire to help in Sydney was huge. We started creating two other projects, the Kristina Health Centre, and Cents for Seeds, a micro-loan agricultural program for women. I quickly realised that I needed to be on the ground in Uganda as much as time and resources would allow. I am not one of those people who has always wanted to travel to Africa. In fact, the thought absolutely petrified me. Before my second trip to Uganda, I almost had a total meltdown and needed to be basically pushed onto the plane! I was scared, anxious, and felt out of my depth. But I have since learned that outside of your comfort zone is exactly where the magic happens, and taking a huge leap of faith may be the only way to kickstart your dreams to turn them into a reality. 

4. Back yourself as you find yourself
For most of my career I have felt wildly under qualified. Constantly out of my comfort zone, pushing my skill set, and taking on tasks that are way beyond me. I have never had an official “boss” or  supervisor, and only recently have I seen the value of having formal mentors who invest into your career. For a long time I was uncomfortable using the title of “CEO” as I felt like I was too young, too inexperienced, and that no one would take me seriously. Despite this, our little organization has taken on some massive challenges over the last 5 years. We became a Deductible Gift Recipient which means that all donations are tax deducible. This application was no mean feat! We went on to become signatories to the Australian Council for International Development Code of Conduct, which means that we are among the most well governed organizations in the country. I slowly learned that even if I hadn’t fully found who I was yet, I did have something to offer, and after getting a few runs on the board I realized that all I needed to do was really back myself. Without the courage to trust in my abilities, I don’t think we would have taken on these massive goals.

5. Cast big vision and don’t be afraid of mistakes
Recently we had one of our biggest wins raising over $100,000 for the Kristina Clinic during the Sutherland to Surf. When this goal was thrown out I almost had a heart attack.. I didn’t believe that we could make it, and I felt like the failure to achieve that goal was squarely on my shoulders. I anticipated the disappointment of others, and so a few days before the deadline I announced to  my team that we likely wouldn’t make it, and to expect not to be celebrating at the finish line. Great leadership right there Caity… Clearly I was wrong, but I wasn’t game enough to own the vision. I was too scared of failure to really believe that we could do it. To achieve your goals, you must aim beyond them. As soon as the event was over, Eloise and Julius and I threw out the goal of $200,000 next year to fund a maternity ward. This time, I promise I’ll believe in the vision!

I hope these lessons gathered over 10 years of learning will inspire other young women  to go boldly in  the direction of their dreams. The world needs more  chicks who chase down their values of justice, compassion, and equality.

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