A Bigger World

Small Town, USA

A small town in the Midwest is where it all begins. Type in “small town USA” and you’ll see a get a number of examples that pretty much say it all: a cluster of nurturing, athletics-driven (when not farm-driven) communities that set one up to appreciate people in a tight-knit setting, while having the paradoxical effect of making one curious about people outside of that tight-knit mesh — of making one curious about the greater world.

When I was younger, I wanted to be a pro football player. But my chiropractor Dad quickly put a stop to that. In lieu of football I filled my time with playing golf and running track, and I somehow managed to convince my chiropractor Dad to allow me to ride BMX. I eventually went on to form my own BMX team from a group of high school friends. “This,” I told myself, “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” When our team managed to land a sponsorship from Mongoose, a major extreme sports company, I felt like I was at the top of the world. Sure, I was still pulling odd-jobs at Adventureland (yes, just like the movie), McDonald’s and Hy-Vee grocery stores — but I had put together my own team and we had succeeded in what we set out to do!

The real Adventureland is just like the movie, minus Jesse Eisenberg…and all of the other celebrities.

At the same time, I was left with an aching feeling that I could be doing more. Call it ambition, call it shiny-penny-syndrome, call it some contemporary mutation of the American Dream — I just knew I couldn’t go on doing what I was the way I was. I wanted, needed, to do something bigger.

So when I was 17, I took out a $3,500 loan from a bank that my parents cosigned, and I opened my own screen-printing business. Just as I was able to put together a successful BMX team with buddies of mine from high school, so I was I able to put together a successful business together from friends I knew around town.

It’s amazing what role proximity can play in your life. In some cases, it’s not a matter of what you do or who you are — it’s a matter of the circumstances around you. This fact has awed me time and time again, and would do so chillingly later on my life. Sure, I will gladly take credit for my successes. But at the same time, I was fortunate to have capable and willing people around me to work with, and my parents to offer guidance.

Fast-forward 4 years and a power surge devastates the building out of which my screen-printing company was based. Three months after that, and my humble enterprise went out of business. I took it as a wake-up call.

Big Town, USA

I packed up my bags, said goodbye to small-town USA, and moved to Big-Town USA where I started expanding my business knowledge at a local community college. Clearly, I had a knack for business, but I didn’t know what to do with it.

Then an opportunity popped up that would change the way I looked at the world.

Through my community college I had the opportunity to speak with a U.N. Diplomat. He told me about West Africa, about how many parts of the region were still underdeveloped, how many people were lacking basic resources such as water and electricity that we take for granted, and how an organization called ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) was seeking to improve the lives of people through financial assistance and economic stimulus.

ECOWAS is comprised of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’ Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Togo.

ECOWAS is comprised of a number of nations in West and Central Africa. It leverages economic activity to improve the lives of millions of people.I couldn’t believe it. Here was a way to use my business background in a way that could help others.

In brief, he offered me a position as an adviser and I accepted.

The World

I’ll never forget the first time I set foot in West Africa. I met so many fantastic people, so many happy people. Yet disease was rampant and infrastructure was non-existent. A feeling of guilt washed over me, a guilt of circumstance. I was born in Small Town, USA where food and water were abundant. I had the luxury of spending my off hours riding bikes and playing sports. I had the financial means to start my own business and my parents to help me in the process. And though these people were still happy, they had so much less and it was only because of where and when they were born. The chance of circumstance.

I gave away every dollar on my person.

For three years I assisted the Diplomat in coordinating, funding, and executing a number of economic operations that sought to improve the infrastructure of communities in need. Then one day, my mentor, boss, and close friend conducted colon cancer. He could no longer work and our operations as they had existed before ceased. With his blessing, I carried on his work under my own company, the U.N. Diplomatic Services Corp.

Today, I am still Director of the U.N. Diplomatic Services Corp., and a Diplomat from the Country of Somalia. I travel to Africa four times a year, for up to six months at a time. I’m a married man with four kids. The work I do is taxing, it’s rough — for me and my family — but it’s worth it.

My path is not the path for everyone, but there is one strand of it that I could recommend to others: always push yourself to learn more. We each have unique talents allotted to us, and by honing these talents and never settling we stand the best chance of making ourselves happy and making the world a better place.


Corey Engelen is the Director of U.N. Diplomatic Services Corp.,and Diplomat to Somalia, based out of Denver, Colorado. You can learn more about Corey at CoreyEngelen.com or follow him on Twitter.

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