The Best Year of My Life…

This is a story of an entrepreneur’s journey. A story of sunny beaches, fancy drinks with umbrellas floating on top, television and theatre debuts, lavish parties and vacations, and all of life’s luxuries at my fingertips…sort of. Of course, my perception is my reality.

My best year yet was twenty-five years in the making. The fourth grade was the first recollection I have of my entrepreneurial spirit. Just after lunch, I would travel to the fifth-grade class down the hall, Mrs. Devereux’s classroom, for accelerated math lessons. My Aunt, Uncles and Mother all had Mrs. Devereux as a teacher and my little ears heard stories of her level of strictness; if a student said a bad word such as “shut-up” or “stupid” she would make you write it 500 times! Then, the next day she would tear up your work in front of the class. Although this tradition had been in effect for years, it appeared these kids — a whole grade older than me — didn’t even know the rules. Each time I attended class at least one student was sentenced by the booming voice, “500 times!” At 9 years old, I identified a need in my environment and a way to fill it while making a profit. I began selling my handwriting services to 5th graders for $2 per “500 times.” The word entrepreneur held no meaning for me at the time and it took twenty-five years for me to truly own the title.

March 1, 2016 — Dear Diary, Today is the craziest day of my life! If I kept a diary, I’m sure this day would have started something like this. The Virginia G. Piper Theatre at Scottsdale Center of the Performing Arts seats 853 people; the evening before I snuck in and sat smack in the middle of the room as the giant auditorium’s lone occupant. I walked the stage barefoot. I imagined the auditorium full, then thought it better to imagine it empty. Is it possible despite hours upon hours of practice that I could tank tomorrow?

Nope. Too much hustle, dedication and literal blood, sweat and tears have gone in to arriving at this point. Pitch competitions — who thought up this crazy idea anyways? Did I forget to remind the me of 5 months ago who was filling out this application that I hate public speaking? I can’t believe I made it to the top 8. Tomorrow I get to tell a full theatre of people about Young Artist Society, a company we dreamed and created with virtually no resources. I get to tell everyone how we are helping students who don’t fit in traditional education system. I get to tell everyone that we are succeeding and that our education hack is working! This is the culmination of my work…or so I thought.

At that exact moment, the future me appeared from the rafters. Ok, not really. But if I did, I would have told myself this:

“Hey, don’t worry. The best is yet to come. In a couple weeks, you are going to go through a business incubator and you will be coached on the things you need to know to knock YAS out of the park. You think 853 is a lot of people? When you complete their full-time program in the fall, you get to pitch at the Orpheum Theatre in front of 1300 people.”

(Current me: “The Orpheum?!”)

“Yes, the Orpheum. Also, in a few weeks you are going to have a strategic planning session to accelerate the goals that you and the team had in mind. In a few months, you will get your first major donor and there will be a handful more that follow. Oh, and schools will pay you for your curriculum and services.

(Current me: “The schools pay?!”)

“Yes, and you will double the size of your Board of Directors; they will be awesome & passionate. You are a futuristic self-assured learner. The strengths assessment you take next week will affirm what you already know.”

(Current Me: “I don’t feel too self-assured.”)

“Well, you will have help. In addition to the founding team, and the new Board, you will hire a teacher and get interns. YAS gets nominated for Nonprofit of the Year and will be honored at a luncheon at the Montelucia Resort. Your curriculum and website will get a makeover. You will be shortlisted for the Echoing Green Fellowship and you make a TV debut. You’ll take selfies with the mayor. You’ll cave in to using Twitter, but you will disconnect from social media entirely when you hike from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River. You will mentor ASU students and you will finally switch from a paper to a digital calendar and to-do list. In fact, go ahead and implement a digital project management system. Ten weeks of high-performance coaching and 5 weeks of grant writing coaching are in order. You will have 3 mentors that will open their brains and hearts and networks to you. You will make the least amount of money you have ever made and you will have the best year of your life.”

Current me: Wait, wait, wait… This sounds like a lot of work.

This is a story of sunny beaches. (I had a 48-hour turnaround trip to L.A. which consisted of one ocean side brunch and a lot of naps.)

This is a story of fancy drinks with umbrellas floating on top. (The drinks that I served to people in the restaurant where I worked — side hustle.)

And the lavish parties? Well, I did attend a killer fully-catered Christmas party with a dance floor, photo booth, DJ and an open bar. (It may or may not have been an insurance company Christmas party that was so packed that they were unaware we didn’t work there…at least in the beginning.)

And Life’s luxuries on the least amount of money made? Family, friends, health, my tribe, a killer founding team…who could ask for anything more?

The next night, standing in the wings waiting for my turn to go out on stage, palms on full sweat, I realized this was not the culmination; this was the commencement and time to step on the gas. I could not have predicted what the next 14 months had in store, a lot of learning needed to take place. My best year yet may not look like glitter and shine on the outside, and when you are living it, the two years preceding seemed like an eternity. Two years of incorporating as a nonprofit, writing bylaws and a curriculum, running a pilot program for a year with some of the most “at-risk” kids in our community, and waiting to be recognized as a legitimate organization. I couldn’t wait anymore. It was my time to own it. Now or never.

As I stepped out on to the stage, I proudly wore my entrepreneur title in an invisible sign across my chest. My future and current self silently encouraged, “nail it!” So, I did. Big inhale. Bigger exhale. “I’m Jennifer Cole the Founder and Director of Young Artist Society. We empower future generations to pursue education, serve their community and achieve success creatively…” and thus began the best year of my life.

Written by: Jen Cole, Founder & Executive Director of Young Artist Society