My Year of Presence: One word, one intention is sometimes all it takes to make a radical change.

Melinda Briana Epler, Portrait by Kristin Varaksina, December 2015

Every year for the last 7 years I’ve picked a one-word intention to guide my goals for the year. It’s incredible how well this can align my thoughts and ultimately radically change my life.

In 2014, my intention was passion. Not even two months into that year — in February — I met Wayne, and have since lived a very passion-filled life with him!

A few years earlier my intention was self-compassion. As a result of that year and the next (self-compassion took two years), today I live entirely free of chronic pain.

In 2015, my intention was presence. I cheated a bit, because in some ways “presence” is two ideas in one word: 1. being present in the moment, and 2. presenting myself fully and with confidence.

Here’s what happened when I set that intention…

Presence #1 : “being present in the moment”

Wayne and I at a one-day retreat at Sprit Rock in January 2015.

Wayne and I re-committed to mediating daily — and we stuck with it. Every day with only one or two exceptions, we have meditated together no matter where we are in the world. I’ve found that meditation can also help with Presence #2, because it reduces the voices in your head that tell you you can’t do something, you don’t know enough or you’re not doing it right.

I also worked on bringing myself back to the current moment throughout each day — while eating, walking, and probably most importantly, talking. It’s incredible how much more you get out of an interaction when the other person feels that you are fully present with them, in that moment.

Being present in the moment also means you have to put yourself in the moment, which means saying “yes” sometimes more than is comfortable. So I said yes a lot in 2015!

I also asked to be present a few times too. To put yourself out there fully, sometimes you must ask for access to the stage.

Presence #2: “presenting oneself fully and with confidence”

Being interviewed by Kriz Bell at the Anita Borg Institute. (Photo by Wayne Sutton)

There were many times in 2015 where I said yes before I knew how I would ever “present myself with confidence.” I found it’s often important to say yes first, and then figure out how to do it later. This forces you to do the work of figuring it out.

For a couple of years I worked with an Executive Coach — I highly recommend it. In 2015 I was an entrepreneur and I couldn’t afford coaching, but much of what Susan Geear taught me has stuck with me and helped me gain my confident presence. She also still cheers me on as a friend. “Step in,” she says, “be your full self, powerfully present in mind and body.”

At the 2015 Watermark Conference, I attended a session on Presence by Janine Driver and learned some additional methods for preparing to speak, which complimented the skills I’d learned from Susan. You can listen to it here. (The session begins at 8:32.) Another good resource is The Definitive Book of Body Language by Barbara Pease.

You have a strong, independent presence. — Nadira, teenager and my 2nd cousin.

This idea of presence is also about being willing to put yourself out there, accomplishing it better at it than you think you will, and learning from each experience so that you can do it even better next time.

The first time I said yes without knowing how I was going to do it was when I was asked to do my first large keynote in January 2015. I got up on the stage, looked at the audience and freaked out in my head for a moment, then I suddenly realized all those people in the audience were excited to hear ME speak, to learn from ME — and they wanted me to succeed.

So I did.

“We are so scared of being judged that we look for every excuse to procrastinate.” — Erica Jong
Our first event in 2015, Celebrating Women in Technology, brought over 300 RSVPs

One big key to presence is to leave judgement behind. When you’re on stage, speak to the people who want to learn from you, who care about you, who want you to succeed. Ignore those who might not, or who have something else going on in their lives and can’t pay attention to you right now. You’re not there for them, don’t try to convert them. Give those who want to learn from you the satisfaction of learning even more than they expected to learn, be inspired even more than they expected to be inspired.

“All beings in this world cheer you on.” — Jack Kornfield at Wisdom 2.0, 2015.

I made goals, and I surpassed them.

I wrote almost every day during the first half of the year — often just one note, just one intention for the day that leads to presence. Like this one on 1/19/15: “Let in what heals, empowers and strengthens. Examine what is inside and is holding you from your biggest best self. Then let it go.” And on 2/25/15: “Be who you are. Confident, beautiful, intelligent and passionate.”

Here is what I accomplished in 2015 when I focused on Presence:

  1. My goal was to have 7 public speaking engagements in 2015. That seriously seemed like a stretch goal in January. But throughout the year I ended up speaking 37 times —including several keynotes!!
  2. I ran several different workshops on diversity and inclusion.
  3. I was part of 8 key industry roundtable discussions about diversity and inclusion. Eg, I met with the White House to talk about diversity in tech, and the US Council of Mayors to talk about women’s advancement.
  4. I was asked to judge several pitch competitions and hackathons.
  5. I was quoted in more National and International news articles than I can count, plus interviewed on Japanese public television, Univision television, Jamaican radio and multiple US podcasts, videocasts and documentaries.
  6. I was honored as one of 70 United Nations Digital Leaders.
  7. The US Embassy brought me to Jamaica to help develop a new entrepreneurial ecosystem there.
  8. My Change Catalyst team and I hosted events that reached 3000 people in person and a few thousand more online, with a newsletter of over 7000 diverse people in tech.
  9. I met some of my greatest heroes.
  10. Oh and, together with Wayne Sutton a ton of volunteers, I ran my own successful tech conference — and several more are in the works for 2016!

All because I said yes, fully and completely, to being present.

I am writing this to show anyone who needs to hear it that: if you put an intention out there and truly, fully set your mind and body to do it, you can radically change your life.

Here’s what 2015 looked like for me:

Meeting Mohammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank (left). Photo I took of Malala at the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations as part of the #UN70 Digital Leaders (right). Both are personal heroes.
Me and Sheryl Sandberg (left), Chelsea Clinton and Me (right)
Being interviewed by Univision (left, photo by Mark Saldaña) and NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting network (right)
The only woman at the front of the room — Jamaican radio (left); Fellow speakers at the University of West Indies Dr. Wayne Henry, VP Scotia Bank; Hon. Anthony Hylton, Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce; Myself; Ralston Hyman, Economist; Harold Davis, Jamaica Business Development Corporation; Senator Floyd Morris not pictured (right)
Jamaica — Roundtable discussion about building an entrepreneurial ecosystem with local investors, entrepreneurs, banks. Top left: Me, Wayne Sutton and Kirk-Anthony Hamilton leading the discussion.
On stage at Grace Hopper with Kat Manalac, Y Combinator; Ari Horie, Women’s Startup Lab; Sue Heilbronner, MergeLane; Wayne Sutton, BUILDUP (left); SVForum’s Women in Tech Festival with Gina O’reilly, Nitro; Candace Worley, McAfee; Faye Sahai, Kaiser; Neeta Mhatre, Siemens (right)
Interviewing 500 Startups Co-Founder Christine Tsai (left); Investing In Change panel: Beau Seil, Unitus Impact; Shauntel Poulson, Reach Capital; Jenny Kassan; Lauren Booker Allen, Omidyar Network; Victoria Fram, VilCap Investments (right)
Presence. (Photos by Wayne Sutton, Marian Zizzo, Amy Rubio, Erick Davidson and Mel Kurutz)

What is your intention for 2016?