Rising Through Resilience: Aaron Walker of Camelback Ventures On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Study Failure — We have a practice of looking at failure at Camelback. I know it makes people uncomfortable sometimes. The reason for doing so is not to self-flagellate. A big part of it is to build our resilience because we will fail and having a mental map for what to do is critical.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Walker.
Aaron is on a journey to live in the spirit of his baseball hero, Jackie Robinson, who said “a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” With this ethos, Aaron taught ninth grade English in West Philadelphia, put together deals for companies large and small as a lawyer, and supported new ideas to improve education as a portfolio director for the NYC Fund for Public Schools. Aaron is humbled to say that he graduated from the University of Virginia and Penn Law School. He also knows that this doesn’t entitle him to anything and is ready to earn his keep.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I grew up in a suburb in New Jersey. The street we lived on was the dividing line between this town and the biggest city in the state. People say zip code can determine destiny. I feel like my backstory represents that reality. Because my parents eked out this existence, I went to good public schools, lived in a low-cortisol world, and had exposure to experiences that expanded my options. Everything I have pursued as an adult — from teaching to the law to entrepreneurship — has been with an effort to create a world where all children, especially Black and Brown young people, have that option regardless of where they grow up. This is why I founded a national accelerator called Camelback Ventures which increases access to opportunity for entrepreneurs of color and women by investing in their ventures and leadership while advocating for fairness in their funding.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The most interesting stories are from my time as a 9th grade teacher in Philadelphia. What I remember is that every breakthrough that happened for a student was because of collaboration between teachers, or teachers and families. As a 22-year-old, teaching dispelled the myth of the “lone hero,” which is something that I’ve tried to bring to Camelback Ventures. The CEO is important, especially when it comes to setting the vision, but they are just one person with a role to play like everyone else.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Camelback Ventures’ Headquarters is in New Orleans. There was a Category 4 hurricane that came through on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Forty percent of our team was displaced. It was a busy time for our national organization with several major projects in progress. Despite the physical and mental challenges that come when natural disasters strike — the team stepped up. Those not living in New Orleans picked up the work; within a week our organization committed funds to support staff; and the community of entrepreneurs Camelback empowers through our intensive Fellowship rallied to raise nearly $10,000 in relief funds to support 15 business owners in the Camelback portfolio. Camelback is an organization that is about business, but our team and community always have each other’s back — especially in the most trying times.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful to all the people who have helped me from my cousin who encouraged me to apply to a top-tier law school when I thought I couldn’t get in; to my wife who is the best cheerleader, especially on those days I’m ready to give up; to a mentor who I met in Chicago when we were first getting started and has been in our corner ever since. I am most grateful, though, to my parents who gave me the gift of a great education.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
A resilient person can do three things: 1) they have a diverse skillset to solve problems; 2) the ability to access those skills when needed; and 3) a beginner’s mind that allows them to keep going. The good thing is that building one’s resilience is cultivated over time.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is about doing the right thing even if you’re afraid, whereas resilience is having the mindset and skills to try again when the answer isn’t obvious.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
We are all born with resilience. We can see this when we look at children. The first people I think of are my eight- and nine-year-old children. As infants they didn’t know how to walk or feed themselves. Now they are teaching themselves how to play musical instruments and struggling to learn their multiplication tables. And what is beautiful about witnessing this growth is they usually approach every day with a beginner’s mind. As adults, the development of our ego can get in the way.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
The first person that comes to mind is myself. Everything that I was afraid to try was because I told myself it was going to be too hard or that I wasn’t capable.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
For a time, I worked at a law firm. During the Great Recession, I was laid off. It shook me. But then I realized that working there was not the long-term vision I had for myself. And I know that is true of a lot of law firm lawyers. But what they gave me was a gift. It was an opportunity to pursue work focused on the intersection of social impact and entrepreneurship. I did not know that it would lead to Camelback Ventures, but I know I am better for having the opportunity to walk the path that has led me here.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I have had multiple opportunities to cultivate resilience. I played baseball competitively from the time I was eight-years old until college. No matter how good you are, you fail more than you succeed. You have to pick yourself up and keep going. Also, being a Black person in America you have no choice but to be resilient. Whether it is the professor who doesn’t believe you can pass the test, so you take it again; or the home appraisal that is blatantly low, so you take the extra time and money to fight it; or when fundraising for your company the extra questions and impartial rules that still have a disparate impact that you must overcome.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Build New Skills — I feel fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to build skills in different areas. It has given me the ability to make connections and find workarounds when I was in a situation that was new to me.
- Study Failure — We have a practice of looking at failure at Camelback. I know it makes people uncomfortable sometimes. The reason for doing so is not to self-flagellate. A big part of it is to build our resilience because we will fail and having a mental map for what to do is critical.
- Laugh At Yourself — Do something where you look silly. Or at least surround yourself with people who will make you not take yourself too seriously. The more “successful” we become, the more brittle we tend to be because there are fewer people pushing back on us.
- Read Memoirs — I have been on a three-year kick of reading memoirs. Some of my favorites are, “See No Stranger” by Valerie Kaur and “There Will Be No Miracles Here” by Casey Gerald. Learning other people’s story, reminds me that if you are here to tell the story, then survival is possible.
- Sleep More. Like the body, we grow strong in rest, not necessarily in moments of strain. Both are needed though, so I don’t mean to suggest a life of leisure. But that pushing ourselves breaks us down, and rest, reflection and sleep builds us back up.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We started the #RuthlessForGood Movement at Camelback. You should check it out. If I could start a new movement, I would want us all to have a sense of enough-ness. I sometimes think that many of the problems we try to solve are ones created by excess — whether it be with our appetites or our bank accounts.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
I just started reading Indira Nooyi’s memoir “My Life In Full.” She was the former CEO of Pepsi for many years. There are so many things she talks about, particularly concerning the future of work and redefining social responsibility in the corporate setting that I agree with and want to discuss further.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers should visit camelbackventures.org and follow us on social media: @camelbackorg or @camelbackventures on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Youtube.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!