Reflections: Startup Island — Costa Rica ‘18

Saalik Lokhandwala
Mar 12, 2018 · 7 min read

This Spring Break, I journeyed to Costa Rica with a group of students and coaches to learn about ourselves, startups and the entrepreneurial spirit that pushes us to do better for this beautiful world.

The days were filled with intense inspiration, starting with yoga and meditation every morning to ground ourselves. We dove into workshops to learn about who we are and what we want out of life, bonded with horses to crystalize intention, explored secret waterfalls, relaxed in hot springs and quite literally jumped into canyons. In a few short days, a group of total strangers became a group of close friends. We laughed, discussed, brainstormed and now hold each other accountable to our personal goals. I’m writing this blog post as a journal entry of my learnings this past week at Startup Island.

Working on ourselves

A large part of the Startup Island program is participating in workshops. Each workshop this week had a distinct theme. What all of them shared is that they integrated our values with lessons on how to better start, grow and run a business. With a backdrop of fresh tropical air, bright blue pools and trees of deep green, the workshops were even more inspiring. Through these workshops, I learned to be true to my core values. Before this trip, I had never really thought about core values in this way before. I made decisions based on how I felt about a situation, trusting myself to do the right thing. It was haphazard approach now that I reflect on it. I never sat down and decided upon words to describe my core values. Having a list to refer to is more clarifying than ever.

Now, I can encounter a situation and wonder, “Is this congruent with my core values?”

I also learned that I should be “crystal f’ing clear” about what my goals are. The universe is kind to those who are clear about their goals, and work toward them every single day. Through a sustainability workshop, I was inspired to come up with a slew of ideas of how to make my personal life and business endeavors kinder to people, planet and profit. Ultimately, the workshops tied into one another in an almost seamless way, building on one another in profound ways and getting all of us excited and clearer on our journeys ahead.

A Horse Named Cosmo

One of the most mind-blowing, beautiful things about this week occurred while working with horses. I had always respected the animals before, but this experience was unlike anything that I’d felt before. When I first heard that horses would be able to help me see myself more clearly, I was skeptical. My skepticism faded into fierce fascination in the way my horse bonded and interacted with me. Cosmo was like a mirror of myself, but, well, a horse. When I was nervous, Cosmo was jittery. When I was confident and had direction in where to go, I would stride forward and Cosmo would be one step behind me, following. Cosmo knew when my energy was high, often trotting and breaking into a gallop. He knew that when I took deep breaths and slowed my heart rate, he needed to go slow. I pet and cared for him as a nurturer, inspired him to follow me as a leader, had him support me when I was vigilant as a sentinel, and pushed him to listen as I asserted dominance.

The subject of dominance was one that was thoroughly discussed this week. That’s because dominance is a word that has a bad reputation, and I didn’t know what true dominance was. As I learned, exerting dominance is simply using a pushing energy to move a situation in a clear and specific direction. It’s not forcing one to do something they don’t want to do. That’s predatory. Dominance isn’t malicious or aggressive. It’s just focus. With Cosmo, I asserted my dominance. When riding him, I would kick my heels and make a kissing sound with my mouth and he would know that I wanted him to start moving. By making him move, I exerted dominance, but that dominance was merely a signal to push Cosmo in the right direction. Horses respond well to dominance because they find it clarifying. Because I was clear in my mind with what I wanted him to do, he listened. This same concept applies to situations involving people. After absorbing all of this information and bonding with our horses, we rode them all to a beautiful waterfall hidden deep in the jungle, where we swam and played. I’m excited to apply what I learned about horses and herd roles in my life from now on.

A Cultural Exchange

When we visited Monterrey High School, a local school in the La Fortuna area, we didn’t go to perform community service. Sometimes, when people from the developed world go to other places, we feel slightly superior to locals, especially if they are “poorer.” To me, this feels extremely pretentious. Thankfully, Startup Island feels the same. Instead, we went for the purpose of a cultural exchange. We spent the morning with students, working together with them on signs for International Women’s Day and to stop bullying. While there are so many differences between a Costa Rican and an American high school, I couldn’t help but notice how similar we all are. The students laughed with us, bonded with us over sports, played instruments for us, and took selfies just as we do. Despite the differences in language, weather, socio-economic strata and curriculum, we found each other to be fundamentally the same.

People Make a Place

Photo from Team Startup Island

The friendships I’ve formed over this past week have been nothing short of incredible. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this trip but also to be a part of this unique group of travelers. Josh, Aarti, Sean, John, Jess, Nat, Dani, Danielle, Celinne and Merv are some of the coolest people I’ve ever met. As a group, we clicked instantly, our deep talks transitioning into laughter and stupid jokes, only to go back to deep talks again. It felt great to be unapologetically myself around a group of such dynamic personalities.

Our retreat, Leaves and Lizards, has an incredible team of people who were integral to our experience this week. The only way I can really describe them succinctly is badass. Andrea taught us yoga, becoming a great friend. We could depend on her for everything, from deciding what to have for lunch (which often was a chaotic task), to arranging transport to the airport, to making sure that our shoulders were relaxed, all day long. Sally is a lawyer turned horse expert who can read emotions and intentions; she helped us communicate with our horses to learn about ourselves. Leila takes amazing photos, and inspired us with her story of traveling and creating a documentary about horses when she found Leaves and Lizards and decided to stay. Enrique, a tour guide, can ride horses like no other, an expert in using dominance the right way. Kelley is working on a brilliant sustainability project — creating a vegetable garden on the property so that the retreat’s restaurant is self-sufficient. Debbie and Steve own Leaves and Lizards, working with horses and designing cabins with intricate and awesome artwork. In the little time I had with them, these people told me stories that blew my mind. Not only are they powerful personalities, but they also shared with us. The trip would not have been remotely the same without them.

I can’t mention gratitude for Startup Island without mentioning the founders. Brian and Josh work so hard with passion, understanding and care. When I first got in touch with Brian over the past summer, we had talked because I needed feedback on my own startup idea — which had nothing to do with Startup Island. That relationship grew, and something told me that going on this trip was the right thing for me. I told them several times in the final days of the trip, but I feel that I should put it in writing: these guys made this week unforgettable, and they changed our lives in the process. They’re amazing people, and I could not be more honored to call them mentors and friends.


When I decided to sign up for my trip with Startup Island, I thought I would be going on a retreat for entrepreneurs, attempting to make my business skills better. I did that, and I did more. Much more. This week wasn’t really about startups, or cash flow, or even business ideas. This week was about learning about myself. It was about finding the strength to become who I want to be, with determination and purpose, no matter the challenges in my way. Living in the moment is something I’ve been working on actively for the past couple years, and this trip validated my efforts more than ever.

While I love being at school and at home, I rarely find myself surrounded by intensely positive energy and intensely inspirational people at the same time. Startup Island not only gave me a stronger sense of purpose, it filled me with an energy that I can’t wait to use to fuel my projects, jobs and experiences to come. This was a week of adventure, self-discovery, friendship, clarity and energy. It filled me with hope and excitement, the promise of a better tomorrow.

Pura Vida,

Saalik’s Journal

Saalik Lokhandwala

Written by

Seeker of adventure, lover of ideas, lifetime learner. Writes and reads about startups, web technology, and fantastical worlds.

Saalik’s Journal

Saalik’s blog — mindfulness, wellness, tech, and more.

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