The Free Diver’s Guide to Social Entrepreneurship

The Base Project’s Chris Akin has already lived a full life. After living in Hawaii for 13 years, he moved to New York to become a social entrepreneur with a focus on fashion. Today, Chris’s company, The Base Project, works with artisans in Africa and the Middle East to create products that promote positive impact through style. In both his years in Hawaii and as a business owner involved in social entrepreneurship, Chris has learned that our biggest lessons learned in life – he shares his below  – follow us wherever we go.

As the temperature drops in my home of New York City, I find myself thinking of Hawaii. After graduating from university, I visited Hawaii for a short summer adventure that turned into 13 remarkable years. Hawaii is where I learned to surf, outrigger canoe, long-distance swim, dive and understand the ocean.

You have chosen the path less ventured, a chaotic, complex and rewarding one. Keep calm.

My time free diving (scuba diving without the tank) for rare shells in Hawaii taught me the overarching lessons that I relate to in my work as a social entrepreneur with The Base Project, working in places that many people deem remote or difficult. In my diving experience and throughout my time in Hawaii I learned much about my capabilities as a social entrepreneur, and as a person. Here are a few of my favorite lessons that prove true on the Hawaiian shores and in the boardroom:

1. The best treasures are found where others are not willing to venture

Some social entrepreneurs pursue opportunities where no one else is venturing because they are ahead of the curve, first movers and innovators. Others are pursuing opportunity in places where many people only see too much difficulty, risk and complexity. A case can be made that The Base Project embodies both innovation in its business model and chasing down opportunities in places where others see too much complexity. I identify with the latter.

The first time I went free diving, my dreams of finding rare shells were sunk before I was even completely under water. I immediately saw that I was a couple generations too late for the easy discoveries. Through this experience, I found that the best shells are in places where others are not willing to venture – and venture I did, to lesser-traveled parts of the water. These areas of the ocean often seem dangerous: waves crashing against the cliffs, in caves, areas with fast currents, or dark waters. Few were willing to dive these spots because they saw risk, difficulty and danger.

This same principle applies to my work as a social entrepreneur in the fashion industry. We work with artisans living at the poverty line in very rural parts of Namibia, Ghana and Togo. The regions we work within and people we partner with are untapped. The artisans we work with design pieces that are inspired by the local culture and landscapes, beautiful designs that are yet to be seen in the contemporary fashion market. Additionally, our partners have a deep desire to improve and grow their body of work. Like my diving experiences, the people and less traveled places that we venture to offer amazing treasure.

2. Keep calm

When I began free diving around cliffs and caves I got smashed into rocks, caught in rip currents, cut up on lava rock and tossed around by waves. What kept me safe through the injury — and, ultimately, more successful — was my increasing comfort in the water. I studied the ocean, learned from experience and developed the ability to stay extremely calm in seemingly chaotic situations. If I remained calm, I was both safer and found the best rewards.

As founder of The Base Project, the lesson to keep calm holds true. For many of us, remaining calm and maintaining perspective within everyday work is challenging. We are inundated with hundreds of tasks, external demands, risks, changes, of course, and emotional decision every day. Much of our social enterprise work is driven by similar passions found in aide work or running nonprofits, and then add to that running a profitable market-based business. You have chosen the path less ventured, a chaotic, complex and rewarding one. Keep calm.

3. You have the innate ability; the obstacle is your mind

When I first approached diving, I imagined that if I could swim harder, become stronger, practice breadth holds or use better equipment I would be more comfortable taking risks and being successful. My mind easily drifted toward comparison with others, and a laundry list of things I needed to improve on before diving through my first underwater cave. Physical ability and equipment certainly play a part, though not nearly as much as I imagined. I had the baseline ability to dive areas I deemed “dangerous”; my hurdle to start was mental. It was my mind’s nerves and self-defeating thoughts that were holding me back from those first dives. I was not diving to break world records. I was starting to dive places less ventured. My fears of both the danger and success were in my head.

Most people already have the ability to develop an innovative product, start a new project or launch a business. We likely possess the knowledge or resources to be a real threat in our area of work, especially when we choose the path less ventured. When I started The Base Project, I had no background in fashion, had never stepped foot in Africa nor worked in international development, nor did I have an outside capital backing us. I certainly could have waited years to beef up my knowledge and resources until I felt ready to launch, and even then I would have felt ill prepared. Remember that comparison is self-defeating. The very people you compare yourself with likely did not start with secret knowledge or resources that you do not posses.

When I launched The Base Project, I did have enough innate intellect, life experience, baseline resources and an ability to figure things out as I moved forward. Starting a social enterprise where others were not willing to venture meant that our business was more complex than most. It also meant less competition, lower barriers to entry, unique product and, by default, we became experts in new areas of fair trade business models.

This lesson is as important as it is difficult to adopt. My mind still gets the better of me before starting some dives. And after three plus years running The Base Project, I still have internal doubts that I lack the knowledge, resources or credibility in big risk and reward situations. There is a fallacy in those thoughts. Experience has shown us success in places where others were not willing to venture.

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