"I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine." ~ Kurt Vonnegut
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to have lunch and get to know another Milwaukee blogger, Nate St. Pierre. What Nate has created, though, is much more than a blog. He has really created a movement, based around his website, It Starts With Us.
What is so unique about what Nate is doing, is how It Starts With Us (ISWU) has really become a place to bring people together – from all walks of life and every corner of the globe. Brought together around the simple idea of doing good in our world. And that's not to say there aren't a whole lot of opportunities to do that right in our own neighborhoods – as I'm sure there are. This is really about small, easy acts of good (missions) that can be done – with a common connection to people from all over the world!
Please join me as I ask Nate some questions about what has brought him to this place he's at today.
1. Tell us a little bit about who “you” are (family, career, any special life experiences you’d like to share, etc.)
I laughed when I saw the word "career" in the question. I don't think I've ever had a career as most people would define it. I started out as a janitor at age 14, then during high school and college I worked as a civilian hire for the Air Force. I went to college on academic scholarship to study molecular genetics and organic chemistry, then dropped out of school to go work at a fish cannery in Alaska. When I came back from there, I did some freelance technical writing and desktop publishing. During the dot-com bubble I taught myself basic web design and built a topic-specific search engine directory, which I ran for a while and then sold. From there I moved into land title insurance for a little bit, and then I became a web developer for a big company. After doing that for a while, I became the web team leader and ran that show for a couple of years, until I decided to quit and focus on ItStartsWith.Us full-time. Instead of having a solid career to back me up, I feel that I have a variety of different experiences to draw from, each of which has allowed me to develop a different skill set and perspective on life. I can't say that I'll run ItStartsWith.Us forever, but I can tell you that it's the first job I've ever truly loved.
Lance's Commentary: The experience at the fish cannery in Alaska has to have some pretty interesting memories! And…I think you have really hit upon an important thing: Our life is not just about our career, it's really about our life experiences and the people we've met along the way. Keep on really living life, my friend!
2. What led to the creation of the It Starts With Us website?
I was attending a week-long leadership training course for my job in November of 2008, and one of the sessions focused on completing self-assessment exercises. "What are your skills, talents and interests, what do you enjoy doing, etc." – that kind of thing. After writing all that down, the idea was that you should try to do something in your life that would speak to those qualities. With that in mind, the instructions were to write for 20 minutes based on the question presented on the next page. When I turned to the page, I saw that it was blank, except for the phrase, "Next year, I will . . . " at the top. I scribbled furiously for 20 minutes, and when I was done, I looked back to see what I had written. Today I don't remember anything about that page except what I wrote for the first line: "Next year, I will change the world."
I thought about what that meant for a few months, and realized that I could never do very much on my own. But I thought that if I could build a system that would enable people to participate quickly and easily, feel like part of a team, have fun, not pay a dime, and actually see the life-changing results of their work, then they would engage with the project. And with so many people engaging, we literally could change the world.
Lance's Commentary: Nate, what you have created with the It Starts With Us movement is incredibly soul-touching. You ARE changing the world – in some amazing ways!
3. Nate, when I think about your site, I think about how I can personally make a difference in the world – and how your site helps facilitate a way to do that. Am I close to what you see your mission as?
Indeed. The vision of ItStartsWith.Us is to change the world. The mission – the way we do that – is to make a positive impact in the lives of the people around us . . . in just 15 minutes a week. Anyone and everyone can give 15 minutes a week towards helping out their neighbor, loving their family, working on their attitude, or joining us in one of our shared missions, like writing a letter to a sick child or dropping a Love Bomb on someone in need. When I assign the weekly missions, I try to make them small enough to be attainable, but big enough to make a measurable difference in someone else's life, and also your own.
Lance's Commentary: What's so great about this is the minimal time commitment that is really necessary to be a part of this. Anyone can do it!! And – the whole collective of this is so powerful!
4. Tell us about the weekly missions, and how they have impacted you personally.
I like to think of the weekly missions as a gentle reminder to keep our eyes open to the good we can do in this world as we walk through life. There's no pressure to do them or not – nobody's keeping score. It's very easy to delete the email or unsubscribe from the list altogether. We've been running missions for right around a year now, and I've done every single one I've assigned. And you know what? It was hard for me. It made me stretch a little bit. I'm a huge introvert, and I'm not the friendliest person (my family and friends can attest to that). But doing these missions each week has opened my eyes to so many things I can do better in this life. I've found so many ways to make a difference for others, even if it's just as simple as a friendly smile, a quick chat on the street, or a small offer of help. And the surprising thing is, as much as the people I serve appreciate the little things I do, I'm the one who gets the biggest benefit. My outlook on life is better. My attitude is more positive. My days are more joyful. It's really been amazing, and it seems the old adage is true – when you serve others, you really do get back more than you give.
Lance's Commentary: I've been a member since our lunch meeting back in late winter of this year. While I haven't done every mission, I have done most of them. And that's the thing. Some weeks we get busy, can't get to every email that comes in, etc, etc. And that's what works here. I do this when I can. And it's a win-win when I do. Someone benefits from whatever "kindness" is being put out there this week. That's not nearly it, though – I come away from all of this a better person, and am touched by each one of these missions that I participate in!
5. Tell us one unexpected thing that has happened to you in the last year.
I think the most unexpected thing is what I mentioned just above – that I was changed as a result of this project. I began it because I believed in the idea and thought I could bring a lot of people together for the common good, but I was totally amazed by the way it transformed me right from the beginning.
Lance's Commentary: I love this!! When we transform ourselves in amazing ways, what a great place to be!
6. If you had to pick one thing as your greatest achievement, what would it be (and why)?
With this project, or with life? Hmm. I'll pick the "with this project" option, because it's easier. With this project I'm most proud of the fact that we've been able to make such a difference for so many people. We started out with 18 members a year ago, and today we have over 2,000 members in dozens of countries. In just one year we've been able to get to the point where we're now pumping hundreds of hours of community service into the world each week in an organized, directed and effective way. And we've been able to do it with no funding – just a desire to make a difference. I wish I could share all the notes, calls and emails I receive on a weekly basis about what the team has done – we truly do touch hearts and change lives. It's incredible to be a part of that.
Lance's Commentary: Hundreds of hours….fifteen minutes at a time!! How cool is that!!
7. Anything new you have coming up?
Dude, I always have something new coming up. Right now I'm working with a couple of people on two spin-off sites: Love Bomb and Love Drop. The Love Bomb subgroup is already very active, so we're going to turn that into a standalone project to better focus the efforts of those members. Love Drop will be a true 501(c)3 charitable organization centered around the micro-giving concept, where interested people join the group and donate either $1.00 or $5.00 a month, and at the end of each month we ask our members if they know of anyone who could use some financial help, and then we'll direct virtually all of that money to the chosen recipient. I try to keep the main ItStartsWith.Us team away from any monetary giving, so this will give interested parties the opportunity to give back financially.
The biggest thing I'm working on right now, however, is the business offering of the project. Last month I quit my job to focus on ISWU full-time (putting 30 hours a week into the project on top of my full-time job for the last year was getting a bit rough). I'm now working with large organizations and businesses to utilize the ISWU model to mobilize their members to give back in a fun, free and effective way. I've custom-built all the tools necessary for businesses to adopt this model and have the same kind of success that we're having, and I'm doing personal consulting to help them implement the system and make a real impact with it. Even better, when these organizations contract with me to adopt the ISWU platform, they also become part of the leadership network I've formed, and part of our quarterly initiatives . . . which will be huge missions consisting of people from different companies and groups all over the world, where we all work together to do something for one person, one family, or one organization . . . all at the same time. Imagine all of us coming together to grant a wish for a child in the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which is one of the places I'm going be looking to partner with. The world has never seen the kind of things we're going to be able to accomplish this year. It's going to make a huge difference – and be a lot of fun at the same time.
Lance's Commentary: I've been a part of the Love Bomb group for several weeks. What a moving experience, to be able to offer some words of encouragement and love to one person who has a lot they are dealing with. And – how awesome that you are able to focus on ISWU full-time! The whole idea of taking this into business, too, makes so much sense: what a great way to unite a common group of people around a common cause!
8. Deep down, what makes you uniquely “you”?
Had to end with a tough one, didn't you? Hmm. Okay, how about this? I'm a business-minded idealist. Meaning, I have the values, passion, dedication and drive of someone who wants to change the world, but I'm doing it in such a way that it makes sense to those with the money and power to help make it happen. I talk to executives about how adopting the ISWU platform will help with employee engagement, recruitment and retention, and about how the real-world results they get with their group will be worth much more in positive brand-building than what they're currently spending from their advertising and PR budgets. I show them how being a part of this network affects their bottom line and is actually profitable for them, and then when they join, I fly out to their headquarters and show them how to run their own group that touches hearts and changes lives. Yep. Just like what we're doing now. And since I give them all the tools and all the expertise they need for a very reasonable price, ISWU becomes a self-sustainable business . . . in the business of changing the world.
So that's how I feel I'm unique – I'm someone who believes that absolutely everyone is in a position to do amazing things for the common good. Passionate individuals, small companies, global brands, non-profits, educational organizations, celebrities, regular folk . . . as long as we work together in an organized, effective and sustainable way, we'll be able to do things that have never been done before. It is certainly possible. In fact, it's even easier than you think. And I'm excited about getting it done.
Lance's Commentary: Hey, I can't make all of these easy!! You are creating something that is very special and meaningful for everyone involved. That, coupled with the new directions you have planned – and you are indeed changing the world…in very life-connecting ways!
Closing Comments: Nate, as I read that quote by Kurt Vonnegut up above…you ARE the fire engine! And all these people signing up to be a part of the team become the water. Wow!! From this…WE are all changing the world! Your creation of It Starts With Us is the catalyst for bringing together people to collectively make a big difference in our world, one step at a time! I am honored to be part of this amazing movement!