Why Living in a Van for 12 Months Made Me an Awesome Entrepreneur by Nicole Gibson
In the dictionary, a social entrepreneur is defined as “a person who establishes an enterprise with the aim of solving social problems or effecting social change”.
Four years ago, I probably would have agreed with this definition but now I realise how insufficient this description truly is. When I was little, I would always look up to the Richard Branson’s of the world. I used to dream about their luxurious lives – flying in private jets and driving fast sports cars. I used to dream of being the boss. I used to have idealised ideas about what it would be like to do something that was going to change the world. I was so eager to begin my own entrepreneurial journey that on my 18th birthday I registered my first organisation – a charity I called The Rogue & Rouge Foundation (Rogue meaning rebel and rouge meaning red – to me it was representative of love and passion), that was dedicated to easing the stigma surrounding mental health and providing young people with any assistance they needed. I was The Passionate Rebel – on a mission to combat all stigma attached to mental health concerns and to eventually change the world.
I soon realised that starting your dreams isn’t as luxurious as I once thought – it comprised of working 3 part-time jobs (from night climbs, to waitressing to sales consulting), whilst studying full-time and also spending countless hours every day trying to get my dreams off the ground. It seemed grim at times, but the little wins were the things that got me through. I was tested over and over again by the universe… “Do you really want this Nicole?” My integrity was continuously bought to my attention, and I learnt from a young age what responsibility really meant.
As a 19 year old – who had already established a fairly successful charity – I had an experience that completely changed my perspective. I realised that I was hiding behind the clever brand I had created. Hiding behind masses of paperwork and feeling validated by the pretty news articles getting published instead of standing up and fighting the good fight. Just before my 20th birthday, I decided something needed to change, so packed up everything I owned and changed my direction completely. Many people thought I was sabotaging what was fast becoming a successful career as a social entrepreneur – but I chose to follow the inexplicable feeling deep inside of me.
In 2013, I lived in a van for 12 months to seek out the truth behind Australia’s education and health systems. I went on a quest to discover how our young people actually felt – instead of trusting the annual census and mental health reports. As I packed my life into a van, little did I know that the next 12 months would behold a complete personal, professional, spiritual, physical and emotional transformation for me.I detached from my attachments – I let go of what was no longer serving me in all areas of my life. I began to understand what it meant to trust and live as a minimalist – and discovered that this was actually a joy, not a challenge. I started to realise that we become dreamers once we allow ourselves to believe – we are all superheroes, and our epic journeys’ are just waiting for us as soon as we surrender to our purpose. The following seven points are the lessons I learnt on the path to making a true entrepreneur out of me:
1. Staying calm in compromising situations
A good entrepreneur should always have a practiced ‘poker face’. When you have people that rely on you and look up to you, it’s important that you’re able to handle challenges with a level head. Being able to put your fear aside to deal with compromising situations is definitely something you learn whilst living in a van for 12 months! After breaking down in Northern Western Australia – in the 50° heat and surrounded by nothing other than red dirt desert – I truly began to understand what fear was. Walking through the desert to eventually reach an oilrig where four 6’4 Aussie dudes greeted me with, “BLOOODY oath, haven’t seen a Sheila in 4 weeks!” was nothing short of an experience. As we filled up the van with some spare diesel fuel and drove away, I understood the importance of defusing a stressful situation by staying calm and thinking rationally – I pretty much felt as cool as Bear Grylls surviving that one!
Trusting in the universe was something I used to laugh at when people suggested that I relinquish control. Being taught from a young age that ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ programmed me to trust nobody. Letting go of control, welcoming a new team and getting by on very little money really put my ability to trust and have faith in destiny to the test. What the universe delivered was beyond my wildest imagination. It was fate.
3. Team Work
Rome was not built in a day – but more than that, one person didn’t build Rome. It takes a team to pull off something great. Being on the road forces you to rely on your team. I soon realised that what you can accomplish as a team is so much greater than what you can accomplish alone.
4. Being in the moment
Lying underneath a blanket of stars in the South Australian countryside was overwhelming; I had never seen stars like it before. I had never heard silence like that before. I finally understood what it meant to be completely present. When you’re busy building a business, it can become tolling. You lose the passion and the joy you once experienced when everything was ‘new’. I realised how much more you have to give when you’re completely present – when you’re in awe of life and everything it offers – when you get taken over by a gratitude that is so much greater than you’re physical being. I was inspired by the realization of how small we truly are and how precious our time really is.
5. Dealing with change
A world-changing movement or business was never created from living in your comfort zone. Waking up in a new community every morning made me realise how strong my comfort zone back home had become and I fast realised that this was starting to reflect in my decision-making. Embracing constant changes means you’re more equipped to take greater risks and be more courageous, which is what it means to be an entrepreneur – this is the true essence of becoming a game changer.
6. Creative inspiration from contrast
As my profile grew I was getting asked to do more speaking events in big cities while I also travelled about smaller communities and slept in a van – one night I’d be in the van and the next I’d have been put up at the Radisson. I soon realised that the lush life I dreamed of had nothing to do with 5-star hotels but instead actually lay in my experiences, which in turn, were heightened anytime I experienced contrast.
7. Developing love and acceptance for all people
Towards the end of the trip, we had parked the van up in a caravan park next to our new friend, Dave. Dave was about 65 and talked to us all afternoon about this life story – you name it he talked about it. We listened all through the night and by the time we went to bed we were all exhausted. Fifteen minutes later we heard a knocking on our window, drawing aside the curtain, I saw Dave. He quickly put his finger up to my mouth and presented me with a cigarette and a Coke before closing our van door and walking off.
It was a just one of many the stories that deepened my appreciation for humans and just how random and complex we truly are. I was far from my private schoolgirl roots and all better for it. I was learning to appreciate everyone, without judgment and embrace him or her with sheer and utter love and acceptance.
So yes, a social entrepreneur is “a person who establishes an enterprise with the aim of solving social problems or effecting social change” but what I know now is that true change makers, those that make the biggest difference in the world, are the ones that surrender to the dreams that make them. The ones who are crazy enough to believe what’s in their wildest imagination will eventually come to life. It’s not just about solving social problems – it’s about transforming yourself into the person you once dreamed you could be (and understanding that expectations are always different from reality).