Putting Pando on hold.

I’m going to be honest here. Not just for others, but for myself.

For the past 1.5 years, I’ve been working on a start-up called Pando Projects. It has been my motivation, my child, my dream. But I’ve decided to put Pando on hold. I don’t really have any other choice. I’ve done my best, but I haven’t been able to raise the money that I need to support myself or the growth of the organization. I don’t blame this on “the down economy” – I take full responsibility. At this time, I simply don’t have all the business skills or the right team to help me execute the vision. But it’s okay. I’ve decided to apply to business school. There, I’ll have two years to learn how to take Pando to the next level, while also meeting amazing people who will later contribute to the dream.

I love Pando completely, from the depth of my soul. I still believe that Pando is what I’m meant to do with my life. I believe that Pando is the reason I exist. But I just have to admit, with modesty and a little bit of shame- that I can’t pull it off just yet. I need to learn about business, and I also need a few more years to grow into a more mature leader. When I graduate from b-school, I will try again. And next time I will do it right.

I don’t want to indulge in sadness or embarrassment or shame, even though it’s so easy to feel all those things. I promised a lot of people that I could do this. I took money from people who believed in me. And I feel like a failure. (And I know, I know, I’m not. But I still feel like my heart is smashed in, my ego is deflated, and I’ve been stripped of the one thing that ever made me feel alive.) It’s been a hard few weeks. I’m so sorry if I’ve not reached out to you directly. I’ve been marinating on this and what it all means. I’ve come to peace with the decision and am now super excited about the next steps. I don’t feel like I’m abandoning my dream, I simply feel that I’m being re-routed in a beautiful, unexpected way.) But it took time (and a lot of nights of sitting alone in my darkened bedroom) to get to the moment where I can write this message without feeling the need to cry. Okay, maybe I’m still crying a little – but baby steps!

I’m going to celebrate what went right. We got projects going. We showed that the concept works. I met the most amazing effing people in the world, who I am now lucky to call my friends. This has been the best two years of my entire life. Thank you thank you thank you to all the people that believed in me and helped me and were there for me when I needed it. I wish I could have been a more reliable leader and friend. I wish I were better/stronger/more relentless/more self-aware. I mess up a lot. I make promises I can’t always keep. Sometimes I hurt people. But I’m really trying. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing by applying to b-school. But all I can do is try to live big, have adventures, treat people well, learn from my mistakes, and go after my dreams. That’s all I can ever really do. And I promise to keep trying to do it.

What I’ll never forget:

I will never stop feeling grateful for these people, even though I've always struggled to express it.

Finding the brilliant Braxton Robbason, Traci Paris, and Randy Kato to help me build a prototype of the website. Sitting in my apartment, eating lasagna and drinking wine, feeling so scared and excited that Pando might become more than just an idea.

Finding 15 New Yorkers with amazing ideas for projects that they believed would make their communities better. The photos from their training can be seen here: http://tiny.cc/iznf3

Pando Projects Leaders and Mentors at the January 2011 training. I was so completely terrified that weekend; I couldn't sleep the night before. But I was full of hope, too.

Joyce, one of the Project Leaders, teaching a girl in Chinatown about different cultures

Some of my favorite project pages that show how Pando works: http://pilot.pandoprojects.org/ying, http://pilot.pandoprojects.org/ashleywilliams, http://pilot.pandoprojects.org/joyce.

Attending Summit Series, a conference for entrepreneurs from all over the world. I will never forget dancing on the cruise deck at 3am, feeling so completely happy and certain that everything would be okay.

Winning $25,000 at the We Media Pitch competition! We were chosen out of 187 start-up ideas. Here’s the video interview of me, after the win. http://tiny.cc/75joc. It was one of the best nights I’ve ever had.

Having the MacArthur Foundation declare us to be, “the new face of activism.”

Super cute kids in the Bronx, learning to grow fresh fruits and vegetables as part of Ying's project. She helped over 200 kids start community gardens in just a few months!

Having two investment funds commit $100,000 to Pando. I would have gotten this money if I had been able to raise another $100,000. Dror Berman and Eliot Durbin, I will never forget our meetings. You have no idea how much they meant to me. And you will be hearing from me again in two years. 🙂

Ashley's project was an afterschool reading competition in West Harlem

Sitting in my apartment, staring at my blinking inbox. Seeing emails and not responding. Seeing opportunities, and looking the other way. I think the most fascinating part of starting Pando was seeing just how much I self-sabotaged my own success. Over the next three years, I’m tackling all of my demons until I’m no longer scared to live big. I won’t undermine my own happiness again.

Being called, “the greatest woman of the day” by The Huffington Post!

Right now. This moment. Looking back on what we’ve done. I’m really happy that I tried. And I’m really happy that despite losing all my money and having the most RIDICULOUS ups and downs of my entire life, I still care and want to do it all over again after business school. I WILL BE BACK! Thank you thank you for reading and for believing in me. I will never forget this experience and the amazing people that I met along the way.

* * * * * * * * * *

Jazzmine presenting her idea for I Care 4 Me

A project in Chinatown that took off beautifully

Jodi started a choreography class, to teach kids confidence and creativity

Kids in Harlem visit Columbia as part of a creative reading project

Hannah started an art class for kids in a school without an art program

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Testimonial from Joyce, a pilot Project Leader

Joyce Chen, rising senior at NYU

This is a guest post from Joyce, one of our pilot Project Leaders.  You can check out her project page here: http://pilot.pandoprojects.org/joyce. Her project was also covered by the Epoch Times!  

Joyce used Pando’s platform to help kids in Chinatown learn about international and American culture.  This is a perfect example of why I am fighting to get Pando going.  Joyce had an incredible idea for helping kids, based on her own experience as an immigrant in the United States.  I feel so honored that we could help her bring that idea to life.  

Hundreds of stories about immigrant children have been told.  Some are provocative, many are heartwrenching, and most are inspirational.  My story, however, is perhaps a little disappointing in that I was blessed with parents who were there with me every step of the way and who worked hard to give me as many opportunities as possible, from private piano and violin lessons to having travelled to four continents before I was out of elementary school.

Of course, there were breaks in the cocoon, like being shunned at the playground and being discriminated against by supermarket workers – by members of other minority groups, no less.  But because I had such a strong stanchion in my family, I grew up well-adjusted and with a deep appreciation for international cultures from having experienced both sides of the coin, east and west.  As a rising senior at NYU, I strongly feel that from the diversity of a people percolates the American idea, that differences can be celebrated because the very belief in it can form a nation.

Kids in Chinatown enjoy international food while learning about international culture, as part of Project Open Sight

My first time stepping into Public School 2 in New York’s Chinatown was a shocking reminder of what could have been, had my parents been unable to support me in all the ways that they had.  I saw a cafeteria full of Chinese immigrant children who spoke Chinese to one another while sharing with each other their afternoon snack of Chinese food.  Here was a part of America that I had never known.  These children were scared to speak English, and most had never even heard of the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty.  A little boy named Kevin even told me that the only difference he could see between China and the United States is that, here, we have electricity…yet how come, here, his parents are not with him?

And so Open Sight started as an attempt for me and my friends to effect change.  Our mission statement is to widen the perspectives of linguistically and culturally isolated children by exposing them to different foods, music, and the arts.  Even with such a pressing need, we struggled constantly with questions like whether we are truly giving an experiential portrait of America, whether we can instill the idea of a unity of differences, whether we can do right by these children.  And all of this while trying hard to gain funding, garner volunteers, and stimulate public interest.

NYU students volunteered for this project, helping kids in Chinatown to understand that we are part of a larger international community

At that point, Open Sight would most likely have failed if we did not have Pando’s help and support.  Before Open Sight even started, we learned the right way to approach volunteers and sponsors so as to effectively communicate our vision, and had very helpful coaching in public speaking and sharing so that we could put what we learned into practice.  To ensure that my team and I would feel as secure as possible once Open Sight was off the ground, a mentor was assigned to us so that that same incipient help and support would be just a phone call away.

But the greatest thing about piloting with Pando is that Open Sight was able to reach so many people and resources with our centralized website because of the amount of passion the team at Pando has.  It is truly wonderful to know that there is a group of amazing people who love our idea and love to connect us with all the people and resources that we can grow from and therefore effect more change with.

I am proud to say that Open Sight, with Pando, has inspired quite a few of the children at PS2 towards an inquisitiveness of the world in which we live, a world beyond the few streets in Chinatown familiar to them.  They have tasted, heard, and seen things oceans, mountain ranges, and even centuries away all while chattering excitedly in English, words falling over each other in their haste to express, voices straining to be heard.  They tasted African puff-puffs, they heard Austrian court music, and they saw the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan.

One of the kids who participated in Project Open Sight in Spring 2011.

And with our end-of-semester field trip, many of them saw the Houston River for the first time.

Field trip outside of Chinatown!

Thank you to everyone who has made Open Sight possible, especially Pando!

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Sneak preview of our new promotional video!

I first met Kieran in 2008, when we both served as Kiva Fellows.  (I was in Bosnia and he was in Cambodia, but we kept in touch through Skype and through cheeky comments on each others’ blogs.)  One year later, I was introduced to his girlfriend, the lovely Hollie.

I thought it wise to put my professional fate in the hands of these two people.

At the end of May, Kieran and Hollie flew to NYC from London and spent the weekend interviewing 5 of our pilot Project Leaders.  They will be creating a few mini-promos.  Here is a sneak peak of the first video: http://vimeo.com/25376921 (password: moolena).

Let me know what you think!

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Guest blog from Jodi, one of our pilot Project Leaders

Jodi Tatum was one of our pilot Project Leaders.  She is a 23-year old trained dancer who studied philosophy at Fordham University.  She started a project that used dance and choreography to help school children develop confidence and creativity. You can check out her project page here: http://pilot.pandoprojects.org/joditatum.  You can also see her dancing in our promo video!  http://vimeo.com/25376921 (password: moolena)  Thanks for the guest blog, Jodi.  🙂

Three weeks ago, the kids at Brooklyn East Collegiate Charter School performed their first dance piece. Whether or not they had previous had any dance experience, none of them came in having choreographed before. So when they’re parents came, and the lights went up, I held my breath in nervous anticipation. I knew they could do it, but I hoped that they knew they could, as well. The performance ended with applause and shouts. The best reward for me, though, was seeing the smiles on their faces when they realized what I had known all along: that they are creative and that with confidence, overwhelming goals are achievable.

I came to Pando Projects with the idea of this project because after spending time as a camp counselor in Florida and with students in Namibia, I was confronted by poor academic results from smart kids. I talked to these kids and they were passionate, intelligent kids, but they lacked confidence. They looked up to famous rappers, famous sports players, and famous actors. They thought that social mobility could only be achieved by luck or with money. Creativity seemed to die quickly once this kind of hopelessness set in.

Pando Projects gave these kids a forum to exercise their creativity, to test their strength, and to challenge themselves. My favorite moments involved seeing them begin to understand that movements, as an expression of their “selves”, could not be wrong like their solutions to math problems. With greater freedom they approached their solos and with greater confidence they took to mastering combinations I gave them. The performance at the end gave them a focused collective goal and as the weeks progressed, I saw them more cooperative, helpful, and kind to one another.

Practicing the dance they created as part of Jodi's project

Everyone has a skill set to offer others. I challenge you to consider leveraging your gifts for the community. There is a misconception that changing the world involves large scaled efforts that affect thousands of people, but the truth is that each individual is worth the effort. What you do for one person will affect others because humans are relational beings, and as such, will share what they experience with those around them. Like the Pando root system, we become connected to the other project leaders and to those we serve who then serve us, as well, until the whole organism is benefited.

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Day 2 at NCVS: Learning about Millennials

My favorite session today was Demystifying the Millennial Volunteer, led by Derrick Feldmann and Kari Saratovsky.  Super informative and surprising, helping me to understand how and why GenY get involved in service.  You know the session is good if the room has a full audience, despite an overlapping happy hour with free drinks.  (A painful decision for me, but the right one!)  Here are some of the take-away lessons:

Kari Saratovsky

Derrick Feldman

1. Everyone interested in Millennials should check out The Millennial Donor Survey.  Most of the session was a summary of the survey’s results.

2. 93% of Millennials gave to nonprofits in 2010. 58% said that their single largest gift was less than $150.  This bodes well for Pando, because it shows that Millennials are comfortable giving in smaller increments.  Hopefully our Project Leaders will find that their friends are happy to donate $10 or $20 to fund their projects.

3. Millennials are motivated by: (a) compelling mission/cause, (b) personal connection with leadership, and (c) friend or peer endorsement.  The most important thing is to feel a real connection to the issue being addressed.  I’m really curious about this – – it was always my impression that people donated disproportionately to fund aid initiatives in developing nations.  Are people more likely to donate to an initiative that seems tragic, or to an initiative that addresses a problem that they have personally experienced?  Not sure…

4. A google search is the #1 way that Millennials find information about nonprofits. This really surprised me… There are so many websites that connect people with the stories of nonprofits (Idealist, Jumo, CrowdRise, CitizenEffect, Global Giving…)  Why would people use a random Google search when they can use one of these websites for an easy, catered experience?  I guess the Millennial love-affair with Google continues.

5. 79% of Millennials volunteered in 2010.  This is high!  Really, really high!  I can’t help but smile with glee.  Millennials DO want to volunteer and do good.  If there are 80 million Millennials and 63 million volunteered in 2010, then the potential market demand for Pando will be huge.  Even if only 0.01% of those volunteers want to start their own projects, that’s still an annual demand of 6,300!  Pretty good…

Kari and Derrick talking at the conference

6. Millennials like when nonprofits expose their weaknesses.  It makes the project more compelling.  This is something I’ve long considered.  How do I strike the balance between showing how Pando is growing beautifully, and admitting that we’re really new and trying to figure things out?  Dror recently sent me a study that articulates the need for organizations to exude both competence and warmth.  I’ll work on how honesty can also be a part of that equation.

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Day One at NCVS


I’m in New Orleans at the National Conference for Volunteerism and Service.  Over 4,000 people have gathered to learn how to mobilize citizens to do good.  My people!  Everyone radiates optimism.  People wear loud print patterns and offer hugs instead of handshakes.  There is a sense that service redeems our humanity.

Opening Ceremony at NCVS - Michelle Nunn, one of my heroes!

Day One Highlights: Monday, June 6th
Most thought-provoking quote: During the Opening Ceremony, there was an interview with a New Orleans elementary school principal.  She said, “It’s difficult in New Orleans because everyone who returns, returns with baggage.”  You can’t rebuild New Orleans simply by rebuilding physical structures – to rebuild New Orleans you have to fix those deeper wounds – those dark passengers that sit with people, sometimes dormant, for years.

Last night I was talking with my roommate, the lovely Debra Askanse, about this issue.  What’s the best way to heal the emotional wounds of a geographic place?  We think that it depends… but that it has to be driven by the local people.  Outsiders can provide relief by rebuilding the physical structures, but only the people from that place know what it will take for the community to feel whole again.

Coolest moment:
I had an epic dinner with incredible people.  David Ray, the Director of Strategy at Points of Light!  J.D. Lasica, the Founder of SocialBrite!  Jessica Kirkwood, the Director of Digital Strategy at HandsOn!  George Weiner, the CTO of DoSomething!  Richard French, the COO of Raise the Roof!  Ben Ridgby, the CTO of Sparked!  MariJane Miller, the editor of WhatGives!  These are not names of celebrities, but they are celebrities to me.  Last year at the conference, I was an anonymous volunteer, directing people between conference rooms like cattle.  This year, I was sharing wine and flounder with the thought-leaders in the service sector.  I could have melted in happiness.  Following dinner, we bought feather boas and walked through Bourbon Street, eventually nesting in a bar to watch a piano jazz show.  Amazing.

Most relevant conference lesson:
I attended a session led by Alison Rapping and Debra Barcuch called “The Third Generation: Nonprofit and Business Relationships Evolved.”  They discussed how businesses are no longer satisfied with writing checks to nonprofits.  They are no longer satisfied with having their logo on a banner, or a table at a pretentious gala.  They want to be collaborative with nonprofits, sharing their resources to tackle community issues in holistic, meaningful ways.  84% of corporate execs believe that society now expects businesses to take a much more active role in environmental, social and political issues than it did 5 years ago.  But they also want to know what their businesses can do that is bigger than cash.  The session definitely helped me think about my strategy for approaching corporations in the future.

Sigh.  Loving the conference.

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Awesome time at Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp

Today I attended the Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp in San Francisco.  The purpose of the conference was to gather people who are strengthening their communities and neighborhoods.  In other words… PERFECTLY relevant for Pando.

Next time I will take real pictures! In the meantime... a cheesy conference photo montage.

Best quotes from the conference:

  • “The least effective social change tool in the world is anger.” ~Chris Gates
  • “Quit asking how.  You know how.  Just do it.”  ~Chris Gates
  • “Nonprofits spend a lot of time on their nouns, naming what they do.  It’s when you get your verbs right that you know you’re on to something.”
  • “Facts don’t change the world. Stories do. Through story telling, we become the leaders we have been waiting for.” ~Aimee Allison
  • “The worth of a human being lies in the ability to extend oneself, to go outside oneself, to exist in and for other people.” ~Milan Kundera (quoted by Aimee Allison)
  • “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”  ~ Salman Rushdie (quoted by Aimee Allison)

Highlight moments:

  • Meeting J.D. Lasica, who founded SocialBrite. He’s a rockstar in the nonprofit sector and interviewed me for the SocialBrite website. We have plans to eat gumbo in New Orleans next week!  He also mentioned me in his blog.  🙂  http://tiny.cc/dc2v5
  • Giving my 3-minute pitch before an awesome panel of judges and about 50 people.  My prize: a book and flip cam
  • Eating ungodly numbers of mini blueberry muffins

The most useful take-away was a definition of community from Hanmin Liu.  This is something that I’m struggling to define for Pando.  My vision is that people will use the platform to start projects within their own geographic communities.  (I don’t want to help a 23 year old from Tennessee build a well in Zimbabwe.. what does she know about Zimbabwe?  Have her do something good in Tennessee!)  But what if an African American woman in New York wants to help an African American community in another part of the country?  I still haven’t decided how to handle that…

Here’s the definition of community from Hanmin:

1. The unofficial leaders who quietly create change
2. The inherent ways that people are organized
3. The shared activities that build relationships

So… when selecting projects, perhaps we will target unofficial leaders who have relationships within the community and a deep understanding of how that community is organized.

I have a few big meetings over the next two days, including with Innovation Endeavors, the Draper Richards Foundation, and Jim Pitkow who I met at Summit Series.  Please keep your fingers crossed for me.  🙂

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Pando wins the $25,000 prize at the WeMedia Pitch It! Challenge (includes video)

Earlier in April, Pando Projects won the $25,000 prize at the WeMedia Pitch It! Challenge in NYC.  Below is me, accepting a massive check that later served as an umbrella, as we walked home in the rain.

Trying not to fall over from excitement

About 170 people submitted ideas for businesses.  8 finalists were selected to give our 8 minute pitches before 150 people and a panel of judges.  It was one of the coolest experiences of my life.   As a former high school drama geek, I relish in the opportunity to stand up before an audience and tell my story.

I was able to connect with some amazing people, including:

  • Craig Newark, the founder of CraigsList.  We talked about squirrels (he loves them; I hate them.)  We also talked about CraigConnects.  He claims that I sound like Sarah Jessica Parker when I speak into a microphone.
  • Charlie O’Donnell, a Principal at First Round Capital.   He advised me to take a few months and do in-depth market research to understand the web product we’re creating.  He’s also ridiculously nice and made me less scared of venture capitalists.
  • Esther Dyson, an Angel Investor who invested in Flickr and MeetUp.  She hooked me up to speak at New York Tech MeetUp last week.  I crave more time with her, but she seems very busy.
  • Steve Rosenbaum, author of “Curation Nation.”  He strongly recommended that I set Pando up as a for-profit business, and offered to introduce me to investors if I do.  He has a really great mind (and an office that looks like a leggo set.)

Here is a video of me, after the win!  http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=10150561183455217

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Pando covered by Epoch Times

Tara MacIsaac, a reporter from the “Epoch Times” recently interviewed me and 3 Project Leaders: Joyce, Jazzmine, and Jermel.  Check out the article!  Here’s a preview:

“There is a grove of quaking Aspen trees in Utah called Pando. A marvelous natural phenomenon, what appears to be an expanse of separate trees is actually a single organism connected by a massive network of roots.  Pando Projects is a nonprofit organization taking root in New York City. Pando is composed of smaller, individual projects growing all over the city. The goal is to empower people who see problems in their communities to start up their own initiatives, and work to solve them.”

Joyce, one of the Project Leaders, helping kids in Chinatown to make celtic bracelets as they learn about NYC's Irish heritage

The article has a few great interviews.  Check them out! 

You can also get involved with the projects of Joyce, Jermel and Jazzmine by visiting our pilot site.


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Pando BBQ on Tuesday May 3rd

We brought together volunteers, Project Leaders and potential Board Members.  Thanks for coming to the barbecue!!  All photos were taken by Sheldon Adamson.

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