Some things in life are just meant to happen – so it seems at least. Just like some people are supposed to meet. Sometimes you find them, and other times they find you. Katherin, found me - at a friend’s wedding, but that is not the serendipitous moment, I am referring to. I think I might come to that later. In the meantime let’s just say, that sometimes the path people take to find their passion is very straightforward and other times less so. But sooner or later we all arrive at the same conclusion: "Everything we do, is based on choices – our own choices." So, if we want to see change, we ourselves, have to do something to make it happen. Now, we probably also agree, that this is easier said than done and that’s exactly where The DO School comes into play.
Katherin is a co-Founder and responsible for all programming of The DO School, an educational venture that empowers people to create change by turning their own ideas into action. As CEO of The DO School Inc. she was also responsible for the launch of the school’s New York campus, the second after Hamburg, Germany. Having said that, I believe it might be hard to wrap your head around, what it is exactly that she does. Since it’s such a new concept, I’ll try to explain it by using the story of a DO School Fellow, Katherin shared.
"George was kidnapped to be a child soldier at the age of 14 during the time of war in his native Uganda. Him and a friend managed to escape from their abductors, even though his friend got killed on their way back home and George himself barely made it. He spent 10 years in various Internally Displaced People camps and experienced degrading and miserable living conditions first hand. He applied to The DO School, because he wanted to help others, find a way out of these camps, he just didn’t know exactly what he needed to do or how to go about it. This was 3 years ago. Today George and his team of 20 people are working on bringing people from the IDP camps back to where they are from and giving them a fresh start into a self-sustained life. His team helps build houses on the land, most families still own, and provides agricultural training, so that they are able to make a living and pay back into the revolving fund, that finances future houses. Around 50 houses have been built so far under George’s lead providing a new home and new hope for around 500 people."
In a 1-year program, held on and off campus, Katherin and The DO School help to guide people like George through a process from evaluation to implementation of an idea without missing any of the fundamental steps in between (operating models, financing, legal issues and pitching a project plan, etc.). To prepare them for their future ventures and to immerse them into a real life entrepreneurial challenge other than their own, they are presented with problems submitted by collaborating companies, that are all contrived to benefit the greater common good one way or the other. During the 10-week challenge taking place on campus, the group of international students, that couldn’t be more diverse in background and provenience, works together on solving their client's problem and offers a solution based on their collective creativity and intelligence. At the same time they each learn method and skills to start their own ventures successfully. After returning to their home communities from The DO School campus, each Fellow works on its own start-up whilst participating in The DO school online course and benefitting from mentoring and coaching sessions.
The DO School itself operates as a social business and only charges 1000 USD tuition to its students, who for the most part can't afford higher fees. The DO School is financed through the companies, the students consult with during their 10-week project and additional outside sponsors. Even though the program has only been running for 3 years Katherin already receives over 1500 applications from over 100 countries for the 20 openings available for each program cohort, in New York or Hamburg. So, looking at it now, you may better understand, why I’m calling Katherin the social change enabler. She does enable her students to help others and is so able to multiply the magnitude of whatever she can do with a single venture. And I can’t help, but admire her enthusiasm, her logic, her persistence and the story of how this humble and warmhearted woman arrived at where she is today.
7 years ago Katherin was just finishing her Masters degree in International Strategy and Economics when one day she had an accident and broke her second spinal vertebra. Maybe you are like me, surprised to hear that, this is what we refer to by saying 'someone broke their neck'. The chances of surviving a fracture like this, are minimal – meaning usually you would die. Katherin didn’t die, but she was well aware of the fact, that she was very lucky. However, when she was able to leave the hospital and on her way to recovery, she was also very eager to just go back to 'normal' and back to work. She joined a renown international consulting firm advising clients in the private and public sector including the German Government. Keeping busy with work, it took her another 2 years to fully process, what had happened. She felt more and more miserable in her job, questioned its purpose, which ultimately meant questioning her purpose in life. It all of a sudden became painfully clear to her that she had been given a second chance and she wasn’t using it. Without knowing what she would do next, she decided to quit.
No matter where you are going or what you are doing, the first step is always the hardest, but once you overcome the fear of the unknown and start moving, more often than not, things seem to just fall into place. And this proved to be true for Katherin as well. Simultaneously to her inner turmoil and struggle to find meaning in life again, close family friend Bobby Dekeyser who successfully started and built Dedon, an outdoor furniture company, was thinking about how he could give back to society, too. Together with Katherin’s husband Florian he started the Dekeyser&Friends Foundation with the mission to empower young people to believe in themselves and contribute to positive social change. Katherin joined them and together with Florian, they became the key drivers behind the Foundation’s educational program, which has grown more and more successful and eventually launched independently as The DO School in 2013.
And while I think the question Katherin posed recently speaking at the CEO talk series, whether an entrepreneur is born or made, is relevant, I believe she actually has uncovered something way more important on her way. While she is quietly working on expanding her program offerings and the Massive Open Online Courses The DO School just launched, she found one of the holy grails in life: She found her key to happiness and purpose in life is making other people succeed - and not just by equipping emerging social entrepreneurs with all the methods and skills they need to thrive, but also by helping them actualize their own purpose in life. And if you ask me, that is one of the most powerful and precious gifts someone can give you!
What would you say were the biggest obstacles and challenges you had or have to overcome on your way?
Besides smaller organizational issues that we probably all face, my biggest obstacle was to find my passion and purpose. I knew that I wanted to contribute to a more just society, but that is a very broad goal and for a while I was not sure, which role I can play and how to best create impact. Sometimes this can feel quite overwhelming and it is so important not to get demotivated or loose sight of the bigger vision and the things that truly matter to yourself.
What helped/helps you overcome them?
Good conversations with the right people, and at one point also the ability to listen better to myself. We are often so used to being busy and connected that we do not really take the time to ask ourselves, what we really want and what would make us happy. I believe we also sometimes avoid those questions because it can be frustrating not to know the answer - but I do know now, that even if you do not know the answer right away you can get there over time.
Is there anything you would say, you had to learn the hard way?
Probably, to find the right balance between work and free time. I was once pretty close to a burn out and it’s not a good feeling. I still find this aspect hard to manage sometimes, especially now that I work on my own venture and am very passionate about it. But at least, I’m aware of it and have found strategies like doing yoga regularly to make it work.