By: Aileen Gardner
St. Joseph’s University
MAJR: Managing Human Capital/Leadership, Ethics, and Organizational Sustainability
I can barely see the road in front of me as the wind and sun blast across my face. I’m flying full speed ahead through red rock mountains of Arizona’s Route 179. The whistle of my carbon fiber bike is the only sound I hear apart from my heavy breath adjusting to a 4500 ft. elevation.
After nearly 5 years of business school, my last thought would have been to drive across the country adventuring and researching more businesses, let alone cycling through a desert. As far as I knew, the proper thing to do after receiving a degree was to get a job and use it, right? Well, close to graduation, I discovered a new-found passion for social and environmental impact in business. Though my passion was not exactly specific, I could pinpoint my interests down to two or three social issues, but I had no idea where to start.
How do you know what you want to contribute to the world, let alone why, unless you actually go out and see it, learn about it and experience it?
At the time, I was certain of only two things. I wanted to make an impact with my work and I would never settle for something that left me feeling unfulfilled. Too much prior work experience had left me feeling this way, so I refused to settle and embarked on an adventure, a grand experiment for my life.
Fueled by curiosities and needing some inspiration, I set out on a post-graduation road trip with the primary goal to learn about social impact companies. As an avid cyclist, I brought my bike along for the adventure.
My first stop of the trip was Sedona, Arizona, where I spent 5 weeks. I started and ended each of my days cycling on a desert road surrounded by a symphony of red rocks. Mornings were filled with yoga, hikes up Bell Rock, and a little bit of reading. In the afternoons, I did my research, more hiking, and made it back for sunsets on the porch.
Preparing for the active months ahead of me, the peacefulness of this landscape was an appropriate place to start. Solitude in nature was a powerful experience for me. Each day that I spent in nature, I learned more about myself. My city mentality began to disappear and I was reminded of the importance of slowing down. I began to realize just how much this epic adventure would impact my life and inspire the path ahead of me.
While in Sedona, I learned about my impact as an individual. I became more aware of how powerful my choices can be as a consumer. At ChocolaTree, a local organic eatery I frequented, I learned how my purchases were directly supporting the community and the planet. At the same time, I began to realize how my uninformed purchases were doing quite the opposite. How could I expect businesses to be mindful in their choices, if I wasn’t mindful in mine? ChocolaTree was one of a few great businesses I discovered in Sedona before moving on.
Departing Sedona, the steadiness of my daily routines diminished. Each day was filled with new skies to sleep under, new landscapes to trek through and new people to meet. One of my favorite days was in Denver when I volunteered at a TEDx event and met Shannon Galpin, the first person to mountain bike in Afghanistan and Libby Birkey, the co-founder of SAME “So All May Eat” Cafe, a pay-what-you-can restaurant.
I also spent time in Telluride, a known mecca for skiing, hiking and huge festivals. When I wasn’t hiking or sipping tea with my host Dennis, I was learning about a local organization, Eco Action Partners, that manages to accomplish almost zero-waste at each festival hosted in Telluride. Learning about organizations such as Eco Action Partners became the living example of what I learned in my major. My adventure was becoming a direct continuation of my LEO studies and I could see new possibilities for businesses everywhere.
In Fort Collins, I was impressed with a B-Corporation that has an unbelievable dedication to sustainability. While enjoying the tasty research, I learned that New Belgium Brewing Company actively promotes zero-waste and alternative transportation within their company. Employees receive a custom bike on their 1-year anniversary and charging stations are available for electric cars. With dozens of programs in place, this company makes it 100% possible for all of their employees to use sustainable transportation.
This issue became more and more important to me as I averaged around 180 miles of bike travel a week. Even though I was already an advocate for sustainable transportation, this gave me such insight into the benefits of using my bike rather than my car. The time I spent on my bike made my life off the bike better in so many ways. I felt healthier, I was more aware of my surroundings, and it forced me to prioritize the moment, not the destination.
One of my next stops was in Portland, Oregon, home to the nation’s highest percentage of bike commuters and the very unique, waste conscious grocery store, New Seasons Market. Having worked on the administrative end of the food industry, I knew exactly why food accounts for the largest percentage of our country’s waste. I was impressed that this B-Corporation manages to direct almost all of their waste away from landfills, despite the fact that they process over 20 tons of material each day.
While I couldn’t imagine changing a single moment in my grand adventure, it was certainly not all glorified travel. I ate more granola bars and peanut butter than I wish to admit and on multiple occasions, my car became my bed for the night. It was the best four months of my life, but I would be lying if I said there weren’t bumps in the road.
A few days after I arrived in San Francisco, my SUV full of my life’s belongings was stolen. I embarked on my journey with practically everything I owned, as I was not sure where this adventure would take me. In the initial moment perhaps I would have called it the low point of my travels, but I can say with full honesty that I became grateful even for this experience. All moments before this one, research related or otherwise, had taught me something valuable, and this was just another opportunity to learn.
As I sat there hoping that my things ended up in the hands of someone who needed it, I took a look at my life and realized that it was the same happy, healthy, exciting life that I had lived the day before, just sans “things.” I could still take wonder, I could still learn, I could still connect with the world. Did I really need all of these things? Was I being wasteful? Not having my many possessions only reminded me why I was on my adventure. It reminded me why I am passionate about making an impact with my work, and why I must always remember that my values and passions are a direct reflection of the way I live my life.
I wholeheartedly believe that exploration has a great ability to be transformative. I ventured out on this scary, exciting, electrifying adventure hoping to gain some insight and experience in the real world of social and environmental impact. It seems like a pretty small aspiration in retrospect because I came home with more than I sought to learn, experienced things beyond my wildest dreams, and gained a whole lot of clarity and inspiration for what happens next.
Someone once told me, “if you want to make an extraordinary impact, you must take extraordinary measures.”
Connect with Aileen @Aileenkg13 on Instagram
Hobbies: Cycling, hiking, yoga, camping, reading
Favorite motivational quotes:
“Let your soul stand ajar, always ready to welcome the ecstatic experience” –Emily Dickinson
“He who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how” –Friedrich Nietzsche