I am a newly minted CEO. Sorta.
This is superbly weird, and if you knew me, you might think so too. I’d rather jump on the trampoline with my grandkids than look at a spreadsheet. My mantra is “I see something shiny.” I can barely string two linear thoughts together. I’m a writer, for real. Being a writer gives me excuses to create more margin for myself than any self-respecting CEO would make for him or herself, and, besides, writers are flaky. Fact.
So how on earth did I get to be a CEO? I’ll tell you, but I may shout “Squirrel!” along the way, so bear with me. Oh, and for your information, let’s call me the Chief Excitement Officer instead of the Executive kind. Excitement may be, after all, my greatest gift.
My husband and I moved to Clarkston, Georgia, two years ago. Clarkston is, as many of you know, one of the largest UN refugee resettlement areas in the country. 2,500 refugees run from war and conflict to our little 1.1 square mile each year. At last count, there were 145 countries and 761 ethnic groups living right here in our neighborhood. 60 languages are spoken in our tiny city. That’s a new language every 100 square feet. We moved here, not to join an NGO or a specific ministry, but to be neighbors. At some point we heard that 80% of immigrants have never been invited into an American home, and this, to two people who value hospitality like we do, broke our hearts.
The first friend we made in Clarkston was Amina. Amina lost her entire family, ten children and her husband, in a raid by Somali extremists on her brother-in-law’s home near Mogadishu. She would have lost her own life had not the Red Cross worker who came to bury the bodies discovered that Amina had a pulse. She was moved, still in a coma, to UN refugee camps, first in Burundi, then Kenya, then here, becoming one of only 4% of refugees world-wide who make it to a safe country.
Amina quickly became our conduit to the rest of Clarkston. She’s like a Somali-American Lady Liberty. I picture her holding aloft a torch and a tablet with “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” etched on it. She often calls us when someone new arrives and has a need for something that, mostly, boils down to hospitality. She herself is not a victim, doesn’t know the language of entitlement, but boy does she have a nose for true victims. She wears herself out caring for them.
One day I took Amina to Dancing Goats Coffee in Decatur. I wanted to share my favorite kind of respite with her, hot coffee in a warm environment. She sipped her cappuccino, looked around, and said, without a hint of rancor, “We will never have a place like this in Clarkston.”
That was the day the dream of Refuge Coffee Co. was born. The day I decided my prayers for better jobs in Clarkston would be answered, in part, by me. The day I told Amina she was wrong, that we would have a place in Clarkston, maybe not exactly like sleek, hipster Dancing Goats, but like nothing she’d ever seen. A coffee shop that would create jobs and job training for refugees in the context of a bright, welcoming community hub. That was the day I started on the unlikely road to CEO-dom.
Somewhere along that road, my new friend, Jeff Shinabarger, said to me: “Kitti, you keep talking about this dream you want somebody else to do.” That stung a little, but in a good way, like when the oven buzzes to tell you the cake, your favorite kind, is ready. I heard him.
Then I heard my husband say, “You’re moving this along one conversation at a time. If you didn’t have the conversations, it wouldn’t happen.” I heard him, too.
And I began to get really excited. I see good coffee to drink and even better people to love in our future, so who wouldn’t?
I’m beginning to think the best kind of dreams are way bigger than whatever your role is in making them come true. This is a good thing. When your dream outstrips your ability, you know you have to build a team of people who are smarter and more gifted than you are. You have to know who you are and who you aren’t to build that team effectively, to fill in the roles created by your flaws. You pray a lot. You stay humble, but more than that, you stay grateful. Because the dream is bigger than you can wrap your own little arms around, you stay excited (which sometimes feels like terror, but don’t let that stop you). And one day, if the dream is yours, you might even become the Chief of Excitement.