In February 2017, I had the opportunity to follow up my TEDxBerlin talk with another international one! This time, I was at TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh where the theme was passion. (My TEDxBerlin talk here challenged assumptions about philanthropy, redefining the identity of philanthropist to include young, grassroots donors and those you typically think of as beneficiaries.)

For my new talk, given an audience of mostly university students, I got more personal and shared career advice for pursuing a passion. My title, “To Decode Your Passion, Ask Yourself This” leads in to one of our favorite questions at She’s the First: What Are You the First to Do?

The illustrated version of my talk by @sketchnoters.

The illustrated version of my talk by @sketchnoters.

At TEDxBerlin, while I was so pleased with the response from the audience, self-doubt got to me. That’s not how it should be after putting in so much effort and knowing your stuff! But we all learn the hard way. Having proven to myself I could do this, this time, I lifted unreasonable expectations and just spoke from my heart, as a tribute of sorts to my parents and grandparents—who were supporting first-generation graduates (me and my sister) long before I was. I enjoyed the experience so much more.

Read on for the transcript of my talk. I’ll post the video when I have it.   


I’m extremely passionate about firsts. People who are the first to achieve something—whether that makes them the first in history, the first in their family, in their company, their country, their community. In can be personal history or world history. Either way, they blazed a trail. They had courage to face critics. They had passion and persistence to push forward—even when there weren’t examples to follow.

So, I love to ask the question: What are you the first to do? Or what will you be the first to do? Everyone’s answer has a different, unique story attached to it. Sometimes, when you share your “first,” you’ll find you’re not alone. Don’t be surprised, for instance, if when you share what you are the first to do in your family, someone else replies, “hey, me too.” Being a “first” is an identity that unites us.

Today, I’ll share my answer to the “first” question with you. I think this is a great question to use to explore our passions and what’s important to us. Along the way, I’ll share three lessons I’ve picked up about passion.

What am I the first to do? I’m the first in my family to graduate from university. Not uncommon; I’m sure many of you are or will be too.

I grew up in New Jersey, in a suburban town that’s just over an hour outside of New York City.

My parents and grandparents went right into the workforce after high school, doing office work, custodial work, postal work, inspections. They enjoyed aspects of their jobs for sure—but their job was a paycheck. Their passion was taking care of their family.

My parents and grandparents would ask me when I was a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up. With my college degree, they told me I’d be able to do anything. They’d invested in me, and they were excited about my future. Their hard work set me up for success. It’s as if they built me a launch pad that I could use to go anywhere my passion would take me. With my education, I could choose a career that I loved. Do something that wouldn’t make me count down the hours until the day was over. Do something that would make me excited when the alarm clock went off. Something that would make me look forward to Mondays.

When I was in high school, I figured out what I’d use my launch pad for. I knew I wanted a career in journalism, being a reporter or a magazine editor. I’d cover the serious issues and topics that mattered to women. I was already reporting on some tough topics, such as women involved in gangs in New Jersey. I won my first award for that story.

Given those ‘serious’ aspirations, I have to admit, it was surprising where my rocketship landed. You see, somehow, despite never having gone to one single dance in all my high school and college years, I became a prom website editor for a major teen magazine, Seventeen. For anyone not familiar with the American tradition: Prom is the equivalent of Cinderella’s ball when you are in your final two years of high school.

So here I was, with my Bachelor’s degree, qualified for so many jobs that were out of reach to family who came before me— and I landed in a role that I was seemingly totally unfit for. But I took it, because it was my foot in the door of the magazine industry. I’m sure many of you can relate to being in situations where you felt way out of your element.

So my strategy to deal with that was to use my reporting skills. I could ask questions and figure it out. And I did. And guess what? Before too long, I even became passionate about this job that at first felt very superficial on the surface. I liked connecting with girls who needed a boost of confidence that I could give them. Being the editor of this tiny website was also a crash course in entrepreneurship. I worked with web designers, developers, marketing and advertising teams, I managed freelance writers, I produced video content. I built a brand.

So this brings me to my first bit of advice about passion:

#1: You Can Create It
Passion might not be apparent in the job description. You might be applying for jobs that don’t excite you at first. But don’t let that deter you at the beginning of your career. Challenge yourself to find meaning in something that might seem superficial or mundane. Especially when you’re just starting out, you have the most to learn. You can turn almost anything into a worthwhile learning experience. Get passionate about discovering what you’re good at.

The second lesson about passion came soon after I mastered this one.

#2: Passion Leads You Down Unpredicted Paths
Think about a hike you’ve gone on. You don’t find the big beautiful vistas at the foot of the hiking trail, right? No, you have to spend time deep in the woods first, going down trails like these. You can’t see what lies in the distance, so you have to rely on the trail markers to find your way. The entrepreneurial skills I was developing at my job were like those trail markers. They were like breadcrumbs leading me toward dreams BIGGER than I could have ever imagined for myself.

My second year on the job, my boss asked me if I would launch a project called DonateMyDress It was an online directory of dress drives, places women could go to donate formal dresses they didn’t wear anymore, or places girls who couldn’t afford dresses for prom could go to pick one up. I of course said yes. And this experience is what set off an ah-ha moment in my head that leads me to where I am today.

You see, while I was working as a prom editor by day, I still had that “serious” side. I was volunteering for a nonprofit organization by night and weekends—a nonprofit that was focused on helping kids in Liberia, who were orphaned or abandoned by war, to get an education and meet their basic needs.

The passions started to mix. I wondered what would happen if there was a media campaign to help girls who couldn’t afford school—let alone a dress—get an education. I knew when a girl was first in her family to graduate, she could break the cycle of poverty. I knew that 50 million girls of secondary school age around the world are denied an education. That’s where the idea for She’s the First was born. Our mission is provide scholarships to girls who will be the first in their families to graduate from high school. We’re building a worldwide movement to support them across the globe, including at 216 chapters at high schools and universities across the U.S. and UK.

Three years later, the She’s the First campaign I started by using social media would become my full-time job. Today, She’s the First is a nonprofit supporting a network of 805 Scholars in 11 countries around the world. We’ve raised nearly $4 million to support their studies year after year.

As a result, girls like Mariama in Sierra Leone are in the classroom. Girls like Vicentina and Sinforosa are graduating—these two did in December, in Peru.

I have more passion working for She’s the First than I could have ever imagined would be possible, and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t at first try to create my own passion in that prom job.

This brings me to my third and final passion point:

#3: You Find Passion in Helping Others
10 years after I became a first-generation university graduate, I’ve realized something. Maybe my passion isn’t all that different from my parents and my grandparents. Their passion was supporting my sister and I to be first-generation grads, and now that’s what I do for other young women. It’s funny how that works, right? You think you are so different from your relatives only to realize how similar you actually are.

This gives us a different way to think about what being “first” means. Take these famous words by Martin Luther King, Jr. “Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.”

Passion can live in the simple act of giving someone else the chance to be the first. To give them their launchpad. How would things change if you framed your passion around not just what made you happy, but also what you could do for others? What if you could use what you are the first to do to pay it forward for another?

You might be a first-generation graduate. So mentor someone younger who will also be one, or donate to a scholarship fund. You may be the first in your family to open a business; so give back a part of your proceeds, or volunteer your skills and services. You could be pursuing the family business, doing the same career as previous generations, but adding your own innovations so you can make a bigger impact on the planet or people in the local or global community.

That’s what I hope you take away: Never ever underestimate your ability to be the one who makes someone else a first. You can be the first person to support or believe in someone else’s dream. That will matter a 100 years from now, it will matter throughout their entire life.

Now that you’ve heard my “first,” and now I’d love to hear yours. Please tweet, come talk to me, or leave a comment if you’re watching this later on video. I’m ready to cheer you on.

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