The Aspen Institute is one of the finest change-making institutions in the world, and I consider it a privilege to be a part of the Henry Crown Fellowship, which was its first fellowship program. Since its creation, many others have been started, including the Liberty and Rodel Fellowships, and several fellowships based on geographic regions, including Africa, the Middle East, China, and Central America. The Resnick Aspen Action Forum brings all of these global Fellows from 30 different countries together on a yearly basis.
Each person, be it former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Chairman of the Carlyle Group David Rubenstein or New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks, comes to the Action Forum with the same mission in mind: to turn ideas into actions that change the world.
The theme of this year’s forum was “Borders,” specifically the borders and limitations that we place on ourselves. Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield used the powerful example of John F. Kennedy’s border-crossing pledge to send a man to the moon. Talk about crossing a border — NASA crossed into the “Final Frontier” and got all the way to the moon! This brought me back to one of my favorite reflections, “What would you do if you were not afraid to fail?”
The 2018 John P. McNulty Prize winner Lana Abu-Hiljeh is someone who didn’t let the borders in her life stop her from achieving great things. Lana was the first woman to serve on the Board of Directors of the Palestine Investment Fund and the Bank of Palestine. She also started Youth Local Councils, a program designed to promote leadership, advocacy, and good governance among Palestinian youth and, subsequently, youth all over the world. The program gets young people involved in the democratic process as well as serving the community.
I served as a moderator for a Peer Consultancy session with Lana. She and I are from such different backgrounds, yet we have the same focus on important issues. We both highly value the education of today’s youth and have dedicated much of our focus to building up the next generation.
As an entrepreneur, what I like best is that the focus of the Aspen Institute is always on turning ideas into action. It’s not good enough to just want to do something special, you have to take action. That is why there is such a strong focus on each Fellow making an action pledge to create a positive change in the world. All Fellows create a venture. For Lana, it was Youth Local Councils. Others have started non-profits, companies, or leadership initiatives all over world.
During my Henry Crown Fellowship, my venture was to build a village of 40 homes on the coast of Ecuador after the devastating earthquake in 2016. In order to do this, I set up my own non-profit foundation (the Nina Vaca Foundation) and took responsibility for the execution of the venture, including creating awareness, bringing people together, strategically partnering with a local organization, and raising funds. Doing all of this required overcoming many obstacles and crossing many borders — both physical and mental.
I participated in the Ironman 70.3 in Manta, Ecuador to help raise the money. While I am an experienced triathlete, a half-Ironman is a totally different experience. It required so much time, discipline, and work. I had to overcome exhaustion, physical pain, and a strong desire to quit. The borders were certainly there, but I had to keep crossing them in order to reach my goal.
But no one does it all on their own. I had an incredible amount of help from Pinnacle Group associates, my own family, dear friends, and family foundations. One of the themes the Action Forum panel emphasized was the importance of community. It really rang true for me, both during my venture and in every area of my life.
I invited triathlete friends from all over the world to join me. I also reached out to colleagues, friends, and family near and far to let them know what I was doing and how they could get involved. We received donations from the USA, Canada, the UK, Ecuador, and even Hong Kong! We embraced the idea that many hands make light work and received many gifts that helped us reach our goal. It was inspiring to see a community come together to support people they would probably never even meet otherwise.
One of the gifts that The Resnick Aspen Action Forum provided me was time and space for personal reflection. It can be so hard to find time in our busy schedules between work, family, travel, and all of the million little things we have to do each day. We get so caught up in the tyranny of the urgent that we forget to take a breath and refocus ourselves.
Nothing could be more impactful than deeply thinking about your motivations, your greater purpose and calling, and how you want to make the world a better place. But that reflection is only effective if you turn those ideas into actions. So, take some time this weekend, or as soon as you can, to put your phone away and think deeply about those things. I promise you will be glad you did!