Seeing Things Differently

A guest post by venturer Kate Heath


“I haven’t seen you so happy in ages.”

The text message arrived on my last morning in Cambodia, in February of 2020, from a friend who had been following my adventures for a few weeks prior on Instagram. Her comment put a halt to my frenetic packing, and the tears fell fast as I sat down on the bed. The observation was not only kind but wildly astute. Under layers of sunscreen and mosquito repellent, in the heat and dust of this tiny corner of southeast Asia, I had been downright euphoric. And I was not ready to leave.


Six months prior I was anything but. I had come to the painful conclusion that my prestigious new job was not the right fit, and that Silicon Valley culture may never fully agree with me. I’d been so focused on my work life that I’d lost touch with the causes I was passionate about, leaving a gaping hole where the service element of my life used to be. And while I loved the Bay Area – the food, the scenery, the cleverness, the politics – San Francisco’s losing battle with homelessness, addiction, and violence had begun to harden me. I hated dodging drug needles while walking my dog, and I hated my growing lack of compassion for the drug users even more. Juxtaposed with the high cost of living, it all began to feel unsustainable, and I was questioning whether my current lifestyle was worth it anymore. 

You can imagine what this was like for a lifelong Perfectionist-Performer! A reckoning had arrived, and I agonized over what to do next. A year later I would read David Brooks’ brilliant The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life and realize that that’s what sliding down off your ‘first mountain’ feels like – an awkward and panicky tumble down a disappearing path that used to be clear and lined with guarantees. But with abundant faith, I channeled my best Marianne Williamson and sent up the ask over those many months: “God, I am really [angry / frustrated / disappointed / lost] but I am willing not to be. Please help me see things differently.”

Jodi Morris with Room to Read scholar in Cambodia

I envision God doing a mic drop on the day I opened the newsletter email from nonprofit Room to Read that introduced me to Jodi Morris and her mission. This woman literally has a company that is devoted to helping people see things differently?! By then I knew I needed more than just some fresh perspective – and God knew it too, so He dispensed with the subtlety. I needed to step well outside my comfortable boundaries and get inspired by something entirely new. Jodi Morris does just that – she takes small groups to regions often overlooked by tourists, that are in a vibrant time of resurgence, and introduces you to the change-makers who are building the future. More importantly, she ties most of these trips to locally embedded non-profits like Room to Read, cementing her (and as it would turn out, MY) commitment to their critical work in these countries. 

Her next trip was to Cambodia, a place I had never really even thought about, never mind had on my bucket list of travel destinations. But who cared? God’s plans are always better than mine. Cambodia promised adventure, perspective, and the chance to come face to face with what genuine light-after-the-dark looks like… so after just two emails between us, I was sending in my trip deposit and Room to Read donation.

 

Kate Heath at Room to Read site visit (Cambodia)


It has only been 43 years – my exact lifetime – since Cambodia was released from the grip of the Khmer Rouge. I’ll spare you, dear reader, a full recount of the atrocities committed against the Cambodian people between 1974 and 1979. But suffice it to say, the effects of the trauma are still visible today. As a result of that civil war and genocide, approximately 50% of the population is under 24 years old… and only 10% is over 55. While it’s easy to look away from this imbalance with shame, it is impossible to look away from what it leaves us with – a society brimming with youthful energy and optimism, eager to tell a new story. With its bustling capital of Phnom Penh contrasting its quiet country provinces, Cambodia provides the perfect backdrop for dialogue around modernity versus tradition and the inequities of growth. Jodi’s itinerary would illustrate this tension while keeping us focused on the future: meetings with entrepreneurs who were launching and supporting exciting ventures; visits with artisans who were keeping indigenous techniques and ingredients at the fore; dinners with executives who were bringing established global brands to life in this nascent market; and most importantly, conversations with the students, teachers, and parents working to democratize education and enable Cambodia’s leaders of tomorrow.

Participants visiting Room to Read programs (Cambodia)

 

My co-travelers for the week would prove to be fast friends and exceptional teachers. In addition to Jodi, whom I now know to be a soul sister of sorts, I was joined by three other Bay Area women. Each one was an accomplished philanthropist in her own right, and they were all deeply knowledgeable about international development, investment, and education. Our long meals and car rides together began to feel like master classes in How to Make a Difference, eagerly attended by this admitted newbie. All four women shared the hallmarks of seasoned travelers – easy-going, curious, observant, resourceful, fearless; the kind of people who come running to your aid late at night when there’s a lizard in your hotel room and you’re not going to be able to sleep until he is back OUTSIDE. They were chatty and they were quiet, they asked questions and they listened, they gave generously and then gave some more. They were – they are – the kind of women you want to be when you grow up.


“Women can have a very hard time getting a loan here if they’re not married.”

Our new friend, James, was educating me over mango smoothies and sticky rice. He is a co-founder of SHE Investments, a Phnom Penh-based accelerator supporting female entrepreneurs in Cambodia. Our group had just spent the last few hours visiting with their latest cohort of founders.

Kate Heath visiting SHE Investments (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

So her ability to succeed is literally dependent on her marital status? This wasn’t actually news to me. I am, by anyone’s standards, well-educated and well-traveled. I was fully aware that in much of the world, women are second-class citizens who go without education, money, healthcare, independence, safety, and security. I had always considered it a mass injustice, particularly as it contrasted with my own extraordinarily privileged existence. So why was this unsurprising bit of information, casually delivered over papaya salad, causing such a reaction in me now? Why was I tensing up? Why were my hands shaking? Why was I feeling flushed? Why was I so fucking mad?

Because I was being reacquainted with the power of proximity – and the “cellular knowing” that comes with it. We all “know” lots of things. But unlike regular knowing, getting up close allows words, actions, and images to pass through our eyes and ears, head straight into the bloodstream and make us feel – in ways we simply cannot when we’re not present. More importantly, proximity invites us to bear witness with all five senses, enabling us not only to feel but to understand. It’s one thing to read about the struggles of female entrepreneurs in developing countries and think you get the picture; it’s quite another to sit with those women in their space, share a coffee, and have each one look you straight in the eye and emotionally tell you about her trials and triumphs.

Visiting with Room to Read Girls’ Education scholars (Cambodia)

This would be one of a thousand moments – of distress and delight – during our visit that was felt instead of observed. As a chronic avoider of feelings, I could almost hear my therapist back home cheering gleefully. Yes! Feel it all! While discussing our shared angst over dinner one night, Jodi said, “I like angry Kate! She should show up more!” 

I liked her too. 


Needless to say, I did eventually stop crying, finish packing, and head home. On my way, I stopped over in Koh Samui for a few days to decompress but found that I needed no decompression. I was fired up and ready to make change. I had been so deeply moved by these innovators who put impact and others first, and I desperately wanted to join their ranks. Per usual, I called my worthiness into question and wasn’t sure how to turn my 20+ years of corporate experience into a meaningful addition to their efforts. I slipped into the valley between the mountains that David Brooks so eloquently defined for us, and spent several months sitting in my discomfort (another win for my therapist!). I’m sorry to report that no definitive ‘eureka’ moment ever came – instead, it was a slow and serendipitous journey back to myself, punctuated by moments of sheer terror, despair, joy, and revelation. 

I put everything I owned in storage cubes and shipped them from Oakland to Tampa, so I could be close to my father and our family as Covid began to rage. I spent time with my parents, I interviewed, I networked, I researched and read, I made loads of new friends and caught up with old ones. But most importantly, I also got still. I let God go to work in my life, as He has again and again, and I co-created my Second Mountain with Him – in His time, not mine. I discovered a love for working with founders and a passion for startup ecosystems, and found an inspiring community in Tampa’s Embarc Collective where I could add (and derive) real value. Over time, I found myself drawn to academia and was offered opportunities as both a student and an educator. Doors I never remotely dreamed of began to open, and today I find myself back home in Washington, DC, at what is shaping up to be my most rewarding career stop ever: working with young innovators and entrepreneurs at my graduate school alma mater, helping them realize their potential and their dreams, and paying it forward on a debt that can never truly be zeroed out.


I love a good Oprah Winfrey interview. Almost inevitably she asks her guests, “What do you know for sure?” The answer for most of us is, “Not much,” but I’ve given it a lot of thought. Here is what I know for sure:

      1. People are put into our lives at an exact time and for an exact purpose. None of our relationships are accidents or mistakes. Jodi and I are proof positive of this, as are all of the precious people I’ve met because of her.
      2. There is no substitute for proximity. We must get up close to the places, people, and situations that intrigue and vex us; it is in being proximate that we find our power and our purpose.
      3. When we fully accept the truth of (1) and (2), we invite our own evolution. As author Elizabeth Gilbert said, “There’s always another level up. There’s always another ascension. More grace, more light, more generosity, more compassion, more to shed, more to grow

    Kate Heath with students at the Harpswell Foundation (Phnom Pehn, Cambodia)

    So what’s the bottom line here? It’s that I would follow Jodi anywhere… and that’s what I’m doing. I told her in 2020 that I would go to Africa with her the minute we could (safely), and now here I am, gleefully booking flights and getting vaccines (for something other than Covid!) so that I can join her and another troop of like-minded adventurers in Tanzania this October (another place I wasn’t even considering until Jodi put it on my radar). After meeting the next generation of change-makers in Dar es Salaam, and before we soak up the beauty of Mikumi National Park, our shared passion for educating and empowering women will take us to the boundary-breaking SEGA Secondary School for Girls in Morogoro. We’ll stay in the dorms, visit with the students, and celebrate SEGA’s 10th annual graduation with the girls and their families. The last time Jodi took me to a school (see photos) was undoubtedly the most memorable day of my 43 years; I can’t even imagine what this next journey will be like.

    Arriving at Room to Read site visit (Cambodia)

    I am in a deeply happy place now, but it’s still so exciting to think about – if there’s always another level up – What will I see differently this time?


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    Article originally posted on LinkedIn by Kate Heath on July 13, 2022.


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    Venture Guide to High-Achieving Seekers. Success Coach. Venture Travel Curator. Impact Investor. Traveler. Writer. Global Connector. When we connect to others' stories it changes our own. Let's Venture!