It was July 8, Nate Olson‘s first unemployed day.
After almost four years at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Olson had decided to leave his post as the face of 1 Million Cups and found himself wandering his house wondering what was next.
“I was like, ‘What do I do today? I guess I need to reinvent myself or something.'”
But then the phone rang.
It was Landon Young, director of creativity and innovation at William Jewell College and a friend of Olson’s. Someone needed to go to Geneva for the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers annual meeting in September, he said, and asked if Olson wanted to be that someone.
Without hesitation he agreed.
“It was just one of those god winks,” Olson added, a term he uses for little signs, like Young’s phone call, that let you know you’re doing things right.
The legacy of 1 Million Cups
When Olson first started at Kauffman, he said there were lots of entrepreneurial events and gatherings happening around KC, but most were held after work and involved alcohol of some kind.
“Those events are a lot of fun, they’re great, but pretty exclusive to people who know about it or are cool enough to know and don’t have kids so they can actually go to those things,” he said. “We basically saw that we needed something that would help connect entrepreneurs that wasn’t exclusive to people and could connect entrepreneurs together so they could start helping each other.”
That mindset is what fueled the very first 1 Million Cups. In April 2012, Olson says the event consisted of about 12 Kansas Citians. After only six months, they had more than 120 showing up most Wednesday mornings and the program was starting to take shape.
When 1 Million Cups began to catch on in KC, Olson says they had the idea to expand the model by licensing the brand and bringing the weekly event to other cities across the country.
“We kind of hit the nail on the head with this program and decided to give it away for free to anyone who wanted to do it,” Olson said. “In 2013, after we did some test cities, it was like we were off to the races.”
By November 2013, 1 Million Cups was in 23 cities across the country and Olson was working with a small team to help scale the event.
“Then in December of 2013 I kind of felt like I had hit my number,” Olson said. “I thought, ‘I’m successful with this and I don’t know how long I should do this.’ I had gotten offers to leave and go pursue some other opportunities with some big names, doing some awesome stuff.
“But even though I wanted to explore other opportunities and all that stuff was flattering, I didn’t feel like it was good leadership to leave something I was building high and dry.”
So he stayed and kept building.
Six months later, Olson says he looked up and realized 1 Million Cups had taken on a life all its own. The program had doubled in size—from 23 to 46 cities—and no longer needed him the way it once had.
“It’s no longer a baby,” he said. “It was like a high school student getting ready to go off to college.”
So he decided to call it quits, a decision he says Kauffman “totally understood.” But it hasn’t all been easy.
“It’s easy to not take care of yourself, and I think for me the biggest thing about quitting was instead of operating out of fear of ‘What’s going to happen when I leave? My identity is tied to this. What if people view me as a bad leader? What if it all falls apart?’ You have to stop operating out of fear of all that and start operating out of love for yourself, and that’s what I started doing.”
“I’ve decided I’m not willing to change. I’m not wiling to change myself from being an instigator and a creator and a young guy who gets really passionate about changing the world and curses and does all this stuff. I’m not willing to change that and be all buttoned up. I am who I am.”
Although Kauffman understood his desire to search for other opportunities, Olson says the decision hasn’t been as easy for others to grasp.
“People don’t really understand why you would leave the thing you were successful at, but I think it’s because of the opportunity cost of self discovery and possibility. If you don’t create space to be creative and discover what it is you really want, you’ll be stuck in those things and I didn’t want to get stuck.”
For Olson that space meant taking time to evaluate what was truly important to him and where he wanted to be.
“It’s hard in a city like Kansas City because here certainly my identity is tied to 1 Million Cups and to Kauffman,” Olson said. “It’s hard to shake that because we are not what we do. Who we are is not what we do, but when you’re an entrepreneur it kind of is. The people who bought into 1 Million Cups early on were really, in essence, buying into me.
“I’m still the 1 Million Cups guy and that’s sort of an amazing thing. It’s awesome, but I can’t wait until my next step is defined so I can be like, ‘I’m the 1MC guy but I’m also leading change, whatever that looks like.'”
An adventure of a lifetime
Back to that July 8 call from Young.
Together Olson and Young had been working to bring a hub of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers program to Kansas City. The group’s annual meeting would be held in September in Geneva, with Global Shapers’ representatives from more than 150 countries attending.
Three weeks later, another friend contacted Olson. This time with the goal of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money to relocate 60 orphans from rural Zimbabwe. Again, Olson’s response was instantaneous: “Absolutely.”
“When you’re in a time of discovery like I am, I really just have the last couple months said yes to basically every opportunity,” he said. “Yes to every speaking opportunity, yes to the opportunity to do community work and to bring projects to KC. That’s just been my position and it’s made my world so much bigger. So I said yes to this and didn’t really know how it was going to work out.”
So in late August Olson headed to Europe with his first stop in Geneva for the Global Shapers annual meeting.
“The trip really took on a life of its own because when I was in Geneva at this amazing conference, it was like having the world in the room with 150 countries represented,” Olson said. “These are all young crazy change makers doing projects in their community that range in scale and impact. It’s amazing.”
One of those change makers was Meghann Bourne, an organizer of the Charlotte hub of Global Shapers and the founder of The Foundation For Tomorrow, a nonprofit that helps orphaned and vulnerable children in Tanzania and improve the quality of education in the country’s schools. The Foundation is based in Arusha, Tanzania, only about an hour from the base of Mount Kilimanjaro.
So Olson asked if he could visit after completing his climb. And he did.
“I spent a week with them volunteering and with Meghann, someone I had just met,” Olson said. “I ended up having an amazing experience, and even went to a high school graduation for one of their sponsored students, which is a huge achievement. It was just amazing to learn about the status quo in education in that country.”
From there Olson set out for Harare, Zimbabwe, to meet up with some of the others he’d climbed Kilimanjaro with at Celebration Ministries. A few years ago, a group of friends had started a company called Emerging Ideas in Zimbabwe to help promote entrepreneurship and investment in small businesses in Africa. While in Harare, Olson attended one of the group’s monthly pitch nights, held in the basement of the church, with more than 120 attendees.
“It’s a revolutionary idea to have a pitch night. That’s a revolutionary thing in Africa. It’s something we take for granted, to share ideas and talk about them, because you don’t do that there.”
Olson returned to KC in early October and since has been trying to figure out what all of his new experiences mean. But more than anything, he says he’s ready for what’s next.
“My heart was finally in a place where I’m not running,” Olson said. “I went on an adventure to face it all and get some answers. I like to think I have more answers now, but still open enough to figure it out.”
And he did
In late October, Olson accepted a full-time position as Kansas City-based Cremalab’s business development strategist.
“I still don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur,” he said. “I see myself as more of an instigator than anything because I don’t have a business, but I like to instigate good ideas and connect the dots between people and great ideas.”
Credits: Photo courtesy Nate Olson.