She-lanthropy: Abby Falik's Unique, Life-Altering Way to Bridge School to Life and Back Again

As founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, Falik is crystal clear that her organization is not a typical freshman year, not a traditional gap year and not a study abroad program.
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The first time I met Abby Falik was in the halls of the Sheraton Hotel during the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York City. Our mutual friend, Lisa Witter said emphatically, "What? You don't know each other (short pause), you should!" And so it began. We traded business cards, we exchanged emails but life got in the way and so it was two years later before we reconnected when another mutual friend, also a friend of Lisa's (two degrees of separation!), Susan McPherson insisted we connect. This time it stuck. First, we spoke via Skype and then again, face to face, on rainy day in NYC. As founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, Falik is crystal clear that her organization is not a typical freshman year, not a traditional gap year and not a study abroad program. Rather, it's best described as a transition year that provides an experience and education that take place outside the classroom, in the real world.

Let's start with an easy question. Please tell our readers something about you that they don't already know and they cannot learn from Google.
The work I do in the world is fueled by an inner work that the Google algorithms would never find. I know that if I am not healthy, rested and feeling alignment between my work and non-work selves, I can't be effective as a leader. Whether it's my ritual "one minute yoga/one minute meditation" each morning, Saturdays unplugged or a week of silent Vipassana each year, my most potent insights have often come when I make space for silence and undistracted presence.

Despite how it often feels, at the end of the day we aren't "human doings," we are "human beings." My practice and aspiration is to infuse my "doing" with as much "being" as I can muster.

Was there a single incident that compelled you to create Global Citizen Year?
When I finished high school I desperately wanted to join the Peace Corps. I remember looking up the number in the yellow pages (!), and being deeply disappointed when they told me I needed a college degree to apply. Unable to find a program that would be deeply immersive and meaningful, I ended up going straight to college.

Fast-forward two years. I was mid-way through Stanford and I was burnt out and frustrated by the limits of what I was learning in the classroom. I was studying International Development and I was hungry for the real world experience that would compliment -- and challenge -- what I was hearing from my professors.

With a backpack, a book of 100 Portuguese verbs and a slip of paper with a friend of a friend's address.... I set off for six months in Brazil. I arrived with big dreams, but absolutely no clue what I'd gotten myself into. Finding a job, navigating a new language and (eventually) building a community in a context so far from home was the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life.

When I came back to college, I was energized and focused -- but the clock was ticking. I finally had a deep motivation for my studies, but I only had one year left to answer the burning questions I had about the world. My friends who had similarly taken a "junior year abroad" felt similarly. I remember thinking: What if we had had these experiences before starting college? How much more we would have gotten out of our college experience?

Each year, the USA sends tens of thousands of 18-year-olds to serve on religious missions, and hundreds of thousands to serve in the military. Why don't we have a civilian counterpart? And why does our culture insist that kids move straight along the conveyor belt from high school to college ignoring the opportunity to "pause" after high school -- which has been a time-tested tradition in other parts of the world?

I developed Global Citizen Year in response to these questions.

Tell us about your bridge year and the most important lesson you learned?
Most of what I learned in Brazil was through trial and error. Trying to find a job and, for the first few weeks, failing. Trying to make friends and realizing it was nearly impossible to break into tight-knit networks. And while the challenges were (at least in retrospect) deeply formative, many of them were probably unnecessary.

The Global Citizen Year program is designed to minimize the unnecessary challenges to make room for the challenges that help young people discover what makes them come alive. We find our Fellows safe places to live and work, provide them with a "team leader" and regional cohort to provide coaching and moral support, and given access to leaders from the NGO, government and corporate sectors. Our curriculum is based on the notion that we learn best when we are in our stretch zone -- an area that lies beyond our comfort zone, but before our panic zone. When our Fellows are comfortably uncomfortable in their "stretch zone," the opportunities for learning and growth are endless.

One year to unlock a lifetime of potential -- this is quite a bold statement, please share with us a story of one of your participants whose potential changed after participating in your program?
Ananda Day grew up in a single parent home in North Carolina. She was a good student and a star on the soccer field, but because of her family's financial circumstances, she'd never been able to travel. In her words, "since the age of fifteen, I had worked to contribute to my family's income. As a senior in high school, I was exhausted, and felt if I went straight to college I would be wasting the college opportunity I had worked for my whole life. Global Citizen Year provided me with the chance to find purpose that now drives my college education."

When asked about the most valuable thing she learned during her Global Citizen Year in Senegal she replied: By Awa's side, I cracked my first Wolof joke, plucked a chicken, and perfected the art of pulling tea. Same age, same wit, but Awa had never attended school. Heading back to the US at the end of my Global Citizen Year, I walked across Dakar's dust covered tarmac knowing my life would be dedicated to addressing international development.

Fast-forward five years. Today, Ananda is graduating from UNC Chapel Hill with an impressive double major (public policy and entrepreneurship) and a track record of awards for her commitment to service and international development from her University to the State Department. She has found many paths back to Africa and was recently invited to spend two years in Zambia advising the Minister of Finance on start-up culture and innovation.

Ananda is one of nearly 300 Alumni from the first five years of our program. All of our Alums have remarkable stories about how their Global Citizen Year has shaped their path, but I know that the real impact of our work is decades to come. Imagine the day when the head of the Gates Foundation, the Secretary of Education, and the CEO of Procter & Gamble all share a common experience: a bridge year spent living and working in communities in Africa, Asia and Africa -- parts of the world were far too few Americans have any direct experience. By changing the pipeline and perspectives of our next generation of leaders we can, in turn, change the trajectory of our country -- and world.

Start-ups are not easy. What piece of advice would you give to young women who are starting up their own social profit organization?
One of my mentors, Michael Brown, is the Founder / CEO of City Year. I remember asking for a meeting with him just as I was beginning to envision Global Citizen Year. I threw out some lofty ideas, but didn't yet have answers to his most basic questions: "What's the impact model? The business model? If this is such a great idea, why is no one else doing it? Does this need to be a stand-alone organization, or might it be more effective as part of a bigger institution?" As I got up to leave there was a sense of defeat and my head was spinning with everything I didn't yet know. And when I walked out the door he said, "I hope you aren't discouraged by my questions. I actually think you're onto a very big idea. Spend the next year becoming the world's leading expert on the idea you're proposing and then come back to see me. I'd love to help you make this happen."

So, my advice? Take your time. Become the expert. Do your homework, and then some. Starting a new venture -- whether for profit or non-profit -- is like sprinting a marathon that never ends. You want to be 100% sure you're "in" before taking the leap. Once you are truly 100 percent committed, your passion will be contagious and people will be inspired to follow your lead.

You have had tremendous success in the USA, do you have any plans to expand internationally and where would you begin if you do? If you don't, what is the next goal on the horizon?

I'm often asked whether we have plans to include kids from other countries in our program. For now, it has felt important to be disciplined in keeping us focused on doing one thing -- providing a transformative bridge year for young Americans -- and becoming the best in the world at what we do.

This said, my ultimate vision is that Global Citizen Year becomes a global movement of young people from around the world. I love to imagine the day when Fellows from Brazil and India are working side by side with our American Fellows in Senegal, China or Jordan.

I'm inspired by how Teach for America has spawned Teach for All in recent years and I envision something similar for Global Citizen Year. Rather than exporting our model, we could identify entrepreneurs around the world who are inspired to start similar programs in other countries.

In the shorter term, our goals are focused on disrupting higher education in America. We've established two types of partnerships with colleges -- 1+4 year model recently launched at Tufts University, and a 1+3 year model in which Global Citizen Year replaces the freshman year. In the coming years we aim to sign on tens (hundreds?!) of leading colleges and universities who will encourage -- if not require -- a global bridge year as a pre-requisite for enrollment.

To succeed, a social entrepreneur must possess what two skills?
1) Vision -- you see the world as it COULD be and you love painting this picture for others to see.
2) Grit -- you have the resilience, persistence and tenacity to ride the waves and still land on your feet. And, looking back, you're always grateful for the storm.

What is the most important investment businesses can make in their workforce, particularly young women?
Mentorship seems like a trite answer, but I think it's true. We need role models; strong, passionate woman who are leading by example, and willing to hold up the mirrors that help us see ourselves -- and our potential -- with greater clarity.

What are you most proud of?
I'm most proud of the fact that Global Citizen Year has become so much bigger than just my big idea. Today we've built a world-class team, a network of prominent donors and partners and a growing cadre of Alumni who are approaching college -- and life -- with passion, perspective and purpose. That 80 percent of our Fellows have received some level of financial aid -- and 30% a full scholarship -- is unique among other travel and leadership programs. Our future leaders must reflect our country's rich diversity. We need to level the playing field of opportunity for young people in America -- and while I'm proud of the progress we've made... I also know we've only just begun.

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