What was my first step in creating a socially responsible hedge fund? Did I engage attorneys and accountants, generate capital provider interest, prepare financial projections? I did all those, but my very first step was joining Toastmasters in Summer 2011. To connect with new investors, I realized that I would need to get out and speak to spread the word about my fund, American Homeowner Preservation. I had been shy since elementary school, when the thought of speaking in the front of the classroom worried me sick.
Despite shedding some of my shyness over the years, I was still uncomfortable presenting in front of sizable audiences. I marveled at then-candidate Barack Obama speak in Dayton, Ohio in 2008. He would rouse and uplift with his powerful delivery. I wanted to speak like him and share my passion for AHP, which purchases pools of mortgages from banks at big discounts and offers sustainable solutions to struggling families to keep them in their homes.
My first Toastmasters speech was an Ice Breaker, meant to introduce myself to club members and share some information on my background, interests, and ambitions. First, I wrote a speech about AHP. However, I thought if I just talked about AHP, then I would sound like a commercial. So I wrote something more personal, a speech I entitled "My Father's Oasis of Tranquility." I spoke about my father's Tai Chi practice, his dedication to leading a vibrant, tranquil life, and the influence that had on me.
Knowing that my turn was coming up, I sweated through the announcements and other speakers. I really could not wait until this was over. I thought about excusing myself to the restroom--and then making a run for my car. However, I heard myself being introduced. I took three deep breaths, stood up, walked to the front and shook hands with the Toastmaster.
Now, all eyes were on me. I had this speech memorized. I closed my eyes and thought about my father, who had Stage 3 cancer at the time. He was facing a much greater challenge than I was. Why was I so anxious about speaking in front of 40 friendly faces? " I can do this," I thought. "Stay relaxed." I opened my eyes and spoke my words.
I stumbled a couple of times, said "um" four times, and spoke too quietly. However, I finished my speech, received some constructive criticism, and felt good. Over subsequent meetings, little by little, my anxiety fell away.
Practice is essential, so today I accept every public speaking opportunity I can. In the last year, I have spoken in front of thousands at Failure: Lab, LendIt, REI Expo, Money Show, Disrupt CRE, Crowdfunding USA, RealCap, and many other events.
Am I a great speaker and, most importantly, can I speak as poignantly as Barack Obama? No - not yet, at least. I am a work in progress, and improve each time I speak.
Toastmasters prepared me to launch AHP's hedge fund by helping me step-by-step become a better public speaker. Recently, I endeavored to share Toastmasters with AHP's 17 employees. We looked at local Toastmasters groups, but taking our team off-site to participate seemed impractical.
Our solution? We started our own Toastmasters chapter, which will hold its sixth meeting this Friday at AHP's Chicago offices. Criticism is always constructive. I even assured participants that if anyone bolts for their car mid-meeting, they'll always be welcomed back.