Livin’ On A Prayer & Powerbars:
The Long and Winding Road to Success
-By Jeni Dominelli / Chapter One of Jeni’s Journal
First comes the vision, then comes the battle. Warfare would actually be a better term for it. It never occurred to me at all that this is how it would go. In the beginning, four years ago, when I had this crazy idea to launch a non-profit in my mind, I think on some admittedly naïve level, I actually believed that I would simply get to work on this magnificent vision in my head and everything would just fall into place fairly swiftly – according to all of my well-ordered, perfectly-scripted outlines, lists, and 20 page business plans for each strategic component. And the angels in heaven would sing glory hallelujah and other victory tunes.
Honestly I’m not really entirely sure what I thought. I mean, I wasn’t an entrepreneur back then. I was just a social worker girl with a music/songwriting background and an insane passion for helping the downtrodden in this world – and for music. And an insane idea that I just might be able to merge these two passions into one… and that it just might heal some wounded souls and change the little world that is Nashville.
It turns out that I was wrong about a lot of things. But a few things I was more “right” about than even I could have possibly fathomed at the time.
And so, dear friends and dear readers, I have decided to take the opportunity at this year-end of 2015 to let you in on a few pages of my personal diary of sorts highlighting the ups and downs of my non-profit start-up journey over these last several years for what you know as The Beat of Life.
Consider it an insider look at the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual voyage and battle that it is to be a Founder of a new venture and vision – and all I’ve learned on that voyage so far. (If you’ve ever read Oprah’s magazine, this would be my version of her famous What I Know For Sure.)
I’ve learned that when you are willing to be emotionally honest, you can connect more deeply with the people around you – and that a willingness to be vulnerable is also an equally powerful characteristic for a leader in particular. So I try to do this as much as possible simply because being real and authentic is really the only way I have ever felt comfortable living and interacting with others anyways. And I have tried to do that as much as possible in sharing my experiences here as well.
This is not meant to be a normal blog but more a peek inside several of my journals laid out for you all at once in a series of entries – I would call it a first chapter in the life of a founder. So feel free to read what you’d like under the various headings and discard the rest or come back later. If you’re really ambitious, grab a cup of coffee and go for the whole thing! I’m hoping that no matter how or whether you’re connected to The Beat of Life or not, it might not only enlighten, but inspire or encourage you somehow in your own journey, whatever it may be.
So… here we go. I hope you enjoy taking a peek inside my world and maybe even learning a thing or two vicariously from what I consider some very hard-won but definitely earned wisdom gained.
Changing the world shouldn’t be this way… should it?
Changing the world sounds so hip, sexy, inspiring – especially in today’s world. Allow me to open your eyes a bit. Inside, underneath, behind the curtains of the launch of a brand new meant-to-change-the-world enterprise… it is quite a different story. Especially for founders.
An incredibly telling article in Inc. Magazine recently headlined, “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship”, begging its readers to understand just how brutal it really is… and the enormous price so many founders secretly pay. The article pulls back those curtains for us in dramatic and even shocking fashion, revealing that while we idolize the successful entrepreneurs and founders to hero status, many of even the biggest, brightest, and most visible today have struggled through traumatic events and moments of near-debilitating anxiety and despair, harboring secret demons of all sorts as they tried to get their enterprise off the ground. I think if I had known this earlier on, it would have helped so much… just knowing that what I was experiencing was so, well, normal. It probably would have made things a bit more tolerable for me along the way.
Depending upon your musical tastes, you may or may not have caught the references in my title to Bon Jovi and the Beatles. But it’s not just a cute or clever title. It’s been my life. I’ve literally eaten more power bars in these last few years than anyone should be allowed to eat as I’ve raced from one event and meeting to the next (on two wheels), praying all the way that things would somehow come together or that this meeting might be “the one” we’ve been waiting and circling this city with prayers for.
I’ve sacrificed sleep, money, a “normal” career/work day that I actually used to have (as well as a decent, steady paycheck), my social life, my health (don’t recommend that one), my sanity and pretty much everything and anything else you can imagine in order to bring this grand vision into existence. I’ve taken multitudes of naps in my car in between those above mentioned meetings – even at times falling asleep in front of my own house when I was apparently too exhausted to get out of my car and drag all my gear and self inside. I’ve had countless late night talks with God to the tune of “Okay, if You want this vision I believe You gave me to continue, you MUST step in and show us where to go next here”. I’ve cried probably more than ever in my life and wanted to throw The Beat of Life off a bridge just about every other month, then I somehow muster the strength to get back up and set the burden of a vision and an organization and everyone who is connected to it back squarely on my shoulders and carry on.
All for a big massive risk I’ve had no idea how or guarantee if it would even pay off. And all the while wondering why, when all I wanted to do was make a difference in this world, it had to be this difficult and harrowing of a road.
Fortunately, along the way I obsessively read every entrepreneurial and business and visionary book I could get my hands on and gradually learned that yes…yes, changing the world is this way… but this is all ultimately part of what makes the journey so extraordinary.
It’s been incredibly validating and reassuring to know now that I am not alone and that this has all been experienced by scores of other pioneers through the ages, all across time and industry.
So through both my reading and my own walking out of this trying-to-make-a-difference thing, here is what I have learned through it all… what I know for sure.
The Big Start-Up Curve
The Big Start-Up Curve. This one is no myth. Learning how to launch, grow, and sustain a brand new non-profit (or any large scale enterprise) that involves such a massive amount of variables all coming together perfectly takes time. Not only are you navigating new territory bringing something new into existence, but you’re doing so with a complex series of elements involving 1,000 unknowns and uncontrollables. In the early stages, I’ve learned, literally every entrepreneurial, start-up, for and non-profit, and ministry/visionary leader describes the cycle and challenges experienced exactly the same. Severe and constant growing pains and adversity while they’re struggling to build, define, establish, iron out kinks, and get all of the many complex aspects right – with many missteps possible at any and every point. All share that going from nothing to a sustainable and especially financially healthy organization is not for the timid and much, much harder than most people think.
It takes intense strategic planning. It takes brand new innovative program creation, development, building/growth, and sustainability – with MOUs and legal issues and outcome measurement frameworks and community partners who all have their own sets of needs, expectations, goals, and challenges. It takes building a passionate team of volunteers, and eventually somehow finding staff members, even when you cannot pay them… hoping their passion and faith in the mission can keep them fed and going until you can. It takes recruiting and developing board and advisory council members – and strategic ones, who actually have the skills and expertise and network and desire to do something. It takes marketing, building awareness of your new existence, and PR/media, web and social media development and daily upkeep, and growing your overall identity and brand.
It takes fundraising on multiple levels with multiple strategies involving complicated grant applications and proposals and contracts, reporting and compliance, online giving, corporate in-kind donors and sponsors, benefit events, and cultivating relationships with individual philanthropists – and you must develop all of these for a brand new entity and its programs at the same exact moment that you’re trying to build it. (Imagine building a house hoping for people to throw you bricks as you need them). You need to build awesome programs to raise money, but you need money to build those high quality programs. You need money everywhere and you try to figure out how to best manage and prioritize the very few dollars you actually do see. You need to create many versions of budgets and constantly revise them and you need to learn all the complicated financial reporting systems and documents and accounting methods.
Each of these cascade into dozens of tasks and goals – and trying to get them all right, when each one has a web of complex variables involved, feels akin to the old cliché of getting one ball up in the air and working, only to have another one falling so you race to try to catch it, leaving the really cool thing you just made happen to now start to fall… and again and again… the cycle goes on and it feels utterly unending.
As the Founder, YOU are wearing all of these hats for a very, very long time until you can afford to bring others on to help – and all of these are pulling you in 1,000 different directions for 1,000 decisions that you must essentially cast the final vote on, praying you’re making the right choices. Ultimately you fear and know you are taking a risk with every decision you make – even if intelligent, strategic, advised… because there is nothing tried, tested, and true here yet, and so many variables are simply not in your control.
Then comes perhaps the most difficult component of all: the bringing together, managing and coordinating of massive amounts of people – all with different personalities, philosophies, preferences, needs, communication styles, expectations, opinions, and on and on.
Finally, you have to evolve. You have to take in feedback organically as well as from new ideas from your core team, volunteers, board, scores of advisors, community partners, and more to keep getting stronger and better – and keep all your constituents at least relatively happy – all while trying to still maintain some semblance and conviction of your original vision and why you launched this thing to begin with.
I imagine that anyone reading this who might be contemplating starting their own non-profit might be sufficiently scared off by now. But to that person, I would say that while the mountain is steep, it is not totally insurmountable and you get there… closer and closer, better and better, because YOU eventually get better and better and stronger and stronger. Which brings me to my next point.
And this next one is more critical than anything else I could have learned.
Winning The Internal Battle
They say that wars are won in the general’s tent… Because the biggest battles of both business and life are internal, waged on the battlefields of the mind, heart, spirit, and soul of each of us. This is both bad news and good news.
On the one hand, you have to overcome an incredible amount of internal forces and resolve inner conflicts and belief systems you’ve held your whole life – and didn’t know you even had – that are suddenly revealed through a major undertaking and leading of a new vision. So in the midst of all the astronomical external work on the organization itself, this internal stuff compounds the complexity and exhaustion of it all a hundredfold. On the other hand, you realize how much power you actually do have once you are able to find some order within. And best of all, you learn more about yourself and become more than you ever could have without this entrepreneurial journey. I can honestly say that this is truly one of the greatest gifts I have received through it all. And that’s the good news. I am not the same person in many ways that I was when I started. Here’s what I’ve learned and here’s why.
One of the first things I learned pretty fast was that if you have any insecurities about your weaknesses they will be fully unearthed so you must prepare to meet them. But you will also meet some magnificent strengths you didn’t know you had. And I have learned that those are the qualities that you must magnify, focus, and capitalize on because they can help you make it all the way to the goalpost, ditching your weaknesses behind in the dust.
I’ve learned that it’s not polished talent that wins people over and ultimately breeds success. I have a fantastic education from a prestigious Southern California private university, graduated at the top of my class, and have some fairly impressive social work/director-ship jobs and experience on my resume. But I’m certainly no brilliant Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg and more days than not in spite of my education, experience, or skills, I feel hopelessly inadequate for the task at hand. Thankfully, I’ve learned we don’t have to be.
Though it definitely helps, it’s actually usually not intelligence or education or talent that wins the day. It’s really just heart. I think for me it’s probably just been my raw, crazy, passionate, fiery spirit to love others and change lives that has won over so many others to join the journey with me and catch the same vision of what could be. Being able to tap into and generate the same enthusiasm and light that same fire in others is actually one of my favorite things in the world. It’s just electric and contagious when you can get a bunch of passionate people into a room all focused on one mission. Then each one brings their own strengths, skills, networks, experiences and expertise that I don’t possess. And together, that has made this grow into something far, far bigger than me – and far greater already than what I’d even planned and imagined.
I’ve learned the importance of changing our viewpoints of so-called “failure” and that essentially, there is no real failure. You are simply receiving necessary feedback about what works and what doesn’t – and no success is actually ever possible without that. I’ve learned it’s critical to keep perspective that problems WILL occur and should not be reason for alarm… but at the same time, not all crises should be seen as all bad. What if they’re setting us up for something greater? I’ve seen firsthand how some of even the most epic of disappointments and seemingly fails can actually lead to the greatest of new paths and blessings that would never otherwise have occurred.
I’ve learned to metabolize and assimilate criticism and feedback (which believe me, will always be plentiful if you step out in this world to do anything at all), taking what’s valid and helpful and discarding the rest – because I have also learned we must develop and become confident enough in our own business and life philosophies that we are able to stand by those beliefs and convictions and not be swayed by every wind of opinion that comes. What a delicate balance this is of both humility and conviction, but I’m getting better at it thankfully because this one can take you down pretty fast. I’ve learned that everyone will try to (even with good intentions) interpret your life and experiences for you and some will even go so far as to tell you exactly what you “need to do” at each juncture. Ultimately, life is short and you simply have to operate according to what you believe and what works for you.
This feeds right into the critical importance of, I have learned sometimes the hard way, surrounding yourself with those who consistently build both you and your enterprise UP – and building your core team based not just on high levels of talent but even more so on high levels of integrity, character, consistently positive energy, and like-minded belief systems, philosophies, and faith. The ones we surround ourselves with can make or break us, so there is no time or space for anything less in our inner circles. Because they will become not only co-workers when they join a venture like this. They will become dear friends, family, comrades in arms for life.
I’ve learned to take better care of myself so I can be more resilient. I’ve learned when we are exhausted and on empty (or even worse – fumes), life and business will look a lot more bleak than it probably is. I’ve learned to take time for my solitude and refreshment and to recharge and have no guilt like I once did – because this is what helps me win these battles and fulfill this work. (Hearkening back to that whole general winning wars in the tent theory.)
I’ve learned to be content with and grateful for PROGRESS, each step, each day, getting further along the way. I’ve learned that it is so easy to focus on how far there is to go or what goal hasn’t been accomplished yet, that we can forget all the extraordinary things that have been and are. I’ve learned the importance of celebrating your successes and highlighting what is… and that sometimes you have to call your own roll… “Hey, we’ve conquered this and that, and this and that – hey, look out the window and see how far off the ground we ARE!” I’ve learned we have to talk to ourselves quite a bit as a matter of fact. This often sounds like, “C’mon, Jeni! Check this out, this is amazing! You prayed for this vision all those years ago when it was just a seed of an idea, and look at where it is. Pull yourself together. Look what God’s done.”
I’ve learned to look around me and really see and take in what is and remember those prayers around and over the city and how they are already being answered. I see our unbelievably supportive and enthusiastic, passionate program partners at the jail or the mental health center or school and I am reminded that not every gets to work with such outstanding individuals as the ones we do. When I despair over funds, I’m called within to remember that we have received 4 grants (and nods of approval therefore) from some of the largest and most highly esteemed foundations in Nashville – in just our first year of grant applications… and another music-based organization that has been around decades longer received none. And I’m called to be grateful.
Vision does have both the physical and the mental “price”, and takes an enormous amount of that internal work. But I could never have learned some of these jewels of wisdom and grown as I have any other way.
And I’ve learned to connect my own internal struggles to those we’re serving. Because the battles I face aren’t always very different from the ones they do. Essentially, I’m one of them. I’m all of them. I’ve learned that all these struggles we each face are not really our weakness but in fact, are our greatest ammunition. Because the one that will help the most people is the one who has been there. Who better to reach out a hand to help pull people up?
And I will continue to learn and grow and become all the more equipped to relate to and help all these struggling people… because of the various forms of adversity I often have so have despised.
A City Worth Fighting For
You’ve probably heard it said that given a strong enough why or reason, the human spirit can endure just about anything. It’s true, and this is really what has sustained me up until now, and will continue to.
There is so much massive work involved in the growth of a new entity, as I’ve described already, and much of it is the grind of things you really don’t enjoy doing. At all.
But then, I get to step away from the laptop and the endless meetings for one of our programs… and this is the moment that changes everything for me, every time. It’s then that I see the people, the faces, and hear those songs that give me chills and bring me to tears and move me in indescribable ways. And I remember my why and my reason. There are many of them actually… a whole city full.
There is a beautiful young teenage girl named Jordan who, after experiencing extreme cases of bullying and depression thought of taking her life and spent last Christmastime in Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital. This year, as part of our “Beautiful Minds” Program for adults and teens battling depression, mental illness, and suicide, Jordan and her songwriter matches, Ragan Hoffman and Billy Dawson, together penned the powerful anthem “Don’t End It” – proclaiming that life is worth living… for anyone else in the battle who can use the inspiration to fight on. This fall she stood on stage at our “Beautiful Minds” benefit concert event and bravely poured out her story for the first time to all in the audience prior to belting out her new song herself, leaving her mother – and everyone else in awe and in tears.
There is an inmate named Michael, who became incarcerated after losing his home in the Nashville flood and resorting to stealing food and other items for survival. Michael was a successful musician himself in his former life and was so moved through our “Redemption Songs” prison program that he enlisted his songwriters, Adam Wood and Lori Dixon, to help him craft his own anthem, “The Music Came Back”… now expressing his hope for the return of all that he’s lost within himself. He then asked if he can help us, once released, to reach out to other inmates through “Redemption Songs”.
There is a young 8th grade boy with Autism who is inspired to single-handedly create the most extraordinary video, “We Can Change The World”, based on a song that he and his classmates were able to create with us. I hear from his mom that after the songwriting and studio recording experience, his simple statement was: “Best.Day.Ever.”
Then there are letters. From inmates who have been released and connect with us once they are free, such as Izzy (short for Israel) who tells us “The Beat of Life straight up changed my life, y’all!” Izzy’s song, “We Got A Love”, written with powerhouses Damien Horne and Kenzie Wetz, actually showcased his new vision for the world’s ailments – to begin operating out of love for one another. Israel moved to Florida after his release but offered to fly out to Nashville to share his testimony and song and help us build The Beat of Life’s prison program.
These are only a few of the scores of similar stories. I wish I could share them all. I wish I could share about Brian and Renee and Ellie and Donald and Giovanni. These faces and names are real people, with histories and families that love them like mine love me, and stories and pains and tears and battles just like me.
What makes it all worthwhile is them. And that moment when our programs are brought to the stage and stories of embattled human beings are told… but then their anthems are sung and we get tears in our eyes and chills to our bones because one more soul has discovered meaning in and transformation of their pain – and hope, all through the power of song. We never fail to be amazed and speechless, really.
And something in me, God’s Spirit I believe, whispers, “C’mon Jeni… keep going. This is what it’s all about.” And I want to fight harder. Do all I can. And I go home and get back to work… to raise money, build our board, promote, recruit, do whatever I have to do to be able help all of these people more and more. And I remember… what this whole thing is all about.
And I remember that it is indeed a city worth the fight. Worth whatever it takes.
Not Just A Non-Profit: The God Thing
This part is especially for those of you who share my faith.
The Beat of Life has never been just a non-profit to me. It’s not just some big dream either. It’s actually what I believe to be a God-ordained vision… what He was calling me to do years ago through a Bible verse I now have tattooed on my arm. Isaiah 61, commonly titled The Emancipation of the Free – “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord has anointed me… He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes… a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair…” There’s a lot more to the chapter, but you get the idea (and can go read the rest).
I was first drawn to the verse when I was 19 years old and sensed it was a call for my life but didn’t know yet exactly how at the time. So I made it my life theme verse nonetheless and waited for more information to come to me. It unfolded, true to God’s usual style of working, in little bits and pieces and hints gradually over the years… leading at last to what is now The Beat of Life – the vision to use the power of music to reach out and minister to any and all of the brokenhearted, hurting, and despairing in this world, with the hope to bring them new life – both the earthly and the spiritual kind. Hence, our tagline – “Because Music Can Save A Life”. But it can also save a soul.
Having a God-ordained vision means more good and bad news.
Bad news? Yes, there is some very bad news here. The bad news is that a vision from God is going to come with some serious spiritual battles – the fiercest I’d say. I’ve never experienced fiercer, and I’ve had a life with some extraordinary trials prior to this vision. Yes, you’re going to get some serious battles just trying to launch any organization, as I’ve laid out here already. But when you believe your vision is a God thing… well, that’s another story altogether.
Remember all those books I talked about reading voraciously? Some of those were from some of my favorite Christian leaders doing some unbelievable work out there all across the world. The themes were constant and really, chilling, in all of them. “You’re about to shake the kingdom of darkness and take some serious land… which will have the devil all over it because he knows how huge the impact can be and will do anything he can to attempt to kill/thwart it from ever seeing the light of day. And will do everything he can to take you down in particular, leading the whole thing. You really think he’s going down without some major warfare?? But if you knew the blessing that was coming, you’d know why the battle is so fierce.”
Sometimes knowing this helps inspire me to fight harder. Other times when I’m utterly exhausted it doesn’t matter who the enemy is, I just want to lay down all the battles and take a very long nap. But I’m slowly becoming immune to more and more of those flaming arrows aimed at me. What used to take me out with just one arrow… now takes five.
And there’s the good news too. The best. When you have what you feel is a God-ordained vision, you can (or at least should) relax a bit because if He has in fact ordained it, He will guard it and keep it standing. Clearly since I’ve wanted to throw the whole thing overboard many times, it’s still standing because of Him.
I’ve also learned from many wise mentors that what God originates, he will orchestrate. You don’t need to figure it all out when it’s a divine vision, because it’s not limited to our potential, connections, resources, etc. When he puts something in our hearts to do, He goes to work behind the scenes, and it’s not necessarily a problem that we are where we are if something seems to be going wrong. Surprise endings are kind of His thing. I mean, remember Jesus’ surprise ending?
Down This Road I Go…
I don’t know what tomorrow brings for The Beat of Life, or what all our surprise endings will entail, but I’m at peace with that. There are many, many exciting things on the horizon for 2016 and I can’t wait to see where it all goes. But if I’m just here to change my little part of the world in whatever way I can, and that truly is my only goal here, then how it all turns out is no longer the point. And when you quit being married to an outcome, it is incredibly freeing.
My ultimate goal is not to build a world empire or an awe-inspiring organization. We’re walking into places of true brokenness and despair more than ever in this dark world we all live in. So my ultimate mission and goal is simply to help as many souls as possible in this city (and hopefully one day beyond) to find redemption. And that is ultimately what I want my life to be about when all is said and done.
Vision, then Battle. Yes, that’s the way it always goes. Warfare to the last breath. You rise and fall and rise again and fall again and are triumphant and the cycle goes on and on. But what would it be without those battles? The grand overcoming.
At the end of the day, I know I wouldn’t want any other life or journey. And so I keep heading down this road, no matter how winding and long it shall be.