Today I was at a luncheon honoring Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines. He probably doesn’t realize it, but 27 years ago I got a letter from Mr. Kelleher that would change my life – and if I get it right, that will change the lives of millions of women in poverty around the world.
Although I was only 15 years old at the time, I had already decided that my career would be as a classical concert pianist. The proof came when the head of the piano department at the University of Texas at Austin extended an offer to accept me as a student in his college studio. We didn’t have the resources to pay for those lessons, and he offered to teach me without pay. The only problem: how would I get from my home in Dallas to my professor’s studio in Austin for my 3-hour lesson every two weeks?
Without telling me, my teacher wrote a letter to Herb Kelleher explaining the investment that he wanted to make in a promising young pianist and asked for his help. A few short weeks later, I received a surprise letter from Mr. Kelleher. It contained 12 round trip vouchers in it – enough for half a year of lessons – and a note wishing me good luck in my career.
Well I did have good luck – seven years later I was fortunate enough to travel the world playing concerts in America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. While on tour I was invited by the Ambassador of Kenya to a high-level dinner where I was seated by the country director of the World Bank in Kenya. He told me a story that has always haunted me: he explained that at least 50% and perhaps up to 90% of the aid being delivered to the people of Kenya was being lost to corruption. His story led me to a lifelong interest and study in creating effective solutions to end poverty.
What Herb Kelleher did for me is what an antipoverty group like Esperanza International does for its clients. It gives people an opportunity to break free of circumstantial limitations and create their own destinies. I have been to visit with these women, so I know from first hand experience that the poorest in our world have powerful internal resources: intelligence, drive, creativity. They need just a small amount of education, healthcare and capital to become self-sufficient and to break the cycle of poverty for their children and their communities. To become a concert pianist, you need the startup resources to get to your teacher. To have a microenterprise and escape poverty, you need the startup resources to learn your trade and start your business.
Now 27 years after receiving that letter, I spend all my efforts to scale enterprises that address global challenges, starting with poverty in women. My social venture Soap Hope sells natural products nationwide and then invests 100% of profits into antipoverty efforts for women. I’m on a nationwide recruiting effort to bring 1,000 more companies under this model, which I call Good Returns, to create a billion dollar capital pool for scaling sustainable social ventures.
The moral of this story is: don’t hesitate to help those around you. Do it in small ways and large, as often as possible. You don’t know how the seed you planted will grow. Herb Kelleher sent me 12 tickets to Austin; he didn’t know those 12 tickets would start a process that would lead me around the world and ignite a passion for making a global impact on poverty. So listen for those opportunities, and be a Herb Kelleher for someone in your world as often as you can.
And Mr. Kelleher, thank you for the tickets.
Co-Founder, Soap Hope