Love What You Do: PATHFINDER’s Leadership Journey

By Jessica van Thiel

This article was first published in Leader Stories


My colleague Shivani and I founded PATHFINDER, in 2015, as an international social enterprise based in Canada and France. PATHFINDER consults with business, academia and policy for innovative solutions in the world of sustainable development. Our mission is to perpetuate solutions that protect and enable the world’s most vulnerable.

Everything about our organization is unique, from our business model to our daily operations. Living on different continents with different time zones has been an opportunity for us, instead of a challenge, and one that has driven much of our success. We love what we do.

Here’s a little more about our (and my) story.

Q: Why did you decide to go into the nonprofit/social purpose sector?

A: Well, first, it’s good old-fashioned passion. We’ve both dreamed of doing this work our whole lives.  We started PATHFINDER after casually discussing, over dinner, the major gaps and opportunities in the NGO/nonprofit sector. We wanted to create a social enterprise that addressed these industry challenges, instead of perpetuating them, and we wanted to implement a business model that strives to do good while doing well.

Q: What keeps you here?

A: The opportunity, flexibility and excitement this industry brings. It has been such an exciting journey so far, and we’re just getting started! We imagine a future with even more opportunity to do what we love. In the meantime, we’re just happy to be working in such a fast-paced and evolving field.

Above all, to us, this is a calling. There is no other plan but this one. It’s a feeling we each share, deep in our bones. It’s a certainty we know.

Q: What is your favorite thing about your work day?

A: The variety. Every day is different. A day can include meetings with partners, clients, media and researchers. It can include everything from writing research reports and articles for mainstream media outlets, to attending and presenting at conferences, and facilitating workshops. Our days are often unpredictable too.

Another very cool thing is that we are constantly inspired. We regularly connect with some really amazing people doing some really great things. We learn all the time. We collaborate with like-minded individuals. We create solutions to real problems. How many people get to feel these things in each work day? It’s a phenomenal experience.

Q: What impact or success are you most proud of?

A: In December 2016, we organized a humanitarian mission (our first) to some refugee camps along Syria’s border with Lebanon. Through generous donations, we were able to provide much-needed resources to over 500 children and their families.

Q: We all have our “failing forward” moments. Can you share a failure that in retrospect led to growth or learning?

A: Being a social entrepreneur and starting a business has been a huge learning process, both professionally and personally. We’ve had to re-evaluate our business model often, which is a difficult thing to do.

Also, one of the first big lessons we learned from failing at pitches was that not everyone will believe in our work or even in us. There is a lot of feedback out there, both positive and negative. We conscientiously decided to solicit and accept all feedback, to then review, choose and learn what we could while moving past any ignorance or negativity. We learned from everything while we learned not to be beaten down by anything. It took a lot of practice and now this process comes naturally to us.

Q: In a few words, what most gets in the way of your ability to be the leader you want to be?

A: Ourselves. There are no real obstacles, only excuses. For us, it has been juggling responsibilities like jobs, studies, families, etc., that perhaps if we didn’t have, we could focus all of our time on PATHFINDER. However life doesn’t work that way, nor should it. It’s healthy to have a balanced life, and the trick is being able to use the time you have in the smartest way possible.

We’re making progress and we’re getting closer to where we want to be. At the end of the day, the only limitations are our own.

Q: Tell me about a learning experience that supported your leadership development.

A: I participated in the American Express Leadership Academy in New York City in October 2017.

Among other things, it reinforced for me that a good leader is compassionate, empathetic and seeks opportunities to learn. A good leader always works to grow. These possibilities were made available to us at the Academy. We met people who introduced us to lives we were fortunate enough to never know, and we listened. We met experts and we learned. We grew a little, professionally and personally. These are all lessons that make us better people, and stronger leaders.

I also left with a fantastic network that I have committed to remain active in.

Q: What has been your biggest area of growth as a leader in the past year or two?

A: We’ve become stronger people. The more we’ve learned, the less we’ve accepted we know. We’ve also learned to never lose sight of what our goals are as entrepreneurs, while staying true to our values.

Q: Why is it important that today’s nonprofit and social purpose leaders get professional development supports?

A: Because, at the end of the day, you are an entrepreneur running a business. You need to have the skills and tools to be able to do that successfully. It’s great to have the passion and theory, but without the practical skills and professional development, you can only go so far.

Q: What is something that people don’t know about you from reading your resume? 

A: We are passionate about travel and learning about new cultures and people. We each come from international backgrounds and have travelled and lived all over the world. We actually met on the idyllic island of Mauritius where Jess was working with the United Nations Development Programme and reporting to Shivani’s friend, mentor, and then UN Resident Coordinator for Mauritius and Seychelles.

We’re also big fans of good wine. Cheese isn’t bad either.

Q: Please share your greatest piece of leadership advice for your social sector peers across the world.

A: Believe in yourself. Believe in your purpose and others will want to follow. If you are unsure, it will be difficult to convince others. Passion is contagious and every good leader should have the ability to express it. Also, never stop learning. Ever.

Q: Three words: If you had to name three specific abilities, skills or mindsets that you think every 21st century nonprofit leader needs, what would they be?

A: Passion, Tenacity, Flexibility.

This is not the sort of thing you do without a deep belief in its value. You need to commit to success, no matter what it takes. And we can assure you, it takes a lot.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s