This post was originally published on NOEW.org. New Orleans Entrepreneur Week is a festival celebrating entrepreneurship and innovation in New Orleans. See it all happen this year March 19-24, 2017.
Leona Christy is far from her hometown, Kerala, on the southern tip of India’s tropical Malabar Coast, but she says New Orleans bears a remarkable resemblance. Christy, who grew up in Delhi, earned her MBA in Bangalore before moving to the United States with her husband ten years ago to pursue her master’s in Public Policy at Duke University. When her husband was offered an opportunity to teach at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business, they jumped at the opportunity.
But she hasn’t had much time for exploring since then.
Christy has her head down working on Catalyst:Ed, an education startup she founded last June. She says the idea came to her in one of those cliché “middle-of-the-night moments.”
However, she was hesitant about taking on another startup. Christy had previously been a founding team member at Safal, a firm focused on education consulting, after leading Pratham, a nonprofit focused on international education. She was fully aware of the giant undertaking it would be. But she says all of the signs seemed to be pointing in the same direction. And soon after, she had a moment of clarity.
She’s been off to the races ever since. But this time around, she says she’s learned one thing that’s made all the difference. We talked to Christy to see how her second run at startup life is going in her new home base, and to find out what has been her secret weapon in battling the highs and lows of entrepreneurship.
SS: Why did you decide to start Catalyst:Ed?
LC: I started thinking about the many people I had come across through my work and through conversations here in New Orleans, who were either doing independent consulting or working for small consulting firms, or working for organizations, and also doing projects on the side. And I thought, there is no way for these two groups to find each other, and wouldn’t it be great if there was something there to connect them.
The next morning I told my husband about it while we were having breakfast, and he said, “Oh, that’s a great idea.” But it probably wouldn’t have gotten very much further. Except, a week later, I was speaking with someone from the Louisiana State Department of Education, and we were brainstorming lots of ideas, and we realized that if we wanted those ideas to be implemented, we needed people to provide their expertise. And in a state like Louisiana, where there are so many charter school experts, it shouldn’t be very difficult to get those people. And he said, “I keep thinking about how I wish there was a way for these organizations to connect with experts.” And I said, “It’s funny that you mention it! I’ve been thinking about this a lot.”
But the last thing I wanted to do at that point in time was another startup. After several years of starting up a consulting firm, and finally being in a place where we were comfortable with a steady stream of customers, the last thing I wanted was to go back to the crazy hours and the uncertainty. But then, conversation after conversation ended with people saying, “Oh my god! That would be so great if something like that existed.”
I thought, “Okay, this is the universe trying to tell me something.” So, I transitioned out of the consulting firm and launched Catalyst:Ed in June of 2015. I spent a few months having conversations, and trying to talk myself out of this, and I finally said, “Okay, I’m going to do this.”
SS: Can you tell me about the work you do with Catalyst:Ed?
LC: What we do is connect education organizations with vetted experts for short-term mission critical needs. We are essentially a national marketplace for short-term expertise.
SS: Could you give me an example of a project you might work on, or a client?
LC: Sure. These are the clients we’ve already worked with: local and national non-profits, charter schools, and school districts. We’ve also done work with foundations and with an ed tech company. What’s common to all of them is that they work in education and they really need expertise in a particular area which will help them address a problem that’s become a challenge for them, and that can help them go to the next level.
And the types of challenges we have sought have been varied. We’ve helped organizations with strategic planning program evaluations. We’ve helped those who wanted mapping of the landscape to see what kinds of services are available in a particular area. We’ve also done things like helping schools that are just starting up with experts across different areas. Fundraising—say, someone needs help writing a grant proposal or building out a development plan for themselves. Also, board workshops to figure out what’s aligned and what their roles are moving forward. We’ve connected them with experts in those areas.
SS: What has been your biggest struggle as an entrepreneur?
LC: My biggest struggle is the sheer number of decisions that need to be made. There are decisions that need to be made across multiple areas. Big ones, small ones—sometimes you don’t even know which decision is a big one and which one is a small one, so you don’t even know if it’s really something you should spend a lot of time on trying to figure out. It’s the whole issue of multiple decisions through the day without enough information to say, “Yes, this is absolutely the best decision.”
All you can say is, “Based on this information, this is what I can make sense of right now,” and just move on. But there are times when I just don’t want to make any more decisions. I would be happy with just tossing a coin, if it means I don’t have to think about the pros and cons of something yet again. That’s been challenging. It’s one of the difficult parts of being an entrepreneur.
SS: What have you learned that’s been valuable on the second run?
I think what you hear a lot about, which I completely agree with, is that the highs and lows of entrepreneurship are both very intense. What I’ve learned is that you have to both adopt a Zen-like attitude towards both the highs and the lows, because the emotional rollercoaster becomes too much if you don’t.
At the same time, you also have to recognize that you do not have full control over this thing. There’s this thing that has come to me, in a sense, but it’s not mine. And I’m responsible for it, but it’s not all me. I have to think of myself as more of a keeper of a flame rather than, “This is my baby.” Because I know that I have to get more people in who are equally invested in the success of this. I have to know that this thing will take a life of its own, and that’s alright, and I may not be able to map out every single thing that goes on, but that’s alright too.
There’s also the sense of responsibility, when you talk to a lot of people initially, and they’re like, “That’s so great! It’s such a great idea and this is so important. I’m so glad you’re doing it.” And then there’s this part of you which is like, “Oh my god, it’s great that I’m doing something so important for the sector, but equally, there is a feeling of, “Oh my god, please let me not screw it up.”
With every investor that signs on, or every organization that has a project, you feel like it’s your own personal responsibility to make sure that people who come in with a set of expectations get what they’re looking for. And that sense of responsibility can feel heavy at times. And I think internalizing the idea that, like a child, this thing has come to me, but doesn’t belong to me has helped me maintain a certain level of objectivity as well as a certain level of patience in terms of how things will come out over time.
SS: So this is your second child, in terms of startups.
LC: Yeah, it’s a second child, but in a way it’s also a first child. I feel like I’m more of a single mom in this one. And you know how they say, “It takes a village to raise a child?” It takes a village to do the whole startup thing as well.
SS: What do you enjoy the most about what you do?
LC: It’s funny, I’m probably going to say the same things I said were the biggest challenges. I do like the whole idea of taking something that’s a big problem and breaking it down and trying to find solutions to it, whether they’re big problems or small problems. I just like the problem solving. I like seeing the progress that we’re making. I love hearing from our clients and our talent, when they’re super excited about a match, either when the match is made, or during a project, or after a project. When they’re like, “Oh my god, this was the best possible person for this!” or “I love working with so-and-so,” or “This is great because I feel like it’s really using my talents well.” Both ways, getting that kind of feedback is incredibly gratifying and it’s something that I really enjoy. I love our team. We probably have more fun than we should be having.
Q: Okay, now for the fun stuff. What’s in your bag right now?
Phone, keys, a lot of receipts that I need to file, and because I have a five-year-old daughter, I usually have crayons, or a lollipop, and tissues.
Q: What are you watching right now, if anything?
I barely watch TV, but the only thing I’ve been watching recently is a BBC America series called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell.
Q: What are you reading right now?
I’m usually reading about 3 or 4 different books at the same time. I’m reading one called Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal. I’m also reading Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval, and Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, by Vivek Bald.
Q: What do you do to unwind or fight stress?
I go for a run in Audubon Park. I read a lot. I hang out with my family.
SS: Are you a runner? Have you run for a long time?
LC: Well, not really. I’m more of a…run-walker? I run for about five minutes, and then I walk, and when I see too many people looking at me, I run again.
Q: What would you be in another life?
I would work in hard-core science, in artificial intelligence or some type of biotechnology work. There’s so much that’s interesting and new, truly innovative and impactful happening in science right now.
SS: What is your worst habit?
LC: I’m always late. I feel like New Orleans gives me a Get Out Of Jail Free pass. It’s like, if everyone else can be late, then I’ll be late too. And I can always blame it on the traffic, or the potholes, when in reality, I just left five minutes later than I should have.
SS: When I moved back to New Orleans, I was appalled by how so many people were chronically late. And then I found myself falling into that habit.
LC: Exactly. When I first moved here, I was not bad. I would get stressed out, but I would get there. But now, it’s like, if I’m there within ten minutes of when the meeting is supposed to start, I’m like, “Oh! I’m on time.” It’s terrible.
Q: What’s your spirit animal?
I think I’m like a 10-year-old chocolate lab. When they’re young, they’re extremely high energy and they’re constantly trying to do a million things. And when they’re older, they still think that they have the same energy levels.