How A Garage Sale In Los Angeles Landed Me A Dream Career In Africa
By: Jonathan Kalan, Unsettled Co-founder
It all started on May 22nd, 2010. I was stumbling around a street festival in Los Angeles, when a little sign caught my eye.
“Moving to Africa. Selling everything”, it read. I was curious. So I walked up the small driveway, past bookshelves, clothes, and the odd items that people in Los Angeles seem to collect throughout the years, and asked the young woman sitting in a lawn chair a simple question:
“Where are you going?”
Exactly two months later, I found myself sitting in the American terminal of LAX holding in my hand a one-way ticket to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I had quit my job, sold all of my things, and with nothing but a few thousand dollars in my bank account was moving to Tanzania to launch a pizza shop.
Now, the pizza shop never really happened. I did launch a poultry farm for a short period of time (a comical story of which I’ll spare you the details), and a small solar kiosk business, but I never in a million years could have imagined the magnitude and impact of the journey I began that day, and how it’s brought me here today.
The woman’s name was Sydney, and she was the founder of a small social enterprise that was building a free school in rural Tanzania for orphaned children. The idea was that the student’s tuition could be supported through small micro-businesses, run by the students themselves, not only giving them an education but also valuable life and entrepreneurship skills.
After meeting her at the yard sale, I let her know that I was very interested in her project, and that I was looking to shift from working at a startup in Los Angeles to moving internationally and working in the social enterprise space.
It seemed like a sign from the universe. Did she need any help from a highly motivated and scrappy, yet relatively inexperienced 22-year-old? After three follow up emails, a call, and hosting a small fundraiser to support my flight over there and prove my worth, I was invited to move to Tanzania and support them with their business development and communications. There was no pay… but I had free room and board, and living expenses were cheap (after just one year, I’d spent under $4,000).
The opportunity was a gateway for me. It wasn’t just about moving to Africa to work with the organization. The other half of my desire for going was to pursue my lifelong passion for photography, and to see if I could break into photojournalism. I worked about half the time for the social enterprise, and used the rest of my time to network, find stories, find outlets to get published, and establish myself as a photojournalist.
I ended up spending four years working across the region, doing things I could’ve never imagined. I hunted with pygmies and slept next to erupting volcanoes in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. I interviewed young entrepreneurs bringing Facebook and wireless internet to disconnected and information hungry Somali students in the capital of Mogadishu. I ran straight into terrorist attacks and political upheavals, shared bootleg liquor with trash collectors in Kenya’s largest slums, and photographed everything from Rwandan coffee farmers to Tanzanian miracle healers. I traveled 15,000 kilometers by bus, kayaked the Nile, and even managed to hold my own column for BBC and make a front page photo of the New York Times while living in a 3×7 ft kitchen cupboard under the stairs for a year (earning me the nickname Harry Potter for a good few years).
I say this not to boast accomplishments, blow my own horn, or impress the masses. In fact, I say this because it’s not what I’ve done which I find important- it’s what brought me to all of those exciting points in my life which is important.
People. Lots of people.
An endless string of chance encounters, fortuitous conversations, serendipitous meetings, lucky run-ins, fateful circumstances, divine interventions. Call them what you may, but whatever they may actually be, there is one definition that can fit them all; Opportunities.
It’s these connections that have shaped my world- and in fact shape the world we live in today. They push and pull us in directions we could never anticipate, stretch and bend us in ways that we never thought possible. They build the fabric of our world. They make it move. But only if we recognize them.
Meeting Sydney was a completely unplanned, unexpected catalyst for one of the most significant periods of growth in my life so far. It was the single chance event that led to the experiences, people, and careers that put me on the path where I stand today, and to launching Unsettled with my co-founder Michael.
Opportunity exists in every person you meet. It is an encounter where you keep your mind, soul, body, and spirit open to the endless possibilities of the world, and wherever your fellow passengers on this great spaceship called earth might take you.
It is, as the late photojournalist Dan Eldon once wrote, living ‘Safari’ as a way of life. “Safari is about constant play, constant curiosity, constant resourcefulness. It’s a perspective on life, a life lived in eternal exploration.”
My life has taken so many directions simply because I’ve kept myself open to the people I met, and the possibilities they held.
If I hadn’t stumbled into that random garage sale in Los Angeles, and asked – and more importantly listened to – why the woman was selling all her things, I never would have landed myself in east Africa a month later. If I hadn’t taken a last minute meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, and followed the long string of connections that resulted, I never would have met the person who ended up inspiring and supporting my journalism career. I know I’m not alone here. We all have those stories.
In the end, a career is what you make of it. We can plan, we can obsess, we can try to predict. But at the end of the day, the most important thing we can be is open. Open to exploring who you want to be, and open to exploring wherever you want to go. Careers, jobs, opportunities – they are there, waiting for you. And the people you meet, from the mundane to the most inspiring, are the ones who will unlock it, break it open, or help you find it.
If you are interested in exploring how to equip yourself with the tools to embrace opportunity and serendipity in your life, check out our Virtual Retreat!