Today's guest is Curtis Stout, the founder and director of Project 117, a nonprofit organization that has built a school in Haiti for children who have no access to education due to their age or circumstances. Curtis is a remarkable individual who has been moved by his faith to provide a wonderful opportunity for dozens of children, and his story is one that is both motivating and inspiring. Having no experience running a nonprofit, he took huge steps towards founding Project 117 and through the help of some close friends, made a huge impact in the lives of Haitian children.
What follows is the interview I conducted with Curtis regarding the creation and success of Project 117:
Question 1: What was the moment you realized that Project 117 was really what you wanted to do? When did you know that you wanted to start a nonprofit organization?
Curtis: "There were a lot of little signs along the way that this was something I might get into eventually, but that pivotal moment was when I was working this really crappy factory job. It was March of 2011, about 6 months after I returned home from a 9-month trip to Haiti. Anyway, it was early in the morning and I was working this job, and I just had this thought, "What am I doing? I mean, what am I doing at this machine? I hate this job. " I knew it was temporary, but it was one of those moments when I realized that I didn't have a moment to waste.
Before that, I was constantly sharing the story of children that had been left behind in Haiti, and there were plenty of people that were supporting me to start a school. But overall, it was really that moment at the factory.
Question 2: How did the idea first start to grow? Who was involved?
Curtis: "There were some different people that really started to encourage me to take some steps in this direction. My uncle has been a mentor of mine and a father figure, and he really encouraged me. There was a night at a church gathering when he announced to everyone that I was going to do this, and when he made that announcement, this was before my "aha" moment at the factory. It was one of those moments that kicked me in the butt.
So there were little moments like that where the idea really started to grow. But really after my factory moment, I asked a local art teacher that was about to retire to go and have lunch with me. And she was one of the people who had been to Haiti before and I knew we were both passionate about the same things. That was the first meeting where the idea started to take form. From there, we brought on another lady and she added her husband. Then we had another guy come on from the church. Then we started doing vision casting. And it just snowballed from there on."
Question 3: As it began to take shape, were there moments when you doubted the future success of the business? If so, how did you combat these fears?
Curtis: "I had multiple moments along the way, really like the first two years of our process...Before the school started, I had a number of moments where I wondered if I was the right person to lead the ministry, to lead the nonprofit. There were times where I would walk away from a board meeting or fundraising meeting just thinking, "What am I doing? How have I found myself here? Am I equipped to do this? Do I have the right skills and abilities?
I think whenever you take a step of faith, or try something new or challenging, you have those moments of doubt that follow, and you have to kind of dig a little deeper and figure out who you really are and whether you're really committed or not. For me, it was really through prayer and through surrendering the success of the organization to God. You know, I have a strong faith and those beliefs are a very strong guide for my life. How I kept grounded was by saying, "If God wants this to happen, it will happen."
Another big part is just having what I like to call "Truth Tellers" in your life. Those are people and mentors that will speak into the doubts you are having and encourage you to not back down. There were moments early on when I was very sheepish, especially when it came to fundraising, where I just had to have some people tell me that I was wobbling around. They told me to commit and step forward. So you definitely need people like that in your life."
Curtis: "My uncle was certainly a mentor, but I've also had different mentors. Really some of the people that I first asked for money became mentors for me. What I found out was that the people who have large amounts money have that money for a reason. They're very smart, they're hard workers, they're intelligent, they have great experiences. Two or three of our top donors became my mentors because we developed a relationship outside of them simply reaching into their pockets and donating dollars.
But also, the main people that have become mentors for me are those I've worked with in a local church. Before I started Project 117, I was also working part-time at a local nonprofit. I gained a lot of great experiences through those positions."
Question 5: How do you manage growth while also maintaining sustainability?
But it comes back to being relational. A big deal for us lately has been to challenge ourselves to grow outside of our comfort zone. Our big vision is to build multiple schools in Haiti, and even start schools in countries all around the world. So, we can't just stay local. We have to challenge ourselves and grow our awareness and our funding. I think growth is very intentional. You can't grow without taking strategic steps towards legitimate growth. One of the things we've done recently was to create a Five-Year Plan that describes four main goals we need to accomplish to build our second school within five years. And then within each of those main goals, we have different measurable objectives. So the key to growth is to have small targets that help you get to the big goal."
Question 6: For those motivated to start a nonprofit or a business that makes an impact but are scared to begin, what advice would you give them?
Curtis: "At the risk of just making it too simple...Just take one step. That's what you have to do. And what that step is might be different depending on what you are wanting to do or who you are as an individual. So, for me, it was just reaching out to the art teacher and talking about the organization. So it all comes back to just taking the first step and inviting people to go with you along the way. I think you need to develop a clear vision, but you have to start first. You can't get stuck in the idea of doing something."
Question 7: What challenges have you experienced since starting Project 117? And how did you approach them? Were there any big failures?
Curtis: "Yeah, there have been big failures. But some of the biggest challenges have been the challenges that arise from people. There have been really difficult moments when you have to ask someone not to be a part of what you are doing. Or there have been challenges in Haiti. For example. there was a lot of gang activity in our area, or just stuff going on that I heard about that made me question whether this was the right thing to do. So it was really just trying to decide what the right time was to act for us, for the organization. There have been a lot of challenges in regards to the organization.
But the biggest thing is just the people. Getting everyone on the same page, getting everyone plugged in in the right way, trying to figure out how to distribute responsibility without micromanaging. That's something I struggled with early on. Being a visionary-type person, you can have a very clear vision for something and it can be very personal for you, and the danger can be that you will hold it too tight in your hands and not let others run with it. That was definitely something that I struggled with early on...Just equipping other people to run with the vision. That's certainly been it.
And something that I've learned is that not everyone is going to run after this for twenty years like I expect myself to do. There are going to be multiple people who are just in this for a short period. One of the couples that we started this with ended up going into a nonprofit that they've started, which is a wonderful thing. But in the midst of that, you're bummed because you're losing a group that shared in the vision with you.
One of our bigger failures was one of our first fundraisers. At the time, we decided to go after this huge $200k fundraiser for our biggest building. We determined those plans as a Board of Directors and started taking the steps, but the fundraiser was just a complete flop. We didn't have the right donor base at the time, we didn't have the right training, I wasn't educated enough as a leader to help my team...and I'm still learning. But what I've really found out is that it's really important to make sure that the plan isn't just my plan. It has to be the right next step for the organization, and how you achieve that next step isn't necessarily one specific step. I believe there are multiple ways to achieve a specific goal."
Question 8: Talk about the importance of your team. How did you bring them together? Were they all immediately receptive to the idea?
Curtis: "Early on, it was those people that were very close with Haiti that I had gone on trips with through my church. They were passionate about Haiti and connected to me through my church. After that, we did a Vision Call Night where we invited about 20 people, and we landed on about 8 people that were on the founding Board of Directors. So, early on it was friends and family that were passionate about Haiti.
For Project 117, we do a 2-year term for our board members. After that initial term, we saw some of those initial people leave. At that time, our needs had changed as an organization, and the future we've gone through this process, the more intentional we've become about how we select our board members. We've found that we search for people who have different networks so that it allows us to grow our base even larger. You should really just look for your "Shakers and Movers". There's that adage that says, "Show me your friends and I'll show you future". Just look for people are successful, passionate, and of high character, and you will become like them. Then, through that process, your organization will become like them.
Then one other thing that I've learned is that not everyone needs to be a board member. Not everyone needs to go on a trip. Everyone has their place, and as a leader it is really important for me to help people discover where they fit within our organization. For me, that's been a big deal in the past year....just recognizing talents and passions, and then helping those people use those talents. Something that we've developed within our school is what we're calling a "Leadership Pipeline" where we develop leaders from within to move up our ladder. The beauty of this is that these people understand the culture of our organization and the culture of our school, and then they can move into a new position within our school. We then help them develop the talents and skills and abilities. Then we can give other people opportunities."
Questions 9: Are there any books that have changed your perspective and helped you along the way?
Curtis: "One book that has been great towards Project 117 was The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. This is an awesome book on organizational health. We actually used a lot of information from this book in our Board Member retreat back in December, and I've been touching on this book throughout the last year, just pulling different points from it. I believe you have to have a healthy team of people, and you have to really know what your core values are if you're going to stay consistent as you continue to develop and grow towards the future.
A book about Haiti that I've found really inspiring is called "Mountains Beyond Mountains". It's about Dr. Paul Farmer, who started a health organization in Haiti in the same region where Project 117 started. Just reading about his stories and the passion he had for the oppressed and the poor, and his vision for inspiring the poor to overcome their challenges...all of that has been really inspiring for me. Additionally, just reading about a guy that started a small organization that grew to be a huge international group. I found that really inspiring.
A really great spiritual book that I've read recently is called The Return of the Prodigal Son. It was just one of the most impactful books on faith that I've ever read. It really struck a cord with me because it spoke to this view of God as a father, and that really spoke with me because I lost my father in middle school. So this idea of God as a father who cares and provides regardless if you're chasing the things of the world or if you're struggling with other things, God's there and in the midst of your circumstance. So, that was a great spiritual guiding book for me."
Question 10: What's one thing that you still struggle with as a leader of Project 117?
Curtis: "Surrendering responsibility. One of my strengths is responsibility. I tend to be a person that owns what I do. I give all of myself to my goals. On one hand, that's health trait to possess because I take initiative and own responsibility, but at the same time, too much of a good thing can be bad. Sometimes I put too much responsibility of performance or the results of others on my shoulders. So definitely surrendering responsibility to other people or to God or to whatever it is."
Question 11: How do you define success?
Curtis: "For me, it's pretty simple. It's living the story that I was created to tell. I am very passionate about his idea that everyone was created on purpose and for a purpose. Everyone has a unique story to tell. I define my own success as stepping into the story that God has prepared for me or that's laid out before me for that day. I don't quantify it by money or even the number of schools that I'll help build one day or the number of kids I have...I don't define it by that. It's much broader for me, I guess."
Question 12: What is the one thing you would do differently? Would you change anything? Or do you see the mistakes you've made as learning opportunities?
Curtis: "I tend to resonate with the latter part of that question. I see myself as someone who can learn from any experience, whether it's failure or success, so there's not a lot that I would change. There are things that I need to do differently moving forward, and there are definitely things that I've learned from in the past. Looking back, one of the things that I wish I would have done earlier was distribute responsibility to other people. And then also just learning how to follow up with people based on who they are and how they like to interact. That's a big challenge: treating each person a little bit differently."
End of Interview.
As you can see, Curtis Stout is an inspiring and life-changing individual who exudes both passion and integrity. I learned a lot from this interview about channeling your passion and motivation into a achievable set of goals, but more importantly I learned that with hard work and the right people around you, it's possible to make a lasting impact in the lives of others. Curtis has helped educate dozens of children, and his longterm goals include hundreds of other children around the world. I look forward to watching him grow his organization, and I'm excited to help out in any way that I can.
If you'd like to learn more about Project 117, go to www.p117.org