Cynthia Kersey is the founder and CEO of the Unstoppable Foundation, whose mission is to ensure that every child on the planet receives access to the life-long gift of education.
Cynthia is a leader in the transformational industry. She's the bestselling author of two books, "Unstoppable" and "Unstoppable Women," a collection of powerful stories and strategies from people who through perseverance and consistent action turned obstacles into personal triumph. These books have motivated countless readers with over 500,000 copies sold worldwide in 17 languages.
Cynthia is also an inspiring speaker, entrepreneur, national columnist and contributing editor to Success Magazine, and was a featured guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show when Oprah launched the Angel Network.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
The feedback I receive consistently is how inspired people are by my ability to continue to step more deeply into my calling and passion, even though at the time I had no idea how to make it happen.
I separated from my husband of 20 years. I realized that I didn't have control over what was happening in that situation, but I did have control over how I responded to it.
Millard Fuller, my dear friend and mentor, who I met by interviewing people for my first book, "Unstoppable," I called him and he suggested that when you have a great pain in your life you need a greater purpose. He said, "Why don't you build a house for a family in need?"
As I thought about his question, I thought, "How many houses would I need to build to offset this pain in my life?" Even though I had never built one house before -- it was $2,000 a house -- I had never been to Nepal, I didn't have a community of people, I'm a brand new author, but as I sat with that question, not considering my circumstances or my history, when I got to the number 100 houses that felt bigger than my pain.
Even though I didn't have a lot of connections, I didn't have a great, huge community to draw from or a big list of people that I could email to, and I'm living on a $14.95 book at that time now moving into being a single woman, I was inspired by this cause, this mission to provide 100 families with a simple, decent place to live.
That year when I was healing and really grieving, what inspired me was to think about these families in Nepal. When I was out there speaking I always shared this project. I called it "The Unstoppable Nepal Build." I never had an attachment to people saying yes or no. I just shared it, and if people responded great. If they didn't, that was fine, too.
In that year, I raised $200,000. In 12 months after I had separated from my husband I took a group of 18 people to Nepal through the Habitat for Humanity Global Work Project I think it was called. We worked on the first 3 of the 100 homes that were subsequently built.
That was the first experience that I had with the power of giving, and how this truly transformed my life-- turning one of the most challenging years of my life into catapulting me into a deeper level of service and contribution.
The second big opportunity was when I was turning 50. In 2008 I was turning 50. I was depressed about turning 50. I was single, and I heard a friend of mine whose son, for his bar mitzvah, asked people to donate money to help build a school in Uganda.
When I heard that I literally sat up in my chair and thought, "That's what I want to do for my birthday." I decided I would have a fundraiser. I invited 100 people and asked them to donate $100. When they came to the party I asked them to donate more, and it wasn't for me. It was for this cause, this intention to build a school in Uganda.
That night, again, was one of the most extraordinary evenings of my life, not for just myself but for everyone who attended. We raised enough money to help fund two schools in Uganda. That shifted my life again, even though I'd never even had a big birthday party before. I had never raised that kind of money to build schools. It was new to me, but I was inspired, I took action, and I figured out how to do it.
The third was to step more deeply into the Unstoppable Foundation. That birthday was the beginning of me stepping into this mission of ensuring every child gets access to an education. Basically, what happened is after that first day I started asking people to participate. People used their birthdays as a fundraiser, their children raise money, they wrote checks, they used their communities and asked people to donate money.
Within six years we're educating almost 6,500 children a day, and we're impacting over 20,000 community members with a model we call "Sponsor a Village."
How has your previous employment experience enabled your tenure at the Unstoppable Foundation?
As national account manager with Sprint I managed a $30 million account. I worked in and with all divisions of the company. We sold multiple products, from video conferencing to data to long distance. We had a huge assignment and a team of people across the company. I really learned how to work with different multi-faceted projects and move them forward.
Secondly, speaking in the transformational industry, it's interesting that now our largest donor base is people who have communities, who are best-selling authors, who bring me into speak at their national conferences. They want to be a part of this mission of bringing education to children. They want to bring the message of contribution and giving to their community.
Inspirational speaking is a skill that I've developed as an author. I'm now using it in leading the foundation forward and getting more people enrolled to be a part of this mission.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at the Unstoppable Foundation?
Like anything, when you start something, I didn't really know how to do it. Number one, I started part-time. After the birthday party, I was completely doing this part-time. It was myself only. All the money, initially when I raised money, went directly to the impact partner.
Then, the next step was finding the courage to do it full-time. The next step was attracting funding.
Once I did step into it full-time, I started attracting friends and people who started funding us. The next big opportunity was when one of my dear longtime friends and mentors stepped up to support us to the point where we could start scaling our organization and start hiring people to do the work.
That has put me into another level because now not only am I speaking and doing the things I'm passionate about, but I'm also in a situation where I'm managing people and doing things that are not a part of my comfort zone. It's not something I enjoy doing as much as the speaking, but it's something necessary to move our business to the next level.
I'm learning along the way, and I'm realizing that the more I ask for help, the more people are willing to step up, from recently getting a person as chairman of the board, just starting to expand that. It's just all along the way, from every single person that I'm willing to say, "Listen, how can we take this mission to a more global reach?"
It is critical, this mission of seeing every child get an education. There are millions of children waiting, hoping, for the chance to get out of extreme poverty and to create a life of productivity and inspiration. Time is of the essence, and I'm very aware of how important it is, and the clock is ticking. I feel very compelled to step it up. Now that we have a team of people, they're compelled to do the same thing.
What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
I would say, listen to that calling. Do not start a business solely for the reason of making money. Find something you're passionate about that you love to do that is consistent with your strengths, the things that you know how to do, that you're good at. And the areas that you're not good at, find people who can offset that for you.
But the number one thing is do something you're passionate about. If you just do a business that you hate, but you think you can make a lot of money, you won't have enough passion to sustain the work and the amount of energy it takes to really build a business.
What's the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Number one is change begins with me. As I'm growing this organization, while there are amazing people who are working with me, I have amazing supporters, but at the end of the day, I realize that real change begins with my own ability to expand my belief in myself, to expand my consciousness about what is possible.
That is really where the work lies. It's not so much externally and creating all these great programs, which we're doing, and bringing on more people. It really is doing the inner work, working on my own feelings of worthiness. Being able to ask people to step into contributing at deeper levels, you have to feel worthy of making those big asks. You have to have confidence.
You have to believe that all of the money is available to solve this problem. As I step into a deeper level of confidence and belief and expansion in my own awareness of the possible, the more the foundation continues to expand. Change begins with me. It's an inner game and really trusting my inner voice, trusting myself.
How do you maintain a work life balance?
I got married in 2012. We take time for ourselves. We both have very busy schedules but there's one thing in taking time for ourselves, as a couple. The other is taking time for myself, as an individual. I'm not always perfect at this but I do breaks when I take time in the morning for myself.
I read something that inspires me. I take time to pray and meditate. I exercise.
When I do those things, my life works better. When I don't, my life doesn't work as well. Those are the primary ways of what I would call, "work life balance," whatever that is. It's filling your own tank first so that you have more to support, care, and give to others.