It took 15 years into my career in the wine industry before I shed a tear at work. The wine industry is pretty exciting, and I’d say “happy” is the prevailing vibe. I don’t view my emotional release as a bad thing, I just never envisioned it happening. And then it did, on stage in front of 50 Montessori teachers at the Alcuin School in Dallas, TX.
I was presenting at the tail end of a somatic leadership seminar hosted by Maryellen Myers of the Stagen Leadership Institute. I had just shared with the group what my company, Indaba Wines, is doing via the Indaba Education Fund, our sister nonprofit that brings world-class Montessori early childhood education to the most vulnerable South Africans. I felt so grateful to be there. Then a feeling swept over me like a wave, and the tears started. I struggled to assemble a quick “thank you” and get off the stage.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think the tears were driven by gratitude. They came from fear. In that exact moment, I found myself overwhelmed by my desire to keep the Indaba Education Fund moving forward. Not just for 2017, 2018 or even 2025. I mean long term. Long enough to impact generations of young South Africans who need this educational framework to solve some very complex problems facing the country.
Standing there, the weight and power of the work came into focus.
“The Indaba Education Fund has to be a success,” I thought. I soon had another thought: “That’s why we need to slow it down.”
The Danger of Full Throttle
I run businesses. I like to succeed, to wow my customers, and to do everything at full speed. My instinct is to make full financial commitment, full emotional commitment, full intellectual commitment to every little detail that will make the Indaba Education Fund (which runs on funding from sales of Indaba Wines) a shining star in both the early childhood education and wine business communities. My team and I run the fund with same the passion we offer our business, and with the same desire to succeed that’s embedded so deeply into our workplace’s conscious culture. We want to work on it full-time, even though for each of us, our work in the fund is fully in addition to the full-time work we do for our wine company.
And yet for the first time since the fund’s inception, I can see the effects of burnout. The hours are creating strain. We’ve been approaching it like sprinters, but we need to be marathoners. When we started the nonprofit, every dollar counted and the easy solution to keep labor costs down was to pile the work onto the people already in the culture, who had the aptitude and passion to handle the it. It was a no-brainer, in the early days.
But the joys of the early days are giving way to realization of how much work is really required. That gets piled onto complexities in the umbrella business funding the charity, and the real-life challenges of simply living our lives. This exact pressure can undermine the long-term efficacy of the charity and in some cases, unravel it. I see these challenges in real time with myself and my team. The weight becomes very real. The decision to dedicate an hour of sweat equity to the business or to the charity becomes a daunting one. If we try to do both at each turn, we’re creating a major risk to both organizations — if the right processes are not in place. Simply stated, if the workload overwhelms everyone involved adversely, then both ecosystems are immediately at risk.
It all became so clear on that stage in Texas. Philanthropy requires patience. Not just for the administrative and legal details, but actually in its scope. In this space, it’s so easy to see so much opportunity. So much space to make positive change. Every single child we see makes us realize there are hundreds, perhaps thousands more whose life we can irrevocably change for the better if we can reach them and bring them into the Montessori universe. We are optimists at heart, and boundless in our hopes.
To achieve all that, sometimes the right speed is the one slower than the one that feels natural. We often speak in our business in terms of “the long game.” That simple phrase helps reframe problems in a way that lets us see a bigger picture. Today’s decisions are not simply about today, but tie into a bigger world where we can make a difference. With the Indaba Education Fund, as we grow, we’ve had to come back to the core values.
Understanding this, in real time, is what is going to set us apart in this space. We’ve got to slow down our pace, and take care to enact change one smart step at a time. Bite-sized pieces. It’s remarkably tempting to start triple the initiatives we can handle, because we can see the opportunity, but we are learning to resist that urge. We are learning to set targets, execute them brilliantly, create change, build a base, deliver on our promise, then expand.
Houses are built from the bottom up for a reason. The base has got to be strong enough to hold all those hopes and dreams that will fill all those future rooms.
As we work through these challenges, here is the advice I’ve given myself. I learned this while teaching my 5-year-old son Samuel how to ride his bike: if it’s not fun, something’s wrong. Something in the system isn’t right. The point is fun. The point is to commit to an outcome that is meant in every way to be positive. That doesn’t mean that getting momentum on two wheels or building South Africa’s premier Montessori Teaching Training Academy is not damn scary, but it should be fun. The goal is positivity and learning new skills. The minute that causes frustration, friction, stress or burnout, that’s a precious reminder for me to slow down, reset goals, and have fun. We are in it for the long game.