How This Mom to 2 Picky Eaters Ended up an Entrepreneur Volunteering in a Peruvian Orphanage

In the mountains of Peru, it turns out, you can actually get a lot of business stuff done.
How This Mom to 2 Picky Eaters Ended up an Entrepreneur Volunteering in a Peruvian Orphanage
Image credit: Courtesy of Danielle Dietz-LiVolsi
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As any executive knows, we all need a chance to get away, and something many of us need as well is the chance to serve. Luckily for me, my business allows me to do both. In fact, the heart and soul of my business, NuttZo, is to pay it forward and support our sister non-profit, Project Left Behind, which takes us to the beautiful and sacred land of Peru each year.

Related: Involver- Social Volunteering: An App That Brings Together Humanitarians, The Gamification Way

First, let me back-track: Around 15 years ago I adopted two beautiful boys from Ukraine and quickly found that adoption is life-changing. After meeting so many orphaned children, my husband and I quite literally wanted to adopt them all, but that was obviously unrealistic

Meanwhile, our two sons adjusted to their life with us, turning out to be picky eaters, and nutrient-deficient ones at that. As a mom, I sprang into action. A longtime health-conscious and self-proclaimed "foodie," I started experimenting with my food processor. My goal: to come up with a peanut-butter-like blend of nutritiously dense nuts and seeds that would maximize the vitamins, minerals and proteins my boys needed.

The blend I created was a hit with my sons, but my husband-the-dishwasher quickly tired of scraping the gooey stuff out of the food processor. Why don't you just buy this stuff?" he asked. 

I took him up on it: That's how San Diego-based NuttZo was born, making nut butter and nutritious snacks which fuel lots of little bodies (as well those of grown-up health enthusiasts) around the country and help support our passion project, to help orphanages around the world.

That brings me back to those orphanages: Each year, I travel with "voluntours" (touring volunteers) to Peru to children’s homes in the mountain village of Cuzco, Peru, to assist neglected and orphaned children there. Besides working our butts off, we volunteers have fun. We learn to cook delicious traditional Peruvian foods, we hike and we ride the PeruRail, before our trip culminates in the unbelievable “lost city of the Inca,” Machu Picchu.

Image credit: Courtesy of Danielle Dietz-LiVolsi

And each year that I organize these tours, I am overwhelmed by the experiences and lessons learned that apply to my life, and ultimately to my business. The landscape of the Andes is certainly a change from our cozy home in San Diego, but it is there, in that foreign, often rustic environment that I do my best thinking and ultimately come face-to-face with my life mission .

Though my experience on voluntours, here are those life --  and business -- lessons that I believe are applicable to all entrepreneurs, regardless of experience. 

Unplug.

On our trip, there are a lot of times that we do not have steady wifi or data. It sounds terrible, but this creates a wonderful environment made for living in the moment.  With no phones ringing or texts buzzing, there are only moments of clarity and extreme focus on the project set in front of us. 

Related: Getting Employees to Volunteer and Give

As you can imagine, this habitat leads to higher quality work done in a shorter amount of time. We once cooked a beautiful meal for over 30 people in less than an hour. We planted an entire garden in less than four hours.  

After a few years of going on these trips to Peru, I started turning off my phone at work. Sounds insane, right? It is -- in the best way. Turning off my phone during crucial points in my workday keeps me focused and replicates that same, highly productive setting we are thrown into in Peru.  When my phone is on, I see every email and text coming in and feel compelled to answer them, which scatters my focus and train of thought. 

Leaving my phone on necessitates longer times to do the tasks that need my full attention, which not only delays my day-to-day work, but ultimately the momentum I rely on, to push my company forward.  

Giving to others gives yourself a clear mind.

Weirdly enough, I get a lot done in the evening when I go on trips like this. Not only are there no distractions: no TV, no technology, no clingy friends; but after a day of giving, my mind is clear. I’m sure we all notice after a long day that our brains become mush (the reason many go home and turn on the TV). In contrast, in Peru, I've found that the combination of being in a secluded place and serving others creates a vacuum where you can become direct in your work.

For example, the last night we were in the village of Aguas Calientes in the Machu Picchu area, my marketing director and I got so much done in an incredibly a small amount of time. It was unbelievable -- we hadn’t had our computers for eight hours and we were exhausted from traveling and working with the kids. And yet our productivity soared.

Why were we able to be so decisive and answer questions so quickly? Because we were giving to others: All day long, we had been working with children, building and painting -- things that don’t require a lot of thought. You just do what you know to be right, like getting the job done and executing kindness.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder . . . of your employees.

When you are away, you quickly learn if you have the right employees in the right place. While in Peru, I am available to a certain extent; there are times when I find myself 100 percent off the grid.

In a business, it’s one thing if your “ship” runs smoothly when you, the captain, are at the helm. But it’s another thing entirely if your ship can run itself while you’re, er, overseas.

Image credit: Courtesy of Danielle Dietz-LiVolsi

Employees need to be able to manage themselves. When communication is limited, you realize who can and can’t do this. It’s honestly a huge blessing in disguise, because you never know if something catastrophic might happen even when you're there, when you don't have the chance to do things on your own terms.

On our trips, there are two days when we're working in the children’s home and have no wifi or data. After those two days, I’m always anxious to reconnect for the first time. This year, I came back to no fires, no disasters, nada. To come home to that was a huge “a-ha” moment for me. I realized I had a great team in place.

True “work” keeps you balanced.

As full-time workers, we all know what it’s like to put in a full day of work. What I’m talking about here is manual labor. When was the last time you broke a sweat outside planting a garden? Painting a door? Installing a roof?

When we perform these activities, our minds are set free. Instead of seeing manual work as a chore or workout, we should see it as meditation, a time to find meaning in both life and business. You don’t have to think much when you have a brush or hammer in your hand – in fact, I regularly practice oil painting at home to get my mind off things. The hours fly by.

On this year’s trip, we had to sand down a door at the children’s home in the Sacred Valley. We had no tools, just crummy sandpaper. Man, was that tough. While it was unpleasant to stand and sand for hours on end, once we finished, we were euphoric. I realized how many thoughts and doubts I had unloaded during this time. Not only was the door smoothed out -- my priorities were too.

Related: 4 Business Lessons I Learned on Summer Vacation, Trekking the Andes to Machu Picchu

At the end of the day, these trips have become so much more than a way to give back to a cause I am passionate about – it’s a way for me to reset and reconsider what is best for my business. When you are centered morally and physically through charity and physical activity, your work will fall into place too.

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