Being At Peace Amidst The World's Chaos With Kristin Van Busum


You should know that you might've been raised on an ivory tower, more fortunate than most kids. You shouldn't see yourself as superior to them. You have to understand their situation and culture. Stop the labeling and just be at peace with yourself. Make sense of all the chaos around you so that you can understand your position in the world. Join your host, Tony Martignetti, and his guest, Kristin Van Busum, on how to find inner peace. Kristin is the Founder and CEO of Project Alianza, a social enterprise and NGO focused on providing quality education for children living in remote locations in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Learn why Kristin is interested in being different and why she started her social impact work. Know your position in the great unknown today.


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Being At Peace Amidst The World's Chaos With Kristin Van Busum

Kristin Van Busum is the Founder and CEO of  Project Alianza, a social enterprise and NGO focused on providing quality education for children living in remote locations in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Kristin Van Busum. Kristin is the Founder of Project Alianza, an NGO supporting education in Central America and SpeakHero, a public speaking firm to help executives and emerging leaders deliver unforgettable keynotes. Under her leadership, Project Alianza was selected as a MassChallenge winner placing in the top 1% of 1,600 plus startups representing the most promising and world-changing ideas across industries.

She was selected as a top ten Changemaker at New York University. Kristen is a TEDx speaker, Fulbright Scholar and fellow at the Aspen Institute, Central America Global Leadership Network. Her work has been featured on NBC, Comcast Newsmakers and in The Boston Globe. Kristen, I want to welcome you to the show.

I’m excited to be here, Tony. I feel like I'm ready for my own inspiration. I know that we are giving inspiration out to the world but I love absorbing it, too. You have that inspiring energy about you.

In order to inspire, you have to be inspired. That's what we are going to be doing here, getting inspired so we can help others. We do on the show here is that we basically help you to uncover the flashpoints in your story so that we can help people see how you have come to be the person you are now, which is amazing.

I can’t believe all the things you would accomplish. It comes from a real heart place. A flashpoint, to be clear, is the point in your story that has illuminated and ignited your gift into the world. You can share what you are called to share. You start where you would like to start. Along the way, we will stop in and see what's coming up.

Just for a little disclaimer, before we started, you said these flashpoints might have come up during my childhood. Initially, I was thinking, “What are all these flashpoints during my education, my adult life or things that led me directly to the career trajectory I'm on now?” When you mentioned childhood, I started thinking of these moments that I started discovering who I am as a person and what I'm called to do in the world.

I don't know if this is exactly a flashpoint. Bring me back if I'm getting too far off track. What comes to mind is I'm from a very small town in Indiana. Everybody looked like me, a Protestant, middle-class, we had the same belief systems and there wasn't any diversity where I come from. Not diversity in thought or appearance.

As a kid, I always had this curiosity about people who are different from me. I was always interested in people that might look invisible and they weren't invisible to me because they were different. I'm talking mostly about people that were working in kitchens that spoke Spanish that were likely from regions where I'm working. I always had a curiosity because I was like, “They speak different languages. They are Catholic. They dress differently.” They are bringing this diversity to my otherwise very homogenous community.

I always had this inherent curiosity as a kid and that led me to do a lot of traveling, learn Spanish and explore the world in ways that I otherwise wouldn't have. I had that as a kid. A big flashpoint for me was when my grandmother passed away, I’ve got some inheritance. She had some property in Indiana, where I'm from. That property was sold.

Understand the world on a global level as opposed to just your small town.

For all the inheritance for her grandchildren, she said, “You can only use this for education or travel after the age of eighteen.” I did both. It was my first opportunity to study abroad when I was in college. I used that funding to pay for my study abroad opportunity in college, which then opened up more questions for me because I was now exploring the world.

I ended up studying in Spain because I wanted to learn Spanish. That opened up Pandora's Box. I fell in love with travel, different cultures and understanding the world at a global level rather than in my very small town. I would say that was a flashpoint for me. I was inspired by this inherent curiosity that I think I had as a kid, “I'm curious about people who are a little different from me.”

It is a flashpoint in a sense you start with this curiosity but then you are given this amazing gift and it comes from a downside from your grandmother passing. I love how she said that, education and travel. I see it as interchangeable because travel is the best education you could ever have. It brought in many horizons for you to be able to see, not just what you can learn about yourself but also you learn about other people. I see so many things about what you do in the world based on that understanding. I can only imagine how much you are thanking your grandmother for that experience.

My grandparents drove to Alaska before there were paved roads. They had this sense of adventure but they didn't have the privilege. My parents didn't have the same opportunity to travel. It was their sacrifice and encouragement that allowed me to have experiences that they could never have. I'm so grateful for that mentorship. They would be proud of what I have accomplished.

I'm also grateful that I have never had a family that said, “Stick to the status quo, go out and pursue a career that's high achieving that has all the right titles but might not make you happy,” and said I had permission to see the world to ask the hard questions, to go off the beaten path. That was always encouraged. I don't take that for granted because I know that a lot of people have this pressure, “Go to this school and get this career. That's our definition of success.”

I never had that pressure, which allowed me to understand myself, explore how I'm meant to be in the world. The world was shaping me. I grew up with this narrative of, “Go out there and see how you can shape the world.” I don't take that for granted and I don't think I recognize that until my mid-30s and how that narrative has shaped my views on the world.

When you look at other people, your peers or people you meet, you start to see it in them where they are creating boundaries for themselves or where they are holding themselves back from living their true potential because you are feeling a bit free without boundaries. You can't put that back in the box.

Now that we all have much more solitude than we are used to, I definitely have battled feelings of loneliness. During quarantine and avoiding public spaces but I have also seen in a way we are clearing our mind of societal influences. We are having all of this time to think and reflect in ways that are new for us. Without society telling me how to dress, what to do, my mind wanders in very creative ways. I'm grateful for that as well because I see how our version of society and expectations can limit us.

When we are freed from that, it's like, “I can get so much more beyond what those limitations are.” I'm seeing those parallels but inevitably, we come from very humble beginnings. It's not normal to even go to college where I come from. I'm grateful for that formal education but even more grateful that it's not used to put me in this box to perform a certain way. Instead, it's meant to truly open my mind, educate and connect me to the world in meaningful ways.

There's something that came to mind as you were talking about this gratitude you have, which is very infectious. I feel grateful for everything that I have now, too. It's about surrendering when you don't have an attachment to what happens next or attachment to, “This is the way it's going to be,” you can't just surrender to what happens next.

I'm thinking particularly of The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer. It's a book. When you have a vision but you are not attached to how to get there because you haven't had a predetermined way of getting there, you are so grateful for everything you are getting along the journey. It's another step in the journey.

I have struggled with that in the past. Back to the way that we are rewarded in the world, if you think of even how our education system works, that at the end of every semester, you get a grade and you move on. You are working towards that thing and there's a predetermined path. You study hard, do this, check the box and move on. That's not how the world works. Especially if you are an entrepreneur and you are doing social impact work or working with people.

The world and our environment are constantly changing. With time and experience, we begin to trust ourselves and the way that we can respond in the world. I do have a tattoo on my arm that symbolizes knowing your position and the great unknown. Always knowing your values, yourself and what you bring to the table, your worth, contributions and unique talents. No matter what's happening in the world, if you stick with that, then that's going to put you on the path to success.

By trusting that intuition and what you are meant to be doing in this world, everything feels so much more freeing because chaos can be happening around us but if we know what we are meant to be doing amidst the chaos, it’s peaceful in a way. We know what we are supposed to do every day and how we are supposed to behave. It's very intrinsically motivated.

It's such a powerful way to move through the world. I celebrate you for that. That's such a beautiful way to think about life.

You are a leadership coach and inspire others who have the power to inspire many others. What's your perspective on that? How are you dealing with chaos and uncertainty? How are you finding your balance?

The way I do it is I think about it as finding balance and striking that paradox between knowing when to be leaning into the fear of what's new and uncertain but also knowing when you also have to take a step back, know when it's too much and when you need to be relaxing into yourself. I'm always thinking about balance because there's an important part about leadership that is about knowing what to do when? When to be strong? When to be soft? When to be compassionate? When to be holding people accountable?

There's an element during this uncertainty to know how to manage your team through the rough seas when to be in front and the back. That has been on my mind a lot around that balance. In fact, my tattoo is Buddha, which is about striking the Eightfold Path, around right actions, efforts and timing, all the things that are in balance. What I wanted to switch gears towards is what came up earlier is around taking the programming that you get in school and deprogram yourself as you get into the real world. How has that shown up as you started your first company?

Give yourself permission to see the world and go off the beaten path.

We are talking about what it means to be truly free as an individual and have this gift of clarity to be in the world, not fit into some box or live up to other people's expectations. You mentioned that I was a Fulbright Scholar. I had intended to do a year abroad and some backpacking. I had my fellowship to do research, which was in Nicaragua. Have some time to just do some fun backpack travel and then come back to “my life, the real world.”

I was in a completely new cultural context. I was living in rural Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere. No running water, farm laboring families and those people had an education of about third grade and getting through primary school is a privilege. Here I am, thrown into this new context and I came in with an ivory tower perspective. With all the best intentions, I was still coming from the East Coast, which is much more privileged than where I'm from in Indiana.

I had a background in policy research. I was coming with this very academic view. There was this disconnect I felt between the way that we were defining people and the labels. We had this very capitalistic North American mindset. I had to unlearn a lot of that when I was there because I was like, “This is disconnecting me. This is the antithesis to travel. I'm labeling, doing and invading.” When you think about the history of colonization, I was like, “I'm the product of that, the way I think and live in the world.” I had to let go of a lot of that. I shut my mouth and listened.

I was like, “I'm learning so much more from people themselves instead of from my background and bringing all of my preconceived notions about how to label people or identify problems.” Another flashpoint for me was that unlearning moment, to listen and hear ideas. Through that process, I learned that when I was within these very poor communities that everybody knew how to fix problems, the resources weren't in there. It's that the structure and the resources didn't exist.

It's not that we needed to be solving problems for other people. It was like, “How can we listen and work together?” We don't want a world where kids don't grow up going to school for anyone. We don't care what nation you are born in, what race or ethnicity you identify with. We want kids to go to school, have happy, healthy, thriving lives. I freed myself of my own cultural influences, opened my ears and that's what inspired this nonprofit.

Project Alianza is called the Alliance Project. The whole idea is working with communities, working with people to solve the problem of education inequality in the world now. The big unlearning piece is letting go of what the world told me was the right way to think. That's what got me A’s in school. I was like, “That's not going to work here. It’s time to do some unlearning,” and it was uncomfortable.

That's such a beautiful insight around the listening part because you feel like, “I'm here to save them and maybe they are there for me to listen to them and hear what's going on so that ultimately I can help them but it's not for me to save them by telling them what to do or how to do it.” It's surrendering into the experience and seeing what comes up from being with them.

I talk about coaching as being in the same way. It's not always about talking to people and saying, “This is what you should do,” or giving advice. It has nothing to do with that. It's more about giving people space and giving them a thinking partner to allow them to see what's going on for them. Just listen.

I love the term thinking partner. In a lot of ways, I still lead that way. We call each other family and all of us who work together treat each other like family. It's very heart-led. We are not doing this work to get rich at all. It's not the right path for material wealth but we all come into this work because we have the same view and our hearts are in the same place.

We love the work and enjoy the intellectual challenge of solving problems like education inequality. It's intellectual but it's also driven from our hearts. We become this tight-knit circle. I have learned that on our team, we have many brilliant people and passionate people. Once each person has space to innovate, explore and problem-solve, amazing things happen. That's at all levels of our organization. We have these labels like hands-off leadership and hands-off management styles.

I'm like, “I don't know if it's hands-off or it's just learning to adapt. These are brilliant people that we are working with. Let's give them space to innovate and see how I can complement that.” That works naturally for me but this is building this family of support. We trust each other. We were all on the same path together. Space has been the most valuable piece because that's where innovation and creativity happens.

It's a foundational piece. You have built trust with these people because you have a common interest. Everyone trusts each other. That has always been an important part of building a team is making sure that you have each other's back and you know that you are all aligned.

That's part of the nature of this work and that's the beauty of this work. We don't have the money to incentivize people that churn out productivity but we are attracting this energy that comes to us because people want to be part of the change. People want to be part of a movement that's improving people's lives. It's really beautiful how that happens. I'm reflecting on how we built the company and a lot of it has been through surrender. It has been letting it come to us because we trust that we are on the right path and then the right things come our way.

We are going to go a little deeper and find out about some of the most emotional moments in your journey up to this point. Where are the challenges? Where have you struggled the most? It could be in Project Alianza or has been in other parts of your journey. Have any setbacks hit you for a curve?

For two years in Nicaragua, I was there on my Fulbright the first year. I made some risky decisions. I was like, “I'm staying here even though I didn't know if I have funding.” I had a few funding opportunities in the pipeline but I was like, “I'm going to find out my way no matter what.” I stayed and personally, I think the journey of entrepreneurship, especially social entrepreneurship, there were a lot of personal sacrifices. I do want to speak about that.

I was 30 when I started this work. A lot of people think social entrepreneurs are like young, idealistic twenty-year-olds. I wasn't that and it was tough. I was very lonely. I was a woman and very much used to society. My friends were buying their property, having their kids and I was literally living out of a backpack for three years. I was hitchhiking to get around, sleeping in sketchy areas.

There was this personal struggle and feeling weird like, “Why do I care so much about this?” It came back to this for me. This is just who I am and I'm proud of it. I'm proud of who I am in the world and accepting myself, even though I felt isolated at times. It was me being honest about who I am and that's when I'm my best.

My inherent curiosity as a kid was I want to learn about people who have different experiences than me. Here I am, plopped in this new country, learning about people who have different experiences and me working alongside them, learning how to work with them. That's how I was as a kid. That's who I am as an adult. I was aligned spiritually with the work, even though the material world wasn't giving me that reinforcement.

Once you're free of the expectations of society, you can go beyond your limitations.

Spiritually, I never felt more aligned and I had to listen to that. That was personally hard. We glamorize the entrepreneurship experience. When I was at MassChallenge with other entrepreneurs, we are sleeping on air mattresses, are on food ponds and not earning money. The struggle is real. Even those challenges are there, what I want others who are interested in taking risks to know is to listen to that spiritual alignment, not the material reinforcement

People say, “If you have strong enough why you can endure anyhow.” It should be, “If you have a strong enough spiritual why,” because I think that is deeper. It has to come from your deep core and your heart. You have to believe it because you can't sell Swampland in Florida if you don't believe in it and if you don't believe in it, there's only so long you can take that because it has to be at your core to be important to you.

As I get older, I think about midlife crises and that whole stereotype. I was like, “It's that spiritual depletion because we are on this path to earning and buying.” All of a sudden, we feel settled and we are like, “This is it?” I turned 37 and I'm like, “I'm getting started.” I'm like, “I don't think I want to have a midlife crisis.” That's the pro in all of this. It's interesting to think about how the world sets us on a path and what that means for us as individuals.

I hate the idea that we live in a society where we are not reaching our potential because there’s not always permitted to take the road bus traveled. “What if we did have this clarity and this space to not be a cog in the wheel?” That's always a big question I have. My work through speaker coaching with public speaking is, “How can leaders not look so polished on stage but be themselves and bring their own unique attributes as they are leading their organizations or their teams?” There's so much power in that. I think that's the new wave. I would love to know your thoughts on that.

I don't want to steal too much from your thunder but you hit a chord because I am big on empowering people to speak their voices. To speak from not just what their head is telling them to do but deep within their heart because I want to make sure that everyone gets what's inside of them out. Inspired Purpose is ensuring that you are living from a place of everything that's inside of me is going to get out and not going to hold back because if you live fully, then you die empty. The reality is you want to make sure that you leave it all out in the field and we all owe it to the world to put that out in the field because the most game-changing ideas are sitting inside of you.

We have totally different experiences, day-to-days and reading different things. Your willingness to share with me is going to enrich my life because you are bringing your own unique experiences into my life and then that's going to transform me. It's this beautiful ripple effect. That's why I love cross-cultural exchange because it's on crack.

We can learn about somebody in the way that they describe the word and talk about love in Spanish is so different from how we talk about it in English. It changes my interaction with the world. It changes my interaction with what love means to me just by hearing how somebody in a different language uses that term. It's eye-opening how much we can evolve when we surrender to the world and let the world happen to us in a way.

It's like a wave rolling over you. You let it happen and see what you can take away from it. That's what travel is for me too. To come back to travel as that whole point is how different I feel after coming back from a trip abroad. It's not about to go sitting on the beach but it's about going in and seeing what I can culturally take away from that experience.

That’s me and I love the cultural aspect of travel.

I want to know all the things you have learned so far. You have lived a rich life, which I love that you talked about the entrepreneurial journey how it's not for the faint of heart. You can be lonely and I hear this a lot. That has been one of the threads through a lot of the conversations I have had. What I want to know is, what are the things that you want to share with people who are early in their career or in this place where they want to start something new but they are afraid? What advice do you have for them through your journey?

Your summation of this point was having that very strong why and then you tagged on the spiritual why. If there is something that you are so convicted about and drawn to, there's a reason for it. That something in the world is speaking to you. It’s continually catching your eye and for me, I'm curious about people different from me. I also like helping people. I'm passionate about education. All of a sudden, those things accumulate over time.

It makes sense in some way but paying attention to those signals because it means something. That's the spiritual part of having that self-awareness and internal spiritual guidance. I don't mean this in any religious way. I mean this in living an all-out fulfilling life spiritual way. It's a very internal, intrinsically driven process.

Paying attention to that and knowing that there's something special about you and that's why the world is pulling you in a certain direction. The third practical view, there are two things like when things were hard like, “How am I going to live off $10,000 a year?” One was having the courage to ask for help was huge for me. Knowing that you have people around you that want to help, want you to succeed and then finding the courage to ask for help, helped with my sanity so much and people want to be there for you.

I want to be there for people. It's not a bad thing but we get afraid of that. Also, another piece of my sanity that helped me through the hard times was because I and Tony are privileged. In the worst-case scenario I'm crashing on a friend's couch for a few months and I can find my way back up because we have the privilege to take risks. If you and I are here for this interview, we have the privilege. If we fail, that's okay. We will learn and find our way back up. Those who cannot take risks are half the people in the world that live under $50 a day.

It's such an amazing insight that you are bringing in and maybe think about my upbringing about our family have given us this opportunity. They have sacrificed and lived their lives so that we could have the lives we have now. It makes you grateful for that and to think, “It’s because of them, we are here and living this life.” That's a beautiful thing to think about because we need to do the same thing for the next generation and make sure that we create the opportunities for people to be able to have what they deserve and we have a God-given right to have.

Sometimes I think by certain terms, I'm a failure. I'm 37 and not married. I think of what society tells me I should or should not be. I have had feedback from people. Certain people in my family have commented to my mother. “She's never going to find a man that wants to marry her. She's always doing her own thing. She needs to settle down.” I have definitely heard plenty of that feedback. I have also heard that from friends or guys I have dated.

You think of these things that try to restrict us or these other definitions. I genuinely feel like I'm living a full life. I feel very connected to the world and have this deep spiritual alignment. That is a hard thing to figure out. Thank goodness that I had people, teachers and my family mentoring me in that direction. I'm going to share that gift with other people.

Small people will make you feel small. Honestly, the best thing to do is surround yourself with people who make you feel like you are something someone's special. The community is important.

Know your position in the great unknown.

When it's there, it's real. It's deep. It's the people I work with. I always say that I'm surrounded by goddess energy. A lot of the people I coach with SpeakHero are strong women. Our work in Project Alianza is led by strong mothers and convicted women who are leaders. It's a very gender unequal society. Femicide is real. There aren't a lot of protections for girls. I have seen all that firsthand. Being around that energy inspires me too.

I could talk to you for days about many topics here but I want to wrap up with one more question. What's one book that has had an impact on the way you think, you live or any book that you want to talk about?

I looked over at my bookshelf, thinking of which ones influenced me. The one that's standing out right now is Becoming by Michelle Obama. I love the way that she connects with people. She leads and gets everything out there. She's one of those people that I'm grateful that she's gotten everything out there. I think she's going to die empty because her perspective is unique as a black woman and the way that she communicates and leads inspires me. I do classes on communication for women.

One thing I always say is that communication is kind but firm and that's exactly what she is in the way that she communicates. She is herself. She's not afraid of being her imperfect self and that's what people like about her. Her journey is inspiring to me. I can relate to her challenges of being a woman but clearly not her challenges of being a black woman in the US from the Southside of Chicago and then ending up in the White House. What a human being to grace this Earth? Her story inspires me. I have read the book and seen the Netflix show. I’m following her behind the scenes. I am inspired by her.

What a great recommendation. I have not heard that one yet, but I'm so glad that you brought that into our space. She's an amazing person because overall, she's rivaling most people I have ever seen in the White House. I can't thank you enough for coming on, Kristin. Your insights and story warm my heart to have you on here. Thank you for coming and sharing all your insights. I also want to allow you to share some contact information. Where can people find you to reach out?

Thank you so much for reading and allowing me to share. It's nice and having connections nowadays means so much. I miss the heart-to-heart conversation. I'm glad that we could just be ourselves with each other. Anybody can reach me through LinkedIn, @KristinVanBusum. That's the best way to contact me, although I'm available through any social media if you search my name on there. LinkedIn is a great way for us to connect.

I want to thank the readers for coming on this amazing journey with us. We can't do this without you. Kristin, thank you again.

Thank you so much, Tony.

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About Kristin Van Busum

Kristin has over ten years of experience as a scholar and an advocate for resilient communities. She has worked in New York City on public health initiatives to prevent obesity, helped families in need in Mexico secure stable housing, and provided counseling to incarcerated women in Indiana. Prior to founding Project Alianza, she served as Manager of Health Advisory Services at RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank. Kristin has earned degrees from Butler University and New York University and is a Fulbright Scholar.

Alianza in English means Alliance which lies at the core of who we are. We are a global community that works together to improve access to education for children like Ana in the most remote coffee-growing communities in Nicaragua. We collaborate with estate farms to build and develop schools and engage families in high-quality education that can change lives and uplift communities. We have witnessed the impact of our efforts in a short time because of generous contributions and acts of kindness from people all over the world. We've seen children read their first words, proudly wear their first school uniform, and celebrate their first commencement. We've seen kids master word games on a tablet that have never owned their own notebook or pencil. We've seen possibilities where there once was none. Although we face challenges along the way, we are inspired by the children and families we serve to continue to grow and learn and improve every day. 

We believe that through our innovative, and collaborative approach, we can play a crucial role in the eradication of child labor in coffee production in Nicaragua and beyond. With your help, we will continue to work tirelessly every day to do what we do best: transform lives through the power of education. Thank you for your support.

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