A recent New York Times article explored a challenge that many executives face: Today’s employees, especially Gen Y, are increasingly focused on finding a greater purpose in their work. Unlike prior generations who were focused simply on being employed or growing their income, this generation wants something more meaningful.
But what if your business is primarily commercial and not, well, saving the world?
I love my company, but it’s not a charity. We’re not curing disease or solving climate change. Personally, my fulfillment comes from the momentum we build as a company by hitting new milestones: hiring a certain number of employees, hitting a revenue goal, expanding to a new office or bringing on new clients. And I take pride in the fact that we’ve created almost 100 jobs through this enterprise.
The Times article described one way employees at an organization such as ours can find purpose: when they know their efforts are funding projects that give back. We found our purpose in the form of Confidence: a five-year-old girl from Benin City, Nigeria who needed life-saving heart surgery.
Hudson and Confidence
Finding the HeartGift Foundation
Earlier this year, my wife Lauren and I were invited to a cocktail party by some friends who were involved with the local chapter of the HeartGift Foundation. HeartGift’s mission is to bring children from developing countries who suffer from congenital heart defects to the United States, so they can undergo life-saving surgeries that aren’t available in their home country. The children are placed with a host family for the six-week duration of their stay, and are returned home when they have fully recovered. What we loved about the program was the opportunity to interact one-on-one with the beneficiary and see the dramatic impact personally.
About four months later, my family was signed up to host Confidence and her mother, Mary. When she was just two months old, Confidence was diagnosed with Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD) and Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA)–essentially, two holes in her heart. In Nigeria, children with this condition typically die before age 10. HeartGift Austin, in partnership with Dell Children’s Medical Center, would pay the vast majority of the $266,000 required to transport Confidence and Mary to and from Austin and to perform her surgery. The $25,000 difference was up to us to raise.
I shared our plans with my team at Software Advice, and was amazed by the reception I received. As a company, we raised $28,400: enough to cover the actual out-of-pocket expenses for Confidence's procedure. And the medical staff at Dell Children's Medical Center generously donated their time and effort throughout this process. Our employees also donated their time, visiting Confidence at the hospital and at our home. The effect the experience had on my family and my employees proved much more powerful than the financial contribution.
An Immediate Extension of Our Family
Something interesting happened almost as soon as Confidence and Mary got off the plane: despite having just met us, Mary picked up my one-and-a-half-year-old son, Stone, and held him as closely as if he were her own child. At first, we were surprised—but when she pushed her own daughter towards Lauren, we understood. Mary came from a place with a very strong sense of kinship, where mothers help raise each others’ children. Through this gesture, she was embracing us as part of her community—and right away.
During their stay at our home, Confidence and Mary participated in every meal and activity. They went to gymnastics with Stone, and ballet with my daughter, Hudson. We accompanied Confidence to her doctor’s appointments and sent her on playdates with Hudson. For six weeks, they were family.
In the first few days, we had some cultural challenges over food. Confidence and Mary asked for “melons,” and were surprised when we gave them cantaloupe: what they were really looking for was melon seeds, which are ground into a powder for making stews in Nigeria. They asked for yams, and shook their heads when we showed them yams: they were actually after yam root, again dehydrated and ground into a white powder. Luckily, we were able to connect with members of the local Nigerian community, who not only provided a familiar face, but could speak Confidence and Mary’s language (Pidgin English). And one of them happened to be the owner of a Nigerian food trailer, who prepared the traditional dishes they were hungry for.
Another interesting cultural contrast was how shocked Confidence and Mary were by my work schedule. In Nigeria, unemployment is very high, even for skilled laborers—and though both Mary and Confidence’s father want to work, they don’t have a job to go to every day. Their family often spends all day together, and they expected our family would do the same. While Mary and Confidence’s circumstances obviously bring with them significant economic hardship, they also foster an intimacy that, in our culture, isn’t easily replicated. They couldn’t fathom a father leaving his family for even eight hours. Every day I came home, Mary would say, “Hard work. Hard work.”
Confidence and Mary
Experiencing Many “Firsts”
Through Confidence and Mary’s eyes, we got to experience a lot of amazing “firsts” all over again. They didn’t know that men had landed on the moon, and our plumbing was new to them. We took Confidence to her first public playground and witnessed her first trip down a slide. And when Lauren gave Confidence a bath in hot, running water, she was so excited that she hugged the faucet.
At the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum, Confidence and Mary experienced their first theatrical movie: a 3D IMAX movie, no less. This was thrilling for them on a number of levels. The movie was about sharks, and though Confidence and Mary’s village is just three hours away from the Atlantic coast, they had never been to the ocean before. We saw the film twice—and the museum staff, upon learning about HeartGift Austin, generously offered to let future patients in for free.
Mending Her Heart
The night before Confidence's surgery, things started to feel more real. Mary was stoic, but the idea seemed a bit much for her to wrap her head around. Mary asked Lauren if she would handle the majority of the prep work Confidence needed for her surgery, and Lauren happily agreed. Looking after each others’ children had become routine.
The surgery itself was a four-hour procedure, performed by Dr. Kenneth Fox at Dell Children’s Medical Center. It was a dramatic experience for all of us. First, a complete bypass of the heart was done—meaning all the blood was drained from Confidence’s heart, and was stored in a bypass machine to keep it oxygenated during the procedure. Then, once the heart was drained, Dr. Fox went in and repaired the VSD and the PDA.
The VSD is a hole between the two bottom chambers of the heart. Dr. Fox repaired it by stitching a patch over the hole, which will become permanently secured by new tissue growth. Dr. Fox also closed off the PDA: an artery that supplies blood from mother to fetus, which is supposed to close up naturally after birth.
Left to right: Dr. Fox, Confidence and Mary after the procedure
Lauren sat with Mary the whole time, waiting for the call saying that Confidence was off bypass. This would mean that her heart was repaired, pumping blood again and beating normally. When the call finally came, there was no cheering or applause—but one tear rolled down Mary’s cheek. Stoic or not, all of us were deeply moved by what had just happened. Against all odds, Confidence could now live a long and healthy life.
Under the care of cardiologist Dr. Stewart Rowe, Confidence made a full recovery in just six days. Some of our employees visited her in the hospital and brought puzzles, books and games to help her pass the time. After being released, Confidence spent the rest of her trip seeing more of Austin’s sights, going on playdates with Stone and Hudson and exploring our neighborhood. It was remarkable to witness such a little girl make a fast and complete recovery from such a major medical procedure. It was a great indication of the future she has in store.
A Bittersweet Farewell
The day we had to say goodbye to Confidence and Mary was bittersweet. On one hand, the close-knit nature of their family meant they were eager to see Confidence’s father and the rest of their relatives back in Nigeria. And of course, they had the joy of knowing that Confidence was returning with a healthy heart and a positive prognosis.
On the other hand, they had become so much a part of our family that we felt a tangible sense of loss seeing them off. Confidence and Hudson had become particularly fast friends—the girls even referred to each other as “my sister.” We knew our home would feel a little less full when they were gone. To add to the bitterness, we were sending them back to a life far less comfortable than what they had just experienced, especially the socioeconomic problems that are troubling Nigeria. They asked us to help them find a way to come back to the U.S., but I don’t know if that’s going to be possible.
Confidence and Hudson: Fast friends
In the end, our experience with Confidence and Mary gave all of us more than just a new perspective. It changed the way we look at our daily lives, and made us feel lucky for all the little ways in which we are privileged. But perhaps most importantly, it taught us how transformative it can be to truly help another person. While it was an emotional challenge to let her go, knowing that we were able to give Confidence the gift of a long life was fulfilling.
And now I know how to give my staff a sense of purpose. Even if the work they do day-to-day isn’t saving the world, our employees can see that the revenue their efforts are generating is funding good things that truly help people. No matter how we get there, we’re making other peoples’ lives better through our company’s success. And that feels good.
After all, it’s not every day you get to save a five-year-old girl’s life.