Jill Ferguson (28) - Social entrepreneur
Her tip for women entrepreneurs
‘Be satisfied with the small steps you take, without only being focused on the next goal.’
After a glance at her resume you’d assume that she’s in her late thirties, but American entrepreneur Jill Ferguson, located in India, is only 28. A burning wish to make the world a better place, combined with a strong work ethic, has resulted in an impressive list of accomplishments.
To name but a few of her accomplishments: she was director of an NGO, she started a kite surf school that has expanded into a thriving water sports centre, and she is one of the founding members of a responsible tourism collective.
Semester at sea
“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to do something positive for the world. In grade 6, I organised a Thanksgiving dinner for homeless people. While I was studying for my bachelor’s in political science, I participated in Semester At Sea. This is an educational program that takes 1200 hundred American bachelor’s degree students on a boat trip all around the world, to improve their knowledge of all these different countries.
On one of the last days of our journey I was standing on deck listening to a speech from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He said, ‘You have seen the world now. You have seen the effects of climate change. You have seen inequality. Now it’s time to take your own initiative.’ I remember thinking: Now I am really being called to action.
“After that trip I decided to change direction. Instead of studying law, I decided to pursue a masters on a subject that would help me have more impact. That was Peace and Justice.
“How I ended up in India? I was doing fieldwork research for my masters in India, and I became increasingly involved with the country. During my study I was also already dating my boyfriend Rahul, who has Indian roots. He really wanted to return to India after he completed college. And I decided to go with him, and go to Goa.
‘Would I be able to combine conscious capitalism with socially responsible entrepreneurship?’
“Within six months we had started the Vaayu kite surf school. We started with kite surfing classes. After our first successful season we decided two things: we wanted to expand and I wanted to apply the things I had learned in my studies. That’s how Vaayu became what it is now: Vaayu Village. In addition to the surf school we’ve opened a café, a surf lifestyle shop, and a guesthouse, as well as starting our own line of clothing. We have set up an artist residency programme and opened a gallery. Events and workshops are held there too. For me Vaayu has been a test. Would I be able to combine conscious capitalism with socially responsible entrepreneurship?”
Was it successful? “We’re a start-up and haven’t yet been able to do everything we envisioned. But, we have certainly taken important first steps with Vaayu. Especially in terms of sustainability. We don’t sell pre-packaged water and don’t use any plastic.
We organise litter-clean-up campaigns on the beach and on the streets, and we host movie nights with ecological themes and hold discussions afterwards. At this moment we’re busy opening a second Vaayu. We would like the new location to be a prime example of sustainability. We’re only using recycled wood, for example.
Our Vaayu Vision Collective artist-in-residency programme has also had some wonderful results. Street art wasn’t known in Goa. During the second year of our programme, two Indian artists started making street art. They have become acquainted with the foreign artists who live in Goa. Now there are more than 20 mural paintings in North Goa.
“When we started, Vaayu was one of a few surf schools in India. Now there are more than 25. Many of the owners are originally local fishermen. They saw the sea only as a source of livelihood in terms of fishing, and weren’t focused on the larger picture. Because they are now working with the ocean in a different way, they are also concerned about nature and conservation. Many of these surf schools also organize clean-up campaigns, for example.
‘We want to make tourism – Goa’s main source of income – more sustainable’
“Besides running Vaayu, I am on the founding members of the Responsible Tourism Collective Goa. A diverse group of businesses who all share the same goal: We want to make tourism – Goa’s main source of income – more sustainable. Which criteria do you apply? And how can you make it work in the real world? We discuss these kinds of things together. We also hope to consult with the local authorities soon.
“One of the biggest problems in Goa is waste processing. The streets are littered with plastic bottles and overflowing trash bags. Raising awareness is an important first step. Foreign tourists know that throwing garbage on the street is wrong. Many Indians still have to take that step. Often they don’t realise that throwing trash onto the streets has far-reaching consequences. Furthermore, there is no proper waste-collection infrastructure. We want to help both operators and tourist find ways to work together to address this problem.”
‘Staying and working here pushed me outside of my comfort zone and help me grow as a person a lot’
The American has been running her own business for six years now. How does she look back on those years? “When I look back on my stay in India, I am most proud of my personal growth. Not that everything I did has been a success. But I kept going and was always able to get myself back on track. Staying and working here pushed me outside of my comfort zone and help me grow as a person a lot.
“In these years I’ve also learned how to be the leader I want to be. When I started Vaayu, I was 22 years old. I became a manager all of a sudden, from one day to the next. I had worked in all kinds of jobs since I was fifteen, but I had never been the boss before. In the beginning, I was certainly not the most effective manager but I learned by trial and error.
Your employees are your most valuable asset; they can make or break a project. I was raised a Catholic, and ‘servant leadership’ plays an important role in Catholicism. Though I am not a practicing Catholic any more I still appreciate the idea of ‘servant leadership’ and I try to pursue that. Being compassionate. Really listening to your employees. Stimulating and motivating them. Being someone who understands what is needed to move forward.
‘I really believe that if you decide to do something and stick with it, you can make change happen’
“I have decided that I not only want to make the world a better place, but that I also want to be a student forever. I am continually working on developing myself further. I’m not the best. I’m not the smartest. But I really believe that if you decide to do something and stick with it, you can make change happen.”
Tips for women entrepreneurs
Does she have any tips for other female entrepreneurs? “Be satisfied with the small steps you take, without only being focused on the next goal. In my opinion, that’s a typical entrepreneur’s attitude: always wanting to move on. Always having a new destination to work towards. But I would like to advise other entrepreneurs not to lose sight of the journey. Appreciate the steps you are taking as you go. Entrepreneurship is demanding. If you don’t celebrate the small successes, it’s going to be hard to keep going and you may run out of energy.”