141 The Art of Play in Entrepreneurship: Aydika James on Innovating for Social Good
Aydika James is an entrepreneur, artist and innovator who combines her talents to innovate for social good. Founder of Secret Samurai Productions, Aydika combines art, play, psychology, technology and more to create mobile marketing vehicles – including some incredible “art cars” at Burning Man through to epic social impact works like the transformation of an old WW2 ship into a giant sculptural “Art Reef” eco-dive site in the British Virgin Islands, as an ocean rehabilitation zone that stimulates the local economy and supports youth education. We talk about how to leverage play for impactful entrepreneurship.
Melinda Wittstock: Aydika, Welcome to Wings.
Aydika James: Thanks, Melinda. I’m happy to be here.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that you describe yourself as part geek, glam, and granola. Apart from my love of alliteration, it’s such a wonderful way of summing up all the sides of someone like you who is artist, adventurer, entrepreneur, so creative, such a leader in applying creativity and play to everything you do. What’s the glue that brings all of that together?
Aydika James: Oh, man. I wish I had an answer to that. I guess time. I think it’s really just time and allowing yourself to unfold. I felt I remember as a kid and a teenager really disjointed. Something that I found a lot in my writing coming out over and over was I’m every opposite of myself. I was really into dark, macabre-type stuff and then I was also the hippy girl who wanted to flounce in floral dresses through a field from time to time and put on a bonnet. It was all these different disjointed things that I couldn’t quite make any sense of.
I’m not sure where it occurred to me that I was supposed to be one thing or a combination of two things, but we’re all such onions. I think we all have so many different types of interests and some of them just come out of the blue like, “Why don’t I do pottery all of a sudden? I don’t know. It just interests me.” When we let ourselves explore all the different sides and go after the things that are curious to us in the world, the picture that ourselves it starts to come together. At some point, it starts to build a coherence and maybe that point is just the point at which we stop trying to make a coherence out of it and realize that we just have a lot of different interests. That took me time ’cause I thought that for a long time.
Melinda Wittstock: The reason I ask the question is because there is a coherence in you and I confess to everybody listening Aydika and I know each other because we’re both members of an entrepreneurial group call Maverick. What’s so beautiful about how you show up in the world, Aydika, is that all these different facets of you do seem coherent.
It is funny, though, because when we look back on our lives there are different periods where we’re maybe only one of those things or at least exhibiting only one of those things. When they all start to come together, I have a theory that that’s when women and men really hit their stride in entrepreneurship. Some of the most innovative companies come from that seemingly contradictions in terms or chocolate-peanut butter moments where you combine different facets and that’s where the magic happens.
Melinda Wittstock: That was the method of the madness of my awkward first question, but I really do see you being able to hold all of those things at the same time, which is very inspiring to me.
Aydika James: Oh, thank you. That’s really awesome to hear. I think embracing whatever we consider to be our inner dork also helps a lot too. Seeing that things change. Our perspective of ourselves change, but the world changes. I’m half Japanese and I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I grew up in the eighties basically. Being half Japanese was about as opposite of cool as possible at that time.
I was chubby and I was dorky. I liked to sing and dance and do all kinds of stuff that cool kids don’t do. Then, I was like, “Oh, man. Being dorky is lame. Kids don’t like that.” My one saving grace was that I could draw. If you wanted a unicorn or a spaceship or whatever it was that you wanted, I could draw it for you. That gave me an in with some of the cool kids and then I tried to act as cool as possible and be what my version of cool was, which I’m sure I failed miserably. I managed to have sort of a semblance of friends and then I would go home and do my weird, dorky things. I made all kinds of movies solo where I would play 10 different characters and just a lot of stuff that I would hide away.
Fast forward a couple decades, it’s funny right now being half-Japanese is all the rage. I just had an email thread with my sister and my mom congratulating her for having the foresight to create such designer babies. Nothing about me has changed. It’s just the world’s perception has changed.
As I went through a period in my 20s when I realized I guess I’m an entrepreneur because I keep starting businesses. Doesn’t mean they’re all going great, but I can’t not do this. I got really hard and very serious and my version of what I needed to be was super sleek and chic and bad-ass, cut all my hair off. I was good at that and I actually loved that character. It was a really fun, Jane Bond character to play, but I missed the dorkiness a little bit. I was trying to keep that a separate thing of the past.
Then, I found that what was funny was when I got closer to people, I started hearing the same thing from friends who I did get close to. They’re like, “Man, I totally didn’t have you pegged right. I was really intimidated by you because you’re such a serious person, but you actually have this goofy side.” I was like, “Aw. That actually makes me sad.” That makes me sad that they didn’t see that ’cause in my head, I’m still this weird, little stuffed animal bouncing around and I don’t want to let that go because that character makes me really happy. In fact, that character makes me happier than this bad-ass woman in a power suit. She’s just a role I get to play, but she’s not who I am.
Having the reinforcement of being able to open up and seeing that people liked that person and related to that person more, that was actually a struggle and a journey but it’s been really fun. It’s been more and more fun just to get comfortable and to be like, “Okay, this is who I am. I’m super weird. I’m super goofy and I can be a sleek, bad-ass.” None of it’s got to be the end all be all.
Melinda Wittstock: Well, this is so interesting that contextual nature of what role to play when and how to maintain our authenticity in all of that. We talk a lot on this podcast about what it’s like to step into our authentic, feminine power. With so many women really not having a lot of female role-models in entrepreneurship, so many of our role-models have been men. It’s very tempting to when you put on your entrepreneurial hat for many women is to act in a way that’s a lot more in our archetypal, masculine energy.
Aydika James: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: What was your evolution in this in terms of your early role-models say for entrepreneurship and trying to figure out how to show up as a woman or how to be feminine but also powerful at the same time?
Yeah. Man, that’s the topic of our generation. This is a fascinating one that I’m so interested to see what future generations go through because we’re in this weird awkward period I think and I think we’re just starting to come out of it. We are one of the first generations in history that doesn’t have to mate to survive. We can hunt. We can gather. We can each do that independently.
With the women’s revolution, I grew up in an environment where my mom was the breadwinner and my dad was the entrepreneur. That was my role-model and that was my association was mom wore the suit and she worked her booty off and I barely saw her. When she came home, she was exhausted. My dad had a video production company and in the beginning, it brought him great joy and he was so excited to finally find something that he was really passionate about. I grew up watching him grow that company and then seeing it really struggle and go through all different kinds of phases.
Eventually, I spent a lot of time in that office and that was one of my first jobs was working in the back room and then working on sets. I didn’t really think too much about it. It was just what I did, but in hindsight, I really loved it. I loved being around that energy, around that creative spirit. I saw that my dad did his own thing and he did his own thing that he loved. Even though he really struggled with it, he was happy. He was excited to go to his office that he created with his team of people that he hired. That had a culture.
My mom went to this corporate job that she hated in many ways. She loved the intellectual stimulation, but she wasn’t happy when she came home. She was exhausted and when the company was making choices that she didn’t align with, there was zero she could do about it. I think something about that just psychologically just struck a chord in me where I wanted to be happy and I wanted to play and I wanted to be in an environment where I could shift the ways things were going and make a difference in other people’s lives and in my own life.
My dad was really that kind of role model and I think that just having a male role model … I’ve gravitated towards men a lot as friends for quite some time. I’m really excited to have a growing group of amazing women in my life who I call dear friends. It’s really only been the last eight years that I have a lot of awesome women that I’m really close to.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, my God. That’s so true for me too! Women even used to call me … God, it was some big insult. I used to be called ‘male-identified’ because so many of my friends were dudes in my 20s and 30s. I think it’s just ’cause I was perceived as just really ambitious. I was going out into the world. I wanted to do big things. Like you, I had a male role model, my father, who was an entrepreneur and had his own business and all of that and two older brothers. So, you’re always trying to compete with them and that sort of thing.
Yeah, how curious. I remember being very much in my own masculine energy. It’s only in relatively recent times that I’ve started to just get much softer edges and more in balance between the masculine and the feminine. As I’ve done that, suddenly I have these amazing, strong women as my dearest friends. But, that’s relatively new.
I’m curious what’s going on because I know so many other “strong women” who are like that. That all of a sudden now it’s-
Aydika James: Yep. Yep. That’s such a consistency too. I know so many women who they only had guy friends for the longest time. I love that we’re aware of this and that we’re having these conversations because we are in open territory where we now have the freedom to be whatever we are and that’s a new species of woman and of man that existed before and there’s no role-models for that. I think our original role-models, at least in the Western world, for a woman who’s self-empowered was a woman who acted masculine or looked masculine. Look at Rosie the Riveter.
When I even think about my parent’s influence my dad was very much a guy, but he was also a creative. He has a creative, feminine, mothering energy to him. Whereas my mom was very masculine in her nature, very hard, very laser-focused on what happened. My role model of a woman was a very masculine energy because she was that breadwinner. The association unconsciously I think was to provide you must be masculine. To create, you get to be feminine.
You can throw all of that away and just start from scratch, but it is really interesting to look at what types of energies did your parents represent. Regardless of their gender or their sexual-preference, what type of energy did they represent because there is some association that you have there. Is that an energy that feels like what you want to be living right now? There’s nothing wrong with being a masculine woman, but if you feel like something’s missing, how do you go back and explore that?
Something I think is really interesting right now, Wonder Woman. The new Wonder Woman, I loved that movie, and I loved the casting because that Wonder Woman is so powerful and … She’s Wonder Women, right? She’s a bad-ass and she’s so feminine. The expression in her eyes, she just oozes compassion, and she’s got this really beautiful, feminine form of strength. I don’t know how to explain it other than that, but she really seems like the epitome of this is a woman who I do identify as very feminine, and she’s really powerful. I love that role that she expresses.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, my goodness. Me too. I love that movie. Yes. I know exactly what you mean and it’s really funny when I hear you talking about what were the energies of your parents. It jogs something in me right now of remembrance of my Aunt Bea. Bea was Canada’s first female stockbroker in the 60s, which is a huge deal. She figured out how to create her own market. She went to other women who were either retired or maybe divorced or widowed or whatever and got them interested in the stock market and investing. She educated them and she got to the point where she, by the late 70s, actually mid-70s, she was the top performer in her firm with a completely untapped market that none of the dudes had thought to approach.
Now, the thing about Bea though, is that she had had this amazingly successful career, but she never married and she never had kids. I remember people talking about her as if, “Oh, how sad.” She’s this spinster. Do you remember that word? There was this whole narrative in my head around, “Oh, if you’re really successful like that, well, maybe a man won’t like you or want you or whatever.”
I think that fear held women back for so long because they were so afraid of overshadowing their man. I wonder to what extent that little nugget, that little fear of success still resides in us or in a collective unconscious or something around that when we step up to be entrepreneurs. What do you think about that?
Aydika James: Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah. This stuff is so muddled. It’s such a deep meta layer.
Aydika James: It’s made it really difficult for men to be in relationships with us too. I really struggled being in … I would say power struggles are the biggest thing that’s come up in my relationship. I absolutely love my partner. We’ve been together seven years right now, but so much of our journey together has been about this very topic. I want him to cherish me. I want him to hold the door for me and I didn’t realize I love those things.
There was a period in my life where I was like, “I’m going to get my own door.” I was like, “I can get my own chair.” I found those things offensive. Where did that come from? Now, I get annoyed sometimes, but then at the same time I’m like, “But, don’t ever tell me what to do.” He’s had this push-pull energy of, “Are you going to be the man or are you … What do you want?” Of course, I think the feminine in me is like, “I don’t know. You’re just supposed to know.”
I was really thinking about that. What do I want? What are some of the negative associations that I’ve had around what being feminine are? Those are things I had to dig up and thinking about that and being in a relationship with somebody that I really love and I love this partnership, you have to find a balance. We talked about it amongst ourselves as masculine/feminine energy. Again, just really talking about certain personality types, certain ways of approaching things. None is better than the other, but for them to be in harmony, there needs to be a balance between the two.
Aydika James: In my youth, I think I was a misogynist, to be honest. I associated femininity with being weak, with being powerless, with being aimless and ambitionless, with just giving up and wanting to have a whole bunch of babies and be a homemaker. Not only that, having a whole bunch of babies and being a homemaker was shameful. Why would anybody want to do that?
Now, it’s been interesting because that was one of the nuggets that I realized that was ugly to have that perspective. I have some amazing women friends who are brilliant and powerful and sharp and have chosen to have families and to put their energy into that. Holy cow, it takes a ton of energy to be a good parent. I don’t have children at this time, but man, it takes all the energy I have just to be a good partner and to have my own life. To see that, I’ve really had a change of perspective of ultimately they’re happy. This is what they want. This is what inspires them. This is what gives them the life that they want. That’s cool.
Something about being okay with that shifted how I was thinking about myself and this urgency to prove that I wasn’t that homemaker: I realized, “Wow, it’s been about proving and who am I trying to prove anything to anymore?” All of these options are great. It’s really just about what makes you happy. That was a big shift for me. Like, “Man, why am I doing these things? What really makes me happy?”
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. Gosh, it’s so true. It’s interesting though. This whole interplay between men and women where just what you were saying a little bit earlier about multiple desires. Okay, you want the man to be strong and open doors, but on the other hand, it’s, “Wait a minute. I can do all this myself.” It must be confusing as hell for guys as well as I think about this in terms of relationships, but I also think it’s office interplay on teams and stuff because nobody really knows how to show up. It’s such an interesting time particularly as women now with ‘Me Too’ and all these things, really finding our voices and our confidence and how we can show up in a way to really elevate men as well.
Melinda Wittstock: The more honest, the more we get these things on the table, the easier it is and the better the corporate and start-up cultures we can create and all of that.
So, I want to segue, Aydika, into all the amazing things that you’re doing. In the introduction to the podcast, I referred to the BVI Art Reef project, which is an astonishing achievement and I want you to take me through how that little germ of an idea actually connected on Necker Island with Richard Branson, and what’s come of it, and what’s coming next. Take me through that a little bit and I also want to talk about so many other things besides. Let’s kick off with the BVI Art Reef because that’s such a massive accomplishment.
Aydika James: That was a bizarrely serendipitous project. We’d done a number of engagement art pieces prior to that and what we call engagement art is something that had been more and more of a focus in my world. It started just as a side thing that we did for fun.
Usually, We go to Necker Island every year for the annual Maverick trip and this is one year where we decided that we were not going to travel. We were going to take three months to stay home and not go anywhere so that we could focus on exactly what we wanted to be doing. We both felt like we were just not inspired with the stuff we were doing.
We got a call one day right before Necker started and Sophia said, “We just had a cancellation. You guys want to go?” We looked at our schedule and realized that we’d have to jump on a flight that day if we were going to go. We were like, Why is this so appealing?” but we couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I went for a walk. He went to the shop and worked on some stuff. We came back a couple hours later and said, “Okay, what’s your decision? What’s your gut say?” We looked at the roster of who was going to be there and I looked at Mike and said, “You know what? We know these people. We love these people. I can’t tell you that we’re going to go on this trip and have a new business breakthrough or create new partnerships, what I can tell you is that we’re going go and deepen relationships with people that we really love.” He said, “Okay, let’s do it.”
We went and packed our bags and flew there last second. I went there and I was like, “Man, what are we doing here?” We’re on this beautiful island and I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I love the ocean so much. I’d always wanted to get into ocean conservation somehow. I’d wanted to somehow find a way to fuse art and ocean conservation. I had no idea that that was going to look like.
In one of the business sessions every year Unite BVI or one of the Virgin groups comes up and they present a challenge to our group mainly as a think tank brainstorm so we can come up with ideas around global issues or social issues. After a half a week of thinking about how do I fuse ocean conservation with art, they presented a series of challenges that had to do number one with a derelict old ship that was discovered in a shipyard in Tortola about to get scrapped for metal that happened to be one of only five surviving ships from Pearl Harbor. It was about to get destroyed and they were just saying, “What do we do about this? How do we save this ship and how do we do something useful with it?”
Another one of the challenges was around some of the marine and coral issues. As we all know, the coral die-off is a very grim situation and the BVI is really seeing that. There’s some effect of that which is Goliath Grouper, which is an 800-pound fish that’s being over-fished. How do we protect that fish without putting a ban on the fishing and negatively affect the income of the fisherman that depend on them?
The third challenge was the youth and their relationship with the ocean. A huge majority of the BVI population doesn’t know how to swim. Most kids don’t know how to swim. These are kids that live on islands, take ferries from island to island every day with their parents, and they have no relationship with what’s under the water of this beautiful, pristine sea that they’re really here to be the best stewards of as their island nation.
I’m listening to all these challenges and I’m like, “Oh, man. It’s an art reef. How do we solve all of these problems with one platform?” So, I started sketching the ship with a giant sculpture on top that happened to be a Kraken sculpture in the original sketch which is that giant, fantasy octopus creature. Started looking at smart-sensor technology to accelerate the pace of our understanding of what’s happening to these coral reefs and designing the sculpture as a coral out-planting platform so we can start rehabilitating the coral reefs and use art to create an audacious, crazy dive site that will attract people from around the world to help boost ecotourism economy and to sink this as a protected marine area because it’s a dive site.
All these thoughts kept coming to me and Mike was thinking the same thing. We’re whispering to each other in the corner. He came up with the smart-sensor idea and ultimately all these pieces came into place about how we can design one thing that would solve all these challenges. Engineer it in a way that would rehabilitate the Goliath Grouper and do it in a way that’s about play and about fun and something that would get kids to want to get in the water to see this crazy thing that’s in their backyard.
We broke into groups and we brainstormed around this. I did some sketches. We go and present our ideas at the end of it and there was this … The goofy reward was whoever has the best idea gets to become a resident of Necker Island. Our idea won and that was really exciting, but I was like, “Man, this isn’t a thought experiment. We could do this.” I have no idea how to do it. I have no idea how to buy a ship or sink a ship or build a sculpture that big, but it’s doable. All the pieces are out there and there are people who do know how to do every aspect of that.
I could just see it so clearly in my head and so could Mike that we were all pretty fired up about it. I think something about that excitement, about using play to solve all of these challenges and legitimately have a stab at making an impact. Not just generating awareness, but actually doing something in the oceans excited the group as well. We ended up having a little pool there and raising some of the foundation money to save the ship just as a way to get this project started.
We raised it on the spot within that group. Hands went up around the room – people putting in $10,000 here; $10,000 there. Then, we had enough for the seed funding just to get going. So, I looked at Mike and he looked at me and we’re like, “Well, I guess we’re going to do this.” That’s how it started.
Melinda Wittstock: I love this little project because it really does lead to so much inspiration in terms of what companies can do around creating amazing cultures, involving play, but also just having this artistry and this entrepreneurial spirit applied to solving some of the world’s most intractable problems.
Just bravo. It’s amazing. So, where does it go next?
Aydika James: Yeah. The BVI Art Reef is sunk off Virgin Gorda. So, she’s underwater. The materials that we used, these kinds of projects they make you ask all kinds of questions that you were never expecting to ask. Like, how long does an 85 foot long scaled tentacle weigh? What the types of materials do you want to use?
[tweet_box design=”box_12_at” float=”none” author=”Aydika James – Founder, Secret Samurai Productions” pic_url=”https://www.melindawittstock.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Aydika-James-on-WINGS-Podcast.jpg”]When you look at any real-world challenge that’s out there, social, physical, anything, we know we have the pieces to solve them. Hunger, education, all the resources are out there, it’s just assembling the right puzzle pieces and getting people to rally around a shared vision. #WINGSPodcast #WomeninBusiness[/tweet_box]
This was, I think, one of the most inspiring projects of my life because what I realized was that it’s all just puzzle assembly. When you look at any real-world challenge that’s out there, social, physical, anything, we know we have the pieces to solve them. Hunger, education, all the resources are out there, it’s just assembling the right puzzle pieces and getting people to rally around a shared vision.
That was the real takeaway that I had around this was what made this work was that we created a vision that people could fall in love with. There was something that touched on so many different issues but was cohesive enough that we can naturally allow the world’s best players to emerge. Whether it was something about the world history like in this example, world history of the ship was what attracted some of our best partners. For some people, it was the coral rehabilitation. For some people, it was the youth swim education component. For some people, it was the eco-tourism. It had so many different touch-points around a shared vision that it really made me think about what can we do next.
Knowing now that collaboration is arguably one of our greatest powers as human beings, our ability to collaborate and exponentially transform the amount of impact we can have that’s often stimulated by play. We could have made a sad war memorial out of the ship, which, with all due respect, could have been beautiful, but there’s a lot of sad war memorials out there for this war. What we wanted was a message of joy and regeneration and unity and what’s possible when people rally together. That joy message, keeping everything pro, it just naturally rallied a tremendous amount of energy and people wanting to be part of this project.
I love the ocean. It’s my happy place and regardless of that, it’s also our lifeline. One out of every two breaths that we take, that oxygen is provided by the ocean. There’s so much of our livelihood, whether you live in the desert or on the coastline, that depends on the ocean and it’s getting really critical now. This isn’t questionable. We have some major concerns. I think a lot of the messaging out there around these issues is really grim and it’s a bummer. Even people who would care if they had a relationship with it, they turn their ear ’cause you don’t want to hear sad news.
How do we express what’s going on in a way that just starts with getting people to fall in love with the ocean? Then, given the facts about how much that provides and then tell them where we’re at. We’re really looking at taking the concepts of the BVI Art Reef project and scaling it. First, starting with how do we give the world something they can fall in love with and how do we make that something that’s economically self-funding once it’s created.
I think the charity-model, if you really want to make change in industry and change in decisions that impact global issues, you can’t have to keep raising funds for things. I think charity’s great for starting an engine, but then we need to make sure those engines feed themselves so we can take that money that’s going to be raised and put it into something else.
I’m working on a project right now. It’s in development phase. I can’t say the name just yet, but, hopefully, I will be able to very soon. It’s with a really amazing family foundation that reached out to us that was following the BVI Art Reef project and reached out to us this year with interest in our help in designing a project that would help them get their youth program involved in ocean conservation issues through art. That’s what we’re working on right now, but this is something that we’re really, really excited about because kids love to play. You don’t have to remind kids to play. They haven’t forgotten yet.
We’re looking at something that the kids could actually co-create. They could vote on. They could design on. They could have their hand on something that would go under the sea and you’d be able to see the names on the countries of all the kids who actually created this coral restoration site. Again, to use it as a crazy, Disney-like, fantasy dive site to attract people from all over the world. The thing that’s really exciting about creating artificial art reefs that are like their own eco-adventure, with chambers to go inside, is that divers are very much an if-you-build-it-they-will-come-type audience. They expect to fly across the world to dive a cool site. If they see one they haven’t dove yet, they got to do it.
[tweet_box design=”default” float=”none”]Focusing on youth, it’s something that’s new on my radar right now, but I’m realizing how powerful it is. Number one, that it’s fun.[/tweet_box]
To create something that naturally has an opportunity to support the local host region through boosting their eco-tourism and then again to funnel some of those funds back towards coral restoration and to youth education, that’s really exciting. Focusing on youth, it’s something that’s new on my radar right now, but I’m realizing how powerful it is. Number one, that it’s fun. You get to be around kids who are super fired up about stuff and have the coolest ideas because they don’t know what they’re not supposed to think. And, number two, what we’re really doing is raising a generation of global stewards and giving them an opportunity to see and witness their personal impact on something that makes a legitimate difference and then to grow up with that mindset.
I think that’s the mindset that is the most exciting thing about this because their generation a lot of the people have had the, “Well, what can I do?” mindset. If you give kids an opportunity to collaborate and see, “Man, look at this reef? I made this little art piece that went onto that. As this reef grows, I’m growing. Physically we’re growing together and someday I want to go get in the ocean and see that.”
This is a way to get kids from landlocked areas to want to go play in the ocean. This could be the ocean, this could be any other issue. It’s just been really fun to think through this. It’s like, “Okay, collaboration, puzzle assembly, and play.”
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, I see this as being a replicable business model of sorts. It’s also for social good because on one hand you’re teaching entrepreneurs how to play and be creative and, on the other hand, you’re teaching kids entrepreneurial skills and they can have a real impact. Then, there are multiple revenue streams that literally lifts all boats if you will, even though we sank one. It really does. It’s a beautiful and inspiring model for going forward.
My profound thanks and for all that you are doing with this amazing creativity and play and intuition and joy. It’s just marvelous to see.
Aydika, when was it that you … You mentioned your dad was an entrepreneur, when did you decide that actually there was this thing called being an entrepreneur you were going to be one?
Aydika James: Well, I was informed I was one when I was 17.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay.
Aydika James: I said, “What’s that?”
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, ’cause I don’t even know what the word was. I was one, very early on, but I couldn’t even pronounce the word.
Aydika James: Yeah, I was like, “You’re going to make me spell what? What?”
Technically I was more of a service person, a self-employed person than I was an entrepreneur at the time, but it really planted a seed and that was when I had a booth at the Saturday market doing hair wraps and hippy jewelry. I ended up doing that because … I went to community college. I basically graduated through high school via community college. I left high school at the age of 16, so I was really over the binge and purge education system and then went to community college instead. So, I got to hang out with some people that were in their wise, older years of their 20s.
There was a hippy friend of mine who had a booth at the Saturday market and he said, “Hey, want to make some cash?” I was like, “Okay, cool. That sounds fun.” He taught me how to do hair wraps and so we had this booth. There was a lot of competition there so I had the idea that what if we go and just buy a bunch of cookies and feed people cookies and sing to them or tell them stories. Our shtick was: eat cookies while we tell you stories and wrap your hair. We were booked constantly.
I paid $50 a weekend for a little booth spot and I think I walked away from every weekend with anywhere from $400 – $800 in cash, which at the time I was like, “This is amazing.” We made our own hours. We had a blast. We entertained people.
Sparky was the name of my friend. I actually don’t remember his real name, but he turned to me one day. He said, “You are an entrepreneur and you probably always will be.” I said, “What is that?” So, he explained to me what it was and he also told me I was a writer. He informed me of these things as a fact. I’m still grateful to him because I knew that I liked to write, and my dad told me I was a writer, but he informed me. He said, “I know that you’re a writer and tell me if this isn’t true. Are you someone who will grab any piece of paper, any napkin, any pen, any crayon, any anything at a moment’s whim when you have a thought and an idea because you have to get it out?” I was like, “Yeah, I guess I do that all the time.” He was like, “You have to do it, right? You have to write.” I was like, “Oh, I do have to write.”
There was all these things that we do that you don’t think about until somebody points it out to you, but he planted that seed for me. I looked up what an entrepreneur was and I made the relationship that, “Oh, that’s what my dad is doing.” I think that was really inspiring and the first thing that I associated it with was freedom. Begin an entrepreneur means I have the freedom to do what I want to be doing with my life and to stop doing this [inaudible 01:03:08] life. [inaudible 01:03:12] always that easy, but you make that choice. [inaudible 01:03:17] make that choice.
For me anyway, it boils down to freedom. I need to be able to feel like I can guide my own life and never feel powerless.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful motivation to be an entrepreneur and it’s interesting right now because our society is changing so fast that whether people know it or not, they really do need to develop entrepreneurial or at least intrapreneurial skills.
Do you know, Aydika, that 40% of the American workforce by 2020 is going to be a gig worker? That’s like going from gig to gig to gig essentially self-employed, freelance, the whole gig economy. It’s wonderful because there’s tremendous freedom in it and, on the other hand, there’s also tremendous responsibility. You really are your own boss. You need to be able to learn these skills. I think the interest in entrepreneurship is correlating with that.
So, how do we deal with the psychology of it and some of the things we were talking before in terms of how we show up, how we get past our fear, and how we really embrace change as a positive thing. Embrace the uncertainty even as a way to grow rather than something to be afraid of.
As we start to wrap up the interview, how do you tackle a lot of those things as you’ve gone through your entrepreneurial journey and we become more and more familiar and accepting of them? We just take them for granted after a while. You’ve been an entrepreneur for many, many years, but for people starting out, or in the early phases of this, what are some of the things that you would tell them that could save them a little bit of time? They wouldn’t have all the scraped knees that I suspect that you and I know I definitely have around these issues.
Aydika James: Yeah, I guess number one know it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be really hard and it’s going to be so fun and so … It’s going to be throw out every possible emotion word ever created in all languages, it’s going to be all of those things. You don’t have to do it. You can stop that journey at any point in time and go on a different journey, but you know, I think, you’re an entrepreneur when it doesn’t matter how hard it gets, it’s still non-negotiable. You’re like, “No. I’m going to do it and if this isn’t the business then it’s going to be another one.”
There may be periods where you need to take a breather. I know so many people, including myself that at some point after a failure or an exit that didn’t go well or whatever it is, they take a salary job and there’s this period where you’re like, “Oh, my God. I know exactly how much I’m going to make every month and this is so nice just to not have to be responsible for everything.” Eventually, it’s going to drive you crazy and you’re going to need to create something.
It’s just going to be a ride and that’s part of it. I think when you go into it knowing this is going to be freaking hard and really joyful and you’re going to meet some of the most amazing people in your life ’cause you have to create partnerships based on trust. It’s just so worth it. Have people around you that understand that. Find people. Listen to people. If there’s nobody in your areas, find podcasts like this ’cause you’re so not alone. You’re not alone at all and your journey, as unique as you think …
Now, I’m speaking like I know anything. I’m saying this based on the same thing I’ve been through that I’ve heard so many other people been through. Whatever you’re going through, there’s probably people who’ve done it five times before they had their first accept.
Let’s say the other thing that I can’t emphasize enough is keep revisiting what success means to you. What does that word mean to you? Is it lifestyle-based? Is it how much free time you have? Is it based on money? If it’s based on money, what do you want that money for? Nothing is ever based on money. Money is a means to something. Just keep revisiting that and your definition of success will change. That’s cool. That’s [inaudible 01:07:45].
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, gosh. It’s so true. Aydika, what a wonderful interview. I so enjoyed talking to you. I want to thank you for putting on your wings and taking flight and lifting all of us up along with you. Thank you.
Aydika James: Oh, thank you for this podcast, Melinda. It’s really exceptional. As I mentioned, this is now my new favorite podcast and you’ve just brought in some amazing women sharing the really honest, awesome stuff. Kudos to you. Thank you.