This article was part of our series "30 Days of Made: Giving Back." In an effort to create social change, each day we will highlight one charity or non-profit organization, and provide information on how you can support them by giving back. Click here to read more!
We made it! Day 30 of our 30 Days of Made: Giving Back! It’s been a month’s worth of inspiration, learning about the change being created around the world by caring individuals. Equally inspiring has been talking to a whole different niche of entrepreneurs, those in the nonprofit sector. People like our Made Woman of the Month, Keren Taylor who started WriteGirl—an organization which uses writing to prepare young girls for college. On the last day of our initiative, I got the chance to talk to another one of these entrepreneurs. Ajay Relan is an L.A. based go-getter, who in the midst of running a few businesses (including the Parlor, a Westside favorite) started the social media version of “pay it forward”: Hashtag Lunchbag.
If you hadn’t heard, Hashtag Lunchbag is made up of pockets of people give back in an easy and fun way. Ajay started it all here in L.A. but it has since spread to other cities. Their “giving back” story starts off the way most do, with a group of friends who want to do something small but significant. Check out the interview below:
What inspired you to start Hashtag Lunchbag?
Hashtag Lunchbag started on Christmas 2012, with a group of us just in our living room. A buddy of mine and I have an apartment here in L.A. We were looking for a way to give back, and in true L.A. fashion we kind of procrastinated a little bit with all the planning. Another friend of ours—whenever she would get down, she would just lift someone else up. She would prepare a small amount of lunches and go to the Santa Monica beach and pier by herself and pass them out. She would share her experience on Facebook and it was always an inspiration for us.
What was your role in starting the nonprofit?
Christmas is a day people typically think to get involved or volunteer and do something outside themselves, so that’s kind of what we did. Basically, I went to the grocery store and bought a hundred lunches worth of food. And it was a kick-ass meal that I would have been totally stoked to get as a seventh-grader: sandwich, fruit snacks, fruit, Capri-Suns, chips, some Hersey’s Kisses. We went back home, put on some music, popped a little bottle of champagne—some of our friends were over—and we just got to making sandwiches. And over the course of the morning, we had gotten some phone calls —typical “Merry Christmas” calls—and sooner or later we had five people in the living room and we were all just having a good time. If there is anything we know how to do it’s have a good time. We made a hundred lunches, wrote little Christmas notes on the bag themselves, went down to the pier and passed them out.
MW: That’s awesome. How has social media help spread the word about Hashtag Lunchbag?
In today’s fashion, you share what you are doing on social media. At the time I had just started my Instagram, but some of the other guys already had a pretty substantial following. So, everyone shared what we did—posted photos and videos. We just called it Hashtag Lunchbag, primarily because it rhymed…We always made fun of hashtags and how people just misuse them all the time. We got all this narley feedback—calls, text, likes, comments. People were like “Omg, I’ve never heard of this thing. Let me know when you do it next time.” And we were like “We aren’t a thing, we are just some guys trying to do something good.” So, we decided that we did have a good time and we did want to do it again. We ran it back a month later, at the end of January. We thought we would have like ten people at our house. We made double the lunches we had the first time and we did the same exact thing, except this time one of the guys shot a very short, GoPro video. And we put it up on YouTube. Someone in our network retweeted it and they had a hundreds of thousands of followers. So we thought we should probably build a website, just in case. So we put it up, just our story and then as a step by step guide on how you could do it yourself.
MW: What encouraged you to continue doing this on top of all our other projects?
Well, we got a ton of feedback again and we decided to do it again. So February, the following month, happened to be my birthday, and I own a restaurant/bar in West Hollywood. So I thought, let’s just do this for my birthday. I said this is what I want to do, I want to do is set this crazy goal of making a thousand of these things, let’s see how many people we can get to come out, and then we’ll just go down to skid row, because that’s where the need is. Long story short we had about a hundred people show up. A hundred people with various followings all shared it with their networks. And the rest is history.
MW: How many cities are you guys in now?
Now we are in over 76 cities all over the world… We filed for a 501(c)(3), and become an official nonprofit organization, called the Living Through Giving Foundation. We like rhyme over here. On the surface, it’s kind of a happy accident. As much as it is about feeding homeless people at the core of it, what we really have found is a simple and fun way for people to organize a small community wherever they are, and do something that is outside of our daily routine. And that creates gratitude for what we do have. It just makes life a lot more beautiful.
MW: What brands or companies have you partnered with?
We just shot a national campaign with Wells Fargo, in collaboration with their new mobile app that will be live in a couple weeks. That’s our first corporate sponsorship, with a few more that have kind of popped up.
MW: How often do you host the local events?
We here in LA— the home team, if you will—host our events the last Sunday of every single month. And we’ve done that every month since 2012. That’s kind of like the platform that re-ignites our momentum, even though there are several movements: there are several churches that host their own Hashtag Lunchbag events. A monthly event every second weekend in Leimert Park. New York has several groups—they are a flagship, Phoenix has a huge following, San Diego, Vancouver, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta. All these cities have consistently been a part of it. No matter how big or small, our goal is to be in every minute, of every day, everywhere; until an issue like hunger no longer exists.
In high school I came up with a master plan for my life. I was going to excel academically and participate in extracurricular activities so that I could get into a good college. And the plan worked! But sadly, in my youthful shortsightedness, I didn’t plan beyond getting there, and soon found myself in a sea of too many options. I didn’t feel too bad though--everyone around me was feeling the same way…lost. I eventually figured it out and years later, as a working twenty-something, I realize these periods of feeling lost are cyclical. At different times in our lives we find our master plans don’t stretch far enough and we are unsure of our next steps. This is where life coaches like Nailah Blades come in.
Naliah Blades is a certified life coach who started Polka Dot Coaching after going through her own period of feeling adrift and unsure. She graduated from USC with a degree in Communication and ended up working in sales and marketing for a packaging company. Finding herself stuck in a career that didn’t quite fit, Nailah did some soul-searching and realized that when she thought about what she loved doing, she always came back to mentoring others. It hit her that her true calling would mean becoming a life coach--or as she calls it, “a clarity-maker for young women who are teetering on the edge of greatness.”
But what does this really mean? Is “Life coaching” just a new-age term for therapy? Does she show up to her clients’ jobs and cheer them on as they work? How do life coaches really operate? It seems like more people are using the services of life coaches and choosing this as a career path. The industry itself is booming. A study in the 2007 MarketData Report estimates that 40,000 people in the U.S. work as business or life coaches and the $2.4 billion business coaching market is growing at about 18% per year. When I got the chance to pick Nailah’s brain about it I had so many questions. She explained that while therapy deals with understanding your current state of emotions and the causes from your past making you feel a certain way, life coaching is all about moving forward. “My clients are saying I’m here now, how do I move forward? And I say let’s work on a plan to get you there” she tells me. Nailah hosts intense exploratory and planning sessions with her clients, asking them things like “What is your business vision? What problems are you solving?” She also has programs specifically tailored towards entrepreneurs which she calls “catapult sessions.”
Once Nailah explained exactly what a life coach does, I realized how helpful this type of counseling is to people of all ages. A professional perspective on life goals and planning could be so helpful in getting you closer to your dreams. “I get excited because I can see the potential in my clients from the first session even if they can’t,” she says. She takes on about 10 clients per month and works one-on-one with them for about three months. She says the length of time is important so that they aren’t rushed and it allows them to “understand who they are at their core. We brush this aside but it’s really important.” Once clients reach that “ah ha!” moment she doesn’t leave them to figure out the rest on their own, but instead goes on to make sure her clients have a really clear, strategic plan to get their careers on the right path. Her clients are mostly female because she caters to ambitious, driven women who just need an extra boost to get ahead of the game. “I can see that they are totally vibrant in their lives, they just need a little clarity.”
Some might wonder what they can learn from another twenty-something about getting ahead. But when you get to speak to Nailah, you realize she is absolutely fearless and her ability to communicate and encourage is so motivating I even felt empowered after our interview. The girl is good. And she is gaining a name for herself in her industry. She recently hosted a Fierce Leadership Summit in LA, gathering young women from many industries together and delving into what it means to take on a leadership role in the modern workplace. Nailah says that this topic is important to her because she believes “true leadership begins from within and radiates outward. You have to know yourself to be a good leader.” She says her mission now is to help women connect and feel comfortable with their own innate greatness, “That is when you are able to lead from an authentic place.” This is just a little taste of the truth she dished out regularly throughout our conversation. And her insights have helped so many already. In fact, her mission and work with Polka Dot Coaching was so in line with the goals of Made Woman Magazine she became regular contributor to our magazine.
A strong leader herself, Nailah took the plunge and became a full time entrepreneur about a year ago. She left her corporate job, where she worked with brands like Cheerios, General Mills and Dole, and devoted her days and nights to making Polka Dot Coaching grow. “It was hard to even walk into my boss’ office and tell him the news. But once I did I felt so much lighter.” Leaving behind a life path that did not inspire her changed the way she views life overall, even though not everyone was supportive at first. “People didn’t get it. But you have to find your support system” she explains. She went on to create measurable goals for herself based on milestones for her business and analytics to track her audience. She says her youth and the fact that she is all too familiar with that “lost period” in her career make her better equipped to coach young, modern female professionals. “It’s not just about working in pajamas for me. I really do feel called to help women and girls reach their full potential. We don’t play as big as we should. We don’t take those risks.”
Nailah plans to host more conferences in the future and is planning to co-host another one soon. You can find out about her one-on-one coaching sessions and her program for entrepreneurs here. She is definitely a twenty-something on the rise. But the best part is that she is taking other women to the top with her.
Sometimes a simple glance at something--a giggling baby, some cool architecture, a bossy motto--is enough to help you regain your focus. Whether it gives you that extra kick of confidence to finish out a long day, reminds you why the hell you work so hard, or just makes you say, "Awwww!" the power of visual stimulation to lift your mood can't be matched. If you follow our Facebook and Twitter pages you already know how much we love a good photo. So we decided to compile the Made Woman staff's favorite selections for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
This article was part of our series "30 Days of Made: Love Yourself". Each day we released updates of videos, poetry, images, and original content, all based on the theme of loving yourself. Click the link to read more!
As college came to a blurry close, I noticed that everyone around me seemed to be garnering employment like it was easy money. People began mentioning their plans to work at Merrill, or Bain, or Delloitte or some other one-name company whose actual purpose I only pretended to understand--while I was still un-gainfully un-employed. “Oh you’ll find something,” everyone would say, “you’re going to be a college graduate!” However, graduation day came and went and I was still scanning Monster.com daily for any job that paid over minimum wage; wondering if there was a way to sell one’s degree for food/shelter that wasn’t provided by my mother.
After a few sad weeks of unemployed wallowing and intense Craigslist Job Hunting, I realized something. Many of my friends had jumped at jobs they didn’t necessarily want, simply because they feared no other opportunity would come their way. My unemployed ass had the time and luxury to figure out what I really wanted to do. I could be an entry-level-anything! A public relations assistant, a fashion-merchandising assistant, a healthcare consulting assistant. The world was my entry-level oyster! This, however, did not change the fact that I couldn’t find a job, was living on mama’s dime and sleeping in the same room where I’d previously been visited by the Tooth Fairy. So I decided to do something.
I filled my schedule with activities that would not only distract me, but would also make me a better candidate for whatever fabulous job I’d nab in the future. I got an internship and a part-time job, beginning what I liked to call my “post-grad two-step.” When my great-Aunt Ethel asked what I was doing with my life, I didn’t have to tell her I was sitting at my computer waiting for the Employment Fairy to sprinkle me with magic job dust. I was working! 2 jobs! In fact, I was busier than some of my friends with 9-to-5s! In the same way that the procurement of one man will make you more desirable to rest of the male species, the procurement of one job will make you infinitely more attractive to the rest of the job market.
Six months into my post-grad hustle, I was offered a job at a company that I love. I wouldn’t have given up those months of soul-searching, career-obsessing and job-stalking for anything - they allowed me to get my priorities in order.
So my advice to you? Keep your head up. Keep busy. Do all of the things you said you would “when you had time.” What about that short story you’d been meaning to write or the oil painting you’d always wanted to make? Start on it. Volunteer for a charity or organization that you’re passionate about. Give back. The free time that you’re being afforded as you search for the perfect job shouldn’t be seen as lost time. It’s a time to find yourself. Look at it as a blessing, because before you know it, you will have been working for 20 years, deep in a career you love, wishing you had a chance to rest, relax and regroup.