I was working and traveling for the X PRIZE Foundation, which is the global leader in the creation of incentivized prize competitions. Our mission was to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity, thereby inspiring the formation of new industries and the revitalization of markets.i
In less than two years, our team raised $50 million for the X PRIZE Foundation capital campaign to incentivize all of the first X PRIZE’s winners. We also raised the funds for the Google Lunar X PRIZE during the gala held at Google’s headquarters.
To win the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a team must land a robotic spacecraft on the moon, navigate 500 meters over the lunar surface and send video, images and data back to Earth. This global competition is designed to spark imagination and inspire a renewed commitment to space exploration, not by governments or countries but by the citizens of the world.ii Thirty million dollars was raised for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. That was what I like to refer to as the X PRIZE’s “coming out.” Here’s how we raised the money: We brought donors, young and old from all of San Francisco and the Bay Area together. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google; Elon Musk, the CEO and CTO of SpaceX and the CEO and chief product architect of Tesla Motors; Ted Waitt of Gateway Computers and many others, including Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, all backed us. We were able to attract participation from all over the globe, and we had an auction that included cosmonaut space suits and a trip to Richard Branson’s island.
I always say that I fell into fund-raising because I didn't even know such a profession existed. In my country of Iran, we fund-raise from the goodness of our heart. When I was a child, I would accompany my grandmother to the street in the shantytown of Tehran. I actually became a professional fund-raiser fourteen years ago. At the time I graduated from Harvard, people with degrees from Harvard Business School would not be attracted to fund-raising. Instead, Harvard graduates would often become investment bankers and management consultants. I was one too but my tenure at McKinsey and Company was short- I definitely didn’t want to wake up in a hotel every day.
Prior to going to business school, I worked at the World Bank. This is how I kind of knew how governments worked. I attended business school thinking that the private sector was different. Now, ten years later, I’ve realized that the private sector is not where I aspired to work either. When I was deciding on my career, it was a time when there were no career coaches to go to. Someone said to me that I would be perfect for a nonprofit organization. I did not know what that was but was ready to give it a try.
I ended up working for Scripps Health, one of the major and reputable nonprofit health care providers based in San Diego. That was when I realized I could be a very good major-gift fundraiser because of the rapport I would establish with donors. Most of them were some of the wealthiest people on earth but I would treat them as equals and they liked that.
That is when Peter Diamandis, CEO and chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, recruited me to work for X PRIZE. I was commuting to Los Angeles from San Diego for a year when my children were very young. The X PRIZE Foundation made me an offer to move to Los Angeles, but I declined.
Then Craig Venter, an entrepreneur and biologist who is known for being the first to sequence the human genome, got in touch with me. Craig was a member of the board of X PRIZE for the genomic prize. I thought I’d enjoy being the Chief Development Officer of his institute but at the end of the day you have to enjoy the type of people you associate with and it is not a secret that I dislike people who solely focus on themselves. I was warned by everyone that Craig is such a person and I didn’t listen. So I decided that I’ve tried working both in the government and nonprofit industries. Maybe it’s time that I try something that is my passion.
I was a pleaser as a child, and I was also not allowed in the kitchen. In my country, if you are smart, you go to school and you try your best. So I went to Moscow State University and then onto Harvard Business School and then got into the fund-raising ring, and I didn’t actually want to do either. I said to myself, I am past forty. What is the meaning of what I’m doing? I got a big paycheck, so now what? Is there a meaning to what I do?
The economy was really bad in 2009 and options were few but leases were at their lowest so I thought, If you don’t do it now, you are going have something nag at you, and you will never do what you want. You will end up being one of those bitter people who grow old and blame everyone else for not being able to follow their dream.
So I took time off. This was the first time in my life I was not studying or working, and it was also the first time that I was really thinking about my career path. I had no career coaches or anything to assist me with my career direction. I thought, “What should I do with my life?”
That’s when I actually started doing what was my passion. For the first time, I was doing play dates with kids and friends, and I started cooking with them. The parents started calling me up and telling me that you are so good and talented at this.
“At what?” I said.
They told me, “My kids had learned how to do fractions through your pizza lesson. You should write the curriculum for schoolchildren.” This all happened before Michelle Obama became first lady that summer and focused on nutrition for kids. It was also before Jamie Oliver’s food-focused television shows started airing. I wrote a curriculum that summer teaching kids how to eat in a healthy way, but not in a radical fashion through broccoli and cauliflower. I contacted 100 elementary schools. Eight to twelve of these elementary schools said, “Come!” and that is when I started teaching at schools. I began by teaching twenty kids one hour a week, charging a maximum of $20 per kid. Parents started paying and I knew I had a business!
The proof was really in the pudding when parents started paying! I figured in a bad economy that parents liked the curriculum I was teaching and were ready to pay for it. Next, these parents started to call me up and inquire if this curriculum was something I could produce for adults.
With that encouragement, I turned to high-end kitchen-cabinet and appliance makers, and I said instead of selling their expensive equipments like in a “museum of kitchens”, let me take over. “Give me your stuff!” I told them, “I'll pick a place, and you sponsor me with your stuff, and let’s see what we can do to sell them.” They did, and I also approached SieMatic of Germany and Pirch to back me, and they did! I had $700,000 worth of equipment donated by Sub-Zero, Elektrolux, etc. I had sponsorship from all those brands.
Anyway, I started by taking this great risk. I put my hard-earned savings into it, and I’ve been in business ever since. I’ve been doing adults, kids and corporate events for the last five years. I train students from our local university during the year and Ivy League students during summers, and they become instructors themselves and love it. But their parents are not so thrilled about it:)
I love it! It’s hard. I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. It’s a different way of living, but it’s liberating and exhilarating and very worrisome. You are now in charge. I’m the only asshole I have to worry about. I have to produce, I have to generate income, I have to pay people, and I have to make it happen in good and bad times, and that is not easy. People say, “Should I do it?” I’m glad I did it when I knew myself that it was time to become an entrepreneur and I was ready but I am not sure it’s for everyone. Some people idealize something and then break fast.
We are so unique. We are not a cooking school. We are not a corporation. We are a cross between educational events, fun and a business. We are a very three-dimensional “ Third place to be”. We offer a range of cooking events and outings for all ages, skill sets and group sizes. Nobody has done this before. I’ve never done it before, and it was a figment of my imagination and I had no blueprint!
I did not come from a business family, and my parents are the Bohemian artist type. My father was a famous poet. My mom was a fashion designer. My parents never taught me the ropes of cash flow. I didn’t know any of that. I originally was not an entrepreneur at heart.
The name of the business is Harvard Cookin’ Girl, and this name happened by accident, because I didn’t have one. I had a business without a name. A friend came up with the name because Harvard University doesn’t have a cooking school, so I figured I’m a Harvard cookin’ girl! Why not?
Bibi Kasrai’s Mentor InSight
I mentor a lot. I love it! Mentoring feels like you are really helping people. You give them the good and you prevent them from the bad. Sometimes they don’t listen, and that is OK too! Some have to make their own mistakes.
I mentor people through my web site and blog by sharing what I do. So you can visit Harvardcookingirl.com or our Facebook page, where you will find more than 5,000 pictures.
The Spice Whisperer: My Memoirs in Food is the book I wrote. When I did the Persian radio interview, it was the most widely listened program of Persian radio in some places as far as Japan and Australia people listened. I was flooded with people ages twenty-five to fifty-five who all had one thing in common. They all wanted to be something different than their parents wanted them to be. They told me, “Now that I see that you followed your dream and became successful, it has made me realize that I can do this too.” This even went further than the Persian community. Others also found themselves in the same predicament of wanting to be something other than what their parents wanted them to be.
So, what I learned from my own “Wow” is that everyone wants to be something else—like a doctor who wanted to repair motorcycles. Instead, they were good at following their parents’ advice, and most were miserable because they followed their parents’ advice.
The probability of these people becoming Picasso or Martina Navratilova is zero, but the probability of them having to feed themselves is 100 percent! So my advice to parents is to let their kids in the kitchen.
GuSTO: Going Supernova Traits Optimizer
Bibi is a zigzagger extaordinaire! She took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself in her life and excelled at everything! She went to Harvard Business School and then, without even knowing initially that fund-raising was a profession, she had an extremely successful career in fund-raising.
Throughout her life she was a parent pleaser, and though she excelled, she wasn’t excelling in anything that she wanted to do. Bibi, though, eventually got her zigzagging groove on straight, so to speak. She added to her path self-reflection and had her epiphany about the path she was ultimately meant to take. And that was to become the Harvard Cookin’ Girl.
Many of us please those we care about most and we forget about pleasing ourselves. There is absolutely nothing wrong with finding your desired shining star on your life path. It’s rarely a straight line from your studies to figuring out what you truly want to do with your life. Don’t worry if you have no idea; just keep zigzagging along. Give yourself time and space to discover what truly moves you in life.
The GuSTO app can be a great companion on this journey. This is your opportunity to utilize your circle of supporters to cheer you along as you contemplate and try new endeavors and aspirations. Make appointments with people who you find do interesting things in life and ask them to share their own personal story about the path they have taken. It’s OK to discover that the paths you want to take in life aren’t necessarily what the people you want to please had in mind for you. If these people truly care about you as a human being, they will rejoice that you have discovered your true purpose in life and cheer you on. It may take them awhile to get there, but give them a chance and you may actually be surprised at the results!
i The X PRIZE Foundation, “Making the Impossible Happen,” http://www.xprize.org, accessed on February 16, 2014.
ii Google Lunar X PRIZE, “Overview,” http://www.googlelunarxprize.org/education/domeshow, accessed on February 16, 2014.
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