Over six years ago as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I joined the local chapter of AIESEC - the world’s largest youth-led organization focused on developing leadership in young people through the facilitation of cross-cultural internships and volunteer experiences.
Today, I am the National President and CEO of AIESEC United States.
I lead and manage a team of 8 Vice Presidents and work with 25 local chapter presidents in order to make AIESEC happen and develop young leaders for the United States.
I never even had the slightest conception that I would eventually become the National President of AIESEC in my country, let alone that I would be serving as President during a global pandemic! As you can imagine, a global pandemic is a rough time to be in an organization that specializes in cross-cultural exchanges.
It’s worth mentioning that I turned 25 years old right about when COVID-19 really started to escalate in the US and around the world. How many 25 year old Presidents or CEOs do you know?
Once COVID-19 really began to escalate, I found myself out of my depth. All was normal in February when we were talking about the exciting projections we had for the rest of the semester. Fast forward a few weeks and I’m finding myself having to make seemingly impossible decisions on how to drastically cut costs.
I started having weekly calls with my Board of Directors by that time. The Board of Directors is made up of business professionals of various industries who have many more years of life experience than myself. Just the thought of weekly reporting to a group like that is enough to scare most young people!
I clearly remember the conversation when it looked like COVID-19 was only going to get much worse around the world and we had decided to suspend our exchange operations at least until the Fall Semester. It was March, so that meant at least 5-6 months without any revenue.
I knew where the conversation was headed, even if it was the last thing I wanted to hear.
“You’re gonna to have to let some people go.”
“I’ll let myself go and continue without pay before it comes to that.”
(Our legal expert chimed in to inform me I could not do that.)
And so the extremely tough decision-making began. One of the hardest moments I’ve faced was talking to my team, knowing that some of us would have to be ending our experiences early due to unprecedented events beyond our control. Luckily, I have a remarkable team that is handling these changes better than anyone could.
The situation I found myself in is far from unique. Business leaders and owners all across the world are in similar situations everyday. The very Board member that told me I’ll have to let some people go had to just lay off 2,000 employees of his own company earlier that week. That really put my situation into perspective. I also have my health. There is nothing more humbling than thinking about all those who have become sick and the health care workers on the frontlines of this crisis. The leadership hardships I’m going through are peanuts compared to that.
My point is - this is a difficult time for all of us and some way or another we will all find ourselves in situations beyond our comfort zone. I was feeling stressed about this decision then I recalled my early days in AIESEC and thought...
but isn’t that the point?
One of the most beautiful things AIESEC can do for a student is place you in a leadership position where you’re not entirely sure what to do and feel under qualified and/or inexperienced. Why?
AIESEC is a platform for young people to unlock their leadership potential.
AIESEC allows a clueless young person to learn from practical experiences in challenging environments where you have the freedom to fail, and through that learn how to succeed.
I’m trying to see the silver lining all of this. I believe there is a silver lining in all this if we choose to look for it. We are all experiencing new trials and tribulations because of this unprecedented crisis. No matter how dire the situation may seem, no matter how impossible the decisions seem, I know I will emerge on the other side as a stronger leader and person.
This is uncharted territory, hence it opens the door for new innovations. The AIESEC I am in today is not the same AIESEC I joined 6 years ago, and I am choosing to view this as a good thing. I believe the AIESEC of today is learning how to be more resilient, solution-oriented, and agile. The COVID-19 crisis is creating an AIESEC full of young people equipped to take on the new normal of a post-COVID-19 world.
And that is a world and AIESEC I am very excited to see.
Stay safe and wash your hands everyone.