Rachel Phillips is the Founder and Executive Director of Music Crossing Borders, an inspiring nonprofit organization that teaches and inspires children in underprivileged circumstances to achieve their social and academic potential through music education. Rachel answers my questions about start-up success, delegating, and trusting your gut.
MK: Tell me about how you started Music Crossing Borders (MCB).
RP: MCB came about because my friend, Charlie Schmid, and I wanted to do something bigger in music education—we wanted to teach and expose children to music from all over the world and do it in the way that students learn best: through interaction. We wanted to have them experience music that they normally wouldn’t by listening to the radio. When we first hosted our initial program, the kids really loved it. So, we build it out and now we have five different programs to create year-long partnerships in schools. We want to bring music to schools that don’t have much money for the arts, so MCB became a non-profit organization.
MK: Most start-ups fail. What do you think separates those who succeed from those who don’t?
RP: When we did our first Kickstarter fundraiser before we even officially launched MCB, people kept telling me that I was insane for thinking about starting a business at that point because the economy was terrible and we wouldn’t be able to raise a lot of money. But, that didn’t make any sense to me because when you are starting a company, the company is pretty much at zero overhead and you can build it slowly at no cost. Sure enough, after a year, we’ve done ten times more than we expected. So, take your time, don’t be afraid to start and see the end result before you begin.
MK: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?
RP: Learning how to delegate. I’ve always been someone who thought “It’s easier if I just take care of this on my own.” But, not delegating is a surefire way to limit the potential of your business. When you can build a great team, you can really grow your company out. It’s scary to let go of complete control over your company, but it’s necessary.
MK: Let’s go back to your college years. Did you know what you wanted to do then?
RP: I thought I did! I went to Interlochen Arts Academy, a performance arts high school, majored in music performance and music education in college and then got my Master’s degree in music performance. I thought I’d come to New York to perform as much as I could and teach on the side. But I had this strong business side to me as well. When I was in college, I never thought I’d own a business, but I knew that I enjoyed it. So years later when MCB started forming, I had that feeling of “yes, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”- combining both my love of music and my interest in business.
MK: Do you think you know what you love right away?
RP: I think your gut always knows the answer- it’s really just about when you’re ready to listen to it.
MK: What were the most important lessons you learned in college?
RP: Performing was definitely a big part of college for me. I also learned the importance of interacting and networking with as many people as possible- especially peers. I learned to meet as many people as possible and learn as much as I could.
MK: How can students go about finding their passion?
RP: I think 90% of people actually do know what they are passionate about. It’s more just about people convincing themselves that they can’t make a living out of it. Figure out what you are passionate about as early as possible, and then spend the rest of your life figuring out how to make a living out of it. I love MCB, and there’s no distinction between my work and my personal life. I don’t say, “I worked eight hours today,” because there is no such thing when you are doing what you love. You just do it, and you do it all the time, which makes you even better at doing what you love.
MK: How do you deal with the fear of pursuing your passions?
RP: I don’t believe MCB will fail. There’s too much passion behind it, it’s an original concept, and there’s nothing else out there like it. I don’t think it’s always going to be easy, but I have no doubt that we’ll succeed. It’s not a question of if it is going to work- it is more a question of when it’s going to grow to the level we’re envisioning. I don’t generally believe in having a fallback plan. Having just one plan forces you to really pay attention and find the dedication necessary to make what you are doing a success.
MK: If you could go back to college, what would you have done differently?
RP: I would have taken more classes outside my field of study. About 95% of my classes were music –related. I think I would have developed a wider network and learned some very interesting things from having widened my circle of interests.
MK: How do you define success?
RP: Living your passion! Success isn’t 100% about money or your job title. Success is about being able to live the life you want for yourself.
MK: What’s your advice for students who want to start their own company or non-profit?
RP: Ask everyone you know about everything you can. Go outside of your comfort zone, and get rid of any ego that you have. Stop pretending you know anything and stop feeling like you need to know everything, and instead just ask lots of questions of everyone else.
MK: What are the characteristics of successful/indispensible people?
RP: They don’t do anything short of their passion. Nothing is impossible. The people who are successful are those who know what they want to do, and will do anything they possibly can to make it happen- despite how challenging it might wind up being. People who are tenacious are far more likely to succeed.
MK: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?
RP: Something that holds a lot of people back- including myself at first- is that they have incredibly high expectations of themselves. The smallest roadblocks used to be a huge mental weight on me. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how to be more gentle with myself. When I make mistakes, I learn from them and move on instead of carry the weight of my mistakes around with me. And don’t be afraid to ask questions!
MK: What do you think is something every college student should do before he or she graduates?
RP: Spend time being very honest with yourself about what you are passionate about. Don’t even worry about the paycheck question. First, ask yourself, “If I could do any one thing for the rest of my life, what would it be?” And then from there, figure out how you can make a living off of doing that.
Melissa is the Marketing Director at Baking for Good, an online bakery that donates 15% of the proceeds from every sale to a charity of the customer’s choice. Previously, she was an Associate Brand Manager at Time, Inc. working on brand extension projects for numerous publications including: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, People, MLB, NFL and National Geographic. Melissa has a passion for magazines, writing, traveling and of course, the NY Jets. To find out more, read her blog, follow her on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.