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Unintended consequences: Christian Pena of Conexiones

, , , ,    /   Mar 7th, 2011Education, Interviews, National, Southwest

Starting a social enterprise is full of surprises. In this series entrepreneurs discuss unintended consequences on the path of social innovation and how they adjusted to new circumstances — from the serendipitous, the unexpected computer literacy of small borrowers in Africa; to the calamitous, an electricity tool in rural Nepal that no one would use.

Christian Pena was attending Brigham Young University when he noticed a gap between the Latino population and the students. To bridge the two communities he started Conexiones which pairs Latino families with BYU students to help teach English, read to children, play games, and build relationships.

Dowser: What is something concrete you have learned in the last three months?
Pena: Leadership is about inspiring and empowering others to be their best selves, and then getting yourself out of their way. When faced with the experience of handing over the leadership of Conexiones, a program I founded and subsequently directed for two years, I was reluctant to choose a successor who didn’t see eye to eye with me on every point. So, I didn’t. I chose one early on and indoctrinated him with my vision, and then relished when he used the same words I’d repeated to him time and again to describe what the program was about and where it was going next.

Circumstantially, two other fans of the program unofficially nominated themselves as co-directors and we, the leadership, two of one mind, were obliged to acquiesce. After handing over the reigns to the three and moving out of state, I received a phone call from my clone. He was frustrated about the direction the two ‘imposers’ wanted to take Conexiones. While listening to this news, instead of frustration, an unexpected sense of relief swelled over me. I shared this with my chosen one, and he and I both agreed that it was best not to stifle their excitement with our rigidity and pride. He decided to ‘Let ‘em have it. Let ‘em run with it. I’ll even cheer ‘em on.’

Not long thereafter, my clone called me back to relate that things had truly taken off beyond what he’d expected. The stats and figures he mentioned astounded me. I must admit that I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it first hand. I might have gotten in the way.

What is a mistake or mishap you have learned from?
Working in healthcare administration, one has to be conscious not to forget that patients are people, not sources of revenue. One day, while talking to an old and seasoned nurse, I referred to a patient solely by their payer-source: ‘Mr. Medicare…’  This nurse, who embodies the perfect balance of sagacity and crassness, turned to me and said, ‘If you ever refer to a patient in that way again, I’ll punch you in the face.’ (Notice the absence of an exclamation point–she said it so calmly). I’ve never been punched in the face, but I believe I’d prefer it one hundred times before I ever catch myself heading down that slippery slope of disregarding the inherent and universal value of people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo courtesy of Christian Pena

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