Meet Michael Littig, Co-founder of the Zuckerberg Institute. And yes, the Institute is kind of associated with the infamous “Facebook Zuckerberg,” it’s actually co-founded by Mark’s sister, Randi. Their mission is to establish a community of entrepreneurs that encourage and inspire other entrepreneurs as they build their business or start their next venture. Sound familiar? It should because that's what I am hoping to build with this podcast, too.
Meet Michael Littig, Co-founder of the Zuckerberg Institute. Their mission is to establish a community of entrepreneurs that encourage and inspire other entrepreneurs as they build their business or start their next venture. Sound familiar? It should because that's what I am hoping to build with this podcast, too.
Michael's journey includes living among Shaman and nomads, speaking before the UN, and even performing in live theater. We're going to hear one of the more unique entrepreneurial journeys we’ve shared to date in this episode.
While his story is incredible, you will hear some themes pertinent to all entrepreneurs that I want to highlight. First, the idea of community, even among entrepreneurs, is the key to survival. Additionally, you’ll hear all about the importance of our experiences, good and bad, and how they can be lifelong lessons which can bring incredible value to our entrepreneurial ambitions. Lastly, you will hear how critical it is to not walk this journey alone. Michael is a master storyteller and I am honored to get to share his story with you today. As always, we start at the very beginning. This is Michael Littig’s startup story.
“Most entrepreneurs are driven toward autonomy, yet community is an absolute key to survival.”
—Michael Littig, Zuckerberg Institute
Connect with Michael on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-littig-150105179/
Zuckerberg Institute: https://www.zuckerberginstitute.com/
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Special Guest: Michael Littig.
The Startup Story - Michael Littig
Michael Littig: Hey. This is Michael Littig, cofounder of Zuckerberg Institute, and this is MY startup story.
James McKinney: Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.
James McKinney: I am always amazed at how diverse the entrepreneurial journey is. Just look at our roster of featured founders we've had on The Startup Story podcast. We've featured social media influencers, e-commerce experts… In fact we've featured e-commerce experts that focus on feminine hygiene products only and we've featured e-commerce experts that focus on office furniture. We've featured master craftsmen and table makers as well as a cable network billionaire. The entrepreneurial journey truly is like nothing else out there and I personally find so much encouragement and inspiration from its diversity. I love sharing these featured founder stories and unpacking their life story of how they got to where they are today.
That said, if you have found any value from The Startup Story, please consider contributing to the growth of The Startup Story by simply leaving a review on Apple Podcast. Or if you have a product or service that would be of value to an entrepreneurial audience, please visit thestartupstory.com/advertise.
Now let's jump into this week's episode. Our guest today is Michael Littig, cofounder of the Zuckerberg Institute. The Zuckerberg Institute has a mission to establish a community of entrepreneurs that encourage and inspire entrepreneurs so that they do not find themselves flying solo as they build their business or start their next venture. Does that sound familiar? It should because that's what I too am hoping to build with The Startup Story. Sitting with Michael was an absolute treat for me as his expertise in community building was paradigm shifting for me. Before I continue on, I want to answer the one question you're probably asking because I do not want any distractions as we unpack Michael's story. Yes, the Zuckerberg Institute is associated with a Facebook Zuckerberg, but it's not Mark Zuckerberg. One of the other cofounders of the Zuckerberg Institute is Randi Zuckerberg, Mark's sister a highly successful serial entrepreneur. All right. Now that we've addressed that, let's continue on.
In this episode, we're going to hear quite possibly the most unique entrepreneurial journey we have shared to date. Michael's journey includes living among shaman and nomads, speaking before the UN, and even live theater. It really is quite a ride that we're about to go on with Michael. That said, there are some incredible things in this episode that I want to bring to your awareness before we jump in. The first is that the idea of community, even among entrepreneurs, is incredibly critical across all cultures and is even the key to survival. Again, even among entrepreneurs, this is so true. Another theme you will hear in this episode is the importance of our experience, good or bad, and how they can be a lifelong lesson that can bring incredible valuable to our entrepreneurial ambitions. Lastly, you will hear how critical it is to not walk this journey alone. There will reach a point when you simply cannot go on, and you need someone there to help carry a bit of the load, even if for a season.
Michael is a masterful storyteller, so I'm going to just get out of the way and let Michael share his story with us. And like always, we start at the very beginning.
Michael Littig:Well, my early childhood was mostly spent on planes. So my parents were divorced and so primarily like my memories of growing up were going back and forth between my dad and my mom. Initially when we lived in Houston and he lived in Dallas, and then he actually moved to Vietnam. So I would say largely the formation of who I became was travelling and being interesting he world. On top of that, I wanted to be an astronaut.
James McKinney: You were raised in Houston, so that makes sense.
Michael Littig:Yeah. Actually, then I went to Orlando when I was seven, so then I was basically raised on Disney World. Then of course I got to see the launches go off every few months. So I take this with such a badge of honor. I went to space camp twice.
James McKinney: That's awesome.
Michael Littig:Twice. And my dad was in the military, and my grandfather was in the military so discipline was something that was of deep interest to me. I wasn't raised by entrepreneurs at all. My dad was ex military who ended up going into as an engineer, and my mom was a nurse. But primarily because I was both travelling in the world to ultimately connect with my father and then having this background of loving discipline and planes, there was something about imagination that really piqued my interest.
James McKinney: When you think back to your childhood, you talk about military. There's obviously some instability in that, but you think of nursing, there's a tremendous amount of stability in that. Obviously, there's a disruptive childhood just because of divorce and flying all over to connect with parents. At the end of high school, was your trajectory still to be an astronaut or had things started morphing for you as you were reaching adulthood?
Michael Littig:Well, I want to go back to what it's like to grow up in a single parent home. I think many people can connect to that, is that my mom was working nights. She was a nightshift nurse and so my sister and I, we had to be really good kids or we felt like we had to be. So we did our homework. We did our chores. We were always good kids. I got into high school. I discovered theater of all things because, and as I look back now as an adult I can see why. Because when you're mom's sleeping most of the day on the weekends, because she's going to work at night, you had to be really quiet.
There was something about acting that allowed me to really express myself in a different way that I hadn't experienced before. So as I got into high school, I noticed there was two common threads. One, that I was really, and this is of course looking in hindsight. Not at the moment, I wasn't like, "Oh my gosh, here I am," but I was really interested in leadership. I was the president of the drama club. And on top of that was interested in creating opportunity. Now I look back, I was able to get like I was a Disney dreamer and doer. I was a presidential scholar in the arts. I was all these major awards. Of course, all those awards were for me to like ultimately be validated by my father who I just wanted him to see me in the world.
My dad was, by that time I was only seeing him maybe once a year because by the time I was in… at the end of high school, he had moved to Saudi Arabia. So I had no like distinct father figure in my life. So I was searching for this father figure to validate me. So of course, you can do that by getting awards, and you can do that by expression, and acting, and theater. As a strange turn of events, I entered high school wanting to be an astronaut and wanting to join the military. I left high school wanting to join acting and become a theater artist, which is totally random.
James McKinney: That's awesome. I love it. So as you're exiting, one thank you for transparency and all of that because I think definitely there is a, statistically half of my listeners are going to be adults from divorced households and a lot of times that plays out to living with a single mom and growing up with a single mom. You're right, there's challenges from it. The fact a week or two ago, we had Danielle Salinas with Maison de Papillon, who was a single mom as she was growing her enterprise. It's definitely something that resonates with our culture and needs to be talked about. It's hard. It is really hard. So thank you for sharing that.
So now, you no longer want to be an astronaut. You can see yourself being drawn to maybe not at the time being drawn to leadership, but definitely drawn to acting. So what was the trajectory out of high school and the next couple years following?
Michael Littig:Yeah. I went to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, the college conservatory at University of Cincinnati. I studied theater. And there, I immediately was looking at placing myself and finding my community beyond those four years. From very young, I was always like a go getter. I was like, "I'm going to create opportunity." I think it's largely because of being a single parent household and wanting to create opportunity. So I would spend my summers connecting with theater artists, and particularly mentors. So at a very young age, I was looking for these mentors. I would read books about these amazing theater artists like Peter Brook and [inaudible 08:48], and these people like changed the face of theater. I noticed that there was a correlation when they were young, is that they went across cultures to ultimately define who they were. So when they came back, they were un ignorable because there was something about their experience that it shaped them, that allowed them to articulate in a different way.
So when I was in college, I was looking to find those type of mentors in the world. I was very lucky to come across two particular ones. One is a woman named Anne Bogart who is this amazing… one of the most important female directors of our time. So I spent a lot of time assisting her, mentoring her over the summer. And a man named Andre Gregory. So Andre Gregory does a really famous film with Wally Shawn, called My Dinner with Andre. It gets made fun of a lot, because it was in the 1980s. It kind of really started the independent film movement and they literally just have dinner. Like that's all they do. Wally Shawn is the guy from Princess Bride. He has the lisp. He talks like this, you know? Like Wally Shawn. So it's an amazing conversation and it basically, Wally asks Andre where he's been, and Andre starts to tell all these stories about being in the world, and these are things he actually did. So I was lucky enough to meet him and befriend him, and actually go on my own dinners with Andre in a way.
So when I got out of college, number one I knew I was going to New York because that's where I felt like I could find my community. But I remember, I emailed Andre because I was up for this big Broadway show, and I knew if I didn't get it I was going to catapult myself to something else that would at least give me some power back, because being a theater artist, as with anything in business, you are constantly like putting your power in other people's perception of validation. So I said, "Where should I go?" and he was like, "Well, you should go to Italy to work with the work center [inaudible 10:39]. Here's their email, tell them I sent you." And so I did, and I emailed them and they welcomed me. I showed up at like a bar in the middle of Italy when I was like, this is right out of college, so I'm like 21 years old. I saw a piece of theirs that they worked on for 10 years daily called "Action" and it really shifted and changed my life, because I saw the power of art as a vehicle to not only be something that you could create for yourself, but can also infect others. This becomes this foundation of my life which is deep, personal practice that is as a way to work on one's self, but ultimately to give back to others. That shifted me in a whole different way, which lead to… I could keep going, but it leads to these amazing experiences in my life.
James McKinney: So I'm assuming the fact that you ended up in Italy means you did not get cast for the Broadway.
Michael Littig:I did not, sadly.
James McKinney: Didn't mean to bring that up. Just wanted to make sure I made that connection there. But your time in Italy, and we hear it often that travel in general will give us a bigger perspective outside of our North American context. So when you were in Italy, how long were you there for? And how did that shape you for when you came back?
Michael Littig:This was so strange. So I grew up travelling to meet my dad, so as a kid I would go to like Thailand and Singapore and Indonesia and Australia and Hong Kong. Incredibly formative as a young man. This was the first time I actually went by myself.
James McKinney: Oh wow. Okay.
Michael Littig:On a journey. And so I actually was only in Italy for three weeks, but that trip and meeting those artists was foundational, because for the first time in my life, I found… this is a term. They are called theater researchers, so they're researching something. They're investigating something. They were questioning something. And when I came back, I knew that I really had to go somewhere that was going to turn my world upside down and shake up my belief system, because when you talk about travel, you're totally right. This becomes like the foundation of what I like to find to really find myself, which is you collide your belief system with another places belief system. So when you go to India, for instance, they eat with their hands. They don't tend to eat with silverware, so you're like, "I'm eating with my hands." That in itself is enacting a belief system. And it's in that collision that you get to really articulate who you are, or rearticulate who you are.
So I came back after that experience and I was like, "Okay, this is happening. I'm going to do this no matter what, and I'm going to figure out a way to have someone else fund it. I'm going to get a scholarship, I'm going to get a fellowship." So I applied for a Fulbright, which is through the state department, and I wanted to go to the root of storytelling and to really understanding belief systems and ritual and performance, and how that interacts with a community. Through a long series of questioning and investigation, I ended up in Mongolia and I lived with shamans for a year, and I studied ritual and performance. But ultimately, what I would say what I really investigated was belief systems. What actions create a belief about yourself? And this in itself becomes another thread which we'll explore later of why I end up doing what I'm doing now.
Which when I was, this is now 10 or 12 years ago, there's no thought in my mind I'd be doing what I'm doing now. But this formation of like living with a nomadic culture, I think it's like 48% nomadic. And it's a really difficult country to live in. it's one of the coolest places in the world, and it can also get very, very hot during the summer. There were so many lessons I learned living with a nomadic culture. That becomes another thread. So it's really amazing what travel does. It plants seeds in you that you don't know are going to hatch until many years later.
One of my favorite writers, Pico Iyer, he said, "I went to North Korea when I was 27, but I've spent the rest of my life revisiting that experience in my mind."
James McKinney: Oh wow, that's powerful.
Michael Littig:Yeah. So I similarly too, there's these particularly when you really go to places that really challenge you, those places become these wells of life. They become wells of challenging, of questioning, and they almost sit as if like I was talking with a student of mine who I mentor on Friday, and she just got back from New Zealand where she was interviewing the survivors of the shootings at the mosque. I said to her, I was like, "You know, it's like this travel, it's like a cloak that you wear, and it's a responsibility that you now carry." I think I learned that at a very young age of the responsibility that you carry when you show up to a community and they invite you in. they treat you as an honored guest. That is one of the greatest gifts of my life, because these people, they almost humiliated me with their generosity because they were so generous. They were so kind. They were so wonderful. I feel like my whole life is an attempt to reconcile how do I make that into my culture, and how do I bring that type of generosity to the people around me and so forth.
James McKinney: That is so incredibly rich right there. What I love is because obviously, we know where you are today in the realm of entrepreneurship, so as the listeners are hearing all of this about art and community and generosity and travel, there might be, someone's like, "How does this get to entrepreneurship?" But I know it and I'm fascinated at the relevance and application in your time in Mongolia to entrepreneurship, and to community and generosity. So when you come back a changed man from your experience there, what did you want to do at that point? Because I feel like there's so much, I don't want to say conflict, but there's so many different threads that are now a part of you. How do you weave something out of that? Especially as a young man, because you were at that point mid to late twenties, right
Michael Littig:Yeah I was mid twenties, 25 at that time. You know, I just want the listener to go on this journey with me and to say that I didn't know I was going to become an entrepreneur until I had already built three businesses. It's amazing, and I'll talk more about that. It's that I kept questioning. That's what I love about entrepreneurs, because I work with entrepreneurs now all the time, and I love that there's this inner compass in a way you could call it, that says that they're not satisfied, that they go, "No, it is the road less travelled, because that has made all the difference."
I come back from that experience and I was teaching at NYU at that time, and I basically shamefully in a way continued doing pretty much the same thing I did before I left. That really weighted heavily on me. About a year later, I was like what am I doing? I have to do something so where am I needed in the world? What have these people taught me? Here I went to this amazing experience, had this amazing year of living in a talk about a place that will turn your world upside down. And I was really doing nothing with the lessons I learned there. Yes, of course I had adjusted a little bit of my process and maybe my teaching was a little bit different, but it wasn't fundamental.
So I said to myself, "Okay, Michael, where are you needed in the world? Where can you be of service that could really enact some change?" So in my mind, I kept dreaming about working in a refugee camp. I have no idea why, but there was something about it that was calling me, and I didn't know why. But I kept asking. I realize it could be interesting about working in a refugee camp is there's partners on the ground that you can really come in and really serve those partners, and ultimately leave and the work wouldn't fall apart. I understood enough of living in a community for a year that if I was going to really enact some change, I would have to basically just transport there and sit down in it for my whole life. Or at least five to 10 years, right, because we understanding in building businesses as entrepreneurs, it doesn't happen overnight. It takes five to 10 years, dear friends, and I'm sure you've heard that multiple times on this podcast.
So here I was, and I go, "Well, what should I do? Where can I be of service?" So I started asking questions. Because I was an alumni of the state department through the Fulbright, I contacted them and said, "I have this idea of working with, doing theater in a refugee camp. Can you connect me to anyone, because this is in East Africa?" And they said, "Yeah, this is a great idea. Let me connect you with the Somali public affairs officer." So that led me to an email to them, and suddenly I got an email maybe a month later, and it said it was from this guy named Mark who is the Somali public affairs officer in the state department. He said, "This is a great idea. Can you fly to Kenya next month and we'll put you on the plane to Dadaab and let's go talk to the United Nations about this." I was like, "Why yes I can."
James McKinney: That's awesome.
Michael Littig:And I didn't have a nonprofit at that time, so I basically was like oh crap, I've got to get a nonprofit. So I created a nonprofit and then I went. I just showed up. I basically, I don't know how they believed that this young kid, they flew me up to Dadaab refugee camp which is on the border of Somalia. It's a really pretty dangerous place.
James McKinney: Yeah, no kidding.
Michael Littig:And I sat with the United Nations. I sat with State Department. I sat with Save the Children. I sat with Care International. I simply asked a lot of questions. What kind of helped you need? How can I be of service? What can I do? And mostly, these refugees they were saying we feel like we're warts on society. We feel like we're forgotten. We feel like we don't have a voice. Can you help us with that? Can you help us get a microphone and have our voice be heard outside of this place, which feels like purgatory? And so I said, "Yeah, I think I can do that." So I created a program where I collaborated with United Nations, the State Department, Film Aid International, Save the Children, and I created a whole program based on mentoring refugee youth, particularly those who felt idle and lost after they had gone through their schooling. So we created a whole storytelling theater workshops. We created facilitation for Save the Children.
I brought on a partner, because I was smart enough to know you can't do this stuff alone, it's not going to happen. The only thing I had was a $3000 grant from the State Department. I showed up anyway because I thought I just have to continue to ask this question. I showed up there and I lived there, and I did that program for a year. Dadaab at the time was on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. It became a humanitarian crisis when I was there, because Somalia was going through one of the worst famines its ever gone through in its 50 year history of recorded famines. There were about 1,000 refugees coming over the border every day. It was like an emergency situation.
So I remember we would, this is like out of a movie. You're like in these UN cars with a machine gun next to you, literally. I'm 28 years old and you're like going through the desert, and you would just come across, you'd see all these people lined up. I'll never forget that image ever. I was sitting with people who had gone through things that I could never even imagine. I was helping them find their identity. I was using art as the vehicle to do that, as the conversation. So what's amazing that you discover about doing that is when someone feels like they are lost or they don't have an identity, if you connect them back to their roots of where they come from, they become alive in a different way.
That became the core of the work in many ways, and I could tell a whole hour podcast on like how many times I absolutely failed, miserably failed, how every single day I wanted to leave. How it was so much bigger than I ever even imagined and continue to this day. It's the one place in my life I'm the most proud of because I've really never forgotten about it, and I still mentor those refugees 10 years later, because that's a responsibility that you take on. That experience for me was, it was everything.
James McKinney: There's a couple things I want to unpack about that, because I find it interesting. The listeners, it's probably I know I'm on the edge of my seat. I'm just like this is unbelievable. For those that have been around The Startup Story for some time, you know that I walk into these conversations hearing it for the first time, just like the listener is because I want to have the same questions that they're having as an entrepreneur.
Here you are, at the time 28, and you have this idea for a nonprofit center on the arts serving refugees. So you leverage your connections with the state department because of your Fulbright participation. Then within a week, you're asked to fly to Kenya, get in front of the UN. There is still a lot of life to live at age 28, regardless of experiences, and I know passion can carry us quite a ways. You definitely are a very resourceful individual, but the moment you knew that within a week of your contact you were going to be in front of the UN, was there any part of you like wait, do I really want to do this? Is this something I really want to jump into? Was there any doubt in yourself at that moment in time?
Michael Littig:Tons of doubt. I remember my heart pounding, looking out to the left as the plane landed in Africa, and thinking what the hell have I gotten myself into? I'll say a little bit about this, because I think when you're young, you have this naivete about you and it serves you in a beautiful way. But when you go to face struggle, true struggle is that naivete in a way dies and something else emerges, which becomes a heroic journey in itself. I think there was some part of me that of course I had all these doubts, but I knew that… I remember first of all my parents at the time, they were like… when I got a Fulbright it was so prestigious, it was like wow, that's amazing. Oh my gosh. When I told them I was going to work and live in a refugee camp, they go, "What the hell are you doing? That has nothing to do with theater." I was like, "No, it has everything to do with theater. It's storytelling at its core, community at its core." Of course, these are things that I realize in hindsight, but in that time, all I knew was that I have to do this and it was something that I had recognized about myself now after doing Mongolia, which is you have to like listen to that inner voice and that inner voice, you have to just say okay. I don't know why this is pulling me toward this, but I have to go. I think it was that naivete that just made me go, "You're just going to do this." Of course, I look back, when you're 28 as you said you have a lot of life to live, and you don't have the obligations that you have when you're now that I'm 35 it's different, right? But I've learned to really listen to that resistance, because it becomes the greatest teacher. It's like that Joseph Campbell quote, "The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek." I knew that even I was deeply afraid, I was deeply excited. If I knew what I was getting myself into, I don't know I would have… I don't know if I would have gone. It's of course in hindsight I realize it has become my greatest teacher. It's the one thing I think about every single day.
James McKinney: Before we continue on with Michael's startup story, I wanted to share about a great podcast app that pays you to listen to podcasts. I know it sounds insane, but it's true. I just discovered this free new app called Podcoin, and it literally pays you to listen to podcasts, and here's how it works. You listen to podcasts, like The Startup Story, and you earn Podcoin while you listen. Then you turn that Podcoin in for gift cards or places like Amazon or Starbucks, or if you're a person that would prefer to give rather than receive, you can even donate that Podcoin to charity. The more you listen, the more you earn.
So here's what you do. You download Podcoin app right now on iPhone or Android. And I have a special code for you. Simply use the code "startupstory" and you'll get 300 Podcoin just or signing up. Again, use the code "startupstory" and if you listen to enough of our episodes, you can get a frappuccino at Starbucks. So yes, listening to The Startup Story can actually get you a frappuccino at Starbucks, or an Amazon gift card. So go ahead and go listen to The Startup Story or virtually any podcast on Podcoin and sign up with the code "startupstory." I swear, it'll change the way you listen to podcasts. Now, let's jump back into Michael's startup story.
James McKinney: The other thing I wanted to kind of highlight about your story as you were sharing that is you had this ambition to do something grand, to serve the refugees. And again, in our ambition we can seek to serve self and what I loved as you were sharing your story going through the UN, your perspective was just how can you help, how can you serve. So even though you had all this ambition going in, somehow you had this awareness in the moment to say, "I just want to serve now. How can I serve best?" I think for entrepreneurs listening, there is this mindset of just taking care of one's business and disregarding all other elements, people, communities, social, noise, anything to just be laser focused and just worry about self. People miss out when they stop looking for ways to serve first. I love that at 28, you're in front of the UN and that was your first perspective, regardless of the ambitions you had.
Michael Littig:And I will say, as I look back too again it goes back to my childhood. Some part of me wanted my dad to validate me, to be like well maybe if I go to the most extreme place on earth and go to like a war zone, maybe then he'll say, "Hey, I'm proud of you." But ultimately, I knew instinctually because I had sat with enough communities by that moment to say I have nothing to teach them. They have more to teach me. In fact, this becomes the root of cultural exchange to me, or any exchange between anyone really is how are they going to get more out of it than me? I get to go to a refugee camp for the rest of my life. I get to say, "I lived in a refugee camp, look at me," like that's going to pat me on the back. But really, what the responsibility that I was facing was how are they going to get more out of it than me. And that's a tough question, and it's one that drives me, and it makes me want to continue to ask because in any situation now as an entrepreneur, how's this customer going to get more out of it than I do. Because that becomes really like the key towards almost like a routine feedback of who you are.
James McKinney: Yeah. And I love in those engagements where at the end of the lunch, the dinner, the drinks, the meeting, whatever where the other person asks, "Well, how can I help you in some way?" To me, that automatically meant that I'm leaving so much value there, and it's like I don't have an answer for you on how you help me. I'm served by serving you.
Michael Littig:Yeah. And notice when someone asks you that how it takes you back. It's almost like how can I help you, and you're like I don't know, I just… And something I actually challenge the entrepreneurs I work with now to say how can they ask for help in a very specific way. Because most of the entrepreneurs that I know, I'm speaking for myself but I'm going to say most generally will say tend to, because they're entrepreneurial are driven toward autonomy. They're driven toward I'm going to make it happen on my own. These lessons of being in these communities where community is a key to survival.
One of the greatest lessons I remember learning is I was having lunch with my friend Kimo, who Kimo is Chambellan, and we were in the camp and his wife cooked us this amazing feast. And he goes, "You know, in my culture we always cook more food because someone will always be hungry, and someone will always need food. There will be a time when I need food." And it's actually, this goes back to Mongolia too. It's the same in these type of these cultures, where in Mongolia it's tradition that you will slaughter the last goat of the goats you have to feed your guest, because one may not know when they will be that person wandering through the night, needing of food, struggling. This is how these cultures survived.
James McKinney: It's interesting. I wonder and maybe you can answer this because you have that cultural perspective. I wonder if inherently they operate from a perspective of abundance and not scarcity.
Michael Littig:I do. You know it's interesting, this is where, this is a whole other discussion but why when you start to mix capitalism within these cultures it starts to kind of get scarcity, abundance, and the wires start to really like not be able to cross. It's amazing, because it is about abundance. When it's about, especially in pastoral communities, they're all driven toward abundance. My Somali friends, it's amazing that if you ask them for money they have to give it to you. Somali's as entrepreneurs, they're amazing. What they'll do is that, so like you and like eight of us will be in a group, a circle. So when you move to Dallas… Say you just move to Dallas, which you did, and you're going to start a new company. We're each going to pitch in $1000 and we're going to like help you rent your first space for the month. What's amazing is there will come a time when I need that type of help, and it becomes this almost cultural way of supporting each other. It's really amazing.
James McKinney: That's awesome. Mongolia was kick starting before there was a Kickstarter.
James McKinney: That's awesome. I love that. So before we leave your time in Somalia, you did mention that we could spend a whole other podcast just talking about the failures and learn opportunities. I would actually probably love that at a later date, but can you share one of those failing/learning moments that impacted you coming back into your next venture? Is there one that stands out?
Michael Littig:It's so amazing because it is something went wrong every single day, which it could have been someone didn't show up on time, the money dropped out, or… and every part of me wanted to run towards comfort. Instinctually, I knew that like I was driving towards something bigger. I knew it was going to be a success. I just knew it deep in my heart, and I knew that I could not give up. What's amazing about it is I could have given up. I could have literally like just gone home and said, "You know what? This is too much." But I felt so much responsibility, and I think that's what's interesting in life.
When you go towards the unknown and face it, and really face it and get out of order, because when I was in those moments of everything was failing, this didn't happen on time, we missed this, we missed that, I need this, is that every part of me wanted to run towards order, which is comfort. I dreamt about laying on a beautiful leather couch and having my air conditioning. But I knew that if I instinctually continued to stay in the unknown, that's where my life would gather meaning. So it almost became like this muscle or this sensation of this remembering of like no, when things get tough keep going. When things get tough, keep asking questions. When things get tough, keep showing up. And that's the lesson. Because I was facing things that I couldn't even fathom. People were getting shot at, people were getting kidnapped. These kind of things, you're like whoa in the moment, but in the moment you just go, "Great. I'm just going to figure what to do next, one step at a time."
James McKinney: What did, because you mention a couple times you knew that this was going to succeed, what did success look like to you in those years?
Michael Littig:Particularly when I was there, success looked like there was… I was suddenly, I mean this is another entrepreneur lesson is that I thought my life was… I literally thought I was going to be a consultant. I thought I was going to travel around the world and like consult with Save the Children, and help with creative facilitation. Of course, none of that ended up happening because terrorism happened, and the whole foundation shattered. So I wasn't even allowed back up there because there were… Al-Shabaab came in and they were kidnapping and there were roadside bombs, they were killing people. Kenya essentially went to war with Al-Shabaab, and that was a whole other thing. But basically I knew that in any kind of thing you have to drive towards an event.
I had brought over I think six or seven alumni, plus one of my teachers from University of Cincinnati. I got them to come over to Kenya, so I helped raise that money, and they would do this exchange. I knew that all this work going towards that exchange would be the powerful moment. Because it's like within your hero's journey, you have to go back and return with the jewel, as they say. So you have to share what you've learned. So I knew that these refugees, if they had the opportunity to share their identity with another person, that was going to be one of the most incredibly validating things they could ever do. And similarly for those students from America to sit with a refugee and ask questions, and really hear their stories, it's also going to be life changing. And that would have rippling effects. I knew that I was driving towards that event, and that would be successful. I knew that. Now whether or not I was going to get to that event was another story.
James McKinney: Oh wow, that's powerful. All right. So now, let's wrap up your time in Somalia. You come back to the states. How old were you?
Michael Littig:28, 29.
James McKinney: What was your next venture here in the states, and how do we go from this transformational period in Somalia to Zuckerberg Institute?
Michael Littig:Oh my gosh, okay. I'm going to do this, because there's a lot to cover. So I come back and I was like I just want to have a normal life.
James McKinney: I can see that.
Michael Littig:Yeah. I had big questions whether art was meaningful in the professional theater context. I knew it was meaningful to tell stories and to share and to use it as a way of healing and reconciliation, but I had questions about professionalism of it. So I ended up getting a job as an anti money laundering officer at Citibank, which is like… because I dreamt, I was like I want to be able to be a banker and have a normal life. Of course, I did that for a few months and hated it. This theater company I worked with called Theater Mitu had been really formative in my early years when I was in my early twenties. They ended up calling me because they were about to go do work with Juarez, Mexico. And Juarez, Mexico was also going through its own community in crisis moment, because it was at the time called the murder capital of the world.
The artistic director of that company, Ruben Polendo, one of the most inspiring people I know, was from there and he wanted to bring a group of artists to come and ask questions with that community. So I ended up on that adventure, and that lead us to Ruben at the time and Theater Mitu helped start NYU Abu Dhabi. So for the next three years, I started both researching, working with a community in crisis, Juarez Mexico, and also living in Abu Dhabi which is this really surreal place. And touring and doing research around the world, going back to my roots, ritual traditions. I was working running a program in South India, doing cultural exchange, and really looking at the power of theater as a way to create community, but also as a personal practice.
So all that is happening, but instinctually I go this is not sustainable. This is just not sustainable. So I ended up applying for a PhD, because I was like well that would be the smart thing to do. Ended up getting offered a PhD, but something really interesting happened when I got offered that PhD. The very same week, I got offered a chance, I won an award with the National Endowment of the Arts to go work in church communities in the south. I also was given the opportunity to go teach somewhere, like be a professor, or I was given the opportunity to start a new acting studio, like a community. Instinctually, I knew that I was like I need to go create more community. I need to sit down in a place.
Randomly, I got offered to work at this fitness studio that was it's known as a beacon of community. It's called Mark Fisher Fitness, and it was one of the fastest growing boutique fitness studios in the country. I just knew it was true. So I turned down the PhD and I chose to go to Mark Fisher fitness, and that in itself changed my life, because literally, as with anything in life when these things change comes, I was dating this girl and I asked her to marry me. She said no, and then a month later she left me and then my mom got cancer. So at the same time, I was working in community, teaching people personal practice while I was taking care of my mom as she was going through stage 4 cancer, and I started a new company. And at that time, I reignited my Africa work because it had gone under the radar, because I'd just basically gotten people through school and high school and colleges. But I was able to go back there because the terrorism had subsided by that moment.
So it became this moment of I've started recreating these communities again, but at the same time I was going through my own suffering because I was dealing with my mom's death, and dealing with what seemed to be the love of my life saying no to me. When my mom passed away, I went back to what I instinctually knew, which was I knew that ritual was the only way that I was going to get back to myself. There's a man who's actually now my cofounder, Brian Patrick Murphy, who worked at Mark Fisher fitness with me. I said to him, I was like, "Hey, I need a way to get back to myself. Can we just work out four days a week together? And let's not go super ritual on it. Let's play Braveheart. Let's like drink pink creatine, we'll call it blood. We'll wear the same outfit. We'll do intention and gratitude."
And crazily enough, I ended up showing up for my life in such a definitive way. And Brian and I started another company together. It was called Congregation Coaching. It was about leadership and giving people the tools and the process to lead their lives. So now, just to put it in your mind, I don't call myself an entrepreneur. I've now started one, two, three companies by that time, but I just formed… I was just creating community, right? I was creating opportunity. I was also at the same time, I was Randi became a client of ours, Brian and I, and we were coaching her, Randi Zuckerberg.
James McKinney: She became a client of Congregation?
Michael Littig:Yeah, and Mark Fisher Fitness. We had met her through there, too, which is a whole other funny story because I had no idea who she was until one day, I'll tell this. This is a funny story. I don't think I've told her. I've only told Brian. I was coaching her one day and I was like, "Oh, hey, where'd you go to school?" And she's like, "Oh, I went to Harvard," and Randi's so good at being not… she doesn't take herself seriously at all. She's one of the most inspiring people I know. I was like, "Oh Harvard, that's really interesting. When did you graduate?" She's like, "Oh, like 2004." I was like, "Wasn't that when Facebook got started?" She was like, "Yeah. My parents, they said to me and my brother you can go do your startup for like a year, but then you've got to get a real job. Luckily, that turned out pretty well," and I was like, "Ha, ha, ha, Randi. Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg, oh."
James McKinney: That's so funny.
Michael Littig:So here I was, we had started these companies and Randi actually turned to me one day, and I think it's because I never… Brian and I, we just showed up and just tried to be the best guys we could. We never talked to her about business. I talked to her about, we'd nerd out about Sky Miles and flying, because I'd flown my whole life. We're both aviation nerds. But one day she turned to me and she goes, "Hey, would you ever like to come to Australia with me?" I was like, "Oh my gosh, yes." Because she travels around the world and speaks. She's like, "Yeah, I think you'd be really great at coaching entrepreneurs." I was like, "Oh, wow." In my mind, I'm like why would I have anything to say to entrepreneurs? I'm not an entrepreneur. And it's so amazing, like I love what your mission of this podcast is. It's like pulling back the veil of saying, and Randi says this, that entrepreneurs aren't defined by being coders or living in Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs are my friends from Somalia. They're the nomads I met in Mongolia. They were me.
I didn't even think of myself as an entrepreneur. It wasn't until I really started understanding what that definition means. You can see, now I'm only like 33 years old, I've started three companies, and she says, "Hey, what if we coach entrepreneurs?" And then she goes, "Let's get on the phone. I really believe in you guys. Here's some ideas about your business. But here's an idea, but you totally don't have to say yes, I totally understand if you said no, but what if we started a business?" And we were like, "Wow, oh my gosh."
So this becomes the formation of Zuckerberg Institute. It's just super amazing to me. I have to thank her so much. I imagine for everyone, I wish someone would have told me I'm an entrepreneur much sooner. I was like a leader. I was creating things, but no one said, "You're an entrepreneur." I think that would have saved me a lot of turmoil of like should I go the PhD route, should I do this. And to say that I really take a lot of agency in what it means to be an entrepreneur, which to me is to have autonomy, and to really create the life you want to lead. I had never gone the most realistic route. I had always asked weird questions. That is who I am. So that's the formation of Zuckerberg Institute.
James McKinney: That's awesome. What's interesting, and this is why I love walking with founders from the very early days is that one, very few times in our life do we tell our life narrative, we talk about the early days. But as we do so, we can see these breadcrumbs throughout our entire life where it all just makes complete sense. But until Randi told you and validated you, well let's coach entrepreneurs, you didn't see it at all.
Michael Littig:Oh, no.
James McKinney: I think that is one of my favorite parts of walking through this entrepreneurial journey with the founders is just kind of, as we're talking it's I could totally see why you're an entrepreneur. Just everything makes sense, but we tend to not see it in ourselves until someone is kind enough to validate it within us and give us cause to say wait a second, that is true about myself.
So let's unpack Zuckerberg Institute for the listeners. What is Zuckerberg Institute and what is it you're doing right now?
Michael Littig:So I'll tell you a little bit how it formed and why it formed. So why she came to Brian and I is that we were working in community. She could see that we were working in community and we were able to create community, and that's what she wanted to create around the entrepreneurs that she was having the privilege to meet on a weekly basis. So she travels all the time, she does all these keynote speeches. Often comes in for an hour and then shoots out, and what Randi really loves to do is she calls it get in the muck with people and really understand their business, and really offer actionable advice that will change your life. And to know that it doesn't happen overnight, it is all through deep practice. It is all about how you show up. It's less about the skills you have. It's more about your integrity, how you face courage, how you face doubt, what is your belief.
We came with simply asking can we create community around entrepreneurship globally, and can we focus on people who like, I'm going to use myself as a great example, who never saw themselves as entrepreneurs, and they never had access to the Silicon Valley zip code. Could we flip that on its head and say, "Well, what if we start to give those people access to the Silicon Valley zip code and the people that lie within it, and can we create a community of likeminded values that you feel like you belong, number one, number two it is about accountability." So many communities, I've done many masterminds in my life and they're amazing, but no one really follows up with you the day after you go to the great conference. S
o what if we could create a community where people actually followed up with you and say "Hey, did you do the things you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do them?" Because this is how you enact change, and this, when I look at my life I go, "Oh, no wonder I was like studying under a martial arts master in India. No wonder I was teaching people how to show up to their fitness. No wonder I was interested in shamans in Mongolia is because they were all ritualized of how they showed up to who they are." That ultimately determines how they showed up to their life and their work. What we did is we started with that foundation so you belong, you're held accountable, and then authenticity so that you could really create your own unique inner voice, and be celebrated for that.
So we created a mentorship platform where people can come and engage with us in community. They can ask questions. We have mentorship calls. We have online events where we bring people that are a part of Randi's network to be our experts. So when you get to have access to these amazing people within Silicon Valley or within the world that are doing really incredible things, and they're niche places so that's like in the world of fundraising, public speaking, LinkedIn, how to raise money, so on and so forth. Then on top of that, we do in person events where we go a little bit deeper.
We started to create a mastermind, because we want to get to know people's businesses where we can help them over a long period of time, and then what I've really spearheaded is now all the stuff that you're going to now hear through the stories is I created these cultural exchange trips, where we do transformation leadership retreats. So the first one we're doing is in northern India with the Dalai Lama, and all the teachers that surround the Dalai Lama because I believe that's where change is going to happen, is if you go to another culture that doesn't hold your belief system, collide it, and get to articulate who you are and what you do.
So that's the community we're creating. We're super excited about it. We've very young. We're only about six months old, so we're like in the very beginning journeys of our entrepreneurial journey. We understand that five years from now, we'll be a totally different company. I can't wait to listen back on this to be like, "Oh, we were talking about online events? Oh gosh, that was crazy, we don't do that anymore, we just do transformational leadership retreats because that's where it's at."
What I can say is what's cool about Zuckerberg Media, and I remember we talked about this, and Zuckerberg Institute, when we first had our discussions is that we all come from artist backgrounds. Everyone that's on that team comes from a creative, artistic background. So we're very open to ask questions and to pivot, and to investigate, and to be curious. Not to say that if you're not from an artist background you don't have those themes. But what's cool about being from an artist background is that you're told "no" a lot. You're basically told nope a lot, so you have to figure out what you say to get around the no. so I think that helps us in many ways.
James McKinney: Oh, I love that. I did not know that Zuckerberg Institute was only six months old, so this is awesome that we are able to share this story so early on in Zuckerberg Institute's journey. So I can't wait, like you said three years from now to do a where are they now episode.
Michael Littig:Oh my gosh, of course, and be like, "What did you learn in those three years," right?
James McKinney: Right. So right now, being that you are new and there's always people that are going to have narratives. I'm sure there's probably someone listening like okay great, they're six months old, but they're connected to Randi Zuckerberg. There's probably not too many challenges. She's super connected. Whatever the case may be. You're six months in. What are some of your challenges that you're working through right now?
Michael Littig:Primarily, one of the most number one challenges in a space that's flooded with coaches, and a space that's flooded with communities, who are we? And who are we at our core, and how is that different? What is the white space in the market? So that's something I think takes time, and that's an organic evolution of who you are and what you become. The second, I would say the main challenge is really being clear… I always think as any kind of leader, entrepreneurs, is you can never be clear enough. I believe that you have to, in a way, constantly be impeccable with your word. I just say that because I think it's a daily challenge to be clear about who you want to become so that those people start to surround you. The clearer you are in your values, those people start to come. If you're not clear about your values, perhaps the people you don't want around you are going to come. I think that's really important.
James McKinney: That is awesome. I'm so bummed that our time is coming to an end because there's so much more. I feel like we could go on for hours and that's what I love about connecting with entrepreneurs, is that there is a camaraderie among entrepreneurs because we've walked similar journeys, the challenges and the things that we've had to overcome to get to where we are. And even still, sitting at really the bottom of the mountain, still climbing, there's so much more to do. But there's two questions that I always ask. Really, if I had to trim The Startup Story down to 10 minutes, I would probably only ask these two questions in every episode. That first one is about gratitude because I truly believe, and I'm sure you do being so focused on community, I truly believe that if we lose sight of all the people that contributed to our journey to where we are today, then we'll begin to think we did it by ourselves and begin to isolate ourselves, and that isolation will only lead to our failure. So as you look back on your journey, who are the people you point to with such immense gratitude for their contribution to your journey?
Michael Littig:Yeah, there are so many. I'll kind of go through a few of them. I'm going to first start with my cofounder, so Randi, Jim, and Brian because of how they show up and who they are, how they show up on a daily basis. Once I was told about entrepreneurship is like climbing a mountain, climbing Mount Everest. I've climbed Kilimanjaro and I've gone to the space camp, so I understand a little bit of the metaphor of what happens when you get to the most difficult part of the mountain. You want the people that are going to pick you up when you're starting to walk slower and those people do that for me, so they're first.
I have to point to all the mentors I've had, particularly the ones so Patrick Page is my acting mentor. We started the Patrick Page Acting Studio, that's one of the companies I started. I'm deeply, deeply, deeply indebted to him because he taught me to ask questions. We nerd out about Shakespeare, so everything we talk about is about Shakespeare. So Shakespeare, through the vehicle of Shakespeare has really taught me to ask bigger questions of what it means to be human. I think that any entrepreneur at the basis of what they do is that. We're helping people be more human in some way. So that Guru Kal, who is my teacher from India who taught me about discipline and personal practice, I remember once he told me I was sitting with him in south India. We were having yoga at 5 a.m. and he turned to me very seriously, and he said, "Michael, you must have a personal practice because you're mind will go like this," and he did like a big sine wave. "But if you have a personal practice, it will start to go like this." Once I understood that personal practice didn't mean I had to do yoga every day, that it could mean anything. It could really mean anything. That was life changing for me and became the foundation of my work.
I really want to thank my parents, both for particularly the shadow self of those experiences of when I was young, if we go back to the beginning of the podcast. Those ultimately define who I am. Some of those are negative experiences, not growing up particularly with the father figure around, or some of those are positive experiences, getting the chance to grow up in Disney World and spend every other weekend at Disney world with my mom, and understand those experiences become the formation of who I am. So I'm thankful for those, as much as they hold some pain. But the more conscious I make those things, the more I'm in control of them and I can listen to myself when they start to take over. So I'm thankful for that. I could continue going on, but I won't.
James McKinney: The final two questions really are my favorite part of the entire thing, because I love hearing people reflect back on all of those who really actively participated in what is we become today. They reach back that hand and help lift them up to that next level in some way, and I love that because that really is what I want listeners to understand, is this journey is not intended to be alone. It is not a solo flight. Sometimes we idolize the solopreneur and we hear about those who just kind of stuck in the basement writing code forever, and all the sudden they become something significant. Those are the anomalies. There's a selection bias in those stories, and so I love hearing from founders when they talk about those that contributed, so thank you for that.
My last question as our time comes to an end. We've been talking to tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and those who are sitting in a 9 to 5 who want to be an entrepreneur, so a want-trepreneur, I'd like you to spend just a couple moments speaking to a singular person. Would that be the frustrated entrepreneur who is doing their own thing, but they're discouraged with the lack of traction they're getting or lack of movement they're getting. Or maybe it's the want-trepreneur that has a 9 to 5 but they have a spouse and kids and a mortgage, or there's some narrative as to why they can't do it, or maybe they think they're too old because they're in their sixties and they can't venture on their own. Or maybe it's the defeated entrepreneur, the one who's been punched in the gut time and time again, and about ready to just call it quits completely. I'd like you to speak to one of those persons for just the next couple minutes. What do you have to say to them as you're sipping a coffee at a local New York City cafe with them?
Michael Littig:Well, first of all I would point out that I don't have any answers but I'm more than willing to suffer alongside of them. I say that in a way that if you look at compassion, the root word of compati is to suffer with. I think that ultimately, what I would speak directly to that individual or any of those individuals is find someone that is willing o suffer alongside of you, that is willing to ask questions with you, that is willing to take baby steps together, that is willing to walk into the unknown because you can't do it alone. I'm going to tell you that. I just really believe even if I'm someone in front of a computer, at least there's some image of something that I'm creating, so no one 's really alone. I believe this is the foundation of entrepreneurship is that you're walking deeply into the unknown and that you are heroic and you have something to offer into the world, and life is calling to you. I'm asking the question together and walking into the unknown with you.
This is the place where we find meaning and what do we have to offer? This world is so short. I want you, dear listener, to feel emboldened and have courage, so find something that you believe that can help you, that says, when you say, "Hey I have this idea," they don't say, "Oh my gosh, that's a dumb idea." Or "How are you going to do that?" and they get practical. They start to ask questions with you and they support you, and they say, "How can we rise together?" and when you find those people, hold onto them. Grab them by the hand. Ask questions together, because something is waiting for you and there's something that is particularly yours that has your own identity within it. I believe if you can hear anything from my story, it is done through community, and that's the way we survive.
James McKinney: As the creator and host of The Startup Story, I get the pleasure of hearing our founders stories numerous times. The first is when we record the episode, and the second is when we edit and clean up a bit of the episode, and the third time I hear it is when we do a final quality check to ensure you're getting the absolute best. And by hearing our founder stories multiple times, it allows me to really unpack some key takeaways for you, and Michael's story is rich with takeaways. That said, there is one in particular that struck me that I want to highlight. That is about community. In the world of entrepreneurship, whether it be magazines, video series, social media, movies, books, or even television series a la Silicon Valley, we are pushed with the narrative of hustle and hard work, self reliance and autonomy. While all those characteristics are true and common among entrepreneurs, it does not address what is truly the key to success, and that is community.
When you think of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, you think about brilliant minds that devoted their entire life to their business and attained some unbelievable levels of success. When the media speaks about them, they speak to their work ethic and sacrifice, because those story lines make for great content. What you don't hear are about the people they had in their lives to climb that mountain with, their community. Yes, they absolutely had key people in their lives that helped them to traverse challenging seasons, yet that storyline doesn't get the headlines that drive ad revenue, so you're never going to hear about them. I want to be very clear. Hard work and sacrifice are absolutely necessary when starting and growing a business, but it s the strength of your community that will be an indication as to whether or not you will be able to withstand the long journey of entrepreneurship.
Michael's direct experience in climbing various mountains across the globe helped to add some substance to the saying entrepreneurship is like climbing a mountain. You will inevitably reach a point when your own effort won't be enough and the team you climb with will need to pull a little bit more of the load. Community is the key. I hope you found value in Michael's transparency and authenticity. If you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time, then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. So if you did find value from Michael's startup story, then make sure to visit Zuckerberginstitute.com to join the entrepreneurial community they are building there. Do not travel this journey alone. Entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs, so let's make sure to show up for Michael and Zuckerberg Institute in a huge way.
And now for my personal ask. The Startup Story community has been so incredible about sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We too are a startup and word of mouth is everything, so please follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory or on Twitter @StartupStory_. If you're on LinkedIn, please search for The Startup Story and follow our company page. LinkedIn is a really powerful way to raise awareness of the show. But the most impactful way you can help us grow our audience is to leave a review on Apple Podcast. Or if you listen to the show via Spotify, then please simply share the podcast directly from your Spotify app or wherever you listen to the show.
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