Time for a Change

“You’re a bit of a wild card candidate,” Becky joked as we wrapped up my first Zoom interview with The Adventure Project (TAP).

Published on
January 12, 2022
7 min read
“You’re a bit of a wild card candidate,” Becky joked as we wrapped up my first Zoom interview with The Adventure Project (TAP).

“You’re a bit of a wild card candidate,” Becky joked as we wrapped up my first Zoom interview with The Adventure Project (TAP).

I knew she was right, of course. I had just spent 30 minutes sharing with TAP’s CEO and Co-founder why I felt my experience in strategy and operations across retail (e.g. Target, TOMS) and technology (e.g. Lyft) qualified me to run growth at a nonprofit. I’d learned a ton about growth and scaling in the private sector, but with no professional experience in development, why was I motivated to join TAP – a nonprofit focused on ending global poverty through job creation?

My interest in poverty alleviation started in 2008.

As a wide-eyed college sophomore hungry for adventure, I jumped at an opportunity to spend my summer volunteering in Peru. My job there was to build ceramic chimney stoves deep in the Andes Mountains where families have health problems from cooking without adequate smoke ventilation.

As I stepped into a modest adobe brick home on my first day of work, I saw the problem firsthand. The ceiling was encrusted with a thick layer of black soot. Even more alarming were the labored coughs I heard from the mother and children, suggesting their lungs were coated with the same black residue. What had started as a yearning for adventure turned into a stronger sense of empathy and a better understanding of my privilege.

Living and working in Peru was a formative experience for me, but at this point, I wasn’t thinking about international development as a career. So, like many of my classmates, I joined the business world after college and it was really good for me. I learned how to work cross-functionally, make data-driven decisions, and manage a team. But after a few years, I was restless. I just wasn’t that passionate about selling more widgets to American consumers and was craving another experience – one where my work felt meaningful and had a direct positive impact as it had in Peru.

So I decided to make a change. 

I applied for and was lucky to be awarded a grant to teach English in Bulgaria. The students there were impressive and, despite being the teacher, I learned more from them than they did from me. Perhaps the best example of this followed a lesson about international education. Troubled by data highlighting the low literacy rates and lack of educational resources in other countries, a 10th grade class raised nearly $30,000 to build a school in Ghana! Seeing a group of high school students leverage their talents to make a positive impact left me inspired and shaped my belief that young people can accomplish really big things.

Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School in Ghana.
As my year in Bulgaria progressed, I started searching for a way to use my business skills to incite positive social change.

That curiosity led me to business school, where I studied social entrepreneurship and business models that generated a triple bottom line (social, environmental, and financial returns). After graduation, I moved to San Francisco to work for technology companies focused on solving real social problems at scale.

My time in San Francisco has been quite an adventure, and I’ve learned invaluable lessons along the way. But events over the past couple years caused me to reevaluate just about everything.

I’ll never forget the weekend of August 24th, 2019.

My wife Lindsey and I were on our way to Chicago for a wedding. Lindsey returned from a last-minute bathroom trip before boarding with a look on her face I hadn’t seen before...a mixture of excitement and uncertainty. “Don’t freak out,” she said, “but I think I might be pregnant.”

The rest of the weekend was a blur. We were surrounded by friends all weekend and hardly had a chance to talk about our news. When we arrived home on Sunday, we were finally able to release some of our excitement about starting a family.

But that excitement ended abruptly. Just a few hours after getting home, my parents called.

My mom had stage four stomach cancer, and the prognosis was pretty bleak: “12-18 months.” And that was assuming her treatment was effective. My mind swirled as I tried to process some of the most exciting and devastating news of my life at the same time.

Our son Leo was born in April 2020, just as the COVID pandemic was ramping up.

We were overjoyed, but I certainly didn’t anticipate a global pandemic as the backdrop to my foray into parenting. And the complications kept coming. Thankfully, my mom was still responding well to treatment, but we all understood the severity of the situation. Both of my sisters were engaged, and each decided to pull her wedding date forward so my mom could be there. Traveling for two small family weddings during a pandemic was challenging, but seeing mom’s big smile throughout made it completely worthwhile.

Keeping up with work was also hard.

I worked West Coast hours from the East Coast for extended periods so I could help take care of my mom. I was trying to balance keeping the lights on at work with researching clinical trials, preparing meals that fit Mom’s restricted diet, and taking notes at important doctor appointments. As I hustled from the intensive care unit to the hospital parking lot to take Zoom calls, it became obvious that things just weren’t sustainable.

I said goodbye to my mom five months ago now.

After a courageous two-year battle with cancer, she passed peacefully, surrounded by our entire immediate family. But I miss her terribly.

Losing my mom had a big impact on me. I realized how short and precious life is and I started to question how I was spending my time. I no longer felt compelled to work long hours and miss precious time with my family. Moreover, Lindsey and I felt very far from our Midwest and East Coast families.

Because Leo is too young to be vaccinated, the only way we have felt comfortable seeing our family is by making a 2,800 mile drive (which we’ve done six times since COVID hit). I also felt driven to get back to doing work that had a more direct positive impact on other people.

That’s when I discovered The Adventure Project, and it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.

I remember first reading about TAP’s mission to combat global poverty by creating jobs and empowering entrepreneurs. Following the wisdom of an old saying, the TAP community teaches people how to fish, which is a much more sustainable approach to uplifting struggling economies than simply giving people fish. I thought the potential for impact was even greater and more sustainable than my previous work in Peru.

My excitement about TAP grew when I read Becky’s “Making it Work” blog post, in which she described her own challenges working 80-hour weeks and parenting during the pandemic. Her experiences shaped TAP’s new policies around flexible schedules, remote work, and pay transparency. Needless to say, that resonated with me. BIG TIME.

And so after interviewing with Becky, the team, and the board (plus a great deal of personal reflection), I decided that it was time for another change: I accepted an offer to become TAP’s Chief Growth Officer. After years engaging with nonprofits as a donor, board member, fundraiser, and community-builder, I am thrilled to switch gears from the Silicon Valley tech scene to advance a cause I care about deeply. I started full time on January 10th and couldn’t be more excited for this next chapter.

If you share an interest in The Adventure Project’s unique approach to poverty alleviation, please connect with me on LinkedIn and/or shoot me a note at michael.pelehach@theadventureproject.org. I’d love to hear from you!

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Becky Straw
Co-Founder, The Adventure Project