Inspiration in a Laotian Jungle

Roya Elghanian’s career path has taken her from the music industry through entrepreneurial ventures and to her current work as founder of a Pilates studio and Worldwide Helpers, a nonprofit connecting volunteers to volunteer opportunities internationally. Read Roya’s real-life story as she finds her Work on Purpose.

If you could create a tweet that describes your career path, what would it be?
Struggling entrep finally finds path that brings money & rewards me spiritually #workonpurpose

When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a tennis player, in fact, a world-famous tennis player who'd play on Wimbeldon's center court.

What was your worst job?
I was quite the entrepreneur and I always had some new business idea. One idea was to launch a pizza and DVD bar and you would be able to watch the movie at the bar or take it home. In preparation for launching that business (I never launched it), I worked at a video store. It was probably my worst job because it wasn’t stimulating whatsoever.

What is one book OR film that significantly influenced your path and why?
Unquestionably Kahlil Gibran's book, The Prophet. His quotes on life and how to live it are very powerful. Sometimes when I’ve been lost, I’ve turned to the book to seek guidance and insight on how to transcend the situation I'm in.

What’s your favorite career mistake?
In a way, every career I had prior to what I'm doing now, in some ways, could be considered a lucky "mistake." I had been in jobs that didn't fulfill my passion. Leaving my last job was the best career decision I made because it led me to the career path I really wanted to follow: serving the world.

Tell us about an “aha” moment that changed the course of your life.
The “aha” moment I think of was when I thought up Worldwide Helpers—a nonprofit organization created to foster partnerships between volunteers and charitable organizations worldwide. I was backpacking around the world for six months and I was originally looking to volunteer, but I didn’t sign up for anything because of the high costs of these volunteer programs. I was climbing through the jungle in Laos, talking to another guy I was traveling with and we were discussing the high costs of these volunteer programs—and we thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if there was space online to find free or low cost volunteer opportunities? And that’s when I said, I’m going to do this and create this space for people, so when I meet people in the future who want to volunteer, but aren’t able to because of the high barrier costs, I will have an answer for them.

What socially significant career accomplishment are you most proud of, thus far?
I am most proud of creating WWH given my family’s and grandfather’s background as an influential person in Iran. My grandfather grew up with seven brothers and didn't have a lot of money. Despite the financial struggles his family faced, he became a successful entrepreneur at 25. He was the first man to create plastic in Iran and even though he became very affluent, he felt the need to create social change and help those in need. He was very dedicated to supporting the poor people and he made me realize life just isn’t about doing well yourself, but making sure you help those around you (although I think this understanding has persisted in our family from generation to generation). I knew there was something I had to do in this world. In view of that, creating WWH is an accomplishment that I’m proud of. With the re-launch of our website and the social networking tools that have been incorporated into it, I feel there are no boundaries to what I—let alone anyone else—can do.

Could you tell us about at time when you felt like your career was "out of whack?"
There was a time with WWH where I felt like we weren’t getting enough feedback from the volunteers; we knew it was a successful program, but we couldn’t tell how many of our clicks corresponded to people who were going abroad as volunteers because our website was one-dimensional. It was frustrating to know that we were doing something good but didn’t have a way to demonstrate that. This was the reasoning for creating our new site as a social platform; we can get a lot more feedback from volunteers and we have a better way of showing what we’re accomplishing.

Describe your typical Tuesday.
Ok, a typical Tuesday. As well as running a charity, I own a Pilates studio and half of my studio is donated office space for WWH—most of my morning is spent on WWH. In the afternoon, I would probably have lunch and meetings. In the late afternoon I usually spend time getting donors on board with our work. We just launched the new site that incorporates a marketplace—kind of like an eBay selling products specifically for volunteers. I’m constantly in discussion with providers like Northface and Vodafone to help all of the volunteers get better deals while traveling. And, in the evening, only on Tuesdays, I teach two spinning classes just for fun. After a few hours of teaching spinning classes, I'm usually pretty dead.

Do you have advice on how young people can get into a field that they love?
When I finished university, I had all of these different interests, I felt like I was going in circles in a roundabout and didn’t know where to exit. My advice is to take all of the paths, or take one at a time and find which one leads you to the road you want to stop at.

How do you balance a career you love with one that’s financially stable?
Well, I might not be the best person to answer that. WWH isn’t bringing in enough revenue to support me—it’s not enough to quit my day job running my Pilates studio. I don’t take any salary from WWH. But my advice is to always try to make a career out of something you love, instead of something that will just earn you money.

Who is one person whose changemaking career you greatly admire and why?
My mother, who is an amazing woman. Nearly nine years ago, she started Magic of Persia, a nonprofit that promotes Iranian heritage and culture through the arts. At the moment, people view Iran negatively. When you say "Iran," the country conjures up images of or is automatically associated with terrorism for many people. Her charity exists to show people where we come from and our culture and beliefs—and that we are one humanity. Watching her put her passion and drive into her work has definitely influenced how I lead my life, and the values that are meaningful and important to me.

What is a song that would be on the soundtrack of your life?
Fame by Ciara. I love singing it at the top of my lungs. The song reflects my joy and positive attitude towards life.