Hey! My name is Connor Gillivan and I am an ambitious entrepreneur inspired by the lives and actions of others. For the past 10 years, I have been diving into entrepreneurial endeavors in an effort to realize my visions and learn through the failures and successes that accompany the rise and fall of building a business.
Throughout my experiences, I have discovered the importance of understanding your story and being able to transparently communicate who you are and why you exist to others, especially potential business partners, customers, and mentors. While recruiting hundreds of individuals to work with my company, I was determined to create an interview process that not only ensured that the applicant’s skill level met our requirements, but that their attitude and beliefs also aligned with who we were as a business.
I tested different a multitude of methods acquired from other CEO’s and hiring teams through the Internet, but I ended up coming back to one that was introduced to me while traveling to South Africa for the first time in 2010 as a wide-eyed 20 year old. The method entailed creating a life map that highlights 5 to 10 events, experiences, or people throughout your life that have shaped you into the individual that you are today.
When I started utilizing this method in the final round of our interview process, I immediately knew that I was getting into a deeper level with the applicant than I had before. I was being shown their true colors which opened a new door to deeper understanding than any standard interview question could. Through the activity, I met an amazing group of people – some of whom I continue to work with today – and connected with them on a level deeper than I have with most people I meet.
While some of you may know me, I wanted to provide those readers who don’t with a deeper look inside who I am and why I exist as a being through the life map method that I have found to be so inspirational and telling of a person’s true character. If you are interested by my story and want to know who I am striving to become, read My Visions.
Life Map #1: My Family
As for most, my story begins with the importance and influence of my family. I was born and raised in Albany, New York, to an amazing mother and father. My mother has been in the publishing industry and my father has been an engineer at GE for the better part of their professional lives. I have one sister who is 4 years older than me and is a science teacher in the greater Albany area.
Not Having a Set Path to Follow
The greatest impact that my parents made on me throughout my childhood was instilling values that I continue to cherish to this day. Growing up, I was cognizant of the influence that parents had over their children and I regularly observed friends being pushed down a certain path to “success.” As someone born with the innate want to stray away from a set path, I was always interested in starting my own projects and creating a different future for myself. Luckily, my parents were in support of my entrepreneurial endeavors as long as I was striving for absolute excellence in the classroom, worked hard in all aspects of my life, and showed respect to those around me. I strongly believe that my parent’s choice to raise me in such a manner and support me in all endeavors throughout my adolescence shaped me into an individual that was not afraid of uncertainty, rather one that reveled in its existence.
Life Map #2: Landscaping for You
At the sprite age of 14 as I was entering my freshman year in high school, I decided that it was time I start working. My older cousin who I had always looked up to had started his own landscaping business and needed help with larger projects where I could be of help.
After two years of working with my cousin and learning from his expertise in landscaping, planning, and customer service, I decided it was time that I take on my own clients. It was around this time that I started Landscaping for You – original name, I know. I put together flyers, printed 500 of them, and rode my bike around the neighborhood placing them in mailboxes and doors. I had my father’s lawn mower, a weed wacker that I had invested in, and an urge to build a business. Within a few weeks, I had a packed schedule with over 10 clients’ lawns scheduled over the seven days of the week around working with my cousin, playing soccer, and returning to school. It was everything that I wanted.
In this first experience as a business owner, I learned about managing a schedule, the basics of revenue, expenses, and profit, and how much I enjoyed working with others to solve a problem that they had. I kept the business running for almost 3 years before I headed off to college.
Life Map #3: Blackwatch FC and LaSalle Soccer
As a kid with too much energy to know what to do with it, I fell in love with the sport of soccer at a young age and played competitively through high school. Similar to most of my endeavors, I poured my entire mind and body into becoming the best soccer player that I could. I read books about the greatest players of all time, watched Youtube videos, and joined teams where the best claimed to be playing in our local area.
Soccer introduced me to an aspect about hard work, mental strength, leadership, and teamwork that I had not learned about before. In practices where our coach would run us so hard that I had to stop to puke, I realized that working that hard is what it takes to become who you envision. As the captain of my high school’s JV and varsity soccer team, I was introduced to leadership and the ability to influence a group of people through your actions and attitude. Most importantly, I was exposed to striving towards a common goal with a group of people. Playing soccer taught me that nothing can be achieved alone and that the greatest accomplishments in life are dependent upon the people that you surround yourself with.
Life Stop #4: Quinnipiac University
I entered college life at Quinnipiac University as an undeclared student in the Lender School of Business. I took business course after business course, but could not escape that deep interest that I took in my first microeconomics and macroeconomics courses. Their complex, mathematically driven explanation of how individuals act in different scenarios and how a country’s economy can react to particular indicators captured my attention and never let it go. I progressed through my undergraduate career thinking that I would pursue a PHD in Economics after graduation, which led me to couple my economics courses with mathematics. As I started taking mathematics courses regularly, I saw the deep connection between the two studies and loved how my knowledge in one excelled my competence in the other. Needless to say, I did not end up pursuing my PHD in Economics due to my entrepreneurial desires, but my education did craft my mind into an analytical and strategic problem solving machine.
One of the greatest lessons that I learned while studying at Quinnipiac University is that life is a game entailed to challenge us to further understand ourselves, others, and the true purpose of life. I attribute my academic success to this lesson because I saw from the start that in order to get ahead, I had to balance my life between academics and fun, form strong bonds with my professors to create a relationship of trust, and push myself in the direction I saw once college was over.
Life Map #5: ThinkImpact’s Global Development Internship
As a sophomore, it was time that I begin to seek summer internships and I was longing for an opportunity to travel outside of the United States. One day as I sifted through my emails, I spotted one from the business school’s career resources director titled “Spend your summer in South Africa or Kenya with ThinkImpact.” I opened the email to read a personal letter from a fellow QU student who had traveled with a company called ThinkImpact to South Africa the previous summer. I researched the company and found that their philosophy centered around the use of social entrepreneurship to make a positive difference on the lives of individuals at the bottom of the pyramid in communities in Africa. That was all I had to read. I immediately applied for the internship without telling anyone. I was shocked that the trip would cost $5,500 to attend if accepted, but I brushed that off for the time being.
After being accepted into the 12 week South Africa program, it was time to fundraise the money that I needed to attend. I first called my parents to let them know that I had been accepted into a trip to South Africa. Being open to my endeavors as described above, they were worried, but they continued to support me. They told me that they could donate 1/3 of the tuition, but that I would need to raise the remaining amount to go. I crafted a letter to send to friends and family, compiled a list of almost 50 emails, and sent it out with hopes of raising the remainder of the tuition. I was able to raise another 1/3 of the tuition through friends and family, but I was still left with almost $2,000 that I needed to go on the trip. I wasn’t going to give up. I researched and compiled a list of all of the deans at Quinnipiac and sent them each personal letters explaining my situation and requesting their help to raise the remaining funds. It took a couple of polite rejections until I heard from the dean of the school of business who said that he would hear me out. I was invited into his office to explain the trip, what I would be learning, and what I needed from the university to make it happen. He listened, asked, questions, and finally said that he would front the remaining $2,000 in exchange for a paper focused on how I grew from the experience upon returning to the states. I was on my way to South Africa.
The Experience of a Lifetime
I could write for hours about my experience as a Global Development Intern in Mpumalanga, South Africa because of the profound impact that it had on the development of my mind and beliefs, but I’ll save you and simply share the lessons that I learned. If you are interested in learning more about my experience as a GDI in South Africa, download my free book titled “Transforming Dreams into Reality: A Personal Account of Understanding Self, Strategically Planning, and Creating Belief.”
Coming from Quinnipiac University and the Northeast of America, life was quickly turned on its head as I made my way into the community of Utha, South Africa where I would be living for the next three months. The roads were dirt, the homes were built of cement, the people appeared malnourished, and there was no running water. As we drove through the communities to drop each set of interns off at their respective homestay for the next three months, I was further exposed to the world that I would be living in. I was nervous, yet extremely excited.
Over the three months that I spent in Utha, I learned a tremendous amount about the importance of life and what truly drove me as an individual. The biggest lesson that I took away from my first trip to South Africa was that money and material possessions is not the means to happiness. Rather, the relationships that you are able to create and the love that you show to others is how one can find true bliss.
It was also around this time as I returned to the United States that I gained a greater appreciation for my family and close group of friends. After living with a host family for three months and seeing the familial values that they had instilled within their relationships, I was determined to cultivate similar interactions with those that I loved most.
Life Map #6: Returning to South Africa as the Country Associate for ThinkImpact
Because of my decision to double up on courses in my Junior year as I was preparing to pursue a PHD program in Economics, I was able to graduate a semester early in December of 2011 leaving me in a position to work full time on the growth of the eCommerce business that I had been contributing to for the past year. It was also about this time that I had an uncontrollable urge to return to South Africa to further my studies of social entrepreneurship, leadership, and self understanding.
To begin my quest to return to South Africa, I went to ThinkImpact’s website to see what openings they had for the upcoming summer programs. I found that there were two types of leadership positions open: the in-country Advisor, responsible for leading the program for a group of students, and the County Associate, responsible for leading and managing the budget, logistics, and overall program details. Unsure of whether they would overlook the fact that I did not meet the 25 year old age requirement, I applied anyway knowing that the leadership team would recognize me as a past intern with the company.
I went through a number of first round interviews over Skype and phone before being invited to ThinkImpact’s headquarters in Washington, DC to attend a weekend long audition for one of the positions. When I arrived in Washington, DC, I was unsure of what to expect, but I was determined to leave the weekend with a strong impression on the company.
The weekend long tryout brought us to a high ropes course where we went through two days of activities, ropes courses, and similar living conditions to what we would find in South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, or Ghana. On the first night as we were all sleeping in the yert-like homes, one of the ThinkImpact leaders came in around 2:00 pm and stated that there was an emergency over at the barn and that everyone had less than 2 minutes to get dressed and get over there. The remainder of the weekend proved to be as difficult as the first day challenging us to complete the highest level of the ropes course and think outside of the box to solve real problems we may run into as in-country leaders.
About a week after the Washington, DC trip, I received a phone call from Saul Garlick, the CEO and founder of ThinkImpact. After a few minutes of casual chit chat, he expressed that he wanted to offer me the Country Associate position for the South Africa program. I was headed back to South Africa. This time with around 30 individuals that I would be responsible for.
Becoming a Leader through Experience and Failure
After training with ThinkImpact and my team of Country Advisors in Washington, DC, we set out on our journey to South Africa together to get the program set up before the Innovators arrived. The following three months would prove to be the most difficult and rewarding challenge that I had endured in my life.
I learned how to manage the logistics of a 30 person trip, how to balance the financials of a $60,000 budget, how to manage a group of strong-willed and extremely bright women, how to connect my experiences as an intern to the Innovators’ highs and lows, and how to lead through inspiration.
I stepped off of the plane into South Africa in June of 2012 as a young, 21 year old with a small idea of what I would be getting myself into. I stepped back onto American soil in late August of 2012 a completely new man matured by the responsibility of leading a group of 30 intelligent individuals through a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I am forever grateful to Saul and the ThinkImpact team for taking a chance on me to lead the largest Innovation Institute for that summer in South Africa. The experience truly opened my eyes to the passion that I have for nurturing relationships through leadership and providing a motivational force to produce positive change. The experience placed me in the perfect mindset to return to the United States and tackle the challenge of building Portlight into a multi-million dollar, 50 person company characterized by a values-based culture, a far-reaching vision, and a sound strategic plan.
Life Map #7: Deciding between Portlight and Social Entrepreneurship
When I returned from South Africa in August of 2012, I had a big decision to make that would shape the next chapter in my life. Do I pursue an opportunity working for a social enterprise similar to ThinkImpact or do I continue building the eCommerce business that I helped start while in college?
In January of 2011 as I continued my education at Quinnipiac, I felt that I had a good handle on my academics and I was ready to start working to make some extra cash and gain new skills. I had heard that another business student who had started his own business selling textbooks online was looking for part time work to manage inventory and record transactions in QuickBooks so I messaged him during a business law class that we had together. He was quick to respond and hired me within the week.
Each day after classes, I would go to his house and learn new aspects of running the business. After mastering inventory and QuickBooks, we moved onto order fulfillment, listing products, and managing customer service inquiries through the Amazon seller platform. Within a few months of working together, we were hooked by the business and it quickly became a part of our college life sometimes trumping academics in the holiday season.
After a year and a half of working on the business together, we had built it into a well-functioning machine producing over $1,000,000 in yearly revenue with over 10 part time employees helping us with the company’s operations.
I was torn between two passions: being an entrepreneur in eCommerce and solving real problems at the bottom of the pyramid through social entrepreneurship. As I weighed my options, I finally came to the conclusion that building my own company was the next step that I wanted to take in my life, but it only came as I imagined a world where eCommerce could be used to address major issues at the bottom of the pyramid. With that vision in mind, I set out with my two co-founders and two great friends to live in Orlando, Florida where we would pursue building Portlight into one of the leading sellers on the Amazon Marketplace.
Life Map #8: Pouring my all into Portlight
Building a Vision, Mission, and Set of Values
Recruiting Similar Minded Individuals
Enduring Busy Seasons
Opening our First Offices
Expanding into Web Development
Downsizing the Company
Life Map #9: Deciding Where to Head Next