I've known Tinashe for a few years now, and I've always been impressed by his spirit. After attending the same high school but never crossing paths due to our age gap, we stumbled upon each other through The Kalamazoo Promise, the scholarship that so graciously granted both of us our college tuition. He asked me to volunteer at Ministry With Community with him and his volunteer organization, and we've been in touch ever since. Since then, both of our personal and professional lives have changed immensely: he's spent time working in New York City at a prestigious internship and has continued to insert himself in community outreach and motivational speaking. Meanwhile, I moved to Detroit and saw the biggest growth in my business ever. So what better time to catch up and chat? We met at one of my favorite spots, Urban Bean Co. at Griswold & Grand River.
LJ: Who is Tinashe Chaponda?
TC: I was born in Harare, Zimbabwe and moved here with my family in 2001. I've lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan since I moved here and had a great childhood with lots of support... I love Kalamazoo. Being an immigrant, you already feel a sense of disconnect. When my mother passed away of cancer when I was in eighth grade I already felt isolated, but now with that happening, it really had an impact on me. I basically developed imposter syndrome to the fullest.
How did you channel that negative energy into something positive?
The turn of event was when I started to open my eyes and see what I do have (like The Kalamazoo Promise, and the Jeter's Leaders program.) I realized I needed to be grateful. I got inspired and wanted to invest in the city that invested so much in me, so I started an organization called FOCUS Kalamazoo. It's a student organization at Western Michigan University with an overall goal to get students out in the community. Currently I'm a social entrepreneur and I do motivational speaking and have been doing a lot more video blogging. I also just launched my own website, TinasheChaponda.com and am in school at WMU.
I met you through FOCUS, and that's what really drew me to your story... How do you just start an organization like that?
First, I found something I wanted to do that went beyond just myself. The thing I wanted to create takes a lot of people together to accomplish. I picked a passion that revolved around community and building people together, so in turn that meant I had to connect with people. Movements are done when people get together... and second, I was willing to sacrifice things. There are certain average college student things that I had to sacrifice in order to achieve my goals. Some people would say I need to enjoy the college experience, but it's hard to explain to someone how I might be up till 2am and wake up at 6am excited to work on this database or a strategic plan for partnering nonprofits, but to me it's not like work.
It's like telling a kid, "You've been playing on the playground for too long."
Another thing that's interesting to me is how you blend this service-driven organization with very corporate experiences. Do you have a hard time working in business and then turning around to do service-driven work, or do you enjoy the duality?
Let me say this: I love business. I say that because the people that are making the biggest impact have a business mindset. They understand how people and resources work. I love it because there aren't that many students going to school for business with a mindset of also wanting to have that nonprofit blend to it: social entrepreneurship. Working with a lot of nonprofits I've recognized some patterns... there wasn't an abundance of business-minded folks who really brought in the concepts of marketing plans and database management into the nonprofit world. Me being in that position allowed me to take what I was learning in school and apply it to nonprofits and the FOCUS organization.
How do your friendships and personal relationships play a role in your business?
A great mentor of mine told me, "Don't say networking: say you're building relationships." The reason for this is because it's about the individual... A lot of people, when they think of networking, they think of quantity... But it's about positioning yourself to allow yourself to build a meaningful relationship, and allow that relationship to play out. If you and I are [getting along] well enough, I essentially have access to your network, and vice versa. I focus a lot on the individual, and I put a lot of effort into making sure I maintain my relationships. I actually created a tool, a simple database, to [help me do that.] I believe that networking goes beyond just who can help me, but more of, "Who do I know in my web that I can connect you with?" I believe that business is 80% working on yourself and putting 20% towards helping others.
I want to switch it up a little and ask you about social media, because I think you're naturally really good at it! What is your favorite platform to use?
I don't see social platforms as equals, they all serve a different purpose. The backbone of everything I've been doing has definitely been Facebook. And Facebook owns Instagram, so it's definitely my favorite. Facebook is like the foundation and where I get the most engagement. The others kind of allow me to post more and gain a following to bring back to Facebook.
So lastly, tell me what your first impression of Detroit is!
I lived in [lower Manhattan] New York this summer, and it was like my first real city experience. Detroit is just two hours away [from Kalamazoo], but after appreciating city life in NYC, when I came here I was just so surprised at how much goes on in Detroit. I get that city feel without having to drive nine hours. I realize, wow, there is a lot of opportunity here. People have talked about it, I've heard about it when I was in New York, but actually coming here, I appreciate it more and I definitely will be coming back more to visit. I haven't given Detroit all of the props that it should get, but now I'm going to say, "Shoutout to Detroit."