Written by Tim McDonald

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In 2013, I was invited to speak at Summer Brand Camp in Dallas, an annual conference that brings together marketing, human resources and operations from the restaurant industry. If you know me, you know I am not in operations, HR or marketing and that I’m definitely not in the restaurant industry. How in the world could a conference with nothing to do with what I do, change my life?

I am fortunate that the work I do and love is what garnered me an invitation to Summer Brand Camp. I was thrilled to be there to speak about community management and share my knowledge. I was there with a purpose of sharing my perspective and experiences with a new community. And I didn’t expect much more than that.

What happened at the conference changed my life because I went with an open mind to listen, share and learn. I was actually a little giddy when I met Kat Cole, the president of Cinnabon, on the first night. I had seen her on Undercover Boss and also read about her story.

My cumbersome ‘OMG’ introduction, I’m sure left her wondering who this crazy guy was. But that’s not Kat. I wouldn’t realize this until after the conference. Even though the conference is listed for 3 days, the Friday after the event is technically “over”, there is a summit called “Changers of Commerce”. This is the moment that changed my life.

Screen shot 2014-05-13 at 8.39.12 PMAlong with meeting Kat, I also met Jeff Power, CEO of Pangeo Coffee. Coffee was enough to bring us together but the story of what Pangeo does would connect us in ways that are still evolving. His passion to connect villages and make a difference in the world showed me that anyone can make an impact and made me think about what’s possible.

And when I thought it could not get better than this, I learned that it could because of the power of letting life flow. After I spoke at the event on community management, Joni Doolin, the CEO of Workforce Intelligence (formerly People Report), a Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K) company and organizer of Summer Brand Camp, asked me if I’d be interested in speaking at the Changers of Commerce Summit. I said sure, not knowing what I was saying yes to.

As I headed down to the the smaller room, after the main event space had already been cleared out and was getting ready for the next event to roll in, I was feeling like I had met some of the kindest, friendliest and caring people over the last couple days and couldn’t wait to see what this was all about. The size of this gathering was small, about 40, in comparison to the several hundred just the day before. One of the first speakers was Kat. She explained how it isn’t a choice to decide between capitalism and doing good. It’s quite opposite. The more you have, the more you can give. Whether you call it “connected capitalism,” “conscious capitalism” or “creative capitalism” being connected with your community, you can work together to create positive change.

I’ll admit to being one of those people who used to think it was either profits or purpose; not both. Kat changed my perception by sharing stories of how individual Cinnabon stores had partnered with their local community and enjoyed not only the outcome for the cause, but also for the business. Another speaker was Jessica Miller-Merrell, Blogging4Jobs, who was living in Oklahoma and shared how she engaged her online community to help those whose homes were devastated by a tornado in her home community. It’s important to remember that some change is not always wanted, but it not what happens to us, but how we react, that counts.

Jeff Power talked about how Pangeo connects its customers with a village where their coffee comes from. The story he told was of a water pump they installed in one of the villages. It wasn’t about giving the money, or giving the pump, it was about creating sustainable change. By having the villagers invest some of their own money, this would not be a gift, but something they owned. His story taught us all that “We’ve been throwing money at problems for years, yet we still have the same problems. You can’t keep doing things the same way and expect different results.”

All the speakers had PowerPoint presentations, stats, facts and stories that made your eyes tear up. I happened to be sitting at the table where the projector was. For as much as I was learning and being inspired by all these stories, I was having a major meltdown inside. My brain was on overdrive going through a myriad of thoughts: What was I going to share? Why did I say yes, without getting more information of what was expected of me? Should I put some slides together? How can I follow these incredible stories?

Then, I was told I was next.

I told them I didn’t have any slides and walked up in front of this room of people, most of which I had only met for the first time a couple days ago. It was time. I took a deep breathe and explained that I was not going to be able to match any of the stories they had just heard, because I didn’t have a story. At least not one in this context, for this group. What I did talk about was how I could help share their stories.

Screen shot 2014-05-13 at 8.38.50 PM Working at The Huffington Post, gave me a unique opportunity to pitch segments for HuffPost Live or get a blog post or feature written. I couldn’t promise any of that right there, but at minimum, I have a pretty large personal network and am connected with many others that I could introduce. As I said the words, “What I will offer you today, is if you reach out to me and tell me your story, I will help share it.”

Someone said, “You don’t know who you are telling that to!” I said I did. I knew that the group that stayed for this summit were not takers, they were givers. I knew my offer would not be abused and assured them this is something I don’t tell everyone. Shortly after I sat down, the summit wrapped up and I headed to catch the shuttle to the airport. On the flight home I was thinking of all the people I had met and the lessons I had learned:

  1. Profits and purpose can coexist.
  2. Always understand the problem to create sustainable change.
  3. The power of connectedness and how good can arise from a disaster.

These lessons would be enough to justify the trip, but that’s not what changed my life. Several months later, I was asked to join the Social Council for No Kid Hungry. Anyone who knows me knows that my connection with No Kid Hungry changed me by giving me a purpose and direction to end child hunger. It’s connected me with a family of others on the social council and a new community on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. It’s provided a way for me to give and also get much more in return.

This year at Summer Brand Camp, I’ll be back and know what I’ll be talking about at the Changers of Commerce Summit. And I hope it can change the lives of others.