Plywood Presents: Five Entrepreneurial (and Life) Lessons Learned from the Best

Story by Sheyda Mehrara 

Jeff Shinabarger, Founder of Plywood People 

Jeff Shinabarger, Founder of Plywood People 

As a self-proclaimed and diagnosed TED Talk addict, I catch myself bookmarking several a week just so that I can feel the rush of optimism that can halt an impending existential crisis (especially the ones that come hand in hand with a recent college graduation). Social entrepreneurship does seem to be the latest craze everyone is talking about. I’m no exception for I give people 10 plus “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” coolness points for those who have actually attended a TED Talk in person. It just exemplifies that we are all craving change, and that some of us have mustered up the courage to follow through with seemingly “crazy” ideas.

So, when my friend Marty told me about Plywood Presents, a two-day conference highlighting social innovators and entrepreneurs who have utilized their passions to solve bigger problems in my very own backyard, I knew I had to be there. It’s an event that attracts over 600 individuals all from different vocations – teachers, marketers, CEOs, artists – to the historic Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Ga. However, they all share a similar interest in learning from not only the successes, but also the failures, of presenters like Rohan Anderson of Whole Larder Love and fashion figure Sid Mashburn.

Here are my five takeaways from the Plywood Presents experience:

1. “Yes or no. These words will define who we will become or what we will be known for.” –Jeff Shinabarger           (@shinabarger)

Shinabarger is the founder of Plywood People, the Atlanta-based non-profit that created Plywood Presents in order to gather and spark action. His new book “Yes or No: How Your Everyday Decisions Will Forever Shape Your Life,” details the weight of those two words in our lives. He lists seven different methods to decision making, and he suggests that once you figure out your “yes or no” approach (or even approaches), it’s important to surround yourself with the six other types. It keeps you accountable from saying yes to everyone and everything, which can end up diluting you and the right opportunity that can come along.

2. “Go out and seek rejection everyday. You’ll be surprised that what you’re asking for isn’t out of the realm of yes.” –Jia Jiang (@jiajiang)

It was like every cringe-worthy moment in my life flashed before my eyes when I heard this. I wanted to melt as if everyone else was watching my failures on the projection screen behind Jiang. Why in the world would I put myself in the position to get rejected again and again?

Jiang did just that as he was fed up with his monotonous 9 to 5 job, and realized he was living a dream that was not his own out of fear. He set on the path to put himself in situations that could easily lead to rejection in order to desensitize himself to the sting with a project he titled Fearbuster. He even posted videos to hold himself accountable, which include Jiang asking a cop if he can drive his vehicle...and the cop lets him.

When someone tells us no, we somehow take that as an objective about our worth in this world. In order to do anything worthwhile that aligns with our passions, rejection is a part of the package deal.

Jen Hidinger of Staplehouse and Shinabarger 

Jen Hidinger of Staplehouse and Shinabarger 

3. “Anything long-lasting and worthwhile takes time and complete surrender.” –Jen Hidinger (@StaplehouseATL)

It’s pretty much a given that I’ll be in tears when I’m listening to stories that are about loss and comeback. Hidinger’s story was no exception. She detailed the dreams her and her chef husband Ryan had planned even after he had been diagnosed with stage 4 gallbladder cancer and given only six more months to live. She is currently working on opening up Staplehouse, a restaurant named after the supper clubs the couple was known for holding out of their home.

The frailty of life is forgotten daily, and it only dawns on us when something completely throws us off track. No matter how hard we try to control all the factors, there’s absolutely no way to predict what the future holds. Hidinger isn’t suggesting going through life without a strategic plan, but just with more grace to forgive yourself when you have to go back to the drawing board.

4. “Actions are meaningless unless we change our belief systems.” Liz Forkin (@ForkinSpoons)

Well, that was the proper slap in the face. Although I don’t agree with her 100 percent (because actions still have repercussions), I appreciate what she meant in the context of her talk, in which she deviated from the norm of describing her entrepreneurial journey as founder of Sseko Design, an ethical fashion brand based in Uganda, to address a bigger issue concerning gender inequality.

She pointed out how important it was to get men involved in this discussion, and she took the ample opportunity to address the case to an audience full of both men and women in influential positions. I saw the irony that every single crowd I’ve sat with was heavily female dominant, which dismissed the fact that gender also included males. It’s about adjusting belief systems that have turned into habits over years. The intentional actions arise when both parties are educated about the issue and decide to work toward a common solution because they believe it’s what’s best for them. We are more intelligent than readily accepting what is without dialogue that engages all parties.

Fashion Designer Sid Masburn and Shinabarger
Fashion Designer Sid Masburn and Shinabarger

5. “Currency of encouragement spends longer than the cash.” –Sid Mashburn (@SIDMASHBURN)

It was a personal highlight of the conference to interview Mashburn before his presentation on the last day. His charm seemed to wash over me and made me forget about my cravings for Yeah! Burger … momentarily.

His attention to detail is only topped by his desire to serve others. It doesn’t matter that he’s been featured in GQ numerous times and his store is a must stop for any bespoke lover, he treats every customer with the same respect and humility of a true breed Southern gentleman.

Words of affirmation work like magic on me. It’s reassuring that no matter how successful Mashburn has become, he still understands how essential and powerful it is to leave an individual edified.

My mind was racing by the end of conference, so I revisited my aspirations and plans as I sat down to finally grab a bite to eat. Some of what I listened to was just better packaged common sense, but words I needed to hear nevertheless. Plywood Presents jolts you awake. What I was left with was a bag full of goodies from all the different startups, a few new passionate friends and a glaring realization of what I needed to say yes and, in turn, no to, in my life.