Erica Noelle Duncan is a business consultant and coach who supports entrepreneurs in successfully starting or growing their businesses. Fun fact: Erica helped create More Than Me! She suggested that Katie start an NGO and contributed in so many other huge ways without realising what would grow out of it! She graciously spared time to recount some memories of the earlier days.
A few days back, Katie asked me to jot down things I remember from “way back when” when More Than Me was a seedling of an idea in her head. Her simple request released a flood of memories from 2007.
Nowadays, whenever I see Katie’s name, I expect it to be associated with something amazing. I’m sure you can relate. If she’s not winning $1 million for More Than Me, she’s gracing the pages of Time Magazine as a Person of the Year. If she’s talking to you, she’s likely reciting one of her powerful poems, or sharing stories of her adopted home in West Point.
“I’d rather die at 30 years old or 32 years old living for what I really believe in from head to toe and in every single way possible, than to live to be 90 years old and not really fulfill what I was born to do.”
Powerful words to say and powerful words to live by. Katie is one of those rare individuals who fully lives her values, no matter the cost.
But this writing is more of an origin story. You see, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the arc that Katie has traveled. From wondering if she had it in her to start a nonprofit to seeing her dreams realized by revolutionizing girls’ education in Liberia. How More Than Me started is just as important as what the organization is accomplishing now because it compellingly shows what is possible with a little bit of faith, a little bit of courage, and a little bit of help from one’s friends.
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Katie and I met in Monrovia in the fall of 2007. As with most non-locals in the country, we were both there to serve. Katie was volunteering for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian international relief organization that was supporting children. And I was on a month long secondment from my law firm to support lawyers and judges in rebuilding the justice system after the civil war. We weren’t close friends in Liberia – we’d see each other around at various hangouts and went on a joint trip to an iron ore mine. But for the most part, we were engaged in our own spheres of work and didn’t connect much.
When I returned to New York, I found myself craving the connections that I’d forged in Liberia. Reentry into “normal” life was really hard for me, and I couldn’t adequately explain to my friends and colleagues the restlessness that I was feeling. The truth was – Liberia had gotten under my skin in a good way. Playing a small role in helping a country pick up the pieces after years of conflict ignited an intense desire to do something different. The problem was, I didn’t know how to define “something”, nor was I brave enough to explore what “something” was. I felt conflicted as I was being paid very well at my law firm and wasn’t sure if international development work was my calling.
I needed to talk to someone who would get it and Katie came to mind. I reached out and we agreed to connect.
We were on the subway heading to a party in Astoria, Queens when Katie began telling me stories about girls in Liberia. Even then, the fire in her eyes was palpable. She was explaining to me how she met so many girls who wanted to go to school and that she wanted to “do something”. She expressed to me that she felt being a volunteer wasn’t enough. That the magnitude of the problem was just too big. I heard her lay out story after story, and felt the raw emotion that she was pouring out onto me and everyone on the train (even then, you couldn’t help but be drawn in by Katie). And I saw so clearly what she needed to do.
“You should start your own nonprofit. I will help you.”
There was an uncomfortable gap of silence after I told her this. I remember feeling nervous about what I’d said. Perhaps I was burdening her with too much responsibility. I was about to take my words back. And then I saw it. And she saw it. Something changed in her eyes, and I could sense that she was putting the pieces together. There was a lot to do logistically, and she wasn’t sure where to start. But I knew she could see the end result – a country where every single girl in Liberia has access to education.
From that moment, Katie was hooked. We set to work on building a solid structure for More Than Me. As with most nonprofits, there were a few twists and turns (I won’t bore you with the details) But I knew (as everyone who met Katie knew) that there was no turning back. Katie grabbed hold of her mission and didn’t let go. The result is what you see today:
An organization that has provided hope to hundreds of girls and their families.
An organization that provided critical and loving support during the devastating Ebola crisis.
An organization that is doing all that it possibly can to revolutionize girls’ education in Liberia.
And to think, it all started with a subway ride.
As for me, I did eventually leave law to start my own consulting and coaching practice. I now work exclusively with nonprofits and entrepreneurs who have a big mission to impact the world. Whenever sitting down with a nonprofit client, I often think about Katie and all that’s possible by holding onto a dream and never letting go.
When my clients tell me that they don’t have the resources to start a nonprofit, I mention that Katie started with $50 in the bank. When my clients tell me that they are too small to make a big difference, I tell them that More Than Me started by sending 5 girls to school. Katie is no different from anyone who sees a problem in the world that they want to fix. And for that reason, I feel fortunate to know and be inspired by her.