How spending 10 days in the desert prepared me to launch a business in a crisis and how I hope this will help others

As we all start to return to the new normal, I’ve had time to reflect on the first few months of launching Miramar Global in APAC and how spending a week in the Nevada desert last year was good preparation.

I’ve learned a great deal during the first few months of setting up a business in a global crisis. I also learned a great deal witnessing a city rise up from the dust only to vanish again just over a week later. In both situations I’ve learned practical skills, been humbled by the generosity of others, experienced the fear of the unknown and felt joy when working with and helping others.

For context, Miramar Global is an Executive Search and Talent Advisory firm with offices in the UK, US & APAC. We have been focused on Innovation, Technology & Sustainability for over ten years and we launched our APAC business from Singapore in March 2020. The reason I was in the Nevada desert in 2019 was to attend Burning Man festival, an annual event with a Mad Max appearance and equally strong focus on Innovation, Technology & Sustainability. Aside from the fact that I was introduced to the Miramar team shortly after returning from San Francisco after the event, there are a number of other parallels which I’ve taken learnings from, so perhaps I’ll start with a description of life in the desert.

To those who are not familiar, Black Rock City is a temporary place, home to 70,000 people from all over the world for up to two weeks a year. It has had strong influence on the culture of Silicon Valley, with its ethos of participation, communal effort and radical inclusion. Getting there from Singapore required a lot of preparation and about six months of planning, travel logistics, tickets, kit, visas and cloud docs full of information. There would also be no phone signal throughout the event, so it also requires the understanding from the people I was responsible for/to who weren’t attending. Aside from no phone signal, no money is exchanged instead attendees bring physical or skill-based gifts to exchange. After travelling for thirty hours I arrived in the famous moon dust, found the camp I had been invited to and greeted my good friends who had been busy building the structures around us. There was no time to sleep off my jetlag and I was immediately given some scissors and gorilla tape to build a shelter from flat-pack insulation boards which had a futuristic reflective silver finish. With the build completed my new roommate and I made ourselves at home, before being pulled into building three other shelters. By this time it was clear that the next ten days would be a real challenge, with the sun beating down on us along with the impossible fight to stay dust free.

My first three hours in the desert reminds me of the period from my first introduction to the Miramar Global team, through to my first day in the office. The Managing Partners shared how they were excited to launch the business in APAC, after the successful projects they had delivered for existing clients. Then came the commitment from everyone to make it work and again it took 6 months of planning, travel logistics, tickets, kit, visas and cloud docs full of information to launch the APAC business in Singapore. I arrived in the office mid-March in an equally challenging environment, surrounded by friendly faces and solid infrastructure with the task of building something, not in a dust storm or desert, but in the middle of a financial and health crisis which business leaders had likened to a desert due to the sudden loss of liquidity in the global markets.

It was at this moment in both situations that I realised what I had let myself in for, even if it was due to my own choices. Both situations were almost impossible to back out of, so it was time to move forwards with the plan. At Burning Man this meant going back into the main community space, which was situated between four shipping containers with a full kitchen, showers, walk in fridge, long tables for eating and low seating areas for activities and workshops. The camp had a strong community of 120 people who had either returned from previous years, or like me had been invited for the first time by another member. I came to learn that these people were entrepreneurs, musicians, consultants, teachers, technologists and healers from around the world. The orientation was straight forward, then lunch followed by some group activities, time to rest then dinner, before heading out on our bikes for the first evening out on the playa. The playa is the huge area where the majority of art installations, festival structures such-as as The Man and The Temple were located. We were constantly getting lost, pinging from place to place trying to take everything in, which was impossible in hindsight. I finished the night exhausted, overwhelmed, with the experience not matching the expectations I had formed before coming.

This is the same energy I came into Miramar with, the determination to build and experience something special with a new group of people who shared many of my values. In many ways the orientation was again straight forwards, everyone was super supportive and I was able to settle in quickly. We immediately began working together, exploring and understanding the scale of the ecosystem we are in. This was also exciting but quickly became overwhelming with the temptation to do everything as soon as possible. After the first few weeks I was exhausted, overwhelmed and my expectations needed recalibrating.

Back in the desert and over the following 4-5 days I slowly settled into a new rhythm, which allowed me to both let go of my expectations and embrace the flow of the environment. This included attending scientific talks, skill-based workshops, musical performances, Russian steam rooms and visiting Centre Camp for coffees, art exhibitions and watching acro-yoga performances. This time was spent with friends new and old, both inside the camp and cycling around the city. In our camp, we rotated cooking duties, allowing each of us to contribute whilst freeing up time to explore and learn. I was also to use my gifts to help others, fix things and navigate, by helping out the sound crew at our own music stage, fixing bikes and navigating the Playa. I really enjoyed the sunrises, sunsets and lack of distractions that came with living closer to nature and without a phone signal. Even the dust storms didn’t stop us, as we had face masks and goggles. Without the usual means of communication, we found new ways to organise ourselves in order to thrive under the festival’s 2019 theme of “metamorphosis”.

I remembered this period at Burning Man used the same principles of letting go of expectations and embracing the new environment during the first three months setting Miramar Global in Singapore, especially as we went into our respective lockdown periods. The environment was also new and in some ways hostile, but I was also surrounded by great people and the right infrastructure. I quickly connected with other colleagues in the UK & US and we began collaborating and embracing the realities. Don’t get me wrong, the challenges faced by our clients and communities were and still are very real when compared to a festival. For me, this challenge was compounded when I was knocked off my bike, breaking my arm two days in Singapore’s “circuit breaker” period, meaning I needed more patience and help than I expected. As with the desert, we overcame these challenges, in ways that reflected my own values of helping others, fixing problems and navigating complex situations, again wearing face masks. We continued delivering work to clients across our industry sectors, in distributed teams, collaborating over cloud tools, in ways which were often unfamiliar to us all. We began hosting our own series of events, bringing people together to share their experiences to learn from each other. From my own perspective I learned a lot, both new knowledge and by applying old knowledge in new ways, constantly being inspired by everyone around me to emerge stronger.

During both of these periods there we undoubtedly testing times with no clear way to solve them. There were also flashes of inspiration, moments of clarity and serendipity. New connections were made, we showed a more vulnerable side, had to show more empathy and ask for help. I also used my time in the desert with no phone connection in the same way as I used my time during lockdown, as opportunity to reflect and recharge.

The burning-of-the-man and other structures felt like the end of the festival for me, even though we spent a day or so breaking down camp and driving back to San Francisco. The end of Singapore’s lockdown felt similar to me, providing closure whilst forcing us all to move into the next phase with purpose as the dust settled. Coming out of the desert meant cleaning my kit, wearing normal clothes again, seeing the more polished veneer of my friends and exploring San Francisco on two wheels. In Singapore, this has meant going back to our office in Raffles Place, wearing office clothes again, resuming in-person meetings without children or pets in the background and embracing the new-normal.

This very human response to the adversity we faced in the desert boosted my confidence and made all the difference when joining Miramar Global in March. I took these learnings and confidence through the lockdown period and now find myself using them more than ever. Although there will be no Burning Man festival in 2020, its effects along with the friends I made have had a lasting impression on me.

Miramar Global in APAC is just getting started and my hope is that we’ll also continue to build on our relationships, keep learning from each other, stay open, stay agile to do the work that make a difference. We’re honoured to be trusted by our ecosystem around the world and I can see more clearly than ever how Innovation, Technology & Sustainability will have an incredibly positive impact and give us hope as we all move forwards.

It’s funny how these worlds have collided for me, sharing many aspects of their purpose, ecosystem of people and values. What have I learned; do you need to set up a business or attend a festival in the desert to experience these things, of course not. However, I continue to know that adversity is a great teacher and we should all embrace it and try to learn from it. I’m extremely grateful for the experiences my friends shared with me in the desert, the trust and support from my new colleagues, as well as the support and well wishes from my personal and professional networks. My hope is that Miramar Global’s gifts will continue to bring long term value to our ecosystem, so we can all support each other to emerge stronger, as we all experience transformation or maybe even metamorphosis.


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