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Carly Cott: One Stolen Camera Away From Bringing Clean Drinking Water to 11+ Million People

Carly Cott is the Executive Assistant to Scott Harrison, Founder & CEO of charity: water, an organization that works to solve the global water crisis in our lifetime.  

After having her camera stolen with her life’s portfolio from Africa now vanished, “Plan A” had been scrapped for the foreseeable future. 

In this episode, Carly unravels how to seek alignment with your purpose and an organization’s mission, even if it takes Plan B, C, or D to get there.

One of the biggest takeaways from Carly’s interview is embracing what you love and what it brings you, and connecting that to the workplace, which she has found and perfected at charity: water.

As we were sitting here recording, there are still roughly 785 million people who do not have clean and safe drinking water.

Access to clean water is a pathway to education, income, and health – a means to pursue life with a dedicated resiliency to discover, build, and grow missions that matter. If you would like to join in the solution for clean water, you can do so by clicking here! Just $40/month brings one person in need clean and safe drinking water!

“Plan B and C are okay. Nobody is watching you and waiting for you to fail. Nobody is going to be upset if you go with Plan B, C, even D.”

Carly Cott

Transcript:

BRYAN WISH: For those who don’t know, it’s not just Carly on the phone today. We invited Leah Walsh, who runs our marketing, to be on and kind of co-host this with me to do something fun and collaborative. She met Carly in a really cool way and wanted to bring multiple voices into the fold here. This is going to be a unique show for those that listen. Why don’t you kick us off and share with us about your One Away moment?

CARLY COTT: Happy to. I love the show and I’ve loved listening to other people’s One Away moments. I think when I think about my own path and moments that have really impacted me or slightly changed the path I’m on or redirected me. There are a few that come to mind but the one that instantly kind of hits home was senior year of college. I was studying photojournalism at Syracuse University in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and working on this really substantial project. I had put a lot of hours into it and I was kind of wrapping up one night in the lab, finishing edits, and kind of getting it together for this morning presentation, and I stayed up super late as we did in college and kind of procrastinated some of it until the last minute.

When I got back to where I was living at the time, I parked my car and I knew that I was going to be getting up super early the next morning. It was a very conscious decision – I decided to leave my stuff in the car. What I didn’t really piece together at the time was that leaving my backpack was one thing and that had my laptop and my camera and my first backup hard drive and then a bunch of memory cards and I think two lenses. Also in the car at the time was my second backup hard drive which was in my glove compartment which I always kind of kept traveling with me. My third backup hard drive was in the trunk in a lighting case that I had. So kind of my entire – every photo I had ever taken was in one place at the same time maybe for the only time in my life or at least in my photo career.

I got home. I went to bed for a few hours. I woke up, walked outside. My windows had been smashed and everything had been stolen. I absolutely broke into a panic and just a full emotional breakdown of the loss of even just my laptop and camera. It took about an hour and once the police were there helping me work through everything until I realized just how much I had lost and what I really had lost was every photo. I had lost every photo I had ever taken. I lost my portfolio. I lost my capstone project. I had been building a second-a-day video for over a year at this point. That was gone. It was this heavy, huge moment for me. That’s kind of the moment that was a defining critical moment that I feel was one away from pushing me into what was next.

LEAH WALSH: Firstly, Go Orange! It sometimes takes a certain life experience to kind of reconcile why having no plan is actually the only plan. In fact, simply planning for scenarios B and C and even D is almost in itself a personal survival guide for how to pivot when life gives you no lemons, as to say. Through your “purpose pivot” what or who rather compelled you to take your hand, place it on your heart, and seek a profession outside of photojournalism that would fill you with a sense of tangible impact?

CARLY COTT: My first instinct was to figure this out and work through this logistically and call my parents and get the police on it. Kind of the next step was, “Oh my gosh, not only did I not show up for my class but nobody knows what’s going on. I need to go speak to my professor.” I went and spoke to my professor, at the time, who I had an immense amount of respect and adoration for but he wasn’t necessarily a snuggly, warm person. Here I am running in with a lot of emotion and fear and seeking comfort and what I was met with instead was, of course, what I needed which was him kind of responding, “Listen. You don’t have a portfolio. You’re coming up against graduation. You’re going to be picking a job. What’s your plan B? Plan A has been scrapped for the foreseeable future. What’s your plan B?”

I think any friend that listens to this is probably cringing because they know I don’t do plan B. I do plan A. Even if I’m forcing it, I make it happen. It was so uncomfortable for me. I responded with, “What do you mean? I’ll just make a new portfolio.” He was like, “Carly, let’s think through some of the things that I’ve seen across your work.” I had done so much photography with costume makeup and with the theater community and the acapella groups. I was really into entertainment. I grew up in the theater and I grew up performing. It was very much kind of in my bones. He was like, “What avenue of the entertainment industry could you opt into? Could you just get scrappy and start in?” That was really the moment. I started really desperately, although hopefully, the emails didn’t sound that way, reaching out and just sending cold emails to people. I think I sent 40 or so. I remember looking back at them and I think I got responses from 3 or 4.

One was very hard to read, just kind of ripping me a new one, and telling me how to fix my resume and my email and how to ask for help better. It was like very tough love that ended up really helping me. Then the other one was this man named Kevin. He took me under his wing. He helped me refine my resume and helped me think through interview questions. He set me up on interviews with his friends who were in a kind of middle manager positions at production companies and ultimately, I ended up joining the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) where he was working and quickly rising. This wild turn of events landed me at this company that – went through a lot of effort and a lot of kindness on his end kind of landed me at this company that really was, for a plan B, it was a really a dream and a place that many people would just kill to work. Incredible foot in the door moment there.

LEAH WALSH: How did that incredible opportunity jumpstart your career and act as a connector to your next steps?

CARLY COTT: What I learned over the 1 – 1 ½ years that I was there was it was everything I needed but I wanted a little bit more. I wanted a work community. I wanted a casual environment that was really comfortable. I wanted to feel connected to the work I was doing. After my time there, which built so many skills and filled me with industry knowledge, I was connected to a woman named Caroline who was another impactful voice, and still is, in my life. She was a recruiter over at this company called Bionic which was an innovation consulting firm in the simplest of terms.

Essentially, we were working with entrepreneurs kind of hidden in this security of a day job in enterprises. We were seeking them out and then working with them to plant startups inside of enterprises. Kind of bringing innovation back to these large organizations, connecting them with their consumer. I loved what they were doing.

There was an opening to work for the senior vice president who just was this incredible woman. I met her. She was intimidatingly cool and good at her job. She was a powerhouse. I was like I want to work for her. I want to soak up everything I can. I jumped over there and when I think about another one of these One Away moments, I’d say probably six months, seven months into working for her, I was in a really deep routine. I was in a good rhythm.

I was super connected to my efficiency and productivity. She took me to dinner one night which was so wild to me. I was like, “Wow, my boss wants to get dinner with me?” She said, “Carly, did you have a good day today?” I said, “Yeah, it was really productive. I accomplished this and I made headway on this project. I’m excited about this.” She just kind of looked at me and she said, “I didn’t ask you if you had a productive day. I asked if you had a good day.” I remember just sitting there and being like, “Wow. Do I know what a good day looks like for myself?” I have been so rooted in the affirmation and the entry-level work life and just making sure I’m on the track that I had almost brainwashed myself to think that joy came from that.

I wasn’t really doing anything that brought joy into my life. I was really work-obsessed. It’s like the simplest things can be so revelatory. It was this revelation for me about a kind of identity. That’s another moment that has sort of stuck out as one of these One Away moments.

LEAH WALSH: I often deal with that as well. Just who am I and where am I supposed to be in this world? Sometimes it takes those perspective checks from other people to realize that. Too often, I find individuals face the world and ask what it means or what the world expects from us but it’s important to stop and kind of ask yourself what makes you come alive and to go do that. What the world needs more of is people who feel alive and people who are aligned with their why. After this perspective check with this woman at Bionic, how did you rekindle with your identity?

CARLY COTT: I remember talking to my parents. From afar, it might sound like a very common, millennial conversation with a parent but about how do I embrace what I love and what brings me joy, and what I feel connected to into the workplace? Why do those two things have to be separate? Once again, I had loved this role and I had loved this company but I was seeking this kind of deeper connection.

My boss, at the time, the woman who had this conversation and so many other really caring conversations with me, encouraged me to write down what I was looking for in a role, in a company. It could even be just personally. What would bring me that sense of a sort of feeling settled and a professional peace? I wrote down alignment with the mission and global impact amongst other things but those two really stick out to me in retrospect. Like you, I had traveled to Africa right before college where I had really kind of grounded myself and maybe changed out of my sort of bratty teenage phase into what I hope to believe was kind of a thoughtful woman going into college and really found sort of my faith there. I had this connection with Africa which is where this kind of global impact desire came from. I started really seeking that. I was leaning into, okay, I’ve worked in entertainment and now I’m sort of in this innovation startup space.

How can I connect those? How can I use those? I applied across the board. I dabbled in music. What would it look like to look for a huge music company? It’s like, no, that’s not it. What if I did… So, I kept looking and looking. I found myself in sort of a place filler role so I could extend my search. At Bionic, they had signed all the employees up to donate. They were donating on our behalf to Charity: water. I had lightly been introduced to Charity: water at Bionic. I had gotten the monthly “there’s your impact” report and here is the impact you’re having and here’s how many people your donations have brought clean water to. I had never really fully opted into it. I also had no idea it was New York City-based. Here I am one day surfing LinkedIn and I saw this opening for this role to work for the founder and CEO.

I’ll never forget this day. I saw the opening and then I went online and typed in Charity: water. I opened up The Spring video which is the organization’s introduction to the monthly giving program called The Spring. I watched it. I had to have watched, and my old roommate could attest, 10 times in 24 hours. I was so taken back by the mission, the impact, the transparency, and integrity of the organization and of Scott specifically. Then I was just baffled that this place that seemed so perfect for me existed in New York City. I was in this moment of, “I’ll go anywhere” and here it was right in the middle of where I was. I screenshot the opening and I sent it to my parents. I said, “This is my next job. I have to work for this man.” My dad, I’ll never forget, replied, “Did you apply?” I said, “I’m going to apply right now.” I wrote a cover letter in about 30 minutes. I sent it to two mentors to proofread and I shipped that application the fastest I have ever.

I felt it in my bones. It was like this is exactly where I need to be and even if it takes me years to get in here, I have to do it. I just kind of waited and I heard from them. Obviously, kind of got the job. It was an insanely quick hire on their part. From the time I applied to the time I started, I think it was one week. We’ve kind of gone from there.

LEAH WALSH: Wow. I can empathize with your story. The narrative that places like Africa where there’s an element of quiet or rather purposeful simplicity sparks a desire to look inward and ask yourself why. What will this mean for me in X years and how will that make me feel? More often than not, I think we’re taught to unlearn the act of romanticizing our lives. What I mean by this is we’re kind of encouraged to find and measure success in the confines of our social status or our job title or followers or income rather than based on what success makes us feel like.

The best advice I stumbled upon from a mentor was to write down what you want life to feel like. From the sounds of it, Carly, when you felt it in your bones after watching that campaign video that you were meant for charity, has paid off. I have perhaps an impossible question for you to answer. How do you think your life would look like if your camera from Newhouse hadn’t been stolen your senior year of college?

CARLY SCOTT: I think about this all the time. I’ve toyed around with it in my mind and it’s such – it still gives me anxiety just to think about it. Then I look at the way that everything has unraveled. I got to spend these five beautiful years in New York and built a community that most likely was entirely different from the community I would have found if I was pursuing photography. I landed in these roles that offered me security and health insurance and kind of a sense of stability and routine that I’m not sure I would have found had I taken the freelance route.

I think the biggest thing that I hope and I believe that would have been there regardless – I am a strong kind of keen believer that everything happens for a reason. I will try to look back on it with gratefulness and thankfulness for where I am now rather than resentment. I’d say the biggest thing has been identity. I just read this book called Unqualified by Stephen Furtick and he talks about our third word. He talks about the sentence, “I am __” and what do you fill that in with? In college, with that scenario, I am a photographer. That was my label. Everyone in my hometown knew me as a photographer.

Everyone in college knew me as the photojournalism major. I boxed myself into this identity. At Bionic, it was the same thing. It was, “I am efficient. I am hyper-productive. I am going to earn the affirmation of those around me.” I filled those so much with unstable things that just could be easily shaken. Rooted really my identity in what I was doing and in the people around me. When I started to build creative confidence and just leaned into the foundation of who I really am, I found that I am strong in my faith. I am a daughter, a sister. I am a good friend, hopefully. I’ve leaned into those. I’ve also leaned into I have the ability to impact somebody’s life today. I have the ability to write somebody a letter today. I have the ability to buy the person behind me Starbucks today.

Filling in my ability to impact in a day and then understanding that I am should be something that really rocks solid that cannot be shaken. That’s what has come from these different One Away scenarios.

BRYAN WISH: I really appreciate you speaking your truth around your identity and how formative it’s been for you. What were you like growing up? What made you have this productive edge where you weren’t really enjoying the moment, smelling the roses, and you were so focused on productivity?

CARLY COTT: I don’t know if it’s nature vs nurture. I think a lot of the work I’m wrapped up in is actually less the task at hand and is more the desire to – we’re all seeking this approval that we’re doing okay and that we’re adding value and that we’re contributing. Growing up, I was a dancer. I danced a lot. I was a swimmer and I was in the theater. I was in choir and in a lot of group activities but when I think about the things that I really threw myself into, they were all individual sports, individual things where you’re fighting for yourself.

When you enter an audition room, it’s you against your best friends. In that case, I think that kind of brought out this very independent, very individualistic sort of fend for yourself, figure it out yourself, don’t let anyone help you. You can do it. Same thing with dancing. You want to be front row center. You do it with kindness and you work really hard and then you kind of get it. It’s this plan. I’m very type A. It’s this plan A. I will work very hard. I will make myself the best and then I will X, Y, Z. Leah, what you brought up about finding yourself in these surface level of, culturally backed norms of climbing the ladder, joining Charity: water was this huge breath of fresh air.

Here I was thinking I didn’t have a linear path in mind but I definitely was like, “I’m going to be in this level and this type of role, and then I’m going to do this, and then maybe I’ll start my own business and then I’ll do this.” It was like none of that was joy bringing. Really what ended up being joy bringing is doing something that I believe I’m really good at but I also really love and doing it for someone that I really respect and really love. Just have a real desire to help.

Kind of growing up, I was super uncoordinated when it came to sports with balls and couldn’t really be on a team. We tried. I loved collaborating where I could in different ways but ended up sort of playing these individual sports and kind of entered into this theater realm, Bryan.

BRYAN WISH: I think a lot of young, ambitious entrepreneurs or people like yourself who are working their way up in different companies, what would you say to those people?

CARLY COTT: I’ll say what I’d say to myself and what I would say to others. If I could go back to that senior in college, at that moment, I think I would have said something as simple as, Plan B and C are okay. Nobody is watching you and waiting for you to fail. Nobody is going to be upset if you go with Plan B, C, even D.

The pressure you’re putting on yourself to be on the straight and narrow and to do for work what you majored in and to be on this really consistent ladder-climbing trajectory may not be the best path for you. It might be the greatest path for the person next to you but it’s okay if you want to try out a few different industries. It’s okay if you want to figure out the type of person that you like working for. It’s okay if you want to dabble in a couple of different cities. Those aren’t failures. Those transitions aren’t failures. Those transitions are growth and they’re really exciting opportunities for adventure and to meet new people and to gain knowledge and empathy and experience.”

I just talked to a girl today that I’ve been kind of trying to help in any way I can. I’m trying to be a Kevin in her life. I said to her the way I’ve been talking to my friends during COVID and I feel the question everyone asks is, “How are you?” I read this article recently that, “How are you?” is the worst question you could possibly ask right now. I think I was trying to navigate how do I answer that question? What I came to is I’m super visual. I picture a lot of times, the breakdown of my well-being as a buffet.

We have financial well-being, emotional well-being, relationship, spiritual, family; whatever it is, all the different categories that you really value, physical, that you want to be sowing into. I’d say when I had just graduated college or sort of if I take myself back to that senior year, I had a heaping plate of the wrong things. I wasn’t looking at a balanced plate. It changed maybe even week to week what I was focusing on.

In New York, of course, you’re taking huge heaps of financial well-being and throwing them in the trash. I think something that I’ve been leaning into, and this really started at Bionic and it has definitely poured into Charity: water and the amazing people I get to work with there, is having a well-balanced plate. Making sure if you’re making a decision that’s 100% financial, that’s awesome and great but how are you feeding yourself emotionally and spiritually? How are you physically staying active and how balanced is your plate right now? I’ve found, in the past, any time that I have a heaping plate of one, I’m incredibly hungry for the others.

The people around me are hungry for the others in me. The most productive, efficient, even just best friend/best daughter, most pleasant person to be behind in the grocery store line has a balanced plate. That’s how I think about it.

LEAH WALSH: Balancing your plate is what you give your attention to and that is the person you become. I’m thinking of the book you sent me The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and it speaks of the chronic state of restlessness and anxiety and disillusionment that we live in. That’s a result simply of a life of hurry. What would you say to the viewers listening about slowing down and taking time to rest in the present and focus on your purpose with your passion in what you do?

CARLY COTT: Plug for The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer. I read it three times this year. It’s interesting. It’s so much easier said than done. I went go-kart racing the other day with a friend and it was awesome but I said, “Do you have any tips?” And he said, “If you’re losing, you should get behind the person who is beating you and watch how they’re turning and navigating and you’ll learn what you’re doing wrong.” I think that, for me, so many times in my life I have been feeling like I’m behind or feeling like people are ahead of me.

Instead of sitting in a pity party or just being like, “Oh man,” I will get right behind them like bumper to bumper and follow what they’re doing. Two people mentors come to mind. Coming from a faith background, I look to scripture and prayer and one of the consistencies between them all is this lack of hurry. They are steady in their approach. They are considerate of people around them outside of their agenda. They’re slow to anger. They’re slow to speak. They’re incredible listeners. That is something that I work on every day. I’m not great at it. I think you can implement it into your life even in really small increments.

If you’ve gotten into a routine of waking up, rolling over, and getting on your computer and start work for the day, what if you don’t do that? What if you wake up 30 minutes earlier and you actually enjoy your cup of coffee sitting on the porch and listening to music or you simulate a commute by going to a coffee shop? What if you add something that’s really joy bringing to your life? Maybe you just go for a leisurely walk instead of a really intense workout class first thing. Just sort of are aware of what’s happening around you, the colors. Right now, I’m looking out a window and there’s t his insane sunset happening that in New York I missed because we were still in the office right now.

It’d be such a shame if I wasn’t taking in moments like this fully because I’m hurrying onto the next thing. My advice is to identify the ways you’re hurrying and see even if there’s one that you could work on for even a week. The second thing is identify the people in your life that are doing things well or doing things with something you value. Integrity, kindness, or thoughtfulness. See how you can emulate them. How close can you get to them and how close can you copycat them. That has been really helpful for me.

BRYAN WISH: In the moments you’re still, you can get the reflection to maybe the insights, the quiet answers of what is next. What is it about the work at Charity: waters that keeps you going?

CARLY COTT: I think some of it is just being educated on the kind of global clean water crisis. As we’re sitting here talking, there are about 785 million people who do not have clean and safe drinking water. I had never looked into it but I certainly didn’t know that was the case. That was startling to me.

I think back to my time in Africa and the kind of different communities I was in, they had wells in their community that were pouring out clean and safe drinking water. I wasn’t necessarily exposed to it while there. It wasn’t top of mind. Once I understood the gravity of that number and just how insane that is to me – I mean that’s a basic need especially when we think about COVID. Washing your hands with clean is literally the first kind of defense against this virus. That continues to come alive to me.

At the core mission piece of this, the fact that we have brought clean and safe drinking water to over 11 million people, to me is insane and incredible. I can’t believe I’ve played a small decimal part in that. That is sustaining in itself. At the role level, anyone that’s into the enneagram, I’m a 2 wing 3. I’m a helper who loves to achieve. It’s called the hostess. Being in a role where you’re working for a high achiever who you’re helping is kind of my – it’s kind of a great spot for me to be in because I get to exercise some natural personality and character components but when you’re in a role like this, it’s really important – the person you’re working for is oftentimes more important than the actual work.

I’m at Charity: water because I am aligned with the work and mission and the incredible effort being thrown into this. I’m working for Scott specifically because he’s a man of integrity and transparency and truly, he’s an innovator and a visionary. Coming from my experience at CAA, I was working in books there. Scott had just come out with this New York Times bestseller. He’s a photojournalist.

His founding story and I would encourage anyone listening to go watch The Spring video and just go to CharityWater.org and to learn more. His story is incredible. I saw these strange parallels. He started as this photojournalist over in Africa. He had just kind of built this crazy, innovative, not-for-profit, and had this New York Times bestseller. I was looking at my experience and I was like, “Wow, I have this strong connection to Africa. I have experience working in books. I just came off of three years at this innovation firm. What better match? I feel uniquely equipped and qualified to go in and give this role the best that I’ve got.” That was huge for me.

Just felt there was a fit and feeling I could add value. It goes without saying, for anyone that knows Charity: water well or knows anyone that works there, it is the most insane community of coworkers. The team is absolutely outrageous. It’s brilliant people who are kind and love one another. It’s a place where you’ll get a Slack that just says, “Hey, how are you? Miss you.” Not, “Hey, how are you? Miss you. Quick question for you.” People just reach out to reach out. We’re friends outside of work. We have an executive team who has open doors where you can speak really openly and get advice and run a crazy idea past them for the backing.

It’s an environment that I love. It’s a mission I’m aligned with. I have the honor of working for this person who is leading the charge on us trying to bring clean and safe drinking water to 785 million people. It’s kind of this awesome – my parents kind of joke like, “What happens after this?” It’s like, “I hope nothing.” It’s a really special place.

LEAH WALSH: On the outside looking in, Charity: water feels like a huge celebration that serves incredible impact. It felt that way reading the book. It feels that way speaking to you. What is your favorite Charity: water campaign?

CARLY COTT: That’s such a hard question. There’s an annual called The Ride for Water and it’s a group of college kids who ride their bikes across the country and raise money for Charity: water. It’s really crazy. I think it’s like 3,400 miles that they ride through coast-to-coast. One of my earliest memories at Charity: water was greeting them when they crossed the finish line in New York City. Their families were all there and we had drinks and snacks and just all of these different things ready. It was exactly what you said, Leah. It was this huge celebration.

We helped them walk their bikes up to the office and there was a reception and we each got into breakout groups and asked them a million questions. There’s a team riding and then there’s a team driving vans alongside them. It’s insane. I remember this one girl last year getting off her bike and showing us her tan lines from her bike shorts. She was a totally different color. They had ridden for, I think, 53 days straight and through 12 or 13 different states. I was in awe. I was working for Charity: water at the time and I remember looking at them cross the finish line and being like, “I’m not doing enough. I’m not doing this. I need to do this. I need to do a campaign. I need to be creative in crazy ways to raise money.”

The commitment and the drive that this group had is just unparalleled and there’s a group that does it every single year. We get to know them and our supporter experience team intimately knows them and knows their stories and why they’re doing it. It’s so cool. I’ll have to send you their info on Instagram and the website. It will bring tears to your eyes. So, I think Ride for Water.

BRYAN WISH: This has been a really fun interview. We’ve touched on spirituality and growth and stillness and touched on your career, your love for Charity: water, and how aligned it is to your purpose. I feel you have such strong insight and you’re very in tune and in touch with your thoughts and how you see the world. I think that’s hard to do. I learned a lot. I’m sure Leah learned a lot. You were the first interview we’ve ever done like this. This will go down in the record books.

CARLY COTT: Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor. I can’t wait to keep listening to others and learning from them.

One Away Podcast
Leah Walsh

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