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Tobie Spears of BeHumanitarian: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Launched My Business or Startup
An Interview with Ben Ari

“Do anything you can to get people who are committed to helping you succeed. That means get a mentor. That means get an assistant. That could also mean talk to everybody you can and share your passion with them. You never know when your passion will resonate with someone and they will find interest in your project.” – Tobie Spears

Taking the risk to start a company is a feat few are fully equipped for. Any business owner knows that the first few years in business are anything but glamorous. Building a successful business takes time, lessons learned, and most importantly, enormous growth as a business owner. What works and what doesn’t when one starts a new business? What are the valuable lessons learned from the “University of Adversity”? As part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tobie Spears.

Tobie Spears is the founder and director of the nonprofit Be Humanitarian. She leads service vacations to Guatemala to help individuals give back while rediscovering what really matters. Their volunteer-run nutrition program is providing thousands of meals a month and their preschool is offering educational support to children, teens, and parents in a remote Guatemalan community. She is a strong advocate against childhood malnutrition and she believes that through education and nutrition, the world can become a better place for everyone.

Learn more about Be Humanitarian and the work she does in the link below.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In2013, my husband and I, together with our two daughters, drove from our home in Utah, to the small country of Guatemala. During that trip, we absolutely fell in love with the country. As we returned a few months later, I told my girls that this was something we needed to do every year. Shortly after that, I started leading volunteers to do good work in Guatemala.

While in Guatemala, I learned that the obstacles we face in the world may feel big, however the obstacles of living in Guatemala have historically been even more difficult. Guatemala consistently ranks around the fourth most malnourished country in the world. About half of all Guatemalan children under the age of five are chronically malnourished. Keeping children in school is a constant struggle as indigenous girls typically attend school for 3 years until they are needed to work in the home or in the fields.

For many years, I led groups of volunteers to visit orphanages in Guatemala where we offered love and hope to the children there. I was dumbfounded to learn that many children have two living parents that simply couldn’t afford to care for their child, so they placed them in an orphanage to make sure they received food and an education. It was then that I decided to support the fragile family and stop children from being placed in the system when they have parents who love them and can raise them at home.

As a mother, I simply couldn’t imagine the heartbreak of making the choice to give my daughters to strangers to ensure that they ate.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Starting a nonprofit is much harder than it looks, much harder than it sounds, and much harder than I imagined it to be. The hardships we have encountered are basic business hardships such as finding the right people and finding trustworthy companies to work with. Most of our work has been working to get others involved, interested and excited about our passion of helping people in Guatemala. Don’t get me wrong, there have been a lot of hardships, but that’s not my focus. I choose to focus on the positive most days.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

My husband and I have been married for nearly 26 years and he often reminds me that I’m stubborn. My aunt kindly calls me tenacious. I am grateful that I am both stubborn and tenacious. I am grateful that I have not given up. I’m grateful that I have a family–a husband and two beautiful daughters that support me working this hard for a community in Guatemala. I have a fantastic board of directors who work diligently and many others cheering us on from the sidelines. This includes a lot of good sponsors, donors and generous people who want to support us and help us become more successful. I wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for my husband who brainstorms with me constantly, my awesome board members and each of our fabulous cheerleaders. I’m eternally grateful!

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Today, we’re fundraising to build a large community center and volunteer housing space in our village. We recently bought land and finished refurbishing our sewing center to create income opportunities for our moms. We have been providing thousands of meals a month to a community in need. We started our nutrition program in conjunction with our preschool program to focus on nutrition and education to fight generations of malnutrition. Currently we have 30 kiddos attending school. We have kiddos whose parents and grandparents don’t know how to read and write. In school, we help kids love to learn and encourage their families to support their education. We are elated to be able to watch our kiddos crawl out of their shell of shyness. We wanted to build an environment where they can thrive, believe and become confident with themselves. The great thing about what we’re doing now is we get to watch our kiddos and their families prosper.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Years ago, I decided to rent a small beach house for our group of volunteers. After we arrived, I learned that the beach house only had salt water in all the taps. So, the shower was saltwater and the swimming pool was saltwater. As a result, we were covered in salt at all times which isn’t super comfortable. We were so close to the beach that we had a large red crab crawl into our bedroom. Thankfully I was able to get help to scoot the crab back outside. I was not about to sleep with a crab.

On our first trip to Guatemala my family was exploring an organic bee farm. Speaking in very fast Spanish the owner asked if we would like to have honey put in our eyes. Agreeing before I completely understood, I had volunteered my husband for this experiment. The white honey was said to clear out eyes and should be used daily. My poor husband said it stung like crazy 🙂

There have been so many funny stories and mistakes as I’ve learned how to run successful service vacations. I have laughed so many times throughout the years.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think Be Humanitarian stands out because our mission is to help individuals become global citizens and take a hands-on role in improving the world around them. We believe that our duty is to improve the lives of those in need. We also aim to improve the future of some of Guatemala’s most impoverished people. I think these make us stand out because our focus is on helping others and getting people involved.

The story that inspires me most is the story of our sponsors. We are grateful to have sponsors that donate their hard earned money every month to make sure that a child they may have never met, is able to eat and attend school. Many of our sponsors work in blue collar jobs. These are the people that inspire me the most. They are not rich or independently wealthy, but they are willing to give what they can in order to help. They are everyday hardworking individuals that know the value of their money and they are kind and generous enough to donate and make sure that a child eats.

With Be Humanitarian, for only $37 a month, you can sponsor a Guatemalan child to make sure they get a healthy breakfast, lunch and education. Corporations, foundations and families can get involved to join us in Guatemala and/or donate monthly.

Last year we received a $500 donation from a waitress. I was blown away. I can only imagine how many hours she worked for that money and was honored to be able to help so many Guatemalan families with it. These are the stories that make Be Humanitarian stand out. We have the best group of sponsors around.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I get asked this question a lot. Many people want to know how to start a nonprofit. In Utah, we have over 10,000 nonprofits, more than any other state in the nation. After several years of running my own nonprofit I often advise kindhearted individuals to find an existing nonprofit that resonates with them and to jump on their board and help them be successful. We all need new ideas and new energy to thrive.

It can be a challenge to start anything new. It can be very easy to get “burnt out” and discouraged but I believe you should have a true love and passion for what you do. You need to find joy and purpose day in and day out. You need to have people who can listen to you while you cry, brainstorm and help you create better opportunities. It really does take a village.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Be Humanitarian wouldn’t exist without my husband and I certainly wouldn’t be the founder I am if I didn’t have him by my side. I am eternally grateful to have a spectacular husband who listens, brainstorms and helps me be the best I can be. Our family funded our projects for the first 6 years so it has felt like a true victory to have such fantastic sponsors supporting our work. I have so many people that have helped us along the way. I have a board of directors whom some have been with us for four and five years, helping us be successful because they’re very proud of the work that we do. I have an amazing family who sponsor our kiddos in Guatemala, and generous business owners who have come on service vacations with us with their staff. These people have volunteered their sweat and tears to help us help others.

A dear friend introduced me to a foundation where she encouraged me to apply for our first grant to feed our 87 families during the pandemic. I applied for $15,000 and still remember the day I received the email saying that my grant had been approved. That money allowed us to provide thousands of meals to our community for over six months and we were in awe. After that money was all used up we were ready to apply again and the director pulled me aside. She encouraged me to think bigger. She shared with me that $15,000 was the smallest grant they’d ever approved and with a huge smile I shared that $15,000 was the largest donation we’d received from a single organization. We’ve been partners with this foundation for a few years now and have great things planned for the future. The list of people who have helped us along the way is so long. I am beyond grateful for the goodness that comes with them.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I was raised on welfare by a single mom. I understood what it meant to live without. I understood what it meant to have Christmas provided by strangers. I was always very grateful and humbled by their kindness. I understood what it meant to be on the receiving end of kindness. Because of my childhood, I want to be able to help our families in Guatemala become self-sufficient with real income opportunities. Our families work extremely long hours, just to earn a little and provide for their families. Their situation is not because they lack education. It is that they lack opportunities. This is why I work so hard for our families in Guatemala, so their kids grow up to have more opportunities.

I believe that volunteers are able to learn about service by serving others. I believe that our Guatemalan families learn how to receive kindness by having volunteers in their community and in their homes. Be Humanitarian has been working diligently to ease the burdens of everyday life in Guatemala for the last 10 years. We firmly believe that we can positively impact our communities by providing educational and income opportunities and supporting self sufficiency programs, such as our nutrition program, garden tower projects, and preschool. My goal is to bring goodness to the world.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first launched my business” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1 . Be flexible with yourself

You will never have it perfect the first time. But eventually, baby steps do turn into big movements. It might take you years. But it’s really okay. I have pivoted, changed direction, and failed. I believe that it’s brave to go out into the world and try something new. So be kind and flexible with yourself.

2 . Your passion isn’t everyone’s passion

The truth is, it won’t make sense to everyone. Do it anyway. I’ve had questions from individuals who wonder why I’m helping a small village in the highlands of Guatemala. I’ve been asked, don’t you think there’s work to be done here in the United States? My answer is absolutely. There is work to be done in every corner of the world. Our goal at Be Humanitarian is to inspire people to choose their corner of the globe and to do good work there.

My passion doesn’t have to be your passion, and your passion doesn’t have to be mine. My dream is that each of us is involved in doing great work. We are aiming to improve lives in all the corners of the world. I believe that’s what it means to Be Humanitarian.

3 . Don’t discount the everyday heroes

We have sponsors who donate monthly to feed and educate children they have never met. Our sponsors include everyday heroes. We have sponsors that donate $15 a month and some who donate several hundred dollars. Sponsors give what they can. We are not funded by millionaires. We are funded by good people who work hard for their money and trust that their money is changing the lives of others. We are proud to be supported by everyday heroes.

4 . Create committed people!

Do anything you can to get people who are committed to helping you succeed. That means get a mentor. That means get an assistant. That could also mean talk to everybody you can and share your passion with them. You never know when your passion will resonate with someone and they will find interest in your project.

5 . Be tenacious

I’ve been told by several people that my nonprofit would never work. A few years ago I had a businessman tell me he thought I should just quit. He told me there was no way I would ever be successful running my own nonprofit. Last year he donated to help us buy land and refurbish our sewing center. I say just keep believing. I truly believe that a small group of dedicated individuals can change the world.

Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

In 2021, one of our beautiful preschool kiddos died due to complications of a ruptured appendix. That was by far the worst phone call I’ve ever received. My husband and daughters wiped my tears as I sobbed for several days. The next day surrounded by blue and white balloons, his little casket stopped at our preschool before being taken to the cemetery. His mom wanted him to be able to say goodbye to his beloved teacher and the space where he had been so loved and happy.

Our preschool children are like our family. We share the same happiness when our preschoolers try something new or learn to fly a kite. We cheer them on. We dream of their successes. We can’t wait for them to finish university. To be a successful founder, it is essential that you have people that are willing to laugh, listen, hold your hand and wipe your tears when things get tough.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Be Humanitarian is our movement. Be Humanitarian is a call to action. It is a call to get everyone involved in being more kind, more generous and more patient with others. If someone wants to get involved in supporting our projects in Guatemala, we welcome that. If someone feels called to volunteer in a project anywhere else in the world, we welcome that! We are cheering you on as you do your project and do your work in making the world a better place. Be Humanitarian believes that we, as individuals, can make a positive difference in the world. We believe that any person can feed the hungry, create income opportunities, and sponsor children in school who never had the opportunity before.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow us on our social media channels. We have an active community on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Linkedin. And, we started doing Tiktok. Links to our socials are in the bio.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!