114: How to create connections while traveling through intercultural education with Lena Papadopoulos
This week I speak with Lena Papadopoulos who is an award-winning intercultural educator. She also runs workshops and retreats with organizations that promote transformative travel experiences.
She believes that global connections begin with self-discovery and self-awareness, and her work aims to educate both heart and mind.
Listen on to find out more about Lena and her work as an intercultural educator.
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Debbie: Hey everyone, thank you so much for joining me here today. I’m with Linda. Hey Lana. How are you?
Lena : I’m good. How are you?
Debbie: I am great. So before we start, can you tell us a little bit more about you and why you live in offbeat life?
Lena : I’m from the U.S. I grew up in South Carolina, but my parents are both immigrants from Greece, so I grew up going back and forth a lot. I went to school on and off in Greece as well and I think growing up that way really shaped how I viewed and experienced the world and really made me interested in all things multicultural, intercultural.
I’ve really spent most of my life pursuing opportunities to learn about different cultures and meet different people from different countries and life experiences. I’ve always been quite addicted to travel because of that. And I’ve spent the last 12 years working in intercultural education and now I’ve taken that work abroad to do it on my own so that I can move around and live where I want for as long as I want instead of just being in one place.
Debbie: How did you get the idea of taking this knowledge that you have of teaching intercultural culture and making this into a remote business for you?
Lena : A lot of the skill set I have can be used remotely, so I don’t necessarily have to be in one place to do my work, especially because in this line of work, it’s really common for people to fly consultants or facilitators to where they are if they need to work on a project or they want a retreat or workshop facilitated. So I decided that I just wanted to find a way to set myself up to do it remotely rather than work in one place because I’ve traditionally worked in nonprofits or in universities. But it’s not necessary to be in one place to do my work. And so that’s why I wanted to expand in that way.
Debbie: Can you tell us a little bit more about exactly what it is that you do?
Lena : Yes. So I am an intercultural educator, consultant, and facilitator. I work on developing and designing intercultural exchange programs. I can also facilitate workshops or retreats, that are meant for self-discovery and community building among groups of people. And then I also do some intercultural competence coaching to help people develop their ability to communicate respectfully and effectively cross-culturally.
Debbie: What were the first steps that you took in order to get to this point where you are right now?
Lena : I did leave and set off to live and work remotely before I had any sort of income. In some ways, I wish I had maybe tried to establish my consultancy and my business beforehand because it definitely did take some time and was a little bit of a struggle. And what I did in the meantime was do some travel writing. So I’ve written different articles for different publications and that’s something I still do because my work is also really seasonal. Especially working with schools.
There are like certain months that are more high demand and others are much lower demand. So I try to balance the = low seasons with writing. And then really this work is networking. The network and community that you have are really important. So a lot of my connections are through word of mouth or connected to clients or colleagues that I had through past jobs. So just kind of reaching out to people once I started, in saying like, Hey, I’m still doing this work but I’m doing it now independently rather than connected to an organization or a school in particular.
Debbie: Has there been any setbacks or failures that you’ve had trying to create this business that you have right now that you really learned from?
Lena : I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’ve quite experienced failures with it yet. Well, that’s not true. I take it back. I did have one failure I guess. I tried to host and organize my own retreat, one that somebody else hired me to run. I decided to do it because I had an opportunity to do it in an amazing venue that would cost me nothing, which is not usually the case.
Usually, a venue is going to cost several thousand dollars to rent out for a week. But I had an opportunity to run a retreat there for free. But the problem was there wasn’t very much lead time. There were only a few months. And so there wasn’t enough time for people to plan or save for it. And I didn’t really have any luck with getting people to commit to it.
If I want to do that again, I would plan far more in advance. So that’s been one of my biggest failures. But other than that, I think it’s probably the challenges that most people face when they try to live as a digital nomad or location independent entrepreneur, that it can be really isolating. Especially for me, I’m very collaborative by nature. I really love to sit around a table and discuss ideas and ask people for their perspectives. And so sometimes doing this work on my own can be really difficult for me because I don’t have that same community that I’m used to having and that I really value.
I also like to work-life balance with travel, sometimes it can be difficult to work, especially in times of transition. So I just moved to Tbilisi, Georgia from Spain. And because of that process and looking for a place to live and all that, there were two weeks where I almost didn’t work at all. And so now getting back into work, that’s a challenge for me. And so those are the things that I guess would be setbacks that sort of lessen my productivity.
Debbie: Do you always feel like you’re playing catch up when you’re traveling? And that’s the thing, I think people have a lot of misconceptions with digital nomads or when you first start you think that you can keep traveling and keep going, but you don’t become productive when you do that because you have to assimilate to new cultures, to new environments. You have to figure out the wifi situation. If you’re doing this every few weeks, it just becomes really hectic and super stressful.
And then on top of that, you want to be able to make a living from this. So, believe it or not, a lot of digital nomads actually stay in one location for a longer period of time, to make this more sustainable. Otherwise you’re just traveling longterm and hopefully, you have some passive income where you don’t have to work anymore. And like you said, Lena, you sometimes don’t work for a long period of time because you are traveling so much, which is great but can also be bad for work and your business too. So you have to definitely balance both of them at the same time.
Lena : In the beginning, there was a lot more movement and now I try to limit the movement. I spent eight months in Puerto Rico, then I spent three months in Spain, now I’m spending four months in Georgia. So like trying to extend and stay in places longer because the movement is super counterproductive.
Debbie: Aside from realizing that moving all the time is not going to be productive for you. What other things have you learned by becoming a digital nomad that you didn’t even think about when you first started?
Lena : That’s really probably one of the main things. And then the isolation as I mentioned before also because, not only professionally and developing networks and having people to bounce off ideas, but even just friends, how do you make a community when you’re moving all the time? You can’t establish that. I mean sometimes you live in a place for six months to a year before you really find solid friends.
I mean I’m kind of used to it because I’ve moved around a lot in my life because I’ve always had this sort of restlessness. But I do think that as I get older it becomes more difficult to connect with people who are like-minded and to who I feel a strong connection with. And so adding in the movement makes that even harder. And that, of course, affects work too, because obviously what’s happening in your personal life is going to leak over into your professional if you’re not feeling supported personally, that’s going to make work more difficult as well. So I think that’s just been one of the biggest struggles for me overall, professionally and personally is the lack of community that moving around creates.
Debbie: And then once you actually create friendships after six months, then you have to move on again.
Lena : Right. And you do it all over.
Debbie: It’s a double-edged sword. You get to travel, you get to meet new people, you create friendships, and then you have to do it all over again. It’s like being in high school and you’re starting freshman year. Every single year you’re a freshman.
Lena : Yeah, definitely.
Debbie: What about the highlights of starting and creating your own business and being location independent? What has been the most amazing experience that you’ve had because of this life that you have created for yourself?
Lena : Well, what I love the most is that I have the freedom to choose what I work on, what I say yes to, what I say no to. If I have an idea and I want to create something out of it, I can do it. I don’t need approval from somebody. I don’t need it to go through the bureaucracy and the red tape. I love that autonomy, especially because I do feel like I’m really creative. And in the past, I think that has been stifled by just different rules and regulations of whatever institution I was a part of.
For example, in the last job I was in, I absolutely loved the work I was doing, but I also got bored really quickly because it was kind of the same thing happening over and over again. And in a lot of ways, I couldn’t create new things just because of structures and systems that were already set in place. And so that felt really stifling for me and I felt like I stopped growing after a certain period of time. And in case I feel like I can just continue to grow and evolve without any barriers because I sort of quote-unquote makes the rules. And so that’s what I really love about working for myself.
Debbie: Freedom is definitely something that we all want and crave. And that’s really why we start. Most of us start this and even though the work is really hard, we work a lot of hours and most of the time we work more than our regular nine to five. And a lot of people will ask, well, why do you keep doing this? Why do you keep going? Well, it’s because we have freedom. We can do a lot of work if we want to or when we don’t want to. But it’s also because you love what you do. And on top of that, you have freedom. That’s the Cherry on top of a really yummy cake.
Debbie: It’s definitely a lot of hard work that you may not have anticipated before you started. How were you able to create an income from the start of your business and how do you continue to create income today?
Lena : In the beginning, I think I relied on other sources of income because my work is very seasonal, income can be really inconsistent. And so that’s actually why I’ve developed the intercultural competence coaching, offering that because that will allow me to have more consistent work and to fill those gaps because it’s not dependent on the season when schools need their retreats or when that kind of demand is in place. And so right now I’m trying more to develop and push the intercultural competence coaching because that will make the income much more consistent than it has been or would be otherwise.
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Debbie: How were you able to get your business going? How do you get your clients?
Lena : I would say most opportunities come through people I’ve somehow already worked with in the past through other jobs. This field I think is really difficult to get people to trust and invest in your services if they don’t have some kind of connection to maybe even if it’s not direct, it needs to be through somebody else who has worked with you before. It can be super, super difficult to connect with people who don’t have any connection. I think maybe with some other things like web design, okay they can look at the work you’ve done and they’re like that’s great, I love it, I want to work with you. But the whole like no trust factor is super, super important in this field. And so that’s why it’s really heavily dependent on existing relationships.
Debbie: Let’s fast forward to 50 years from now and you’re looking back at your life, what legacy would you like to leave and what do you want to be remembered for?
Lena : I think for me, building relationships, human connection, learning from other people, this has always been what’s really important for me. Creating space for people to feel safe, to come as they are. So I think I want to be remembered for helping people feel more confident in themselves, more empowered in their skills and more intimately and authentically connected to others. I really value-creating those connections between people where they feel understood and accepted for who they are. And I think that’s what it would be. That’s probably the most important thing to me.
Debbie: Some people like myself, I nerd out on interviewing Inspiring people like you and hiking. What about you? What do you nerd out on?
Lena : I’m a big food nerd. My partner and I think that’s probably like the biggest thing that we prioritize when we travel. Where are we going to eat and when are we going to eat and what are we going to try? So food is a big thing. And then, because I love what I do so much. It’s probably most of what I do, even in my spare time, everything I read is connected to my work in some ways. I’m also a huge book nerd. I love to read and always have been that way. I think my work is just so consuming that it’s most of what my time is spent on.
What are you currently working on that is really exciting for you?
I’ve been working on putting together a course on intercultural competence and one on one coaching that I do in and creating it for a group. That’s something that I’m really, really excited about. That’s probably what I love working on the most right now is what that’s gonna look like and the content that I want to include in that and how I can continue to create those connections between people through that. So that’s what I’m most excited about
If our listeners want to know more about you, where can they find you?
Lena : I have a website, which has my name, which is really difficult to spell, but it’s www.lenapapadopoulos.com and then I’m also on Instagram and I have a Facebook page and all of them have are my name, Lena Papadopoulos. So if people can spell it, they will find me.
Debbie: I’ll add a link to your website. Thank you for joining me today. I really appreciate it. Thank you, Debbie.
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Audio Engineer: Ben Smith