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Q&A: Kate Otto on What it Means to be an Everyday Ambassador

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to chat with Kate Otto, the dynamic founder of Everyday Ambassador and author of the best-selling book by the same name. 
Apart from founding and directing Everyday Ambassador, Kate is also pursuing her MD at New York University's School of Medicine. Her vision and achievements have been recognized in numerous ways. She is a Reynolds Scholar in Social Entrepreneurship, member of the Academy of Achievement, Truman Scholar, Luce Scholar, Starting Bloc Fellow, and World Economic Forum Global Shaper. 
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. 
What’s the idea behind Everyday Ambassador? How did it morph from a website to a book?
KATE OTTO: It’s the idea that a lot of people would like to do good things in the world and like to leave a positive impact in the world. I certainly felt that way growing up and into adulthood and most people around me felt that way.
When I was trying to do good things for the world -- volunteering and being involved in different NGO work particularly in countries where I was a foreigner -- I saw a lot of examples of people who had a really good will. But because of their lack of knowledge about a place or lack of communication skills across cultures, people were not doing helpful things. Either they were doing things that were not really having any impact or perhaps even doing things that were really harmful.
Everyday Ambassador came out of the idea that real human connection and getting to know people and getting to cross these boundaries and understand what people’s problems are and therefore what solutions might actually be helpful is really key to actually doing something good in the world. Rather than creating a huge project or starting a new NGO or doing something that seems really magnificent, sometimes the most important thing you can do is just connect with another person in a meaningful way. It’s a lot easier said than done.
So that was the idea behind starting Everyday Ambassador as a website and writing about ideas of human connection and cross cultural connection and service.
The idea for the book came along when, in my own experience, I started realizing that this difficulty in connecting to people was actually being made worse by the technology that is around us all. The connective technology -- social media platforms or otherwise -- that started becoming popular when I was in college and after I’d just graduated, while they are great for many reasons, getting used to those platforms and being conditioned in those methods of interaction could actually damage our ability to connect with people meaningfully. And that’s really what the book is about.
From your perspective, is this disconnection -- resulting from technology -- primarily a Western problem?
KATE OTTO: I think it’s really a global challenge. The first time I got some really good advice about this was when I was living in Indonesia. I was working at a community health center where the main type of work they did was community health outreach. So the people who worked there were peer health educators so their work everyday was based on human-to-human connection. There was a lot of effort that had to go on in that office to get people off Facebook and off computers and into the field. And these were all Indonesians.
Indonesia is one country that is very into social media compared to others, but I would say there are certainly some Western things about being independent and less “group-like.” But at the same time, I think the idea of social media sometimes keeping us in non-human connective situations is universally applicable.
Everyday Ambassador has a unique and well-thought out partnership model. Please explain how it works and the thinking behind it.
KATE OTTO: Thanks for saying that! Everyday Ambassador is a team of nine amazing women and three incredible interns that work with us. We have a partnerships manager and people with other leadership roles on the team that help support the partnerships. So it definitely wouldn’t be possible without these amazing women.
The partnership model really came from collective brainstorming around how we should do this. We thought, what’s the goal of having partnerships for Everyday Ambassador? It’s certainly not for us in the sense that we don’t make profit, we don’t need profit. We’re here to support our readers and to support young people interested in social change and making a difference in the world. So how do we create a partnership model that’s going to provide more help to people?
So what we decided to do was identify organizations who also function off of the same belief system as Everyday Ambassador -- which is that human connection is the most important component of making a difference in the world. But as you’ll see if you go to our partner page on the website, there’s quite a variety of types of organizations. So in some cases we feature service abroad or service domestically or travel organizations that take people on trips and engage people in this kind of work. We also have partnerships with media outlets like Pangea or an organization called Use Your Difference magazine, which is about third culture kids and people who have multiple cultures in their own identity.
Once a partner comes on board, we produce content together. So we have our partners write blog posts for us so we can share their content and feature different initiatives that they have going on with our readers. Then we also have webinars and Twitter chats that we can share. We try to do it around something that partners have going on, so if it’s a program that accepts applicants, we wait until a week before the application is due and get the word out about it through a webinar. Or if it’s an organization that just had students come back from a big trip and someone wants to reflect, we’ll feature them on the blog right after that.
We know these organizations are busy and have competing demands and have a lot going on, so we try to put the least expectations on them to be producing certain things and when we do ask for something we try to make it something that’s mutually beneficial for their organization and also for Everyday Ambassador readers and audience members.
Where would you like to see Everyday Ambassador go next?
KATE OTTO: We’re working hard to produce content that is interesting and inspiring for our readers and we’d love to see our partnership network grow, we’d love to see our readership grow and our community expand.
The feedback we’ve gotten on the book and on the site is that the Everyday Ambassador values and the principles and the book are pretty shared across a lot of organizations and among people who are out there in the world -- not just to make a superficial difference so they can check it off a list or put it on their resume -- but the people who deep down really want to leave a lasting impact in the world. This book makes a lot of sense to them, and this book has been a guidepost for a lot of readers. We would love to see that continue -- not just necessarily in the service and travel space, which is traditionally where we have been -- but also corporate.
I’m going to speaking at KPMG in December at their annual town hall to about 2,000 employees -- many of whom are millennials. I was really excited to get that call from KPMG. They’ve had a great campaign going on within their organization -- they are one of the largest auditing firms in the world -- about higher purpose and having a sense of purpose within work. Someone might look at accounting and tax work, and say, well what’s the higher purpose there? But they think a lot about that and a lot about how to engage their employees. They see Everyday Ambassador as a mission that aligns with theirs and a set of values that they feel could really be supportive to their employees.
We think Everyday Ambassador is not just strictly for people who work in a traditional kind of service field, but people who work in any industry who strive to make a difference and strive to leave a positive impact through their work.
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