Photos c/o Matt Collins
As Founder of Two Wings, Elena Shahnaian believes strongly in human resilience, promoting confidence through education, and providing custom-fit mentor relationships to every client she serves. Elena’s passion is to fully equip her clients with the tools and resources needed to open those big, unapproachable doors that lead to their dreams. Elena lives in Los Angeles with her husband Charlie and their newborn daughter, Evangeline.
When I was a little girl, I aspired to a career in business, something “important.” I had no idea what that would actually look like, but I distinctly remember the image in my head of going to work in a high rise building in my well tailored suit, high heels and professional briefcase. And this was before The Devil Wears Prada made working in a fast-paced New York environment a dream for many.
But the same girl who wanted to achieve so much also had a heart for the hurting. Mother Teresa was my role model; I wanted to be just like her.
Something about her disregard for what society valued as important and her focus on serving the untouchables — the ones no one wanted to reach out to — made her my hero. I prayed for God to give me a calling to abandon everything to go and serve the forgotten and vulnerable in remote parts of the world.
These two dreams for my future –the high-powered businesswoman, the devoted servant – took turns occupying my headspace. It was almost as if the two dreams were at war with one another, since I couldn’t do both – or so I thought.
I waited and waited, but never heard that life-altering call. My dream of working with widows and orphans began to fade. Eventually, the dream of a secure career took precedence in my thoughts. I graduated high school, finished college and continued on to graduate school.
But that small voice I’d shoved to the furthest corners of my heart continued to echo the same message: “You were made to change the world.”
I couldn’t see how it would ever play out in reality, so I let the idea linger in the distance, afraid to entertain the possibility of it being true. I let my logical brain take over and continued to learn what I could to run a business through my MBA studies.
We often wait for circumstances to dictate the path we choose, and that was true in my case. A series of events led me to a place in my corporate career where further advancement held no interest. I could either stay where I was, or listen to that small voice, which was getting louder by the day. It seemed to be asking, “What if you could serve the forgotten and the vulnerable in your own city? Would you take the chance and do it?” I knew I had no choice but to jump into the unknown.
My nonprofit agency, Two Wings, was born three months after I left my corporate job. It was scary, but I was certain the payoff would be great. I set out with a vision to serve survivors of sex trafficking by equipping them with the skills necessary to pursue a dream career.
But in our first year of operations, we served only half the number of participants we were hoping to reach. I began to question the level of impact we were having on such a large issue. What was I doing wrong? How could I make our work known, both nationally and internationally, so more women could experience this life-changing program?
My focus started to shift from those who were already receiving our services to the multitude we weren’t able to reach. Had I misinterpreted the calling I thought I’d heard?
It wasn’t until I started hearing from the women we were serving that I realized my thinking had been mistaken. In story after story, they shared that they now felt known and empowered to pursue a new future. I was making an impact and didn’t even realize it.
I had missed a crucial detail: Mother Teresa became a world changer by serving those directly in front of her, not by focusing on those she could not see. She made each person she came into contact with feel important and valuable; as if they were the only person she was sent to serve.
I knew I needed to shift my perspective and focus on those who were currently going through our program. These were the women we were sent to help guide towards a fulfilling future. And what about the women in the program who had children? By empowering them we were impacting the future of their children.
This allowed me to change how I viewed success – it no longer meant trying to increase the number of clients served, but simply serving well those with whom we worked. My work became more fulfilling and my passion for restoring lives was reignited.
Now five years later, as a new mother, I am reminded again of the importance of investing in those who are directly in your sphere of influence. I can choose to think about the big picture and plan for future children and what our family should look like, or I can slow down and focus on what is in front of me right now, my baby girl.
How are you investing in the lives of those directly in front of you? It might only be one person, but the impact could be life changing.