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No Barriers Podcast Episode 149: Starting a NGO. The Journey with Jim Nowak



Our guest today is Jim Nowak; co-found of the dZi Foundation. The dZi Foundation works in partnership with remote communities in Nepal to improve quality of life through infrastructure and education projects. Since 1998 Nowak has taken the dZi Foundation from a grassroots organization — initially formed to fund a safehouse for girls in Kathmandu —- to one of the Himalayan region’s most respected nonprofits serving over 44,000 individuals.

Our host Erik Weihenmayer has adventured around Nepal for the better part of 2-decades. It’s practically a second home for him and In 2018 he invited renowned singer/songwriter Mandy Harvey and a group of teenagers with varying abilities to join him on trekking expedition there. You might know Mandy from her ascension on America’s Got Talent, or by the fact she creates incredible melodies without the benefit of hearing. Yes, that’s right, she’s deaf. Today Mandy is co-hosting the podcast with Erik and they’re interviewing a founder of one of the most impactful non-profit organizations working in Nepal.

Connect with Jim Nowak:

https://dzi.org
https://youtu.be/UCnZdbGK2mM

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Episode Transcript

Jim Nowak:
I'm fearless in asking people to do things because I truly believe that people are yearning to do more.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. Part of the equation is diving into the learning process, and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way, and that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in in the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Didrik Johnck:
Our host Erik Weihenmayer has adventured around Nepal for the better part of two decades. It's practically a second home for him. In 2018, he invited renowned singer songwriter, Mandy Harvey, and a group of teenagers with varying abilities to join him on a trekking expedition there. You might know Mandy from her ascension on America's Got Talent, or by the fact she creates incredible melodies without the benefit of hearing. Yes, that's right. She's deaf. Today, Mandy is co-hosting the podcast with Erik, and they're interviewing the founder of one of the most impactful nonprofit organizations working in Nepal.

Didrik Johnck:
That would be the dZi Foundation. Our guest today is Jim Nowak. The dZi Foundation works in partnership with remote communities in Nepal to improve the quality of life through infrastructure and education projects. Since 1998, Nowak has taken the dZi Foundation from a grassroots organization initially formed to fund a safe house for girls in Katmandu to one of the Himalayan region's most respected nonprofits serving over 44,000 individuals. I hope you enjoy this conversation between Erik, Mandy, and Jim. I'm producer, Didrik Johnck, and this is the No Barriers Podcast.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Hey, everyone, welcome to the No Barriers Podcast, excited to be with you. We're going to interview Jim in a minute, but oh my gosh, Mandy Harvey, I cannot believe we've interviewed you twice on this very podcast. Now, you've actually agreed to co-host the podcast with me from time to time, which really makes my day. Thank you, Mandy.

Mandy Harvey:
Well, thank you. I've been a part of the No Barriers family for so long. I feel like this was something that was bound to happen eventually. It's nice to be able to do another adventure.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I mean, every now and then, I call them wild hairs, and my wild hair was, "Hey Mandy, would you ever consider in your busy schedule co-hosting the podcast?" You said yes. Mandy, for everyone's refreshment, you are deaf, and you are using a cool captioning service right now that is printing everything out on the screen in real time, which is amazing. There's not even a pause, and you hearing what I'm saying or seeing what I'm saying, and then being able to respond. Amazing technology.

Mandy Harvey:
There's... Technology has gotten crazy, stupid, cool. There is a small delay, but normally, by the time I start talking back on the stuff that you started your sentence with, the rest of it fills in, and I catch up. I'm also like Yoda, pretty good at this. I've been doing it for a long time, but it does from time to time make you look better than you probably are.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, I'm delayed too. Mandy, I'm delayed intellectually, so we're all even here.

Mandy Harvey:
Aren't we all?

Erik Weihenmayer:
You are a singer songwriter, performer. You go all around the world. You, like the rest of us, got a little screwed during COVID, so now you're back on the road, right? You're even busier than ever.

Mandy Harvey:
I am. I'm just released a new album at the end of January, and so I've been working hard on music videos and finding different ways to make that accessible to audiences who have hearing loss as well as everybody else, and so getting back into it. It's lovely to be back.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Is the album doing well?

Mandy Harvey:
I mean, it was really fun. I ended up making eight different music videos that included sign language hardcore. Then I also did a partnership with 12 different deaf artists who signed the entire album, so we got to do some really cool, impactful things to allow a different audience to be a part of the world that I created.

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's rad to be able to do music, and then also innovate some cool ideas like that, and bring them into the world, so congrats.

Mandy Harvey:
Thank you.

Erik Weihenmayer:
You've been a leader at No Barriers. You're on the board, and also, you have been so kind to perform at all our events, like our summits. You and I have... I've blabbed while you performed at events. Then also, we're about to interview Jim. He's a really famous climber, well known climber, who spent a lot of time in Nepal. You and I went to Nepal years ago. We just determined it was four years ago. We led a group of No Barriers kids with different kinds of challenges through the Mustang region. We were hiking, and riding horses, and doing No Barriers curriculum along the way. That was a blast. What a highlight.

Mandy Harvey:
Trying not to die, all of the fun parts of being in Nepal. It was a trip that I will never forget. That's one of the things I'm so excited to get Jim's perspective on, because that was such an eye-opening experience, and such a difference with the culture and everything there, the work that could be done, and just how incredible the people are. I'm really excited to learn more about his organization, and get to chat about Nepal in general.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Jim's doing it with an amazing team. You know I'm going to bring this up, because I brought it up before we started recording. The highlight of your trip was falling in the outhouse in a pile of poo, I remember. That makes you truly no barriers, Mandy.

Mandy Harvey:
Oh my gosh. There were many... I had many-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Until you've fallen into a pile of poo, you are not no barriers.

Mandy Harvey:
Well, and then just accepted the fact that I was there. There were many, many barriers that I faced on that trip. It was probably the best example for those kids, because they got to see it live in action. Here's Mandy struggling. Here's Mandy struggling again.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, we're going to bring Jim in to this now, but Jim, I just want you to know, come on. This is podcast history in the making right here. I don't... Come on. There's never been a podcast with a blind host and a deaf host that you're going be exposed to today. How are you doing, Jim?

Mandy Harvey:
And three people who have been to Nepal, that's already a rarity right there.

Jim Nowak:
And an exceptionally slow guest. You've got that going for you.

Mandy Harvey:
No.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, Jim, you have an extensive history climbing and doing work in Nepal, which we're going to get into all of that, but maybe start out with your climbing history in Nepal, because you started out as a climber. In fact, you get... When you go into articles about you, I know you've climbed a ton over there, but the famous one is Pumori, which is next to Everest. You went there in '89 first, and you had an epic. Do you want to start with your epic?

Jim Nowak:
I don't think we have enough time for that whole story. But anyways, long story short, three of us, a gentleman, Steve Van Meter was on Everest on the Rongbuk Glacier, and spied this beautiful line, which is the west ridge of Pumori. He got together a small group, a guy named Gil McCormick, and three of us went over there to try this route, and turned out to be very technical. We had 1,000 feet of 70 degree ice, 21,000 feet, and then lots of really hard mix climbing. On our summit day, I was leading.

Jim Nowak:
As you know, in the big mountains, things come down. Gil was tied into an anchor, and stuck his head around the corner. I'd been yelling rock, rock, and he got hit, and broke his glasses into his eye at basically 23,000 feet.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So it took hours and hours to get you down, right, get him down.

Jim Nowak:
Well, honestly, high altitude rescues are not very successful. Dragged him back into the snow cave. Literally, I pulled shards of glass with my fingers out of his eye. Then we went down. That was 6:00 AM in the morning. It took us 12 hours to get down to our high camp where we had a tent. At 21, he was hypothermic, pulmonary cerebral edema. He was circling the drain, tripped it down-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Was he blind too in that one eye?

Jim Nowak:
Oh, he was... It was excruciating pain. As we went down, we would lower Steve, lower Gil, and I would down climb to save as much gear as we could to get down this ridge. Anyways-

Erik Weihenmayer:
You got down. Thanks.

Jim Nowak:
Long story short-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Glad you're still here.

Mandy Harvey:
What was the end result? Once you got there, he's got all these medical things. He's been in excruciating pain. He's struggling on a level that is unheard of. What is the end result? How is he today?

Jim Nowak:
Well, he... Long story short, he survived. He got down a little bit lower on the mountain, and he started to come around. Erik, you know there's that magical line where all of a sudden people who had cerebral pulmonary edema, they're just like... All of a sudden, they start coming around, so he came around, got out of the country, got back to Seattle, had two retina reattachment surgeries. Neither one of them took. He has 20 over 200 in the eye.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Oh, so he is legally blind.

Jim Nowak:
If you stand next to Gil, he knows you're there, but he wouldn't have any idea who it is, which never slowed him down. You got to talk to him about No Barriers. After all that, then he rode the entire Colorado mountain trail from one end to the other in 10 days by himself. I mean, he's a beast. You should interview Gil.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I will. We will interview him, Mandy. Then you're crazy enough to go back though, Jim. You're crazy enough to go back. You and your ex-wife, I think, went back, and spite a new line on Pumori, and then you...

Jim Nowak:
Nope. Nope. I'm a slow learner. Tried the same thing again.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Oh, same thing. Got it.

Jim Nowak:
Slow learner. It was that year on Everest that there was no snow, stumped everybody, all the rock up really, really high in '98. We just... We didn't even get nearly as far, but we had raised a bunch of money for a small girl's home in Katmandu. That was the genesis that came out of that trip. The expedition failed, but that was the genesis that came out of that. That's when dZi was started.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Did you come across the friendship home? Explain the friendship home. That's a girl's home for girls who would potentially be exploited. They'd be servants, domestic servants, and thrown into slavery, prostitution, all kinds of terrible stuff. That school was, what, going out of business or having financial struggles, and so you took the climb and combined it with raising money for that school, right?

Jim Nowak:
Correct. We really did. I've been living in Vail, and had a lot of connections. We did a bunch of fundraisers, and we raised enough money to basically financially support this young girls' home for a couple years. It was called the Friendship House. Kim, my ex-wife and the co-founder of dZi, she actually had a connection with a gal that was working there, and long story, but that was the original connection. Then we did the expedition. I guess I would describe it this way, the whole experience of raising the money, supporting the girls, and then seeing where it started to go, it just turned me upside down, and shook the change out of my pockets.

Jim Nowak:
It just was like... I had this little inkling that I could make a difference. I could do this, and I could figure it out. That was the genesis of it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
How'd you have that attitude, Jim, because you're maybe like a dirt bag climber, maybe you described, right? How do you have that idea that you can make a difference?

Jim Nowak:
Erik, I'd say I've always been a grinder. I'm not highly educated. I'm not overly smart. I listen to a lot of people. I circle really smart people around me, and all of them are smarter than me. I take their advice, and use my gut. I'm just willing to put the time in, and as you well know, nonprofit work is... I always like to say nonprofits have the life expectancy of restaurants. They do. That we've been able to do the work we've done at dZi for over 25 years. I'm now transitioning, and passing this off to Wendy Valentine, our new executive director, and faded into the desert sunset. It's been a great run.

Erik Weihenmayer:
A lot of people go off and climb in Nepal, and then they support some cool nonprofit, some worthwhile nonprofit, but rarely does it turn into a successful social entrepreneurial organization that goes from 14 girls to 29,000 people impacted. I mean, come on, what an evolution. Just this germ of an idea, totally not even formed, just with this intent to do good, how the heck does it evolve into something as sustainable as dZi Foundation?

Jim Nowak:
Well, it's interesting. I'll just update you. This year, we're serving over 44,000 people, which is-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Wow.

Jim Nowak:
The number gets bigger, and the budget and everything you got to do to it too. It's really interesting. I mean, early on, it was just circling friends and that. I do a lot of support of people starting nonprofits. It's a real... You become a teacher over time, as you I'm sure have had. The deal is that... Originally, we had a lot of people that knew a lot about Nepal. Now, we have people that know about Nepal, and know about nonprofit boards. That's a huge evolution in the genesis of where dZi has gone, but we've just had really passionate people around us.

Jim Nowak:
I'm fearless in asking people to do things, because I truly believe that people are yearning to do more. I think people get asked to do a little, and you got to lead by example. You got to be willing to best your butt. Be there. Do the deal. It's about passion. Again, nonprofit work is really hard. You got to be passionate about it. You got to be committed, and you got to be able to grind. There's been amazing people that have come around and been in the organization, and really have helped lead it. I've just kind... I really feel like I've been blessed to come along in their slip stream, and just be, so to speak, the face, but just keep pushing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So Jim, just a follow up, so is it similar to the way we grew No Barriers? I remember it was just me and a few friends, and we were struggling, like, "We're going to go out of business."

Jim Nowak:
Painful.

Erik Weihenmayer:
How do I grow this thing? I have no nothing. So when we started raising a million bucks, I was like, "I am so far over my head." The smartest thing I did was to get really smart people involved who knew what the heck they were doing, so they could take it to the next level. Similar with dZi. It was a little bit...

Jim Nowak:
I mean, I would say one of the most important people in my evolution, and a guy I feel is a mentor and somebody you know is Tony Lewis of the Donnell-Kay Foundation. I mean, the guy just knows the ins and outs, and the pitfalls, and really helped. The other thing is we really relied on... One of the smartest things I've ever heard is... Well, two things, I would share Gary Ruggiero, who actually took me to Ama Dablam on my first trip in '88 in Nepal. He was our treasurer, and he said, "Jim, it's all talk without the money. You got to get to..."

Jim Nowak:
That was one, and the other was a very, very successful business man. He asked me, "How'd you build dZi? How'd you do this?" I said, "Well, I listened to a lot of people, and I used my common sense." His response was, "Well, I'm in a business a long time, and common sense is not that common."

Erik Weihenmayer:
Nice.

Jim Nowak:
I don't know. I just try to have a light hand on the rudder, and I totally agree, Erik. It was painful early on. It was tough. You're struggling to try to build your capacity. I would say we had a really forward-thinking donor in Boston that gave us $100,000 to build our capacity. That was in 2000. That was unheard of back then. They were very evolved, and that really helped. It helped to jumpstart us, but then...

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, that donor probably believed in you, right? I mean, they must have believed in you.

Jim Nowak:
I mean, for sure. You know the rule. Relationship equals donation.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Right,.

Mandy Harvey:
Well, I'm going to start asking you a couple questions now, Jim, because I feel like Erik's taken over quite enough time.

Jim Nowak:
Awesome.

Mandy Harvey:
It's my turn.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I'm blathering.

Mandy Harvey:
No. No.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Go for it.

Mandy Harvey:
I'm just fascinated. I know being around a lot of people in No Barriers, and being the kind of person that I am, having this internal burning desire to do something positive with your life like that, like fireworks moment that you had on that second trip, where you're just like, "I need to make a difference." Where do you start? How... Because there's a lot of people out there who want to do something positive. There's a lot of people who want to leave an impact and a difference. How did you decide, "This is how I was going to do it?"

Jim Nowak:
Well, I think the genesis is I was thrust into it unwillingly, and then embraced it. The small girl's home that you alluded to, Erik, it was being funded by a group I won't mention in the East Coast. They were managing it, and we raised this money. We got involved, and they said, "You did such a great job. We're going to let you have it," and they basically walked away from the girls' home.

Mandy Harvey:
So you got pushed in.

Jim Nowak:
Well, I got pushed in, and then I basically started getting friends to sponsor these girls, and started to build it all. Then I got a pro bono attorney start working on our 501(c)(3). I paid for the application myself, and one thing led to another. Then I put together a board of people you probably would re... Annie Whitehouse, Gary Ruggiero, Tony Lewis, Kim Reynolds was on the board as a co-founder, and Bill Liske. We went... That was the kitchen table, and that's where it started.

Mandy Harvey:
That's amazing. I find that with talking with a lot of people that this cascade getting caught down the river, and pulled into things really happens more often than just creating an idea from scratch. There's so much that's going on in the world. If you keep your eyes open for it, there's a lot of opportunities for you to get involved. Then how deep you go is really dependent upon personal drive and how much time and energy you want to invest. I will say I was doing some research about some of the things that this organization, the dZi Foundation has been doing.

Mandy Harvey:
I was reading about how it's not just about fundraising and then handing funds to people and getting things going. It's a lot of down deep, hard work with your hands. I was reading about one of your favorite experiences about getting an entire community together to dig an irrigation ditch, and how that made a spark of change for that entire community. What did that look like? I mean, starting a nonprofit, getting all these things going, but when you're actually there in person creating these projects, what did that feel like with having all of those people working together?

Jim Nowak:
Well, there's a lot of stories like that, but it feels really, really good. What I would say is it's also about figuring out what your limitations are, because early on, we'd raise the money. I go over there, and really not know culturally what to do or how to do things. When we started to have staff in Nepal, and be registered as an INGO in Nepal, which was quite an undertaking, all these things. Our programs are totally driven by a 100% Nepal team.

Mandy Harvey:
So they know what they need.

Jim Nowak:
We certainly have input. We have oversight. We know what's going on, and we have suggestions, and we work together. We have seven, eight people in Katmandu that are senior staff. The rest of the staff live in the villages, whether it's agriculture or water projects or schools or community centers. It's all being driven at the community level.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Jim, how'd you not get trapped into that old line of how nonprofits were done in the past where people would go in and build something for the community, feel really good about their service, and then find out they built the wrong thing? I remember hiking up to base camp on Everest, and these Italians had come in and built this. I don't know if it was a satellite or something-

Jim Nowak:
Crazy.

Erik Weihenmayer:
... but it literally was an art decoration that had rust all over it, and stopped working within a couple years. It was like a total waste of time. You guys really revolutionized the model of how to do service projects.

Jim Nowak:
It's community led. Then also I'd say, Erik, if the truth be told, we have to have partners in the community. We have smaller NGO partners in the communities that we work in, and they are responsible for driving the programs. We support that. We have community motivators and facilitators that work with them, and we have staff that are agricultural experts and engineers and things like that that work shoulder to shoulder, but it's actually illegal to just, "Let's go take a bunch of money, and go build something." We have to stay within the guidelines.

Jim Nowak:
Actually, at the end of the month, staff will be working with what's called the Social Welfare Council, and they have oversight and do an audit of our books. We have accountability not only to our donors, but also to the Nepal government, which allows us to wire money in. We have our NGO partners in the communities of a certain area that are managing these projects along with us working with them.

Erik Weihenmayer:
But I feel like the revolutionary part is that the way that the community makes their normal decisions is what they decide. They're in charge, right? You're the... the expertise. Maybe provide some help and support, but the village decides what they need, right? What do those things look like that they often need?

Jim Nowak:
Well, I would say this. It's very arrogant of us to look in a community, and know what they need. It's like when somebody would come into our own individual neighborhood and say, "Oh, you guys need this." It's like, "Wait a minute. You don't even live here." Let's just start with that precedent of the arrogance of that. Now, there are a list of things I would say in our buffet that we are skilled in helping with, schools, community centers, these trust bridges, agriculture, water projects, those types of things that we are skilled with, and building community around that.

Jim Nowak:
That's what our staff helps the local NGO do, but there's this buffet of things. Now, somebody says, "Oh, well, we want to build a cell tower." We're like, "Well, we might be able to tell you who to partner with, but that's not in our wheelhouse," or somebody wants to build a micro hydro water project. It's a little out of our range. We really stay at the grassroots level around basic infrastructure, school, education, water, and agriculture.

Mandy Harvey:
Have there been any serious projects where you got into it, you started it, and it was going to be something standard, like one of the things in your wheelhouse, and then just everything went wrong, or there were just deep issues with getting things completed, or have they all been relatively the same?

Jim Nowak:
Anybody that says it's all smooth and roses is not telling you the truth. It's hard work. I mean, all of us are in Colorado. It's the other side of the world, latitude of Florida. I mean, it's hard work. We've had hiccups, and that can come in many, many ways. Take, for example, say our nonprofit partner in the community. Let me give you an example. They have their own board. Two or three people do all the work. Nobody else does the work. Does that sound familiar, Erik, from the early board? You can have that. You can have a partner that could be challenging, but I'll give you an example of what can happen.

Jim Nowak:
We were building a trust bridge, and these are these angle iron box bridges that go across these really steep gorges. The deal is that it gets carried in on back, and built in place. A landslide came through, and where it was all stored, got washed away into the river, and destroyed and mangled. It was like act of God, but what are you going to do? You got to reboot. The community wanted to double down, and do the project. It's complicated. It's detailed. We have never been an organization that I would say is blow and go, "Oh, we got that done. That's off our hands."

Jim Nowak:
We work with these communities for many years, and we want them to build some sort of a maintenance program, knowing how it works, and keep these things sustainable so that they can carry on way past us.

Erik Weihenmayer:
When you do something, when you make a change in a village, or help them make their change, say it's like, you help them grow. Maybe give them expertise on, "Hey, you can grow this cash crop, and you can make more money." They go from earning a certain amount to doubling their income with that new cash crop. Then now they don't have to walk miles to get water. They can go out in their yard, and pump some water. Then their kids can cross those bridges to a school that dZi built. You're not just doing those specific things.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Those things are like a domino effect, or there's this amorphous elevating effect that when you change those basic needs, and you make things easier, now people have more time to study, to learn, to contribute back in an intellectual way to society, right?

Jim Nowak:
100%.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's a bigger thing than just having people be able to drink clean water.

Jim Nowak:
Example, a bridge in this community. Recent story was that many times during the monsoon, Erik, you know what happens. I mean, the rivers are insane. These wooden bridges get washed out. All of a sudden, children are cut off from going to school. Individuals are cut off from going to healthcare. They can't get animals or goods across to the market to earn some money. I mean, the cascading effect of a bridge is massive, but there was an older gentleman that during the monsoon, he would never let his grandkids come back across the river by themselves. He had to walk an hour one way each morning and back just because he was fearful.

Jim Nowak:
We've all heard the stories, Erik, of kids dying in these swollen rivers. The bridge is a huge factor. But like you said, water, we work on one tap per house, so there's a water tap at each house. Especially girls and women don't have to walk hours for water. The girls can work on their studies. The women can be more of a voice in the community, and actually know more about what's going on, let alone diarrhea. I mean, everything has cascades, and what you try to do is to the best of your ability minimize the unintended consequences, and try to think around the corners.

Mandy Harvey:
That's amazing. What is... I mean, you do so many different projects at the same time, because you're serving so many different communities, but what are some of the upcoming projects that you're working on right now?

Jim Nowak:
Well, we've got a number of schools coming down the road, and a lot of water projects. This year, we had a lot of water projects, and again, when the communities select them, makes it a little tough. I would just say from Erik and just from a funding standpoint, people... When it's really simple, it's like, "Oh, you guys build schools." "Well, not really. We do a lot of different things." That can be... It's always been a complicated message because to your point, Erik, we let the communities select what the projects are. We vet those projects. We vet that local nonprofit.

Jim Nowak:
We do all that because we want... Donors invest in dZi. We want to invest in the community in the proper way. It's complicated in that fashion, but we've got a buffet of all those things going on, Mandy, every year. One year it'll be a bunch of number of schools or water projects or bridges. There's always something that's a little bit more in need, and there's always need for funding, because we work in a contiguous area, and so communities on the outside may walk through where dZi has worked, and they're always giving us proposals. They want us to move into their community, and so there's always need in Nepal, for sure.

Mandy Harvey:
Do you ever have opportunities? Well, for me, when I was in high school, I went, and I built a lot of houses in Mexico, dozens and dozens and dozens of houses from hand mixing cement and doing all of the insulation, and really from top to bottom. It's a life changing experience. Do you ever have opportunities where you have these people who are financially getting involved where they're able to go over, and dig in some of these trenches, and get their hands dirty so that they can really understand the impact of what they're doing, or how do you bring that information back?

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's a tricky one, isn't it, Jim?

Jim Nowak:
Yeah. It's an interesting question. Early on, we did some volunteer trips, and we did a lot of different things. The reality is when we listened to the communities, it was more of a burden for them to teach somebody. It's like... Community starts to build a school. They're super motivated. They're getting ready to plaster it, but there's a group from Denver that's not going to get on a plane for two weeks to come over, and help, and plaster that school. The project slows down, and we're like, "Wait a minute. The reality is people in Nepal are much more skilled on doing those projects than anybody from the United States. No questions asked.

Jim Nowak:
Again, if we're really truly empowering and building community participation and community capacity to do more projects on their own on the other side, we have steered away from the volunteer trips. That said, we do occasionally offer trips for individuals that want to support our work to go over and see what we're doing. I can tell you this, where we work, anybody we've taken over there, they're the two... I always say to them, and I swear to God, I go, "Really get in shape, because you're going to be walking in and out of the Grand Canyon on a daily basis. You'll really enjoy the trip if you're in shape."

Jim Nowak:
All I hear when I take people over there is like, "I had no idea on the work and how it can be really grueling."

Mandy Harvey:
The adjustment, we did so much in a small amount of time when I was in Nepal. I have EDS. It's not conducive to altitude. I struggle deeply when I get high up in altitudes, especially if they change. In Nepal, you have a lot of that.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Thus the slip in the outhouse.

Mandy Harvey:
Slip in the crab house. But there was a moment where we were sitting on horseback for what felt like, what, six hours straight. My body was shutting down, and so you have all these guides who were just walking the trail next to this horse that I was on. I was like, "I just need to get off this horse, and I just need to walk for a little bit." They're like, "You're not going to get very far." I was... I'm a very healthy person. I work out. I exercise a lot. I go to CrossFit four times a week. I'm a very active person.

Mandy Harvey:
It's not a paved path. It's all rocks. It's on an incline like this. I got maybe, what, 150 yards, and I was like, "Get me back on the horse." It's a completely different world, and you have people who have adjusted into it from birth. It makes a lot of sense that they wouldn't necessarily understand and keep up. I had no idea what I was getting into when I... Honestly, Erik, that was the rudest trip you have ever had me go on.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, I don't want to generalize, but I mean, the sherpas in Nepal, I mean, when I climbed Ama Dablam a few years ago, we had a Sherpa who was 50 years old, 50 years old. He was fit as can be. I said, "Do you train?" He's like, "I don't train. I just walk."

Mandy Harvey:
Walk.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I just go from village to village to visit people, or carrying stuff from village to village.

Jim Nowak:
He's lived. It's a hard life.

Erik Weihenmayer:
They just live, and because of that hard life, they're crazy fit and capable.

Mandy Harvey:
Would you ever have your donors maybe do a project in the United States that was similar, so then it would be like their home turf so that they can get an idea?

Jim Nowak:
I would say no. I mean, because we have our hands full in Nepal-

Mandy Harvey:
That's for sure.

Jim Nowak:
... and raising our budget, but I can't imagine what hoops we'd have to jump through to do what we do in Nepal in the United States. I don't have any idea. I don't even know.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I mean, it isn't one of the cool things about Nepal is that for a little bit of money, hundreds of dollars, you can make huge impacts, right? I mean, we feel helpless and powerless these days in this world because you see things like Ukraine, and you're like, "How do I help? I feel so powerless. It's so cruel. What's happening." Nepal, the communities that dZi works in, you're like, "Wow, $500, and I made this huge difference in people's lives, right?"

Jim Nowak:
I mean, it is amazing. It always has been, on how far the dollar goes, which really... We try to be as efficient with the money as we possibly can.

Mandy Harvey:
How nice everybody is. I didn't meet a non-nice person while we were in Nepal. It was crazy how gentle spirited people are there. I think that that might add into why they do work well as a community, because they're all just trying to survive.

Jim Nowak:
There's the caste system. I think the caste system breaks down the farther way you get from Katmandu or urban centers, where these communities need to really, in some way, bond and work together to get things done. The farther field you go from the big metropolitan areas is you'll find more of a community.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Jim, how did you, one, decide on, is it Western Nepal, right, that-

Jim Nowak:
Eastern. Eastern.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Eastern, excuse me, Eastern Nepal. How do you decide specifically what communities to work within?

Jim Nowak:
Well-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Because you can't do everything, right? If you try to say, "Hey, we're going to work in 10 countries," you're just overwhelmed, so dZi is very specific, which is cool, but how do you strategically make that decision?

Jim Nowak:
Quickly, we weren't always, another issue. When the Maoist conflict blew up in Nepal, we were concerned that if the country went into civil war, that we would just dry up and go away. We went and we worked in Laduk and Sequim for a number of years. That turned out to be just too much. It was way too much, three countries, all that. Then we focused back on Nepal, but that Genesis of where we worked, it really came about when Ben Ayers was with the organization. He had connections with porters from his original work with Porters' Progress, and they-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Ben, by the way, is an amazing guy who speaks Nepali. He was the... He helped you run dZi for a while. He was a real expert culturally in Nepal, right?

Jim Nowak:
Absolutely. He was supporting Porters', and most of the porters really came walking up to the Everest region from our area of Eastern Nepal, which was three, four days away. That's where the work started to be centered. We've just stayed in that area, because there're just literally hundreds of thousands of people that we could serve over the years. We've just stayed in that one contiguous area as we continue to expand, for sure.

Erik Weihenmayer:
You mentioned the Maoist situation, which, I mean, you'd call it a civil war, which was happening in Nepal. It was chaos. I was adopting my son, Arjun, at that time, I mean, trying to get to embassy appointments, and walking through the streets on fire, burning tires and people throwing flaming bricks, and police with AK47s pointed everywhere. It was insane. How does dZi work within such challenging conditions? Then there was the earthquake, which I mean was devastation throughout Nepal. What were some of those stories like?

Jim Nowak:
Well, I mean, with the Maoist, that was just really, really a tough time. In Khotang, which was the center of the Eastern front, there were 700, 800 armed Maoist in Khotang, the center of our work. So during that period, community members would come up to the Lukla area. Some trainings would be done. Then they'd go back to their communities, and bring it back. That was really the genesis of us realizing that could be completely driven by the community with our support. That was just something that spun out of that. The earthquake was just a tragic situation.

Jim Nowak:
But honestly, Erik, out of these tragedies, really good things come, and that we redesigned how we build all of our schools, and our board said, "We want our buildings, at least the schools, to be the last building standing in these communities, so we now build these earthquake-resistant schools." It's a little more expensive, but-

Mandy Harvey:
But they'll last.

Jim Nowak:
The old schools would just stacked rock with mud, and some parents wouldn't even send their kids when there wasn't an earthquake, because the wall would collapse and crash to the children. Now, we've got these brick presses that are in the communities, and we basically make these best way to describe it kind of Legos that locked together, poured with concrete and rebar. It's much more sophisticated, metal roofs that'll bend that will collapse on children. We've just... Good things come out of tragedy sometimes.

Mandy Harvey:
I think lots of things do. It's one of those moments where you have the best innovation, because there's no other way to get around it. You're already there. You're stuck in this situation. You have no other choice than to be creative. But I think that that is a testament to your guys' heart in what you're trying to do is that instead of getting afraid of it and saying, "Okay, we're done." You'd double down and say, "No, this is why we're doing it. This is the importance of what we're trying to do. We're going to figure it out." I think that's incredible.

Jim Nowak:
We lost 80% of our schools were damaged during the earthquake, and we rebuilt those in three years.

Mandy Harvey:
Wow. How many schools do you think that that is?

Jim Nowak:
I think it was 21 at that time that were damaged.

Mandy Harvey:
21 schools.

Jim Nowak:
It was a lot of schools. It was a heavy lift, and people were incredibly generous with us, but it proved that we have the capacity to raise more money, and get more work done is-

Mandy Harvey:
Well, if you're going to do this during an earthquake, then you have the ability to do this every freaking year. Bring it on.

Jim Nowak:
We'd love to obviously.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Hey, Jim, is it still a struggle sometimes, where you try to get people excited and interested in the work of dZi? I would imagine... Because I've fundraised for dZi as well, and sometimes people say, "Man, sounds like a good cause, but there are so many problems right here in my backyard. Kids are not getting school lunch right here in my backyard. I can't focus on something as far away as Nepal." Do you hear that argument?

Jim Nowak:
Yeah, and it's just... I don't even think it's an argument. It's just the perspective of where someone comes from, which has to be honored. I mean, over the last, what, four or five years, we've just seen so much stuff come right in front of our face about what's going on in the world. As you said, Erik, Ukraine is just tragic to say the least on a massive scale. I mean, I try to say I support my community, and I support international efforts too. I have... I call... I say, "My giving is a diversified portfolio. I support my community. I work in my community. I support organizations internationally beyond dZi."

Jim Nowak:
I just say, "It's about a global thing." I say, "Yeah, but I stand behind our work, and we'd love to have your support too." As you know, Erik, you just tell the story. You just tell the story. The story's compelling. People get involved.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So you have a lot of... We have a lot of supporters who are interested in Nepal, in the work, but also some foundations and international aid organizations and so forth that we get grants from, right?

Jim Nowak:
Yeah, and that seems to be expanding because we're becoming more well known for our community development work, and what we do. We've been at it now. Well, this October, coming up 25 years,

Erik Weihenmayer:
Do other organizations ever come to dZi, and say, "Hey, wow, you guys do it so well. We want to... Will you mentor us to try something?"

Jim Nowak:
We don't get too many organizations. Well, that's not true. There are some people that we look at their website. It's like, "That looks really familiar." You know what, it's flattering. We're like, "If you're helping somebody, go for it. That's awesome. For me personally, I bet about every three weeks, I talk to somebody about starting a nonprofit issues in their nonprofit. I get a lot of... I've gone to a conference for many years, and I've given a session on how not to be the founder from hell. I do a number of...

Jim Nowak:
Talked to a number of boards around that stuff, and just being about honesty on how we're transitioning at dZi, and how I've seen it for years. It's been fascinating. As I said earlier, I believe a responsibility is sharing this, and if somebody's doing good work in their neighborhood, in Timbuktu, I don't really care.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's really cool. I love what you just said, because what I think you're talking about is something I've read about called founder syndrome. Sometimes, the founder cannot figure out how to transition the organization from something wrapped around their finger and something they had passion for to this grown-up organization with a board and a lot of decision makers, where they're slowly making themselves irrelevant. I think you've done an amazing job doing that. It's incredible, and it's mature, and it shows that you love this thing. It's bigger than you. It's bigger than anyone.

Jim Nowak:
Absolutely. It also helps that we brought in somebody who is super talented. I like to say that, a, she's got a degree in development. She's got a degree in international development, and she's been a development director, I'm sorry. She's a woman, and she's far more emotionally intelligent than I will ever be, and she's killing it. She's doing a great job, and she's changing the organization. We have a very close relationship. What I always say to Wendy Valentine when we talk, and I give my suggestions, I always say to her, "Take what you want. Leave the rest."

Jim Nowak:
It's her organization to run, happy to support her, and give her recommendations, and let her charge ahead and lead it.

Mandy Harvey:
That's amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Awesome.

Mandy Harvey:
So when's the last time you physically have been in Nepal?

Jim Nowak:
It's been a couple years, honestly.

Mandy Harvey:
Because of COVID or just because of...

Jim Nowak:
Yeah, COVID.

Mandy Harvey:
Are you going to...

Jim Nowak:
I'm like-

Mandy Harvey:
Do you have plans to go back?

Jim Nowak:
Oh yeah. I think November, I'll be going back. We've got a group that we're going to take over there, hopefully. We'll be going back in November. I jokingly... I don't know if you guys followed the NFL draft. The last guy that's picked is Mr. Irrelevant, the very last guy, 265. I'm working towards becoming Mr. Irrelevant. I

Mandy Harvey:
Love it. I love it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
You still got to... You guys still got some work to do before you become totally irrelevant.

Jim Nowak:
I'll be with dZi in some capacity or around it for a long time, but I want to definitely fade, and let it go. We got so many talented people now on the staff. I got... It's amazing to me. I just sit back, and I gloat, and I'm saying, "I got nothing to offer. You guys just run with it. You're doing a great job."

Mandy Harvey:
That's amazing. It's actually a massive compliment to you, but also a compliment to all the things that you've done. There's been many times in my career, because I don't know why I'm still rare, but there's not a lot of deaf musicians out there. One of the goals that I have in my career is that I've encouraged so many people to just pursue their dreams, and whether that is music and just have such an influx of musicians from all different walks of life, that it's not surprising anymore, that I'm not shocking anymore, that I'm not needed anymore, that there's just so many of me.

Mandy Harvey:
You've created an organization with several different people, which have grown into many different people, which has turned into an army of people. Now, to be able to close your eyes at night to say, "I'm irrelevant," it is probably one of the best compliments to the massive amount of work that you've done.

Jim Nowak:
It's been a good deal. It's been a really rich adventure. It's been everything, but I really feel just being surrounded by a lot of really caring people. I think that's the deal sometimes I lose sight of is that dZi has allowed a lot of people on the United States side to do something meaningful with their lives, and be involved, whether it's be a donor or a board member or an advocate, or doing a fundraiser for dZi. It's allowed a whole group of people, a lot of people to feel like they've done something significant. That's pretty rich for me.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Hey, Jim, my last question is how'd we get the name dZi Foundation? I mean, I know, but tell everyone, because people may not even know what a dzi stone is.

Jim Nowak:
dZi is spelled small D, capital Z, small I. It's an ancient bead that's worn around the neck, and they're very rare, and they're very valuable. They're given from one person to another to bestow health and protection on the wearer. That's what we try to do with our work.

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's beautiful, man. Awesome.

Mandy Harvey:
Jim, there's always that stupid question that people ask, like, "What's the end game? What's the goal?" I don't think for nonprofits there ever will be. It's a continuation of doubling down, because you said that right now, you're... I mean, you started with a small pool of people that you were helping a small group of girls. Now, you're helping 40 plus thousand people in different communities. I would imagine that your next goal would be to double that number, and then from there, double it again. But is there ever going to be a time when that's not the goal?

Jim Nowak:
Well, I mean, you can probably get to a point where you're inefficient. We're really nimble. We can move fast. We can change projects. We can do that, so those kinds of things. But I guess I use this analogy, it's like love is infinite. There's always more love out there. It's not like I have to hold onto it. Love's infinite. The work is infinite around what we can do for people in Nepal. There's always something to be done, always something that can be done.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Hey, Jim, thank you so much. The work is incredible. I'm glad you devoted your life to it. I'm psyched to be a part of your rope team, and part of the dZi board. It's just great work, so thanks for spinning an hour with us, and more to come, more adventures. Thank you,

Jim Nowak:
Erik, my pleasure.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Awesome. All right, no barriers to everyone. Thank you, Mandy.

Mandy Harvey:
You're very welcome.

Jim Nowak:
Mandy, thank you. Nice to meet you. You guys take care.

Didrik Johnck:
The production team behind this podcast includes producer, Didrik Johnck, that's me, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cotman, marketing and graphic support from Stone Ward, and web support by Jamlo. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review.

Didrik Johnck:
Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. That's nobarrierspodcast.com. There's also a link to shoot me an email with any suggestions for this show, or any ideas you've got at all. Thanks so much and have a great day.

Didrik Johnck:
(singing)



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