Missionary or Business Person? Interview with Tara Russell

Tara Russell

An interview I did with Tara a few years ago…

I first learned about Tara Russell and what she is doing for the kingdom of God from the VERGE Conference website. Tara will be one of the speakers at VERGE this week. I was inspired by her story and I trust you will be too.

Michael: Hi Tara. Tell us a little about yourself.

Tara Russell: I was born in the mid-west in Pennsylvania and moved a good bit as a kid.  We lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan before moving to Indiana where I graduated from high school.  I’m the oldest of three kids and have fabulous parents (still married) who now live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  I played a lot of sports, and had many Christian friends, but didn’t grow up in the church.  I went to college at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and studied Mechanical Engineering before going to work for General Motors, Intel and Nike.  I now live in Boise, Idaho with my husband, Jeff, and my kids, Tyson (6) and Lucy (4).

Michael: You are the CEO and Founder of Create Common Good. Explain to us what CCG is all about.

Tara Russell: CCG is about “teaching people how to fish.”  We provide experiential job training and employment to refugees and others in need in order to equip them to find, perform, and retain jobs and move towards self-sufficiency.  We use food to change lives and operate small-farms, value added food production, and culinary training and gourmet food service.  I spent years in Asia working with General Motors in Shanghai, China and then again in Bangkok, Thailand working with women involved in prostitution.  I know first hand the difficulties and challenges one faces when living as an “alien in an unknown land.”  When the economy tanked in 2008, unemployment in the refugee community skyrocketed to nearly 50% in Boise.  Create Common Good was born to fill the gap and prepare refugees to thrive in the workplace.

Michael: NightLight International is an organization for at-risk women in Bangkok, Thailand that you helped start. Tell us about it.

Tara Russell: NightLight is an organization that seeks to bring holistic life transformation to at-risk women.  In many ways, my work starting NightLight with a group of friends in Bangkok was very similar.  I focused much of my effort on the job training and business aspect of the new organization.  NightLight (NL) helps women leave the bars and enter healthy employment by coming onboard to make NL jewelry.  NL jewelry is then sold all over the world.

Michael: Few people wake up one day and just randomly decide to start a company. What inspired and motivated you to start these two companies?

Tara Russell: In 1999, when I was living and working in Shanghai for General Motors, I spent the year praying about whether God wanted me to be a “missionary” or a “business person.”  I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, and I saw these paths as two distinct paths.  During that year, God showed me that I was made for business, but that he wanted me to live in this messy space between I’ll call “social enterprise.”  In essence, I felt God wanted me to figure out how to use business to transform lives.  He affirmed to me that work IS spiritual, and we were all made to work.  We were all given unique gifts and talents, and the challenge we all face is figuring out how to best use them to improve the lives of others.

Michael: Not everyone should attempt to start their own company. With that said, what would you say to the person who is seriously wondering how they can make a difference in such a big world?

Tara Russell: I think the first step is trying to identify what you’ve most gifted with – what’s “in your hand” so to speak.  What do you love?  What keeps you up at night?  What is your heart burdened with?  Whether you start volunteering somewhere, go to work with another organization, start a non-profit or for-profit, all have great purpose.  There isn’t one path that’s the right path, and another that’s wrong.  God asks us to work with all our heart as if working for him, regardless of where we’re at (Col 3:23-24).  I believe we’re all called to tangibly put love in action, somehow.  To me, that is living out the gospel, daily.  Whether you’re being there for a neighbor who needs to be heard, standing up to advocate for women-at-risk, being the best mother possible, or modeling grace to a co-worker, we all have the chance to do that daily.

Michael: Let me guess…you are kinda busy! How do you balance being a wife, mom and an entrepreneur?

Tara Russell: Life is crazy, but crazy wonderful.  My husband and I both run start-ups, and we have two small kids.  That said, we have built a lifestyle that we feel is healthy and we’ve created rhythms that work for our family in the season we’re in.  We protect our quality time as a family ferociously.  Our kids don’t do a million activities – they go to school part-time and then are at home otherwise for the most part.  We enjoy simple dinners at home, sitting down as a family at the same table, and lots of play time on the weekends and breaks (runs, bike rides, hikes, ski dates, etc.).  My husband and I have learned that we’re both quality time, not quantity time people.  🙂  We’re both fairly independent, but we treasure our time together.  If he’s been traveling or I’ve been traveling, we create a special space to connect, just the two of us, and have some fun together.  As a mother and entrepreneur, I’ve had to be open and flexible to shifting my work schedule in varying seasons of my kids’ lives.  I’m mom first.  When the kids get sick and need me, I reschedule all my plans.  I have had to be really FLUID essentially, and sometimes it means working in the evenings or at night once my kids are down.  But I do work in an office outside the home, and we have a great babysitter that watches the kids a few afternoons a week.  Another afternoon we “kid share” with a family on our team, and one afternoon a week I work from home.

Michael: Name a few books that have really challenged you lately.

Tara Russell: Books…such a good question!  I’ve been reading a bunch lately and loving it.  I loved VENEER: Living Deeply in a Surface Society (written by some friends, Jason Locy and Tim Willard) and I loved Ordering Your Private World (Gordon MacDonald).  Xealots, by Dave Gibbons, is another great read.  And Leading on Empty, by Wayne Cordeiro.  I’m finding it so important to really work on my “inner life” as consciously as my outside, day-to-day world.

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