Twenty-five years ago today, I gave myself a most important birthday present: I started a company called Aurora Worldwide Development Corporation in the twelve feet on the eastern side of my mother’s beauty salon in my hometown of Chetek, Wisconsin and started down the road of learning what it means to be called an “entrepreneur”.

Whichever date the IRS recalls our Articles of Incorporation crossing their transom, standing today on the brink of 50 myself, I’m reflecting on how many of you reading this have crossed my path and become inextricably entwined in our story. If you’re wondering what this feels like, just Google “Sally O’Malley”.

Some of you hired us for things, some of you sold us things, some of you competed with us … but many more of you joined forces with us, one way or another.  All of you made a difference in what Aurora (and Arik) became. For that, I’m forever grateful.

Ten years ago, when I stepped aside as CEO and handed the reins to my brother, Derek, my wife Tina and I started an (extremely) amateur agriculture project called, Altum Radix Farm, which apparently was designed to instill the same sense of humility, empathy and teachability I talk so much about being needed in the business world these days. To say farming is “humbling” sounds, in retrospect, like the understatement of a lifetime – or at least the half-century – but it has taught some important lessons about how to build things… and how NOT to.

If you think starting a company takes guts, try farming… you’ll have a whole new appreciation for risk-management.

Take baby chickens, for example: our expectations for witnessing our first batch of chicks hatch their way into the world was nothing short of miraculous anticipation. Tina, the kids and I all gathered round the incubator and watched with awe as these baby birds fought their way out of confinement! First the “pip” of the chick’s “egg tooth” broke through… then, the chick spent anywhere from a few minutes to what felt like a whole day or two “unzipping” its shell. The egg tooth is a temporary tool, later falling away, used specifically to aid the baby bird in extracting itself from its confines. Even knowing how specially equipped poultry is to solve their unique problem, every second we were tempted to “help”… What an exercise in patience resisting the urge to just pry that chunk of shell away and assist them in getting free!

Had we helped the baby bird into the world, most likely, its life would have been very short indeed. You see, chicks take so long to get themselves out because they’re soaking up the final dregs of nutrition they’ll need to survive until they can teach themselves to walk to whatever food awaits them. They also need that struggle to strengthen their muscles and their simple brains into creatures that can survive outside the shell.

What this lesson in patience has taught me is, the struggle to break through the bonds that hold us back and we so struggle against – professionally or organizationally – are necessary to make us strong enough to survive life and the future, together and on our own. Like chicks helped out of their shells by well-meaning, amateur farmers won’t develop the strength or have time to absorb enough nutrition before their breakthrough to survive, sometimes we have to let our colleagues or our children struggle a little to find their way out of the ties that bind them.

Intelligence people, I’ve learned, are compassionate, caring and, most of all, curious people! When we see someone struggling – adapting to change, plotting a course to the future, understanding a problem – we want to “help” and sometimes the results of our assistance are implausibly counter-productive. I’ve decided to explore this more in the future and understand how to help our cadre be more truly useful to the world by correcting some of the misunderstandings we have about how the world works.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

But first, my anniversary/birthday message would be incomplete without thanking two very special people and the “teams” they represent:

  1. To my bride and better half, Tina, you were the original reason I wanted a business of my own, to provide for us and our children, set my own hours and build a life where I didn’t feel guilty working instead of spending time at home. They say “work-life” balance is necessary to succeed simultaneously in business and in life, but you’ve taught me, they don’t have to be separate for them both to bring me joy.
  2. To my baby brother, Derek, today Aurora’s CEO, you’ve been the heart of the company since the day you joined forces with me and for that I’ll forever be grateful. Indeed, you were there on Day One when I couldn’t even tell you what I wanted to do, let alone how to do it. I’m so grateful for the love you show our people and clients and the spirit with which you take the field each day. You inspire me to be better.

I wouldn’t do Aurora without either one of you. And I wouldn’t want to do it, without all those others who’ve crossed their paths with mine and made me a better person every time… no exceptions. And, as I struggle in anticipation to see what the next 25 years brings, we will at least be so fortunate to keep doing it all, together.