What Being Kidnapped Taught Me About Entrepreneurship

What Being Kidnapped Taught Me About Entrepreneurship

Written By Zach Stone, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Red Kite Project Published by The Huffington Post

On May 20th of 2004, I was kidnapped and held hostage by gang members. One of the “captains” was angry with me because I was working to help his girlfriend find a safe haven from his extreme abuse. For years my mother worked as a gang violence interventionist, mediating closely with the Latin Kings, the Bloods, and the Crips. She provided safe havens to people looking to escape violence. I grew up listening at the dinner table to my mom’s tales, accumulated from the 20 years of conflict management and violence prevention work. Before her, my grandparents went toe-to-toe with both the mafia and the government in their quest to create better conditions in factories for hard working Americans like themselves, during the 40s, 50s and early 60s. They were no strangers to dangerous situations and their bravery inspires me to this day.

In a way, I was born to be a crisis worker. My life was the training ground. I knew there were risks, but some things you just don’t see coming. After being chased across an open field for sport, forced into a car at gunpoint, and questioned for hours, I was left in the pitch black to wonder how many more minutes I had left to live. Much to my surprise, I survived. After being threatened with death, castration, and exposed to violent force, the time I spent with those men influenced the past 12 years of my life. Training from the Alternatives to Violence Project (originally developed in prisons by inmates serving life sentences) that I received at the age of 13 helped me to be set free. I convinced the people holding me that I was no threat, and to let me go. I would walk away from that experience as a different man, and in some ways, a much better person. From then on, I wanted to help others survive life-threatening situations, and to rebound from extreme stress. When I was 22, I helped found a company for that purpose.

hiker silhouette

Traumatic Stress, PTSD, and professional trauma exposure are said to often leave its survivors with what is known as the 4 F’s (fight, flight, freeze, and fold.) These four F’s describe the common automatic responses that people fall into when they are triggered or feel threatened. The brain releases these survival chemicals that are designed to keep us alive when we are overwhelmed.

Being an entrepreneur is a lifestyle that can be overwhelming, traumatizing, scary, and also wonderful and joyous. Learning to manage extreme stress, to understand how to respond to feelings of overwhelm and march forward in the face of uncertainty are attributes that helped me become successful as a small business owner. That’s why I am thankful for May 20th, the 48 hours with those men, and every day that came after it.

Bruce Lee had a famous quote, “Be like water.” These words were the key to my survival. In business, following that mantra can also help you thrive. When it comes to the integrity of our company, Red Kite Project, we are like stone. However, one must know when to adapt and flow rather than stand still or become rigid. Your business will not survive if you can’t learn to pivot and flow with sudden changes or threats from the market, internally from your own team, or even yourself.

Today, I find many parallels between the two experiences:

    1. People who aren’t in your shoes will question your choices, motivations, and your sanity. It’s always good to reflect and there is nothing wrong with entertaining wise counsel. However, unless they live the life of an entrepreneur, many are ill-equipped to guide you or second-guess your decisions. That does not mean that we should ignore them! Only recognize that they may not understand our vision and the sacrifices it requires to actualize it.

man with rock

2. According to research from Gallup, as well as articles from Inc and Business Insider, up to 50 percent of entrepreneurs deal with depression and mood swings. There are many ways that entrepreneurs can learn to cope with stress, anxiety, and fear, but don’t underestimate its impact. Practicing martial arts helped me to overcome the anxiety I experienced after my situation. It wiped away my anxiety and fear and helped me to develop strong emotional and mental control. Fear can be helpful to warn us; worry is generally useless. Those who have achieved true greatness pushed past their fear and risked everything to do what they felt was right. They used ritual, regimens, exercise, healthy eating, and strong resiliency to thrive.

desk plaque

3. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” This was a saying that adorned a plaque on my grandfather’s desk and I saw it every day as a kid. It stays stuck in my mind during the toughest moments of my life. You will hear “No” a lot. You may even face ridicule for having a new way of doing things. For years, people said that the RKP team was crazy to do “resiliency building.” People laughed at us for taking a non-traditional, outside the box approach to workforce development. Now we assist some of the top hospitals, transit companies, and government organizations in the world, and we get results. If we gave up because people ridiculed us, if we let them grind us down, we wouldn’t be making the impact that we do. You will look like a mad person until you succeed – then they will tell you that they believed all along.

adapt and overcome

4. Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome. An adage borrowed from the soldiers and veterans with whom we have worked, which speaks to the true nature of what a successful entrepreneur needs to do. In order to survive my ordeal, and to survive making our small family-owned venture into a successful consulting firm, I needed to constantly be able to shift my approach. If you only have one style of communicating, one way of managing, one tool for handling crises, you will most likely fail. Rigidity is the death of innovation. Be ready to pivot!


5. Use your scars, failings, mistakes as armor. If you see life as a classroom, you will never be disappointed. Life is hard. Helping to run a business is one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I have made many mistakes. There is no failure in making an error. It is the refusal to learn from that mistake, that makes it a failure. Each wrong turn can be used to make you stronger. Many of the most resilient and successful CEOs had extremely hard lives, or failed many times before they hit “success.” We’ve heard the stories of Oprah Winfrey growing up in poverty, J.K. Rowling writing Harry Potter on napkins while on government assistance, and John Paul DeJoria, the creator of a hair-care empire and founder of Patron Tequila, living in a foster home and in his car. From the outside we see an overnight success, but for those who spent years dreaming and sweating for their vision, it’s anything but. They would not have made it without extremely thick skin developed from scars accumulated over many years.

I am thankful every day for the things I have endured, as much as I am thankful for my joyful experiences. Without struggle, I never would have been prepared to be an entrepreneur and navigate the emotional, mental, and physical battlefield that is called “small business ownership.” As a professional resiliency builder, I know that the obstacles that I have faced help me to be more authentic with the soldiers, nurses, crisis workers, EMTs, doctors, bus drivers, and law enforcement workers with whom I facilitate. I wear my scars proudly and this is the first time I have publicly told this story. I hope that it serves as a beacon of light to those who have endured so much, but dream even more.



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