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Mike O'Bryan's Remembrance: "Give Yourself Permission"

July 28, 2019

Michael O'Bryan“Give yourself permission.” Those are words from Jeremy Nowak that have echoed like chimes in my soul ever since he first shared them with me. He would use that phrase many more times over our nine months together, each time getting more and more specific. “Give yourself permission to be...” successful, to make money, to be wrong, to increase your impact....

My project focused on workforce development and the seemingly intractable issue of income access for the city’s most economically marginalized populations. I approached the subject matter as a novice researcher with a considerable amount of on the ground work, both within and alongside communities impacted by the poverty epidemic and years of planned disinvestment. In October of 2017, the kickoff for the inaugural Urban Innovation Fellowship, I delivered a presentation to a room of experts from varying disciplines relevant to my subjects of interest. Only one expert in the room though had chaired the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and literally scared the daylights out of me. Not because his presence was intimidating or mean but because I knew he’d be able to sniff out any fraudulent or half-baked ideas. 

To my surprise, and delight, within minutes Jeremy became my biggest supporter in the space and politely demanded that I not focus on research and get to productizing. In fact, his direct words were “we’ve got to take all of the stuff up there in your head and get it out into the world.” He began using language like “finding the shortest and most efficient way to get to market” immediately and admonished me to not get lost in what I would naturally and informally do without prompting: research, read, study, talk to people, and keep myself informed. In 20 minutes, he had read me pretty quickly and thwarted whatever plans I had come into this process with. He wanted me to “do”…to create impact in the world with the skills I already had. His belief that I could be making an immediate impact in that very moment, sparked something new in me and terrified the hell out of me at the same time. Indeed, I had to give myself permission to fail and to be great all at the same time.

Over the next 9 months Jeremy would share stories with me about his beginnings as a child; stories of his home life as he grew older and his journey into manhood and figuring out who he was and how he wanted to impact the world. We would also spend time talking about the beginnings of the Reinvestment Fund, as he was around my age (at the time of the fellowship) when he started the reinvestment fund with a grant not too much bigger than the one I received. We found commonalities in our stories and beginnings, an array of experiences and beliefs I didn’t think we’d share. That commonality would be both a source of comfort and strength for me. Jeremy wasn’t just nurturing the budding “business man” in me, he was investing in my development and sharing how he gave himself permission to be exactly what Philadelphia, and the world, needed …flaws, brilliance, and all.

Sometimes life hands us the very gifts that it knows we lack the wisdom to request or seek out. Other times, life delivers gifts that we don't even know we need. In this case, I received both and am eternally grateful for it. Long live Jeremy Nowak, may his memory be a blessing. 

Mike O'Bryan was selected as a Lindy Institute Urban Innovation Fellow in 2017.