Q & A | Kristin van busum



Kristin has over ten years of experience as a scholar and an advocate for resilient communities. She has worked in New York City on public health initiatives to prevent obesity, helped families in need in Mexico secure stable housing, and provided counseling to incarcerated women in Indiana. Prior to founding Project Alianza, she served as Manager of Health Advisory Services at RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank. Kristin has earned degrees from Butler University and New York University, and is a Fulbright Scholar.


Q: Let's talk about ambition. You're a Fulbright and Aspen Fellow, founder of an education nonprofit, winner at MassChallenge, and public speaking coach. To what extent does personal achievement motivate you?

A: I value growth over achievement. Hands down. Focusing on achievement means you’re bending yourself to be what someone wants you to be.

That’s a lot of emotional and intellectual energy wasted on impressing others rather than pouring your energy into work that matters. Instead, compare yourself to who you were yesterday—your past self should be your competition, and your future self should be your hero. I think achievement happens passively when you find yourself doing work that aligns with your values and energizes you. 

Q: There are brilliant ideas and there's brilliant execution. We sometimes witness one without the other: great ideas that flail in the face of poor business strategy, and businesses that lack a powerful mission/vision. In your opinion, how do you blend the two?

A: Be honest about your weaknesses, have a collaborative mindset, and hire people smarter than you. Being an idea generator is one thing, but the real challenge comes in the daily grind, especially in an international context. If I were the one running the show on the ground in Central America, our mission would fall flat. I lack the empathy and cultural understanding to run an education program in a foreign context. However, as an outsider, I had the privilege of a fresh perspective. As a Fulbright Scholar living in Nicaragua, I was frustrated by existing nonprofits working in the area. They struck me as heavy-handed, imposing North American values in a context that didn’t translate well. My first priority was to find passionate, driven Nicaraguans and employ them as frontline leaders. Our team is comprised of Central Americans in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica working closely to execute programming that is hiqh-quality and culturally relevant. 

Q: These days, startups, entrepreneurs, and innovators seem ubiquitous. How do you define these terms? Or perhaps: what are they not?

A: A startup is the nuts and bolts: it’s an early-stage company. Entrepreneurs are people who look at the world through different eyes: They channel their frustration for what is by creating what could be. Innovation is the rebellious, tedious act of challenging the status quo and transforming the world as we know it. 

Q: Are you a natural public speaker or did that come with practice?

A: I'm naturally extroverted, but no one is a ‘natural’ public speaker. Public speaking is like fitness;  it requires a kick-in-the butt and consistency to see results. Every time I stand in front of a crowd to present or sit one-on-one with a client, I feel butterflies in my stomach. That’s my gut telling me two things: First, I’m out of my comfort zone; second, I care about the value I’m delivering to the audience. It never feels natural, but with practice, the confidence comes more easily. 

Q: What quick piece of advice do you have for other female entrepreneurs?

A: Create circles of support: having a few solid mentors can be indispensable.