Claire Diaz-Ortiz leads social innovation at Twitter, Inc., and is the author of several books, including Twitter for Good: Change the World One Tweet at a Time. Named one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company, she is a frequent international speaker on social media, business, and innovation and writes a popular business blog at www.clairediazortiz.com. She holds an MBA from Oxford University and an MA and BA in anthropology from Stanford University. She is cofounder of Hope Runs, a non-profit organization operating in AIDS orphanages in Kenya. Claire has been called a “mover and shaker” by Mashable, “the woman who got the pope on Twitter” by The Washington Post, a “force for good” by Forbes, and “one of the most generous in social media” by Fast Company. She has been widely written about in such publications as the New York Times, Business Week, The Washington Post, and Forbes.
I sat down with Claire recently and talked through her amazing life. How she, as it seems to have lived such great stories in such a short time. What unraveled was not just intriguing, but also thrilling. Here is a women who is constantly living out what it means to be a “hearer of God.” Or – Claire is a women who hears God. Not in a audible way, but in the still small voice kind of way.
Her story is filled with passion for the lost and lonely. Her story is filled with hope running wildly through the middle of life.
John: Claire, I’m wondering, maybe before we talk a little bit about your new book, if you want to just give us a brief history of who you are and what you have done. I think I know what your current job title is, but maybe if you just want to give us a brief overview of where you started and what made you interested in social media, that would be a good place to start.
Claire: Sure. In 2006, I went on a trip around the world. And the last stop on that trip–it was a yearlong trip–was Kenya, where I went to climb Mount Kenya. Someone had told me that there was a guesthouse near the base of the mountain, so I decided to stay at that guesthouse. It was very cheap. The day I went to the guesthouse, I realized that it was actually on the grounds of an orphanage. When I arrived, the orphanage elders invited me in to have lunch at the orphanage. I went in that day and in the middle of lunch, I was in the restroom and I heard God telling me that I would stay at that orphanage. And so I ended up living at the orphanage for a year. My foster son was a child I met that first day, who ended up coming back with me to the U.S. So this book …
John: On that trip?
Claire: Yeah, we met on that trip.
John: Oh, you met on that trip, and eventually …
Claire: We met on that trip. I stayed, living at the orphanage for a year, and then about nine months or a year after, I came back. We brought him to the U.S.
John: So, just to clarify. You were going to stay there one day, and you ended up staying a year?
Claire: Yes. And getting that kid along the way. So, the book, Hope Runs is our story. It’s the story of Sammy’s life before coming to the orphanage, and my life before coming to the orphanage, and then us meeting that day, living together that year, and then the five years that have happened since then, essentially. During the year I lived at the orphanage, I had a blog that was popular. Because I had this popular blog, I ended up meeting some of the folks that were starting a little weird social media thing called Twitter. And so they said, “Hey, you should try getting on Twitter. We think it could be really cool for you to tweet about things.” And so, I started tweeting while I was living at this orphanage in Kenya. Obviously, there weren’t a lot of people tweeting about their lives in orphanages in Kenya at the time, so I started to learn very early on how Twitter could be used for non-profit organizations and missionaries. Eventually, then, about a year later, I started working at the company where I still work today.
John: So to some extent, your career or your life story has two different paths. Because it certainly is philanthropy on the one side, but then it’s also this crazy social media world on the other side. How have those collided, or how have they been beneficial for you in your history?
Claire: Sure. I believe that we need to extend access to more populations on the planet for us to gain the change we are looking for. And I think that Twitter is a great tool for doing that. I think the online world creates a level playing field for lots of populations, different populations around the world. So I like being able to work with non-profit organizations from a cool platform like Twitter.
John: That’s very cool. So, going back then to this trip. You decided to climb Mount Kenya. Was this the first time that you had an encounter with God, or were you kind of on a journey with Him before?
Claire: Yeah, no, I’ve always been a Christian. I was raised a Christian but up until that day, I’ve never heard God so distinctly. I’ve never heard him saying to me so clearly that something was going to happen, and I had to keep my eyes open for me to know what that was going to be, essentially. You know, that day in the orphanage, I decided to… I said, “I’m not going to climb the mountain. I’m going to do a 72-hour fast and read the Bible. I read lots of books about things like that, bettering yourself and what not.
John: Yes, I found your list for 2013, I was intrigued…
Claire: So inside I’m saying, “Okay, I’m going to read the whole Bible, and I’m going to fast while I do it, and then I’m going to come up with my decision on if I’m going to stay in the orphanage for a year.” And I like to joke that I fainted somewhere near Leviticus, and they took me to the hospital (literally), because I had actually fainted. They thought I had malaria. But at that point I already decided I was going to live at the orphanage for the year, so it was okay.
John: So going through the book of Leviticus should convict someone [laughs]…
Claire: Exactly, exactly. To do anything.
John: To do anything. That’s amazing. What do you say to the person who thinks that maybe, at some point in their life, God has spoken to them but they may have missed that voice or that sign? How does someone kind of look at their life and question whether or not God is speaking to them?
Claire: It’s interesting, because I’ve often questioned why did I hear God, so distinctly that day, and why haven’t I heard him so distinctly since. I’ve obviously heard God many times in my life, but what happened that day was bigger than anything that’s ever happened to me before since. And, I really think a lot of the reason that it happened was that I had a lot of space in my life for it to come in. I was in a moment of searching, I had some time, there was margin in my life, essentially, and that allowed me to hear. I think probably most of us live our lives so busy and so full that we don’t allow time to hear. Maybe we have 15 or 20 minutes in the morning of our quiet time or something. But that’s not a lot if you’re looking for God to really change your life.
John: That’s very interesting and also very convicting. In talking about the margin, Claire, I just have to ask the question, because in social media, we have access to the entire world at our fingertips 24/7. How do you make time, encourage either somebody who’s younger or older or getting into or feeling addicted to social media, be it Facebook or Twitter, whatever. How do you plan margin in your life?
Claire: Well, I think it’s funny. Some people have thought I’ve been kind of heretical to say, does working at Twitter mean that I take the digital Sabbath? But I do. I try to take 24 hours off in every single week. And I think it completely restores me in ways that would never happen if I just stayed online. I mean, it’s just so easy for us to get caught up in the fast-paced world we live in. And then in the fast-paced world, if you’re spending all your time online, it feels even more fast-paced than ever. So you need to step away eventually and just shut it off and pause and stop.
John: Have you always been a writer?
Claire: Yeah. In my head.
John: Sure. But I mean, you haven’t come out with a lot of books, right, but you’ve probably written…
Claire: Yeah. Sure.
John: You know, unpublished or like you said…
Claire: Right. I wrote a book about Twitter that came out a couple of years ago. And, as I say, I’ve always been writing in my head or something. I have all the Moleskin journals to prove it.
John: Well, that’s good. Encourage somebody who’s on the fence about either foster care or adoption. What signs should they be looking at to either dive in or maybe hold off for that? How do you approach somebody who’s considering that?
Claire: Well, I think it’s interesting, because I’m probably overly encouraging of anyone who’s considering it. I actually …
John: Which is okay.
Claire: I mean, I want people to be in a stable marriage if they’re married, or to be in a stable financial situation, a stable living situation. Those things are important. But, I think that emotional renaissance, or emotional insecurities about the decision to adopt or the decision to foster, will always exist. Just in the same way that many soon-to-be biological parents have insecurities. And I don’t think that’s ever really going to go away. I don’t think a hundred percent of the foster adoptive parents in the world are running around saying, “I can’t wait for him or her to get here this second.” But I think they all find that love very, very quickly upon meeting your new kid, essentially.
John: So it’s said that expecting parents are never, ever … Even before they’re expecting, they’re never ready for a child. Do you think the same is true when they’re expecting an adoption or a foster care child?
Claire: Absolutely. And I think perhaps, even more so. Simply because often times when you’re adopting or getting a foster child, you’re getting a kid at a different age than day one. And you never quite know what day 1,000 might be for a child. And that comes with its own host of challenges.
John: What has been the best surprise about Sammy in your life?
Claire: I think the best surprise about Sammy has been simply the way that when I do little things, I’m amazed by how much Sammy appreciates them. When we were in the process of writing this book, I learned stories I never knew about Sammy. I thought I knew things about him, I thought he knew things particularly about his life in the last seven years since I’ve known him. But I was learning all these new things and one of them was, the emotion he felt the first time my best friend baked him a cake. Because he’d never… She baked him a cake because we were celebrating. He had graduated and he’d never had a cake baked for him before. And he was just so overcome with joy at this little thing. I hadn’t even thought that, I dont’ even know … I guess we had bought cakes for him on past birthdays, past birthdays, I don’t even know. And then the fact that the cake had been baked by someone because they cared about him, he was just like, “This is amazing.” And he wrote this story in the book, and I just couldn’t believe it. I started crying just because I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that A) no one had baked him a cake, and B) that I never knew that was important, ’cause I would’ve baked the cake years earlier, obviously.
John: What is God teaching you lately?
Claire: God is teaching me an incredible amount of patience right now.
John: And how is he doing that?
Claire: One of the ways .. There are different ways in my life, but one of the ways is in relation to Sammy. You know my parents sometimes say I got kind of the hardest end of parenting ’cause I started this with a teenager.
John: How old was he when you took …
Claire: I met him at 13. He came over at 14 and a half, 15. You know that is a challenge. I think any teenager is a challenge. A parent of a teenager faces challenges and I’m facing all that. So without having had the years to kind of set him up for success in many ways, we are tackling those things. And that’s hard.
Sammy Ikua Gachagua had lost his father to AIDS, his mother to abandonment, and his home to poverty. By age ten, he was living in a shack with seven other children and very little food. He entered Tumaini Children’s Home seeing it as a miracle with three meals a day, a bed to sleep in, and clothes on his back.
When Claire Diaz-Ortiz arrived in Kenya at the end of an around-the-world journey, she decided to stay the night, climb Mt. Kenya, then head back home to Maine. She entered Tumaini Children’s Home seeing it as little more than a free place to spend the night before her mountain trek.
God had other plans.
Hope Runs is the emotional story of an American tourist, a Kenyan orphan, and the day that would change the course of both of their lives forever. It’s about what it means to live in the now when the world is falling down around you. It’s about what it means to hope for the things you cannot see. Most of all, it’s about how God can change your life in the blink of an eye.