What Does True Success in This Life Mean to You?

GSB Alumnus Jesse Sullivan's "Yes to God" has required much more than a journey of the heart

On the trash lined streets of El Salvador, with the smell of urine filling the hot muggy air, I made a vow. Staring down into the eyes of Jose, an infant that would soon die of starvation, I saw God staring back at me. God said to me, “Will you get me out of this suffering?”

When God spoke to me through Jose, it was not a feeling of shock, but one of confirmation. It was born of the natural extension of my faith formation. As a boy in a small Midwestern town, Church boiled down to being a good person and helping your neighbor. It wasn’t until college that I was challenged to answer questions like, “What does true success in this life mean?” I call myself a Matthew 25 Catholic—“Whatsoever you do unto the least among you, that you do unto me.” Down in El Salvador, the Jesuit priests who gave their life to serve the poor would say, “Jesus can be found in the crucified people of the developing world… What will you do to get them off of the cross?”

The last 10 years of my life has been a crazy journey trying to follow where my continual yes to God has taken me. It has led me to do government, nonprofit, defense, and entrepreneurship work in some of the most complex and challenging countries in the world—Palestine, Haiti, Myanmar, Afghanistan. This journey began out of compassion, but I quickly learned that this was more than just a journey of the heart. It required the cultivation of my intellect, the training of my skills, and ultimately, and the routine submission of my own will. My compass for this journey has been my relationship with the Holy Spirit. At each decision point I would try to ask, “God, what do you desire me to do?” With the help of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and dedicating myself to daily prayer, I grew in my ability to discern and follow the will of God.

The most difficult moment came when God asked me to serve my country in Afghanistan. He had only recently introduced me to the greatest gift of my life, my wife, and now He was asking us to make this sacrifice. It was difficult as an individual with all my imperfections and insecurities to hear and follow God, let alone adding another person to the mix. God had to teach us the language of three. My incredible wife, God, and I all had to come together and get on the same page. I was to put my wife before myself, she was to put me before herself, and together we were to submit ourselves to the will of God. Easier said than done! Internalizing this lesson for my marriage was the single greatest lesson God taught me through Afghanistan.

God was also teaching me how to be more effective in my vow to those “crucified people of the developing world.” It was a tense day, as I led my team past the spots where IEDs had killed Private Lake and blown the legs off of an Afghan child. I stepped out of the pink flowered poppy fields and knelt down by the mud walled Mosque. I was serving with the U.S. military in the deadliest district of the Afghan war. The village elder, the key to peace in the area, said to me: “These men, they have no hope, they have no jobs, and no opportunity. If you fix that problem, then you will have peace.”

This wisdom, along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, led our family to Stanford Business School. I was privileged to join some of the world’s greatest business minds to design a venture, Alter, that could create jobs at scale in the least developed countries. We have now launched the countries of Haiti and Myanmar, with Afghanistan next on the list. Alter is the most effective approach to extreme poverty I’ve seen yet. I hope Jose would be proud.

Here is what true success in this life means to me—to be disciplined enough to hear the voice of God in your life, and to have the freedom and the courage to follow it.

Jesse Sullivan ’15 has been led from government and nonprofit work, to joining the military and being deployed in Afghanistan, to attending Stanford's Graduate School of Business and creating Alter, a start up organization in Haiti and Myanmar. You can reach Jesse at sullivjw@gmail.com.