When I first met Gina Best it was her energy – tender, raw and honest – that mesmerized me. This happened last fall at Referral Institute’s workshop. The first thing I noticed was how her voice was capable of filling the room without any effort. I felt immediately comfortable around her and inclined to be myself. She was different but it wasn’t her boldness or rambunctious personality – which she is and has – it was something else completely. I realized part of it was her vulnerability, but also the bright light she seemed to shine on women that were going through difficult, confusing times and the way Gina helped them find their balance.
We sat down for many coffees during which she told me about her journey. She wasn’t always like this – she repeated many times – and I listened because her story was intriguing, but also because her words were full of hope.
Last year, without really knowing what she was getting into but with the certainty that she couldn’t continue as she was, Gina embarked on a journey that turned her life around. From the outside Gina had it all together; a great career, her own mortgage company that funded $100 million in 2014, two beautiful children, tons of networking connections… Yet, the pestering question, “Is this it?” kept sneaking into her mind.
Gina reached her breaking point in 2013 when her company faced a slow start of year and money became tight. After a few months, she had to lay off her long-term assistant and was heartbroken by this decision. By fall of that year, the situation had turned around and Gina became very busy, “I was working 60-70 hours a week. My children would call me and ask if I was coming home. It was bad,” she remembers. One night in September, during a friend’s birthday party, something bizarre happened. They were at a restaurant and Gina felt she wasn’t present. “I couldn’t comprehend what people were saying. I wasn’t able to function. There was so much inside me that I couldn’t participate in the party,” she said. She felt on the brink of having a full-on meltdown and it scared her. Daylight brought her some clarity; it became obvious to her that she was full of everybody else’s problems. She had spent most of her adult life fixing other people’s issues, forgetting about herself to the point where she couldn’t take no more. Something had to change.
For years, Gina had flirted with the idea of getting involved with the Referral Institute, a sister company of BNI (Business Network International an organization with over 170,000 members worldwide). A couple of years earlier, the possibility of acquiring a franchise in Vancouver had opened up, but at the time, Gina didn’t have the money. Money was not an excuse in November of 2013, but she was aware she couldn’t do it on her own, so she asked her best friend, Mike Dreher. She explained she just knew he was the right person. “He is incredibly personable with a huge sales background, loves everything that has to do with people and training. But most important, I knew he wasn’t happy with what he was doing.” Without knowing much about it, Mike partnered with Gina in acquiring the franchise of the Referral Institute Vancouver.
The New Year brought endless possibilities with the acquisition of the Referral Institute, which focuses on helping entrepreneurs develop a unified personal network; in a nutshell, “To grow your business, it’s not what you know, but who you know.” But Gina’s life changing transformation (or “embracing different” transformation as she likes to call it) would come in March 2014, when reluctantly, she decided to apply to Dov Baron’s Authentic Speaker Academy for Leadership (ASAL) course. “A friend told me about it a couple of times and I said no every time he mentioned it. But then I thought I could use some speaking and leadership skills with the new company, particularly the speaking because I talked a mile a minute back then,” she laughed after making it clear I wouldn’t have understood her back then. The eight-month program – its three bootcamps, and final presentation – turned her world upside down.
The first bootcamp introduced a concept that Gina wasn’t at all familiar with: vulnerability. “I didn’t know how to spell vulnerability when I started, there are days when I still don’t know how to spell it,” she joked.
“Why is vulnerability so hard?” I asked one afternoon in early February. Gina was quiet for what seemed a long time for a woman with her wit and the right answer always up her sleeve.
“You get comfortable with what you know,” she finally replied. “If I use myself as an example, I wasn’t consciously burying my feelings, I just couldn’t deal with them, the hurt was so big, I just had to put them away. Vulnerability is hard because you don’t have any control over it. If I bring myself to the table and am vulnerable, I have to be the real me and have the courage to accept that I am not doing well, that my feelings are hurt.” She explained that she felt like one of those children in a movie that peers into a window and looks into a party, where people were dancing. She was a spectator, not a participant in her own life. “I was busy protecting myself from the hurt and the many losses. But we don’t get to cherry pick our emotions. I wasn’t really upset, but there was no joy, no laughter.”
Fifteen years ago, Gina was pregnant with twins. She and her husband couldn’t have been happier, but there was something wrong: at week 9 she lost the first baby and at week 18, the second. For a decade and a half Gina buried deep inside all those feelings and never talked about it, not until ASAL’s Bootcamp 1 when Baron asked the group about their biggest shame and she got up and spoke for 16 minutes about it. “I didn’t even know it was there. Then slowly I had the realization of how I dealt with grief. I was one of those people that just got busy. I didn’t deal with things, I just filled my days with doing because, that way, I didn’t have to look at my own feelings.”
Gina explained she wanted to be a mother more than anything else in the world, but she couldn’t carry the babies. “I couldn’t give myself what I wanted most in the whole wide world. I felt I didn’t deserve anything and I slowly started shutting down everything else around me. I did a really good job of hiding.” It wasn’t easy, though; she had to stay busy to bury those feelings, while keeping everybody at arm’s length.
Her hard work and constant activity rendered amazing results. A decade ago, she started her own mortgage company. Each year she picked goals and learned networking skills that enabled her to reach those goals. When it came to her professional life, she knew what she was doing. As each year went by and Gina slowly worked her way up the ladder, the awards started pouring in. “Earning awards became very important for me, before I got them I wasn’t anybody, I was just Gina. The recognition made me feel I was somebody important. If I took that away from me, I was nobody, I was this woman that couldn’t do anything; I wanted to have a family, I couldn’t do it and it was my fault.”
I already mentioned that Gina was the mother of two wonderful boys. Her dream of becoming a mother became real when she and her husband adopted five years ago. Yet not even then did she close that distance she put between herself and everyone else. “Recently I realized I even held my children at arm’s length just a little bit, just in case…” She pointed out that vulnerability is ultimately the scariest thing in the world because there is no control over it; you can’t control the outcome, you can’t control the feelings, all you have to do is believe in yourself, be honest with yourself and bring that to whatever the situation is. “It is ridiculous the conversations we can have in our own head to talk us out of doing something, when it is really quite simple; show up, be vulnerable, share your feelings. Are you going to get hurt? Absolutely! But is there a reward on the other side? Absolutely!”
There’s no gain without pain; Gina has experienced it first hand. I asked her if every tear, every heartache, every freakout, every seasick moment was worth it. Without pausing, she answered, “When I spend time with the boys, I am present and I am with them. I don’t hold back anymore. I can laugh and play with them. I still yell at them, let’s be completely honest,” she laughed. “But I’m not holding them away from me anymore and, because of the boys, I can look at other parts of my life that I wasn’t okay with. I want my boys to grow up amazing and this is my opportunity to show them how.”
The transformation that enabled Gina to take care of herself, instead of everyone else, didn’t happen over night. Gina realized she was different in May, when her older brother died suddenly. It was the first time she didn’t get busy to get away from her feelings, but allowed herself to feel the pain and the anger. “It is not about the destination, it’s about the journey,” she repeated many times during our conversations. But where is the journey taking her? Her vulnerability implied that she accepts she doesn’t know yet the big picture, but she is getting some clarity. The journey had given her the freedom to follow her heart. “I have a phenomenal mortgage business, but it’s not my love anymore. I want to help women entrepreneurs with families build amazing businesses. I am following my heart and will take a huge leap of faith. I know the why, I will figure out the details as we go,” she smiled.
“It hasn’t been an easy journey. When I called my brother on his birthday in March last year, just after ASAL started, he said, ‘I read your Facebook posts. I get it. I grew up in the same house.’ He was in the army, had a lot demons from the things he saw and experienced, but my brother had a very gentle soul. In the anguish that the last years of his life brought, the one thing he truly cherished were his children. He was the only guy working the breakfast program at his children’s school. He was all about freedom, a supporter of me, he always got me,” she paused. “And today, my heart is in building. I love to build, Cristina. I love to build.”