When entrepreneur Justin Dangel isn’t out listening to music in New Orleans or immersing himself in the poetry of Billy Collins, he’s busy launching start-ups. After working in the offices of the late Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy and then in the Senate office of Joe Biden, he started Voter.com during the 2000 election and then went on to found Consumers United, Inc. In 2014, he went on a REALITY’s Eden2Zion journey to Israel—a journey that set him on a path to new business ventures in Louisiana and in his home state of Massachusetts.
How are you trying to make an impact?
After exiting my last business I decided I wanted to focus on social impact businesses, businesses that could be both good business, but also could make a big difference in peoples' lives. I'm involved with two different start-ups right now that accomplish that mission, one of which, that I'm the executive chair of is called Firefly, in Boston, but the company I'm spending most of my time on—Ready Responders—was inspired by a program that I came across when I was in Israel.
What does it do?
Recruiting, training and equipping a network of part-time EMTs and integrating them with the 911 system in New Orleans. The benefit of this is they can respond very quickly to urgent medical needs but are also available to triage many of the non-emergency calls that happen within their neighborhood.
These two current projects are medically-oriented. Are you secretly a doctor?
Not at all. My last companies have been in the digital space, but with a mandate to look for things that are social impact-oriented, it's hard not to look at the health space particularly here in the US as an area that could use some entrepreneurship.
Tell us about one meaningful moment from your REALITY journey..
One of those things is this exercise where they mention four Old Testament figures: Moses and three others, and they ask you to decide which character you're most like. Are you a Moses? Somebody who inspires people but doesn't get all the way there? Or are you more of an implementer or a populizer? I realized at that point that I'm really more of an envisioner.
I started reflecting on it as a cathartic moment; I wasn't enjoying running a large company at that point, as opposed to developing and building a new idea. It was the beginning of my decision to move on to the sorts of things I'm doing now.
What preoccupies you during daylight hours?
Trying to figure out how to move the business in New Orleans, and the program I'm working on in Boston—how to move that forward. I'm very active politically, so I spend quite a bit of time talking to people and trying to work on political or social causes I care about.
What are some of those causes?
We as a country have left too many people behind—whether it's our health care system, whether it's in other ways—and so trying to figure out ways through entrepreneurship or other ways that we can build a more robust community where everybody has access to opportunity and fulfillment is how I spend most of my time every day.
Who are your role models?
I wouldn't say I have a role model per se, but there are people that I admire. There's a spray paint artist here named Brandan Odums—his willingness to dive into the hard issues and treat them in their full complexity. I find the mayor—Mayor Landrieu—in New Orleans really inspiring. He came to this city at a time when they needed great leadership and he provided that. He’s facing some hard issues.
If you could have dinner with anybody—who’d it be?
David Simon. He's the guy who wrote and directed The Wire and Treme. He has such a deep perspective on American life and what's really going on in cities and the real complexities that I would enjoy talking to him.
What surprised you about Israel?
Israel was a lot more energetic and fun than I expected, the politics and polity was a quite a bit richer than I expected, and the Golan Heights was a lot greener. I had this image of the contested Golan Heights as looking like a picture of the Syrian war zone that we see now. That it looked like Switzerland was really surprising.
And the resilience of Israelis is unprecedented. The cacophony of opinion and politics in that country is unlike anywhere else I've ever been, and I've been a lot of places. It was exciting.
Another thing that really surprised me is: there are certain cultural similarities that I have and friends of mine have with Israelis that I didn't fully recognize as Jewish characteristics until I spent time in Israel.
Like the idea that arguing about things—putting forth ideas, debating them—is normal conversation. I didn't realize that my family and my friends are almost all like that and that sometimes people from different cultural traditions find that offensive.
I’ve been back a lot since the REALITY trip. In the past three years, I’ve probably spent like nine months in Israel.
That’s a lot of time.
There were a few reasons. One: I liked it. Two: I got involved with a group that was doing some work on the political issue between Israelis and Palestinians and spent quite a bit of time in the West Bank. And for some period of time, I was dating a woman in Tel Aviv.
You’ve launched so many cool initiatives. What career advice can you offer?
No matter how successful or unsuccessful your business is, entrepreneurship will have inevitably periods where things feel great or where things feel terrible, and the most important thing you can do is separate that out from the rest of your life. You should not be losing sleep or partying because of the good or bad things that happen to your company.
Being an entrepreneur is a great job, but that's exactly what it is: a job. It’s not your baby. It can be your avocation, your work, it’s inevitably filled with ups and downs, but the ups and downs should not affect your mood, and your identity should not be so tied up in your company that it's impacting your health. If it is, you either need to get out of it no matter how exciting the opportunity is, or more likely figure out how to not be so identified and not have it affect your day.
The second piece of advice is that there are different approaches that people have to what projects they take on or how they think about their career. I divide it loosely into people trying to make it big and people who are trying to make something. The sooner you can transition your life into trying to make something, into enjoying the task of building whatever it is you’re building, instead of spending a lot of your time figuring out how to make it, the better. It’s more fulfilling, and most of the people I know that have had big successes apart from what they've built end up feeling not particularly satisfied and end up transitioning to something else.