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Sonya Shadan

Lessons for Life

San Francisco, CA

I decided to be a leader for a cause I believed in but also to be a role model for my community that greatly needed it.

Growing up in the Bay Area, I noticed that music was becoming a two-tiered system where only those who could afford music lessons and the expensive instruments were granted access. The luxury that music had become didn't make sense to me. I created Lessons for Life to make learning music a right, not a privilege. Learning music is integral to a child’s development. We match underserved students, who otherwise would not have access to one-on-one music instruction, with volunteer tutors from high school and colleges.

Lessons for Life started out as a community service project in high school. I was intent on combining my passion for music with social impact to make music a reality for students. I remember when I received an email from a young girl, Claire, requesting to participate in the program.

Claire had a disability and she described how listening to music made her feel connected to the world. She had always wanted to play the violin but did not have an opportunity because her school didn't have a music program. Claire was so passionate about participating in Lessons for Life that she planned on taking three buses from her home in Oakland to San Francisco to take lessons. At that moment, I understood it was my duty to turn Lessons for Life from a community service project into a non-profit.

At first, my community laughed and sneered at this idea. Teacher and friends commented that I was simply too young and ambitious to run my own company. This sparked only sparked my ambition; if I could do it, I could show other young women that they can start meaningful companies and non-profits too. In that moment, I decided to be a leader for a cause I believed in but also to be a role model for my community that greatly needed it, making the impossible look possible.

After five years, I am leading a non-profit and am a part of a revolution in music education by bringing music into students' lives. Natalie, the first student I instructed, is now enrolled in the Youth Symphony and plans on becoming a professional Flautist. Other students share similar stories to Natalie; music has made an incredibly positive impact. We are teaching our kids not only how to play music but how to play, take a chance, and create.

In my journey of leadership, friends of all ages have asked me how they too can build meaningful and successful careers for themselves. I tell them that only they can turn themselves into leaders. As Mike Dooley once stated, "The one thing all famous authors, world-class athletes, business tycoons, singers, actors, and celebrated achievers in any field have in common is that they all began their journeys when they were none of these. Yet still, they began their journeys." You are poised for greatness; the only risk is not doing it.