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How scuba diving gave this nurse the courage to plunge into entrepreneurship

(Kyla Cullain (right) and a fellow scuba diver in East Timor. Photo credit: Aquatica Dive Resort - Timor Leste)

After years of competitive sports and work stress, Kyla Cullain lived with herniated disks and compressed nerves in her back. In 2009, while working as a public health nurse, she made a wrong move and severely injured herself. In 2012, after exhausting every alternative therapy, she opted for surgery in the hopes of being pain-free, getting back to her active lifestyle and to being a nurse.

“Being an entrepreneur, you need to be able to adapt. You sink or you swim.”

Unfortunately, the surgery wasn’t a success and Cullain was left wondering “what next?” Her husband, an avid scuba diver, convinced her to give his long-time pastime a try. “I was terrified,” she says. But in the summer of 2013 Cullain checked her nerves, got certified and went on a month-long dive trip that fall.

“Everything changed once I got in the water. I realized that worlds exist on the other side of fear. Had I not pushed myself, I would have never seen some of the oceans and marine life that I’ve seen,” says Cullain. “After my surgery and rehab, I fought hard to get back to where I was before… but because of my resistance [to dive] I missed out on years of experiences.”

She made a conscious decision to no longer miss out, and that mindset is part of what pushed her to start her business.

Businesswoman of the Year awards. Kyla Cullian is the recipient of the 2016 Emerging Entrepreneur award.

(Kyla Cullan (middle) at the Businesswoman of the Year Awards. Photo Credit: Ima Ortega)

So in 2013, when Cullain saw a business opportunity for her and her husband, she jumped in feet first. They founded Next Step Transitions, a nurse-led construction company that specializes in barrier-free renovations and accessibility consulting. The company helps individuals with mobility issues overcome barriers in their own communities.

Cullain had always identified as an athlete and a public health nurse, but she realized that resisting something new — just because of fear — was doing nothing but holding her back.

“I held on so tight to that identity. I had a few years where I was just stagnant and trying to get back to an old identity,” she says. “And being an entrepreneur, you need to be able to adapt. You sink or you swim.”

Scuba diving was the push Cullain needed to get her thinking about a future that looked different than what she had in her mind, and the importance of adapting to a new reality. But it was learning the mechanics of diving that taught her how to be a business partner.

“With scuba diving, you need to have the methodology and presence of mind to react appropriately. I am better at looking at situations objectively,” she explains. “[And], you need to know exactly where you are, where your boat is, where your partner is and know how they are doing. All these checks are great in the water in and out.”

It’s been eight years since her injury, five years since her surgery and four years of diving and being an entrepreneur. Cullain says her life is different than what she imagined but she’s learned how to adapt and not be afraid of the unknown.

“Scuba diving was a life-saver for me… Had I hesitated in fear, I would never be where I am right now in the short period time.”