These Entrepreneurs Used Remote Year to Maximize Their Professional Development

12. Nov. 2021


Vanesa Cotlar and Neil Jennings met five months ago when they landed in Kuala Lumpur, ready to take on the challenge of seeing the world while working remotely. Neil, a lawyer from the U.K. and Vanesa, a management consultant working in Canada, arrived at their Remote Year orientation not knowing what lay ahead. They could only shake hands with the forty other people on Remote Year Kanyini and look ahead to the future, hoping they would find what they’d been looking for out of this personal and professional development experience.

A few months later, Vanesa and Neil would start a venture together aimed at university students finding career fulfilment.

Two strangers who would probably have never met, save for some kind of miraculous intervention of fate, were able to use a work and travel program to focus on their strengths, and envision the ways in which their skills and passions could combine to develop an offering that could be really valuable to students in planning for their futures. Meet Octagon, a venture that helps students redefine how they think about themselves and their careers before they take that first step.

Everyone who joins Remote Year has a different goal in mind, but there is a good chance that you’re hoping to grow professionally on your year (or four months!) on the road. Vanesa and Neil didn’t know that they were going to start a project together on Remote Year, but they knew that they wanted a new and exciting challenge to work on alongside their current roles, something they’d be excited to work on each and every day.

Sound familiar? While everyone takes a unique path on a work and travel program, Vanesa and Neil offer a fresh perspective, and specific advice, on how to take advantage of professional development on Remote Year. If you’re considering joining a program so that you can start a new venture or gain skills that will help you stand out when it comes time for a promotion or a raise, you’re going to want to read this.

Tap into your professional side on a Remote Year program.

How did you decide to join Remote Year?

Neil:  Having lived and worked in London for more than 5 years, the corporate world began to look very consuming.  I realised that, before too long, I could have commitments prohibiting me from seeing the world and meeting so many new people.  I made it my mission to create a way to broaden my horizons, try something new, and re-ignite my drive and sense of fulfilment at work.  I stumbled across Remote Year, and thought, “You travel the world for a year, you keep your job, you meet new people, go to new places, see new things. I’m going to try it and see what happens here.”  I pitched the idea to my firm.  Luckily, they are very progressive and in many ways, thought leaders.  For example, we have a group of lawyers who work entirely from home.  While my bosses thought the concept of RY was great, it took a few months to work out the internal issues and logistics of remote work.  Remote work is a pretty earth-shattering concept as a City lawyer!    While some colleagues might have thought it was a sort of holiday for me, I made it clear that it was going to be me doing the same job, just somewhere else.  After we worked out the ‘small print’, I set off to KL.  We’re now six months in and I haven’t looked back!

Vanesa: This time last year I was working on a very big project for Deloitte in Toronto. After a few years in management consulting, I started thinking about whether I wanted to exit the industry. I was looking for a different way to grow both personally and professionally. I had started looking at MBAs, but with a business background, I felt that the classroom learning may have been a bit repetitive. I was looking for the opportunity to travel, learn about different cultures and build an international network. I loved the organized concept of Remote Year, as it met everything I was in search of. Professionally, Deloitte and I ended up deciding that I would go on the program on a sabbatical, where I would be able to experience the chance to work on projects outside of the Deloitte network and independently manage my own schedule. What’s been really incredible is that everywhere that I’ve gone, Deloitte has connected me with people who work for us locally, so I can go to our offices in all these places. I got to go to Deloitte in Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi, and I had some colleagues from home show up in Marrakesh. It’s been cool to do something so different professionally but stay connected to the Deloitte network.

Can you tell us the story of how and why you created Octagon?

V: When we were at home, we each had thought about starting a project  similar to what we’re doing now, but we never acted upon it.”

N: When you throw in the mix of world travel, experience, general happiness, and curiosity [as you get on Remote Year], you find yourself in a pretty good environment to try new ideas. I would have never taken the first step to try something new at home..”

N: We wanted to be more creative and build something truly impactful. We got talking a few times [about our passions] and realized, maybe  we’re actually talking about the same sort of thing. After that, it was just a matter of sitting down and going through some of our ideas and seeing if any of them would be useful or doable.

V: We found that [Neil and I] are a very unique pairing. Although there are other people that do career-related speaking, workshops and apps, there are few people that are part of a pair like ours, where someone is a U.K. lawyer and the other is a Toronto management consultant. Nobody else is creating something with a strong international pull like Octagon, as it’s being developed in the global market that it will be of use in.

V: We felt that by working together, we would be able to tap this amazing global network. Worst case, at the end of the year, we’ll have tried to build something that  didn’t gather momentum as quickly as we’d have liked. Best case, we have a growing passion project. This is definitely a very strong professional development point for both of us and we are learning such valuable experience that will be applicable after our year concludes.

Participants spotlight

Participants spotlight

Do you think you could have built Octagon without Remote Year?

V: Remote Year provides an ideal platform for professional development. It creates opportunities for you and gives you the chance to create opportunities for yourself. First, we both feel that without Remote Year we wouldn’t have met each other. Second, the Remote Year City Teams have been so instrumental in getting us going and helping us find the right opportunities to grow and meet the right people locally.

N:They’ve also been really great at general encouragement. Every connection the City Teams make, and every lead  they have that you can follow, gives you a little bit more momentum. That’s priceless.

V: There is a slight chance we would have gotten to meet the right people [without Remote Year], but it would have been over a much longer timeframe.

N: One other thing: Michelle, who is our Program Leader, and Tasha, another Remote Year participant, came to our first presentation for Octagon, took pictures and were there to support us. If we were traveling alone just the two of us, I don’t know what it would have looked like, but it wouldn’t have looked like that.

V: We really think that if it wasn’t for Remote Year and, in particular the City Teams, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

How did you take advantage of professional development on Remote Year?

N: For both of us, professional development is a big part of our current roles.  Working in professional services, we’re constantly looking to build relationships with clients and improve our skill and experience level. We spoke about it a number of times and came to the conclusion that professional development is never handed to you on a silver plate. Not on Remote Year. Not ever. You have to make an effort and work at it. However, on Remote Year, you’re in the perfect environment to seize whatever opportunities you want to go after. Nobody’s going to turn up and say here, here’s the thing, go and do it with this person. That’s not how it works.

V: Right now is a great example:  we’re in Split, Croatia.  We have this beautiful coworking space that’s open 24/7 and the opportunity to take full advantage of it. There are networking events happening here during evenings with ample chance to meet local entrepreneurs. Remote Year sets up talks and events based on our interest. As well, with the beach so close, our community plans so many fun activities.

V: I remember when Trish, Remote Year’s VP of Experience, said to us during orientation, “Remote Year is like a buffet. If you try to eat everything, you’re going to get sick. You need to pick and choose what you want to do.” If we want to be at the beach every day and work on professional development projects and do our jobs and go to all Kanyini events and, and, and… we wouldn’t be sleeping. Sometimes there are things going on that we don’t get involved with.  V: It’s one of those things where you start to figure out that a year is a long time. There are a lot of chances to take part in a lot of different things. It’s about setting  goals for yourself for the year. If you feel like there’s not enough professional development happening, it’s probably because you’re not making enough time in your schedule to see what that looks like for you. Ultimately, professional development on RY is not necessarily what RY provides, but the environment in which it operates.

Remote year participants

Remote year participants

What is your advice for people who want to experience professional growth on a work and travel program?

N: Talk to people about everything and anything. If you speak with all of the people that you’re traveling with and use all of their best skills, and strengths, you basically create an extremely diverse and talented network that is there to help you. Be open minded, but be clear about what it is you’re trying to achieve.

V: It’s okay if what you want to do is not the same thing as everyone else in your group. It’s fine if you want to find a few people who you want to work with and make something happen. Sometimes, if you try to do something with too many people, in the end it doesn’t go anywhere. There are different people in our group teaming up to work on different ideas and it’s encouraging to feed off of everyone’s passion and momentum.

V: It’s better to start something, especially in this environment where you can just start something. It’s not about ‘Is anyone going to see it? Is anyone going to judge me for it?’ because the people that you’re surrounded by are trying to change their lives - it’s why they’re here. The support that we’ve received from other Kanyinis and their excitement for us has been wonderful.

Along with the kind of growth that can only come with leaving behind your comfort zone and traveling the world for a year, professional development abounds on a work and travel program - if you know how to tap into it. Follow Vanesa’s and Neil’s lead to make the most of your time on the road, and come out the other side with the tools that you need to accomplish your goals.