Áine Kerr: Discomfort Zones

When my colleague and dear friend Áine Kerr left Facebook to co-found her second startup, she left a note on my desk that read, “The future begins at the edge of your comfort zone.”

Áine grew up in Monaghan County Ireland, just shy of The Troubles, and just prior to The Celtic Tiger.  She began her career as a grammar school teacher, then executed a long and well-planned pivot into journalism. Aine covered education for all three of Ireland’s major dailies, before partnering with Irish nightly news anchor and entrepreneur, Mark Little, to build social media news agency, Storyful — which was later acquired by Newscorp. In 2016, Aine joined Facebook. 

That summer, Áine and I began developing the department’s first global news programs. We barnstormed through London, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen and Madrid, leading product sessions, and showcasing partner’s best practice alongside a dozen of our colleagues.

Prior to that time, I could pilot a used car back and forth across America’s highways and byways, but I hadn’t traveled much; outside of the Caribbean, I’d only been to Europe as a teenager, and the Maldives on my honeymoon. I had very little experience navigating international flights, customs, cultures and languages. 

By the time COVID locked down global travel and in-person convenings, I had run programs in Athens, Amsterdam, Brussels, Dublin, Hong Kong, Sydney, Singapore, Taipei, Jakarta, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Delhi, Hyderabad, and all across the United States. I was scheduled to spend each quarter of 2020 leading executive programs in all four regions of Facebook’s world: Europe, Asia, North and South America.

But then, kaboom.

As we raced across Europe that fall, I found myself constantly haranguing Kerr (I call her by her surname) to join the team for happy hours, meals, morning runs. But she couldn’t be dragged from her room, or moreover, from her laptop.

I remember heading to Tegel Airport in Berlin one gray morning, chattering away as we passed The Wall and The Reichstag. Kerr was heads down, banging away on an email, mumbling, “Sorry, just one more thing…”

Áine is super-smart, hyper focussed, and nearly unflappable. 

Except that one time in Madrid when the taxi driver tried to drop us at a dusty, windswept and barbed-wired National Guard Base, not the actual international airport. Kerr– surely one Flat White away shy of fully caffeinated — turned ashen and mute, as I flexed my high school Spanish skills.

Y llegamos a la puerta muy bien. De hecho, tenía dos vestidos de baile flamenco rojo brillante.

Áine left Facebook just two years later to co-found Kinzen, a startup at the leading edge of the battle against misinformation, once again with Mr. Mark Little — whose stories, enthusiasm and companionship, by the way, is worth as much Guinness as you can afford as late as you can stay awake at Newsgeist in Lisbon. 

Áine also became a Punch Sulzberger Fellow at Columbia University Journalism School. And she became a mother.

Today, Kinzen has grown 10x. And Aine’s daughter, Anna, is two-years-old.

Which is roughly the age Áine began sharing her memories about growing up in County Monaghan, in Ireland’s Border Region.

Fred Rogers said, that “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have- something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness, and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

Aine moves fast. She thinks fast, and acts fast. I spent more than one meeting asking her to explain her white board again. And more than one morning lagging behind her through the airport. Aine has it together: the athleisure and the trainers, the neck pillow tucked into the roller bag, the S’well water bottle. All in black. Of course.

Facebook is known for its motto, “Move Fast & Break Things” — a marked improvement from the similarly-intended but slightly more punk rock phrase I left my MTV News colleagues with in 2014, “Keep fucking shit up (in a good way).” 

The point, of course, is to stay hungry, stay curious, stay agile and nimble. To disrupt yourself before you’re disrupted. 

For nearly five years now, Aine and I have kept a semi-regular, trans-Atlantic phone call.

I love how much she loves what she’s doing, how committed and clear she is about her work, her purpose. As Fred once said, “It seems to have very little to do with worldly success.” She loves what she’s doing, and loves it in front of others.”

Still, I like to encourage her to take in the scenery, to relish those “quiet moments in the midst of life,” as Fred called them, “that seem to give the rest meaning.”

For her part, Aine helps me feel seen and understood. Not crazy. Our conversations help  the edge of my comfort zone feel a little bit safer. And isn’t that what friends and neighbors are really for.

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