5 job search tips from a skydiving sustainability director

Samantha Joseph is director of corporate responsibility and sustainability at Iron Mountain, a data and records management company. I recently had the opportunity to talk to the graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management about her job search and experiences working in the sustainability field.

Ellen Weinreb: Is it true that you are a skydiving instructor?

Samantha Joseph: I was a liberal arts major in political science and sociology at Brandeis University. While at Brandeis, I became a skydiving instructor. I spent the three years between undergrad and grad school working as a skydiving instructor six months a year and then backpacking the other six months a year.

EW: How did you get from skydiving to B-school?

SJ: I grew up with a very strong sense of responsibility for taking care of people who are less fortunate than I am and giving back to the community. After traveling for six months a year in developing countries, I saw firsthand how much need there is in the world. That experience changes you.

It seemed pretty clear that some of the challenges I saw would not be solved by philanthropy alone and that there was an important role for corporations to play in addressing these needs. I knew that if I wanted to be part of the solution, I would need to develop my skills and that business school was a great place to do that.

EW: What was your job search strategy in B-school?

SJ: Given my nontraditional background, I wanted to use business school to transition to a more traditional role or company so I could have a new set of experiences. I focused on working either in consulting or industry at Fortune 500 companies. Despite that focus, I knew that there needed to be a component of social value creation.

When I graduated in 2009, there were few jobs in corporate America dedicated to corporate responsibility, so I opened my search to companies where I thought I had potential to create social value even if it wasn't my full-time job.

EW: How did you get your sustainability job at Iron Mountain?

SJ: I was originally hired as a manager in the enterprise strategy team and joined knowing Iron Mountain did not have a director of corporate responsibility. A big reason was that the senior vice president of the enterprise strategy group was creating a team of people whom he believed would be change agents within the organization. He's very proud of the fact that many alumni of the team, including myself, have gone on to create our own jobs.

While on the strategy team, I started working on the business case for the role I have now. My first move was benchmarking Iron Mountain against other companies to catalog and identify gaps, risks and opportunities for the business -- places where we could create savings, competitive and recruiting advantages.

I determined that we could save a significant amount of money through environmental programs, and built a plan around reinvesting those savings into community programs. So in year one, I didn't ask for anything except the opportunity to give it a try.

EW: How did your skydiving job prepare you for your current role at Iron Mountain?

SJ: At 20 years old, I became responsible for other people's lives. I had to learn to be decisive and to act quickly or risk serious consequences. Having that tremendous responsibility at a young age gave me the confidence to ask for and take on leadership roles. Whether you are an entrepreneur, or an "intrapreneur" working inside a company, you have to be willing to take risks. In skydiving, I learned that the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. 

EW: Give me your top five recommendations for sustainability jobseekers.

SJ:

1. Expand the spectrum of opportunity and consider what kind of role you want to play.

There are so many roles from which to create social value. I'm lucky to have thoughtful and progressive finance, real estate and operations partners (amongst others), and the world needs many more of those kinds of people. You can also take either a traditional or socially minded role at a socially minded company. There's lots of ways of doing it and each comes with a unique experience, so I encourage you to think through all of them.

2. Be entrepreneurial in your job search. That's the skillset you're going to depend on every day to be successful.

I think the fact that these jobs are hard to get is an indicator that many of the people who get them are entrepreneurial enough to make them work. I see myself as a self-starter. I traveled around the world by myself, and I'm totally up for a challenge. And trust me, this is a challenging job.

In many big companies, there are roles with fixed responsibilities so that people in them often know what they're going to do when they get to work each day. I never know what I'm going to do and that's exciting. Some people would say I was crazy to join Iron Mountain in a traditional role knowing that my real goal was to be their first director of corporate responsibility. I would agree, but luckily, crazy doesn't scare me. My career is a testament to the saying that "if you don't believe it can happen, it won't," and that principle guides every decision I make at Iron Mountain.

3. Look for potential in the unexpected.

I envy sustainability leaders at Wal-Mart, Target and other brands with big footprints. If they are successful in reducing their companies' environmental footprints even 0.1 percent, the scale of impact that they will have on the world is significant. The most traditional companies need sustainability people the most; they just don't know it yet, and it's up to you to build the case.

4. Think about where you can uniquely contribute your skills, not just your time.

There are companies for whom corporate responsibility is really core to their values. They're advertising and hiring for those kinds of jobs, and I'm sure that there are a lot of people who can run mature sustainability programs, most better than I could. There are also a lot of people who could build great sustainability programs from scratch. But there aren't that many who will try.

There's something incredibly rewarding about feeling like your company is dependent on you specifically, not just a person in your role. Take the lead.

5. Once you get it, just hunker down and be as resilient as you can.

I think the one thing business schools don't prepare us for is the kind of resilience we need to be successful in these roles. It takes a lot of energy.

Many people look at their first role out of business school as a two-year commitment. But in two years in a sustainability role, you're going to feel like you're just getting started. You should be thinking about these roles as around five-year commitments. If you're not that interested in doing it that long, you might not feel like you've made a huge impact when you leave.

EW: Do you feel the same rush in your job as you do jumping out of a plane?

SJ: Starting a new role within a big company is a lot like skydiving in that you are taking your life into your own hands, making your own destiny. You do all the preparation needed to get to the point where you're ready to jump, and then when you do, the feeling is exhilarating and like none other; there are actually studies that correlate the serotonin levels of entrepreneurs and skydivers.

There are no guarantees except the opportunity to do something I am passionate about and to positively impact the world around me. That opportunity is what drives me every day.