Dear Shannon: How can I GPS my impact career path?
If you have a question for Shannon, send it to [email protected].
I graduated from a top-tier university in 2010 with a MA in anthropology. Since then, I've been working at a tech start up in Silicon Valley as a HR assistant. It was fascinating at first, but I realize that I'm no longer interested in using my skills to promote global consumption. I want an impact career that will allow me to make money, but also help solve the social and cultural problems I see all around me. But 'impact' seems to be a prefix for just about anything sustainability-related. Can you help me break down the sector and figure out a way in?
Thanks for getting in touch and congratulations for making the decision to align your professional work with your personal values. Careers in the impact economy can be hard to come by and the routes in are yet to be formally mapped. Transitioning out of your current role and into this new and exciting sector is a challenge! That said, with your anthropology hat on and commitment to addressing social and cultural issues, you'll see that there are a number of potential avenues that are worth exploring.
The direct route: impact investing
Impact investing is emerging as a vibrant new field that seeks measurable social and environmental impact alongside financial return. According to the Global Impact Investors Network, it provides capital to "support solutions to the world's most pressing challenges," including sustainable agriculture, affordable housing, affordable and accessible healthcare, clean technology and financial services. According to a recent report from JP Morgan and the GIIN, 96 percent of investors use metrics to measure social and/or environmental impact. Impact investors make preferential values-based investments based on such metrics, making them uniquely positioned to spot opportunities that ordinary investors don't see.
There are many dedicated impact investment companies that you could investigate for jobs to support your transition towards an impact career. Check out Al Gore and David Blood's Generation IM, Root Capital, the Omidyar Network (established by the founders of Ebay), the Acumen Fund, Bamboo Finance and the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs.
Do your homework and look for global opportunities that make best use of your analysis skills, people skills and cultural understanding.
The scenic route: intrapreneurship
Have you considered staying where you are, and helping your company make a greater impact by valuing its own social and cultural capital? Intrapreneurs walk the impact talk by taking their own companies to task and using their talents to pursue internal sustainability outcomes closer to home.
In my experience from working with more than 3,000 sustainability practitioners over the past 10 years, there are a number of key skills you need to do this, including bravery and resilience, the ability to balance global and local perspectives, innovation and systems thinking, influencing and negotiating, and the ability to engage others on their own terms. For more on what it takes to lead sustainability internally, see my recent blog post.
One thing you have in your corner is the fact that, as a tech start up, your company is in a position to take risks and do things differently. What opportunities do you see for your company? How can it help address external social issues within its existing business model? Or is there an impact to be made internally?
Incubators choosing to mobilize the social and cultural capital within their workforce can do better than their peers: startups are typically full of left-brained, engineering types, but as Kevin Simler points out, "to fully appreciate what goes on inside a growing startup, it pays to remember that an engineer is also a primate."
Your anthropology background could help you enable employees to engage and be part of the tribe, to trust the company and buy in to the vision. Reciprocating that trust by giving staff the space to figure out the big, complex problems is all part of leveraging social and cultural capital can help to ensure your staff "will never sit and watch something go in the wrong direction.”
Check out my recent video for more advice on social intrapreneurship.
The off-road route: social entrepreneurship
Social entrepreneurs are unique in that they identify a problem and use entrepreneurial principles to organize, create and manage a venture in order to yield positive returns to both society and the balance sheet. If you have the passion and the dedication to strike out on your own, then a career as a social entrepreneur could be for you.
You'll need a solid business model — profits are still very much a part of the triple bottom line — and a strong, communicable vision. If you are committed to realizing genuine impact to ameliorate the social and cultural problems you observe in the world, read my column from a year ago on the skills needed for social entrepreneurship. As you'll see it's not easy to do, but when it works it can be one of the most rewarding, hands-on ways to create change.
Check out the recent Social Venture Network conference in San Diego for some inspiration from those who've done it.
The b-road route: non-profit impact
It's a more grassroots path and you may need to take a pay cut, but if you want to surround yourself with like-minded people who are similarly committed to a cause, then the non-profit or NGO route may be the right one for you.
The biggest difference with the NGO route is that the drivers are not profits, but rather, the cause. This can be frustrating if you are a commercially minded, efficient and fast-paced individual. You need to consider the cultural fit first as there is a huge range of NGOs, some that are run professionally and others less so. Most staff within NGOs say they are there, making less than they could elsewhere, because they believe in making a difference. If you are driven more by your value to make an impact than make a high-paid living, this could be a good route into the sustainability space.
My first job out of my MBA was to manage a team reporting to corporate and national donors at WWF International. I wanted to see how the other side worked and to get more grassroots environmental experience. This was a great stepping-stone into the wider sustainability agenda as it gave me the opportunity to learn about public/private/NGO partnerships. However, I was too much of an MBA-er and ended up moving back to corporate consulting after a few years of being frustrated with not having the “bottom line” as a driver for efficiencies.
So before you “switch sides”, first ask yourself:
How close do you want to be to the issue?
Will you be content sitting in head office, while others on the ground get their hands dirty?
Do you want to be working on local or global issues?
Will you be ok without efficiencies and structure that the commercial sector offers?
Once you've made those decisions, it's time to slow down and be patient. According to Allison Jones from Idealist.org, speaking at the Net Impact Conference, it's a mistake to expect to land your perfect job immediately. Instead, take control by keeping your eyes and ears open and exposing yourself to as many career paths as possible, while prioritizing what’s important to you, defining success for yourself and creating your own career path.
Best of luck negotiating the rocky terrain of impact careers and mapping your own path - Destination Dream Job isn't as far away as you think! For some bespoke advice on career change navigation and personal positioning, contact me for a free 15-minute coaching session.
Feature image by Fer Gregory via Shutterstock.