Impact All Stars Share Career Insights That Could Change Your Plans
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Over the past five years, I’ve interviewed nearly 1,000 changemakers, including some of the most accomplished and respected leaders in impact investing and social entrepreneurship. This week, I reached out to some of the most impressive to get their advice for those just launching a career in impact today.
Imagine yourself sitting down around a big table with 41 accomplished impact leaders and getting their best career advice. Bookmark this page and come back to it regularly to serve as a guide throughout your life.
The advice was as diverse as the group, which included men and women from around the world, working on a wide range of topics. On a few topics, the counsel clustered around some themes but each idea they expressed was unique in some way.
Sheryle Gillihan, CEO of CauseLabs, observed that you don’t have to go to Africa to make a difference. “Consider the positive impact your work can have on your community. Regardless of where you work or what you do, you can be an impact ambassador and influence your team and business to do more good.”
Andrea Armeni, Executive Director of Transform Finance CREDIT: TRANSFORM FINANCE
Andrea Armeni, the executive director of Transform Finance, agrees. “You can have an impact in any career – in fact we need people with an impact mindset in all organizations. Think about what you can do there, rather than whether the organization itself is impactful.”
Similarly, Tara Varga Russell, president of Fathom—the impact cruise line at Carnival Corporation—says, “Ensuring your everyday behaviors positively influence others ensures you have meaningful impact every step of the journey.”
Two others also emphasized the need to be kind as a deliberate career strategy.
Tony Loyd, the host of the Social Entrepreneur Podcast, cautions about the stress of entrepreneurship. “Be good to people on the way up. The pressures of starting a new venture can bring out our…well, our not-so-good side. Social entrepreneurship is a small industry. Kindness goes a long way.”
Kate Hayes, director at Echoing Green, adds, “No matter what career you choose, everyday actions speak the loudest. We can have the most influence with those around us, so at work: lead with compassion, speak with intention, and act with grace.”
Christopher Soukup, the CEO of Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc., suggests taking a deliberately inclusive approach. “Surround yourself and cultivate connections with a diverse range of people who perceive and experience our world differently than you. They will infuse valuable insight and perspective into your work.”
One of the most consistent themes from the all-star group was the importance of passion for the work.
“Find a cause you care about; there’s no substitute for genuine passion,” succinctly says Rebecca Firth, the community and partnerships manager for Humanitarian OpenStreetMap.
Susanne Rea Oam, the founder of The World’s Greatest Meal to End Polio, has helped to raise millions of dollars to fund polio immunizations for children around the world. She says simply, “Follow your dream as your career is a huge focus in life. Being happy is essential.”
Billy Starr CREDIT: BILL BRETT
Billy Starr, the founder of the Pan-Mass Challenge bike race, which raises millions for cancer, said, “Immerse yourself. Find your new self in service to something more than yourself. Commit.”
Jacob Allen, a partner with Cicero Social Impact, says, “Find your passion first-hand; get involved directly. Get informed about root causes, real solutions, and beneficiaries’ views. And be relentless about actual change, not just doing good.”
Kenton Lee, founder of Because International, the organization that manufactures and distributes the Shoe That Grows, says, “Follow your passion and work with something you love. You can volunteer with orgs and use your skills to help them. Make a great wage and be an awesome donor. Lots of ways to make a difference.”
Carrie Romano, CEO of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Intermountain Area, says, “Choose to do what you love because you’ll be better at it. Be authentic. Align your actions with your intentions and leave it (whatever “it” is) better than you found it.”
The collective wisdom of the group suggests that patience pairs well with passion.
“Think big, think long, and think big tent,” says Nancy Pfund, founder and managing partner for DBL Partners, an impact investing firm that made an early investment in Tesla. “Several small advances can turn into an inflection point. Hang in there and don’t stop too early. And build coalitions as broad and inclusive as you can.”
Nancy Pfund, courtesy of DBL Partners CREDIT: DBL PARTNERS
“Creating impact takes time, hard work, and vision. Your passion will have to sustain you. Your resolve will be tested,” says Jacob Lief, CEO and founder of Ubuntu Pathways. “You must be unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom and learn from setbacks.”
“Don’t try to win the war right away. Aim to move the needle,” says Jack Griffin, founder of FoodFinder. “Your cause will always be a team effort in the long run, but you can start small and have an impact right away.”
“Small but sustainable wins. Too big too soon will burn you out just as quickly as not making ends meet,” says Paul Wilson, assistant professor of social entrepreneurship at Brigham Young University – Hawaii. “Bite-sized wins, that don’t break the bank, allow you to create large scale impact overtime.”
Another theme that the experienced drivers of social impact emphasized was the need to learn.
As Thane Kreiner, executive director of the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship put it, “Apprentice the problem, learn from people you admire, stay focused on mission.”
“Stop spending so much time listening to other people and focus instead on listening to yourself,” says Aaron Hurst, CEO of Imperative. “Keep a journal for a year about what brings you meaning at work each day.”
“Soak it all in. Realize there is something to learn from every experience – and more to learn from the bad ones,” says Tamra Ryan, CEO of the Women’s Bean Project. “The more you learn the better you’ll get. Leverage every experience to be better.”
“Learn from the people who truly have expertise, which is the people you are trying to support,” says Rob Gitin, executive director of At The Crossroads, an organization that without conditions helps homeless youth. “Listen first, rather than coming up with your own ideas of what others need. Be a humble servant.”
Aaron Hurst, Imperative CREDIT: IMPERATIVE
Atul Satija, founder and CEO of The/Nudge Foundation in India, which is scaling to support millions of people in multiple ways, says, “The decision to move to the development sector is the start of an amazing personal journey of courage, self-discovery, meaningfulness and real impact. All the best!”
Mari Kuraishi, co-founder and president of GlobalGiving, says candidly, “Unless you know with dead certainty what, where, and how you want to have impact, be open to new experiences and learning that will give you skills, insights, and knowledge.”
Two of our impact all-stars focused on learning from the people you hope to help and engaging them in the process.
“Involve the benefactor of your impact in the creation process,” says Sara Day, the cause director for Even Stevens. “You can better help a person, community or organization when you adequately understand their needs, challenges and opportunities.”
“Find ways to transform the recipients of service delivery systems from passive consumers to active co-producers of outcomes,” says Edgar Cahn, founder of TimeBanks USA. “The work of the future is to play a catalytic role in creating that shift.”
Several of the experts suggested a fundamental strategy of matching your skills and interests to the social problems you see.
“Always look for gaps to fill: needed things that others may not yet be thinking about in your sector,” says Marc Alain Boucicault, founder and CEO of Banj, a tech coworking space in Haiti. “That is how you will differentiate yourself and grow skills that will positively impact society.”
Mari Kuraishi CREDIT: GLOBAL GIVING
“Look at the problems of the world and ask yourself what skills do you have that can help solve them,” says Andreas Karelas, executive director of RE-volv, an organization that uses crowdfunding to finance solar for nonprofits. “If you pursue that line of work, you’ll go to bed everyday knowing you’re a part of the solution.”
Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli, a company that makes healthy snack bars from moringa grown in the developing world, agrees. “Figure out what social issue makes you burn with passion. Then find the fixers and ask them what skills they need in their movement.”
“Ask yourself what you are good at, what you are interested in, and what you are curious about,” says Celeste Mergens, founder and CEO of Days for Girls International. “In the mix will be clues to what might be an unexpected pathway to your future career.”
Here’s another take on developing relevant skills.
“Learn to do something. Work at a law firm or a bank. Become a teacher. Manage a restaurant or store. Make bread,” says Laura Callanan, founding partner at Upstart Co-Lab. “Good intentions won’t matter without practical experience–almost doesn’t matter what.”
Adlai Wertman, professor and founder of the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at the USC Marshall School of Business, suggests a new mindset. “Create a new synapse that fires every time you get a new project: Can this product or service be applied to solve a social, environmental or health access challenge?”
A few of the experts also suggested carefully screening potential employers.
“Use Larry David’s advice,” suggests Robert Rubinstein, founder and CEO of TBLI Group BV. “Interview the recruiter by asking, what are the values of the company? Do they align with yours? If not. Don’t work there.”
“Follow your passion but don’t feel that you must make a lifetime commitment,” says Richard Marker, founder of Wise Philanthropy Institute. “Not all worthy causes are great places to work. Check out the workplace culture.”
Three of the impact experts focused on defining and living your own set of values.
Laura Callanan CREDIT: UPSTART CO-LAB
“Practice your values consistently, know who you are and lead with your heart as well as your head,” said David Fanger, founder and CEO of Swell Investing. “You can rely on the UN SDGs as an impact north star.”
“Implement your values in your everyday life and practice what you preach,” says Cecile Blilious, founder and managing partner of Tel Aviv-based Impact First Investments. “Connect with thought leaders that project your values, follow them and then surpass them. Think different.”
“Develop a personal vision statement and a set of values that guide your every move,” says Shane Feldman, founder and CEO of Count Me In. “When you live and lead from this place of intention, you will be rooted in your purpose and capable of larger impact.”
Three of our influencers focused on getting started.
“Get involved!” says Bernard Loyd, president of Urban Juncture, Inc. in Chicago. “Whether you’ve got an hour per month to give or a hundred, if you’re involved you can make a difference.”
Karim Abouelnaga with student CREDIT: PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
“The model of do well now so you can do good later is broken,” says Karim Abouelnaga, CEO of Practice Makes Perfect. “Now is the perfect time to do good. It is possible to do good and do well simultaneously. Society is ripe for positive disruption.”
“To make a big impact on the world start by making small, tangible impacts,” says Daryl Hatton, CEO of the nonprofit crowdfunding site FundRazr. “Pick a career where you directly measure your results. Celebrate those results! Then scale them up.”
Sheeza Shah, the founder and CEO of UpEffect, suggests focusing on the employment of those who really need it. “If you truly wish to drive impact, work for or with businesses creating dignified employment opportunities for under-represented communities and are dedicated to elevating their voices.”
Robert Kaplan, cofounder of Closed Loop Partners, which has financed over $100 million in recycling projects, says, “Remember that humans don’t make rational decisions. They make emotional decisions that they rationalize. When making the case for change, you need to hit both notes.”
Lastly, Stephanie Gripne, executive director of the Impact Finance Center, wins the prize for the most advice you can fit in a tweet.
Work you love with people you love
Function from a place of abundance
Assume positive intent,
Thinking partners who are not echo chambers
Fail fast with fun
Those for whom earning a living is a necesssary but not sufficient requirement for a job will be drawn to have more impact. This collective wisdom could alter your plans and multiply the good you do and the change you make in the world.
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