Forging a Path in Social Enterprise

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What does a career in social enterprise look like? This question comes up a lot in the work I do with professionals interested in more meaningful careers. They’re interested in exploring which path to take to get into social enterprise. And so, if you’re one of these people, let me save you some time. There are no career paths in social enterprise.

For almost everyone in this space, their “career” amounts to a couple broad themes that they notice when they look back on their experiences and try to make sense of it all.

Take me for example. What I tell most people is that my entire career has been focused on helping people build careers in social enterprise. My first job out of college was at a University, supporting programs that helped students explore careers in social enterprise. Then I joined a startup that helped professionals all over the world build careers in social enterprise and turned that experience into my own firm doing the same thing.

But, what I leave out of that narrative is that I was a marketing major in school who, for a long time wanted to get into digital marketing. I also wanted to work in an emerging market like Kenya and almost moved there while working at the startup. But, opportunities came up. Life happened. And all the sudden, I’ve spent my entire career in career development.

There are a lot of reasons why career paths don’t exist in social enterprise. But, perhaps the biggest reason is that the space is evolving so quickly. Veterans of this space have often reinvented themselves more than once just to stay relevant. We are all forging our own paths in social enterprise. Understanding how to do this is a key to building a meaningful career in this space.

Making Social Enterprise Your Life’s Work

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Social enterprise can feel like a young person’s game. The space is filled with millennial entrepreneurs and recent graduates who are inspired to create a better world. But, all too often, I see young people burn out and drop out of social enterprise. The question that drives me and Mission Driven is how can we build long-term careers in this space?

I’ve gained some perspective on this by working with a few veterans of the social enterprise space. These seasoned professionals have been at this work for over 10 years, and oftentimes, much longer. In studying their career paths, I’ve noticed a couple patterns that begin to answer the question of what it takes to build a career in social enterprise.

Balancing passion with security

The social enterprise veterans that I’ve met built their careers by moving back and forth between work they were truly passionate about and work that was less exciting, but paid the bills and kept them engaged in social enterprise. For example, they might launch and grow a social enterprise for a few years and then hire their replacement before joining a foundation that supports social entrepreneurs. What this shows me is that there is an ebb and flow to our careers. There are times to go all-in on our passions and there are times to take a step back and build up our reserves.

An in-demand skillset

Social enterprise veterans tend to have a strong skillset that most organizations demand. This could be financial management, fundraising, or building teams. These skills enable their passion projects to thrive. They are also the skills that social enterprise veterans fall back on in tough times when they need to make ends meet. What I take away from this is that it’s important, especially early in your career, to build a core skillset that most organizations value. You might not want to use that skill forever, but it’s an important safety net as you navigate the evolving social enterprise landscape.

Comfort with Change

The players, growth areas, and terminology of the social enterprise space change quickly. Social enterprise veterans keep an eye on where the space is heading, seize opportunities to get involved in growing sectors, and are comfortable reinventing themselves when necessary. They don’t get too caught up on semantics. Social Enterprise veterans have a long-view of social innovation and are willing to adopt whatever is currently in vogue to advance those objectives.

Mission Driven is built on the idea that advancing social and environmental causes can and should be our life's work. We create opportunities for our participants to learn from veterans in this space because we believe it’s the best way to navigate a social enterprise career. If you’re interested in connecting with seasoned practitioners, check out our next Career Accelerator program.

The Challenges of Breaking into Social Enterprise

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“What are the biggest challenges to getting into the social enterprise space?” A workshop participant asked me this great question last Tuesday and, to be honest, it took me a little off-guard.  I’ve worked with hundreds of professionals looking to break into social enterprise over the years, and I spend most of my time thinking in terms of opportunities, not challenges. But, it’s worth going into a social enterprise job search understanding the challenges you might face. So, I want to share a couple commons challenges to breaking into the social enterprise space.

Fragmentation in the Space

Unlike the traditional business, nonprofit, and government sectors, the social enterprise space is poorly mapped out. It’s a growing, entrepreneurial sector which means organizations come and go often, and senior leaders are typically too busy to promote their organization or convene in an industry group. Because of this, most social enterprises are relatively unknown and not well connected to their sector. So, when it comes to hiring, senior managers typically turn to the networks that are immediately around them.

This fragmentation is why building your own network in social enterprise is so important when looking for a job. Like everything else, hiring managers are looking for a quick and convenient hiring solution. You want to be top-of-mind for them when they start looking for their next hire, and the best way to do that is to get connected and stay connected with them.

Role Translation

Because social enterprise blends the nonprofit, for-profit, and government sectors together, job titles are highly inconsistent from one organization to the next. For example, business-minded teams will hire for operations roles, whereas nonprofit-minded teams are more likely to hire for program roles. They’re probably very similar positions, but hiring managers and job candidates alike get hung up on the wording. Never have semantics gotten in the way of so many opportunities.

Don’t get caught up in the game of appealing to every type of role you might be a fit for. I encourage you to focus on finding organizations that you would love to work for instead. Once you have identified a few, explore where your skills fit into that organization. Make them aware that you are interested in those opportunities and find ways to demonstrate your abilities. This makes you an obvious choice for the next open opportunity. These organizations can also be a great referral network to other opportunities that fit with your interests.

Navigating the social enterprise space on your own can be a challenging process. That’s why Mission Driven has developed the Break into Social Enterprise career accelerator. If you’re interested in joining, please reach out. The deadline to enroll is October 25!

What You Can Bring to a Meaningful Career

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For people who want a meaningful career, workplace culture is important. We all want to work in a place that is supportive, empowering, and aligned with our lifestyles. It’s important that the next organization we work for embodies the workplace culture we want. But how do you decide if an organization’s culture is right for you? 

Assessing culture is hard. You can collect a few anecdotes from people who work there and compare that with how the organization talks about itself. But that’s a lot of work for a pretty incomplete picture of that organization’s culture. We need a more direct approach.

When exploring the culture and values of organizations with Mission Driven participants, I’ve started to reframe the question from, “what do you want an organization’s culture to be like?” to “What do you want to bring to an organization’s culture?”

You create your own reality

This simple reframe puts you in control of your own experience. You have the freedom and agency to create a work environment that aligns with the life you want to lead. You can be excited about the challenges you get to solve. You can bring fun and energy to your meetings. You can create space for your team to bond. Start by defining the culture you want to create around you.

Will you fit in?

Now that you understand what culture you want to create, it’s time to assess how that will fit into a potential organization. This is much easier to assess than trying to uncover the culture of an organization. Instead of asking about work-life balance, you can say, “I like to get in early, get things done, and then get out while the sun’s still up so I can enjoy a bit of time outside. Do you think I’ll have the opportunity to do that here?”

We all want to be part of a great workplace culture. But, it’s very hard to find great culture if you’re not willing help create it. Get clear about what you want to bring to an organization and you’ll start finding organizations that would love to have you.

Choosing a Meaningful Career Path

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We all have several great careers within us. We could be entrepreneurs or educators. We could work in international development or investment banking. These careers could all lead to meaningful work. The greatest challenge many of us have is simply picking one.

For the professionals I’ve worked with to build a more meaningful career, one of the hardest things for them to do is commit to pursuing one career path. My coaching clients often have several different career interests that they want to pursue all at once. They feel like now is the time to explore before they get stuck going down one route. Yes, it’s so important to have a good assessment of which opportunities are best suited for you. But, when you’re ready to land a job, it’s time to pick one path and pursue it. Here’s why:

There’s No Right Answer

There is no perfect job out there waiting for you. There are several great jobs, but you don’t land a perfect job. You build it once you have a job. So, don’t get caught up wondering which path will lead to the best job. Just pick one and focus on finding a great job. The worst thing that can happen is that you find out you’re on the wrong path, learn a lot from that experience, and go down a different path.

Focus Beats Coverage

It’s tempting to invest time and energy developing all your different career paths so that you don’t miss any opportunities. But, if you’re putting 50% of your effort into two different paths, what are the chances that you land any of the opportunities you find? It’s better to stay focused on one career path. You’ll see fewer opportunities, but your chances of converting are much higher.

Momentum is Key

Many people treat pursuing career paths like picking which slide to go down at a water park. They think that once you commit, you’re stuck on that slide. But I see exploring career paths more like riding a bike. You slowly build momentum in a certain direction. If you’re going roughly the right way, you can always adjust your course and your momentum will quickly carry you in that new direction. Exploring a career path is no different. The connections you make and projects you work on are all building your career momentum. It’s easy to leverage these things if an unexpected opportunity arises or you decide to pursue an adjacent career path.

Hopefully, this gives you the confidence to pick a career path and get started! The only time I advise against getting out there is when you have no idea what type of work you’re interested in pursuing. It’s important to have a general idea of what really matters to you in your next job. That way you can evaluate whether you’re on your way to an exciting, meaningful career.

At Mission Driven, we offer career accelerator programs and coaching to help professionals figure out what really matters to them. If you’re interested in working with us, feel free to drop me a note.