Breaking In: Next steps in Social Enterprise Careers


“I don't know. The simple answer is just I don't know.”

That was Sonaly’s immediate response when I asked her what she’d like to be doing in three years if she could do anything.

Her current role as a Program Associate at Results for Development is the perfect place for her to figure that out though. She’s gaining experience on development projects in different sectors. She’s getting to see the space from a higher level perspective than she previous role in the field. She’s learning a lot from her supervisors who have been working in International Development for decades.

Even though Sonaly isn’t sure what she wants to do in the future, she knows she’s on the right path.

What Sonaly has decided is that she feels more effective and intellectually stimulated from development and capacity-building roles in the social sector. In order to continue on that path, she’ll likely need a graduate degree that dives into a specific focus, like education or economic development.

Sonaly believes she still has so much room for learning and growth at Results for Development, and is committed to staying for the next couple years. After that, it’s likely grad school, but who knows for sure?

After spending most of my discussions with young social enterprise professionals focused on their journey so far, I loved switching gears and talking about their dreams for the next three years. Each one had their own exciting trajectory, but a few common ambitions emerged from my conversations.

The most consistent answer for where these professionals want to be in three years is where they are now. They love the work and could see themselves growing in their current roles.

Many of them believe their work is only going to get bigger and better. Their social enterprises are growing fast and they’re learning a ton along the way. As one interviewee said, “we’re putting so much into the start of a great idea. I’ve got to see what happens!”

If they were to leave, most of these professionals would pursue opportunities for more influence and responsibility. They view this as ultimately the way to have a greater impact on the issues their passionate about.

For some, like Sonaly, gaining greater influence and responsibility means taking a step back and going to grad school. For others, greater impact is transitioning out of an execution role and into a more strategic development role. They shared aspirations of managing their own teams, public service, facilitating cross-sector collaboration, and working for social enterprise accelerators.

Another path toward greater influence and responsibility for several of the professionals I interviewed is starting their own business. The experiences they’ve had so far in social enterprise have helped them discover huge untapped opportunities for impact – especially in the application of innovative technology solutions.

While aspirations of greater impact was certainly the dominating theme of our discussions on next steps, these professionals also have some serious wonder lust.

Whether it’s spending more time in the field or just seeing the world, travel came up in many of my conversations. In fact, travel writing and photography came up surprisingly often!

As these professionals grow in their roles, it’s going to be important for the social enterprise space to define next steps for them. They are hungry for more and, while they’ve loved their experience so far, they’re certainly willing to look elsewhere for exciting opportunities to have an impact.

Another sentiment that was bubbling below the surface of these discussions was the desire for greater work-life balance. The professionals I talked to dedicate most of their waking hours to their organization. While they see this as necessary for developing themselves in the space, I see the move toward capacity-development and entrepreneurship as a desire to reclaim some of their time and interests by getting away from the considerable amount of groundwork needed in this emerging space.

While most professionals are committed to staying with their organizations in the near future, the burn-out rate at the execution level is a challenge that social enterprises are going to need to address as more professionals look for more intellectually stimulating work and greater balance in their lives.

I was initially inspired to ask where young professionals saw themselves in three years after hearing the quote, “You overestimate what you can do in a year. You overestimate what you can do in three.”

If there’s one thing I took away from my discussions, it’s that these professionals have only gained more ambition along with skills and experience. I can’t wait to see each of them thrive in whatever they decide to pursue.

This is the sixth post in a blog series called Breaking In which explores how young professionals are breaking into social enterprise. Get all of the insights from the series and more by signing up for the Mission Driven Monthly Newsletter.