Breaking In: Standing Out in Social Enterprise

As I interviewed Austin, an Associate Consultant at The Bridgespan Group, it seemed like he knew something I didn’t back in college. He'd never admit it, but he was perfectly positioned to land this job.

Austin had skills in consulting, experience working at nonprofits and social enterprises, and relationships with employees at The Bridgespan Group. When he came across their Associate Consultant opening, he meticulously prepared his application materials, and then spent long hours practicing for the case interviews.

I wasn’t in the room when Austin interviewed, but I can only imagine that he crushed it.

Austin’s story sounds so intentional and well executed. But like most of us, he didn’t know where he wanted to work when he started college. He probably wasn’t even sure where he wanted to work when he applied to The Bridgespan Group.

So how was he able to prepare himself so well for this role?

In many of my interviews, I heard things like “the field chose me.” Or “It was meant to be.” After listening to 15 incredible stories of young professionals breaking into social enterprise, I prefer to think of it differently. As one interviewee put it, quoting the Roman philosopher Seneca, – “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

I don’t think you need me to tell you what you need to get a job. You’ve likely heard it all already – hard skills, relevant experience, good connections. What I find more interesting is what Austin and many others did to gain those highly coveted signals of "employability" in social enterprise.

In my interviews, three major themes emerged:

1) Seize big opportunities that align with your mission

We all know how overwhelming it can feel to worry about skills AND experience AND networks. Instead of tackling each one separately, the young professionals I interviewed seized opportunities that covered all three at once, such as extended fellowship programs, service-oriented study abroad experiences and rigorous internships.

Some of these big opportunities weren’t aligned with the personal mission each young professional eventually landed on. But once they took one big opportunity, there was a clear snowballing and orienting effect. Each subsequent opportunity was bigger and more aligned with what they wanted to be working on.

2) Prepare for Recruitment

Social enterprises don’t take talent lightly. Among the young professionals I interviewed, the recruitment processes generally included an application followed by four to six interviews with different members of the social enterprise.

I was amazed to find out how much each interviewee prepared for this process. They shared application materials and practiced interviews with trusted allies. They did research on the vocabulary, culture and current events of an organization in addition to the mission and programs. They came to interviews with the ability to consistently articulate how their skills and personal mission fit with the social enterprise, as well as bring ideas and questions about their specific role.

As one interviewee put it, “make the interview feel less like you’re sitting across the table and more like you’re sitting in the next cube.”

Preparing for recruiting in this way is a lot of work, but these social enterprises were at the top of each interviewees list. To frame it in a different way, apply for roles you’re willing to put this amount of effort into.

3) Be a good person

I seriously don’t know how else to say it. The young social enterprise professionals I interviewed are genuine, curious, humble and kind humans. Many were hesitant to admit that these qualities led to their success landing a social enterprise role, but in just a short phone call I could tell they were critical.

Social enterprises (and all organizations, I hope!) are looking for people they want to work with. This includes good social chemistry and shared values. I don’t view any of the qualities I listed above as genetic. We either choose to practice them or not. If we do practice these qualities, we can hone them overtime. At some point, we become people who are worth spending the majority of adult life with.

Obviously there are so many other factors at play when it comes to standing out in the recruitment process. I’d love to hear your tips and tricks!

In my next post, I’ll switch gears a little and focus on the roles and responsibilities of young social enterprise professionals, and what they’ve learned on the job.

This is the third post in a blog series called Breaking In which explores how young professionals are breaking into social enterprise. Learn more about the series here.