Breaking In: The Path to Social Enterprise

Wes craved to have a big, positive impact on the world.

After an internship in the Dominican Republic capturing the stories of impoverished families, nothing less was going to cut it. The experience had left him beaten down physically, mentally and emotionally. Not just from the internship itself, but also from the feeling of helplessness now that he was back in the US.

Then he started learning more about social enterprise. To him, the concept had potential – find a business model that had a measurable, positive social impact. Then scale it. At the time he was finishing up an International and Global Studies degree at Sewanee: The University of the South, a small liberal arts school in Tennessee. It gave him a good understanding of economic, social and environmental challenges around the world, but didn’t give him the hard skills that social enterprises were looking for.

After graduation, Wes signed up for a summer program called The Base Program at the University of California, Berkeley to gain some business skills.

On the first day, Wes met a young woman at lunch and told her that he wanted to work for a nonprofit or social enterprise. This woman had just finished up the New Sector Residency in Social Enterprise (RISE) fellowship and she suggested he apply.

Wes loved the idea.

The women connected him with RISE, and Wes applied while in The Base Program. A week before it ended, he was accepted into RISE.

Through RISE, Wes was introduced to the social enterprise TechSoup. Wes loved TechSoups mission to connect social and public sector organizations with technology support and resources. TechSoup loved Wes’s global communications experience and clear mission to work in social enterprise.

Wes joined TechSoup through the RISE fellowship as a Program Coordinator, and a year later was offered a full-time position at TechSoup as Program Manager. He accepted. 

Each of the 15 young social enterprise professionals I interviewed truly embarked on a journey to break into the social enterprise space. It wasn't a matter of simply applying and getting a job. Each young professional worked toward this career path for months if not years in advance.

After an intense period of self-reflection, each interviewee had a good understanding of what they wanted professionally. They began actively expressing a desire to work in social enterprise to anyone who would listen. They also intentionally sought out connections in the space.

These connections exposed many of the interviewees to social enterprise internships, fellowships, and university programs. A few examples include, RISEIDEXStarting BlocNet impact, Honest Tea’s Field Marketing team and University of Maryland’s Social Innovation Fellows program.

Each opportunity provided a wealth of value, but I think the most important element was the network that was associated with each opportunity. These networks gave each young professional: 

  • Access to a funnel of professional opportunities.
  • Exposure to the culture and vocabulary of social enterprise.
  • Referrals from others in the network that increased credibility in the application stages.

What does this mean for aspiring social enterprise professionals? Share your personal mission and aspirations as widely as you can, and actively seek to build relationships with existing social enterprise professionals.

Don’t be afraid to show up to social enterprise events and ask veterans of the space their advice for breaking into the social enterprise. As Wes did at The Base Program, you’ll begin uncovering opportunities by opening yourself up to advice and connections.

Among these opportunities, a strong network is what I found to be the most universally important step in breaking into social enterprise. With few resources for sourcing talent, social enterprises use these networks as both a funnel and signal for high-quality talent, even over traditional forms of university recruiting. Of all the young professionals I interviewed, only one connected with their future employer at a university sponsored recruiting event.

Once you get to interview process, it’s time to show that you’re the right person, right now. How? I’ll cover the skills and experiences that will make you stand out in my next post.

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