Breaking In: Why Social enterprise?

Ellyn sat in her room - totally conflicted.

Up until now she’d dedicated her college career to human health. She was studying Kinesiology and Exercise Science, running on the cross-country and track team and preparing to become a Physical Therapist. But when she wasn’t learning about or using every muscle in her body, she worked on the field marketing team – aka road warrior team - for the social enterprise Honest Tea. The experience made her fall in love with the world of socially conscious business.

She’d gotten into her major because she wanted to help people be healthier. And now she was watching Honest Tea help so many people make healthier choices every day. The direction of her life was suddenly murky. And as she reflected in her room, all the big questions began to bubble up to the surface.

“What do I really want to do with my life? What is actually important to me? Do I need to switch majors?”

What Ellyn kept coming back to was the impact of her work. As a Physical Therapist, she would probably see hundreds of client. In a business, she could impact thousands if not millions of people.

Ellyn ended up graduating in Kinesiology and Exercise Science, but continued working for Honest Tea’s Field Marketing team and used the experience to land a marketing role at sweetgreen right out of college. She’s passionate about the mission of this health-focused fast casual restaurant company – to change the way people eat – and is now helping it expand nationally.

Ellyn’s story of falling in love, intense reflection, and eventual commitment to social enterprise is one that surfaced in almost every interview I conducted with young professionals in social enterprise.

Each story began with a deep, yet vague interest in making the world a better place. Some interviewees actively searched for a career path, but many of them viewed this interest as separate from their professional lives. And then at some point, they were introduced to social enterprise – a convergence of their interests and career paths – and were pushed into a period of intense reflection.

For some, like Ellyn, this was a powerful moment of mental confrontation. For others, it was a period of reflection brought on by an experience that forced them to think differently about the world. This intense reflection surfaced in every one of my interviews.

In these reflection periods, each interviewee asked themselves the question, “What is important to me?” Like Ellyn, each one more or less settled on the idea of “the impact of the work.” There were so many ways for them to pursue their interest in creating a better world. What made social enterprise stand out was the promise of scaling to reach millions of people.

Other important factors to each interviewee were 1) the ability to use the functional knowledge and skills they’d gained during college, whether in the classroom or out of it, and 2) the opportunity for professional development.

With this new clarity – new personal mission - they stepped off the career path laid before them and ventured into the more unknown world of social enterprise.

If you’re considering a career in social enterprise, commit to a period of deep reflection. Understand what’s important to you. Insights can often be found in considering who you look up to, what excites you, and asking “why?” 5 times to reach the root of your inclinations.

We all have our own answers to these questions. But as you’ll see in the next post, understanding and communicating a personal mission in addition to functional fit was critical to these interviewees landing social enterprise roles after college.

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