Breaking In: What It's like to Work in Social Enterprise

There really are never two days that look the same for Nima.

As an Operations Manager at Success Academy Charter Schools he could be managing the budget, planning events and field trips, interacting with parents, launching new technology initiatives, collecting data for government reporting, or boosting school aesthetics. For Nima, his role is “what needs to be done to make the school run.”

Nima doesn’t view this work as a typical job. It’s more than that. He’s supporting and advancing the mission of Success Academy Charter Schools - to provide a high quality education for every student in America. He loves that he’s surrounded and empowered by others who feel the same way.

Interestingly, this isn’t what Nima expected when he applied to Success Academy Charter School as a Senior in college studying business.

Nima learned about social enterprise in college, but had always been a little skeptical. Doing business to advance a social mission seemed too convenient for him.

His work at Success Academy Charter Schools dispelled that skepticism. He helps run this school like a business, and at the same time gets to see the transformative impact it has on the lives of their scholars (not students).

For Nima, when you’re working for an organization like this surrounded by people who believe in it, the hours and work become less important. He’s excited to by doing whatever it takes to have a positive impact on the children he serves.

Nima’s experiences encapsulate much of how the 15 young social enterprise professionals I interviewed view their work and how that view has evolved over time.

They are working in a variety of roles for a wide range of social enterprises. But a lot of the same topics come up when they consider their day-to-day roles.

For instance, they commonly mentioned that they have to be flexible and do what needs to be done, regardless of whether it’s their official responsibility. For young, small social enterprises, where many of the interviewees work, each day brings new challenges. In an execution role, this means you have to be ready to pivot quickly from task to task in order to be successful.

Because of this, each young professional also cited considerable learning on the job. They are pushed to complete new tasks and take on new responsibilities which means they need to learn quickly in order to be successful.

This learning has allowed many of them to take on more responsibility and autonomy in their roles. Of the ten interviewees who have been in their roles for over a year, seven have been formally promoted, and all of them have been given increased responsibility.

In fact, the only professionals I interviewed who have hesitations about staying at their organizations over the next year are in roles that ware highly execution focused with less autonomy and ownership.

We also discussed how their expectations of their roles have changed since they started. I was honestly afraid that I’d discover these professionals were run down by the work and disillusioned by the mission, but almost all of them explained that their work exceeded their expectations.

There’s certainly some considerable selection bias in my interviews, but I think this sentiment is indicative of a well-crafted role that keeps young professionals engaged and excited.

But these professionals were also very open about the realities of the work that they hadn’t considered before breaking into the space.

One of these realities is that work is always going to be work. No matter how exciting and motivating the mission is, some task are going to be hard, uncomfortable and uninspiring. The professionals I interviewed have been successful in their roles by accepting that fact, and keeping the mission of the organization present in their minds even when it doesn’t directly connect to the task. These professionals buckle down and get it done.

Another reality these professionals have recognized in their short careers is just how long it takes to create lasting positive change. Almost all of them were inspired by social enterprise because of the impact they wanted to have. But work that has a true impact does not happen overnight. Each young professional has gained a greater appreciation for this process and more patience with the work.

The third reality that came up many times was that social enterprises are not perfect and not created equal. Things go wrong and mistakes are made. Founders launch social enterprises for the wrong reasons or don’t have the ability to run them effectively. Luckily the professionals I interviewed have been spared from many of these situations, but most of them can cite peers who deal with this consistently.

In our discussions about how to deal with these realities, the importance of being surrounded by the right people kept coming up. For Nima and many others, the work becomes less like work when you’re with others who are passionate, brilliant and mission driven.

If there is one thing I’ve taken away from my conversations with social enterprise professionals about their roles, it’s the importance of working with the right people. All of them got into their work for the impact, but all of them have stayed because of the people.

Regardless of the sector you work in, it’s so important to find a role with the right people as a young professional. Look for people you can learn from and who are invested in your development. These people will empower you to take initiative and grow as a professional.

As many young social enterprise professionals said looking back, they got lucky getting hired into an organization with the right people. But if they had to do it over again, they would have focused on the people as much, if not more than, the mission.

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