A Career In Social Impact: You Can Have it All, It Just Might Not Be How You ImaginedFeatured
My first “real job” out of college was managing a popular vegan restaurant in Toronto. At the time, I viewed activism as something separate from business and was thrilled to have a job that paid me while openly advocating for animal rights and food security. This, I thought, is the chance of a lifetime. Even if the paychecks were small, the hours long, and the customers prickly, I had the honour of spending my days supporting something I believed in.My unwavering idealism later carried me on to a job as a plant-based pastry chef, where I would spend my nights baking alone in a tiny commercial kitchen in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto and my days volunteering at the front desk for an organization that provided fresh food to at-risk communities and campaigned for policy change in food systems. I was fulfilled morally, but completely broke, overworked, and sleep deprived. I, like many others before me, had assumed that my mental and financial well-being was the price to pay for the privilege of working for social change. Sounds pretentious, right? It was. I was.With my pretension realized, and my shiny optimism crushed, I packed up my morals and headed for the steely reality of the corporate world in pursuit of a savings account and health benefits. I began working reception and admin for a real estate consulting firm. Although the work had no connection whatsoever to food security or animal rights (my two previous loves), I (unwittingly) always found a social angle to play, oftentimes to the dismay of the leadership team. I organized company wide volunteering days. I provided financial literacy courses to the other admin staff. I coached agents in ways to incorporate social giving into their marketing efforts. I did this all without being able to see how well I was being prepared for the next iteration of my career that would fully integrate advocacy and traditional business, a role that would forever change my life and how I perceived the divide between social good and just plain living good.That role would come a few months after leaving the real estate firm when my appetite for more meaningful work (that didn’t make executives roll their eyes) became too great. When I first met Phillip Haid, the CEO of Public, I thought,this man is either insane or a genius, as he explained to me that Public was a social purpose marketing agency, not a charity, that believed that money drove impact and impact drove money. The concept that the two worlds could not only co-exist, but actually support each other had never occurred to me, yet seemed blatantly obvious in the moment. The more capital you invest in purpose (social impact, social good, social change… whatever you choose to call it), the more impact you will have, and the more impact you have, the more profit you make through socially conscious consumers and stakeholders. A simple equation, yet a revolutionary concept. This is what I would come to recognize as the conversation that changed the trajectory of my career, and life.I spent five of my most formative years with Public Inc., building their internal operations, certifying them for Benefit Corporation status (twice!) and growing our team to three cities across North America. During those five years, I uncovered some surprising truths about the reality of working in social impact that would have saved me some confusion, disappointment and tears. Here’s what I learned:Everyone’s just doing their bestWhen you first start in social impact, you think CEOs and COOs of B Corps and socially conscious companies are gods. You’ll assume they never say offensive things, always separate their recycling and probably write their baristas holiday cards too. And while this might apply to some leaders, in all my years of experience, I certainly have never met a single one that fits that criteria. All leaders, no matter the righteousness of their work, are imperfect. They will say or do something insensitive (sometimes downright horrible) and you will start to feed the familiar sensation of disappointment creeping up as you watch your socially conscious heroes topple from their pedestals.A word of advice: don’t build the damn pedestal to begin with. Setting up leaders with the same idealism that left me overworked and broke in my 20’s hurts no one but yourself. Remember that we’re rewriting the playbook togetherAs I mentioned earlier, the concept of profit and purpose coexisting is truly revolutionary, and the thing about revolutions is,… they’re pretty rocky. Filled with destruction, chaos, uncertainty, and disaster, the revolution of socially conscious business is littered with good intentions and half baked execution. The world of social impact is constantly building, and rebuilding itself. There is no playbook, there is no exact formula. We’re all on the ride of creating a more conscious world together, bit by bit.No one will ever get it rightOn the note of building bit by bit, we’ll never be finished building. If studying socially conscious business has taught me anything it’s that everything (system, process, structure) lives in an ever evolving ecosystem. The moment we ‘get it right’ (because ‘right’ is subjective), there will be a new peak to climb, a new wrong to right and a new battle to fight. Our world will never be perfect, and our work will never be done. It’s important to accept that the goal is a moving target if you choose a career in social impactThese three lessons are reminders that I keep close to me as I grow into an imperfect, sometimes uncertain and constantly evolving leader continuing to work in social impact. I now dedicate my time to teaching other leaders these lessons and more through the Founders Fund, a digital accelerator for womenwoman entrepreneurs and independent consulting.