July 19

Khanjan Mehta

100 Social Innovators and 10 Lessons for Career, Life

Editor’s note: This is the fourth post in a series exploring careers in social innovation and global sustainable development for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals. You can read the other posts here. The author discusses the issue in more depth in an ebook, available for free download here, and in his recent TEDx Talk.


In interviewing the social innovators profiled in Solving Problems that Matter, I noticed a number of recurring themes of championing rigorous, ethical, evidence-based approaches; learning how to fail and bounce back; and being willing to question the dominant paradigm. Innovators stressed the need to deeply understand the challenges and the larger system by spending considerable time in the field talking with all the stakeholders. They emphasized the need to seek and analyze the lessons learned from previous efforts, quantify results and build relationships across sectors. Failing is often a detour on the pathway to success and sustainable development professionals need to toughen up and pick themselves back up from failure, learning from it, and moving on to new approaches and solutions. There were countless stories of patience, perseverance, providence and sheer grit. Beyond these self-evident fundamentals, here are 10 key observations with direct implications on the praxis of international development and careers in this arena.


1. It’s Never Too Early or Late to Start

Are you a sustainable development professional yet? If something is in your way, be it money, time or lifestyle, understand that you set that barrier and no barriers are insurmountable. That said, the most common regret among social innovators was not taking action earlier! Age often brings us more barriers in terms of responsibility with jobs, family and finances. Many current innovators wish they had started earlier, that they had started their own company, found more mentors, learned to code, or gained any number of other experiences. On the other hand, everyone interviewed in our book is now a social innovator and many made the switch to impact-focused careers after long stints in the private sector. It is never too late to follow your passion either!


2. Most Carve Their Own Journeys

The sustainable development world changes as quickly as the world itself, and most jobs that millennials will have in their lifetime have not yet been defined. Many sustainable development professionals carve their own journey rather than following in the steps of predecessors. This journey is often a winding one as they find their niche by creating new opportunities in existing organizations or starting their own – which more than a couple dozen of the interviewees did. However, the bottom line is that every single innovator carved out her own personal journey, which, by the way, was more of a marathon through the jungle than a sprint on the racetrack.


3. Most Feel Lost At Some Point

Many of my interviewees did not know that they would be here five or 10 years ago. Feeling lost comes with the experience of carving your own journey in an arena where few career paths are well-defined and well-trodden. For example, after working with Engineers Without Borders in college, Frank Bergh looked forward to an impact-focused career. His first job after college was consulting to help electric utility companies plan for the future, but he discovered he had ethical concerns with this line of work. Confused, he turned to his boss for guidance, sharing his environmentalist concerns about working for fossil-fuel interests. His boss moved him into wind energy but, ultimately, Bergh still felt cognitive dissonance as a consultant and was again getting lost. It was only after soul-searching and connecting with mentors that Bergh found a path and a platform as the director of engineering for a solar energy company.


4. Most Face Burnout at Some Point

Solving sustainable development challenges is hard work and many of my interviewees worked almost twice the hours they might have in a mainstream job. They traveled significantly, often for months at a time, and accepted high financial or social risks. There were few day-to-day rewards and there were plenty of naysayers along the way. Over half the innovators, men and women, experienced burnout at some point in their career. The majority of the innovators talked about integrating their personal and professional lives (and finding compatible life partners who agreed with their integration approach).

For example, in an attempt to balance his personal life and work, Steve Dennis has taken breaks between foreign assignments in his career, giving him time to spend with the people who provide him sanctuary: his friends and family. While on assignment, he explained there are always too many high-priority jobs to do and too many emergencies to push through. It is valuable, but doing it too long inevitably burns you out. Aid workers feel they have a responsibility to people they see in extreme suffering and do not take the rest they need.

There is hope, though, and Steve gives us some advice: “Often people get lost in the how: How will I ever realize my dream of creating social benefit for people in faraway places? How will I afford my school loans if I take a job with a nonprofit rather than a well-established company? (But) If you know WHY to do things … the ‘how’ will come.” He says the “how” emerges through leveraging relationships, diversifying and expanding your knowledge, upholding your work ethic and most of all enjoying the process.


5. Most Make Multiple Career Moves

Like anyone else, social innovators change jobs and organizations for a wide variety of reasons. Often, development professionals are seeking a better platform for their next goal or evolving paradigm, or to have greater autonomy or influence. Another common reason, though, is to refresh their situation and handle feelings of burnout. As professionals, we generally crave creative space and the freedom to try new things and take responsibility for them, and it can be hard to find organizations like that. But the opportunities are there. For instance,  after many years at the World Bank as the lead urban transportation specialist, Shomik Mehndiratta now brings his skills, talent and expertise to Uber. Today he handles pricing and climate change strategies, and the platform change helps him expand his network and cross-pollinate knowledge between sectors and organizations.


6. Most Know the Challenge They Want To Solve and The Way They Want to Solve it

Most veteran development professionals have a passion for a specific challenge and a particular engagement strategy. This drives the organizations they select, and they are not afraid to quit when they don’t fit the organization’s approach or values. For example, one social innovator left her organization because she did not agree with the leadership’s lack of transparency with donors. She worked hard for them and tried to change the culture, but she left when she could not sway them and did not want to be associated with an organization which skewed data to gain donors without delivering for the people they claimed to help. She moved on to a startup where she could be a leader and run things with her own ethics and approach.


7. Most Don’t Do Exactly What They Were Trained To Do

Very few innovators knew as undergraduates where they wanted to be; they just knew they liked STEM and wanted to make a difference. Most innovators I interviewed do not work in areas that align with their formal education, instead migrating their transferable skillsets and mindsets into other arenas. They learned quickly on the job, took on different responsibilities and found spaces where they could be productive. For example, while Shruthi Baskaran graduated with a degree in civil and environmental engineering, she worked as a consultant for Boston Consulting Group, then as an innovation consultant for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), and is now pursuing an MBA from Stanford. She leveraged her systems thinking and problem-solving mindset to oversee and curate innovation across the world’s largest humanitarian organization fighting to end hunger worldwide. She was able to land this position just a few years after earning her bachelor’s degree thanks to her extensive and relevant portfolio from her undergraduate years and the professional skills she obtained on diverse projects at the Boston Consulting Group.


8. Most Make Investments and Sacrifices to Get Into the Field

Most of the innovators “paid their dues” to get where they are today – getting additional degrees and/or working their way up from low-paid, nitty-gritty jobs over several years. Respect in sustainable development often involves having “worked in the trenches.” Many innovators recommend doing this early to shape your mindset, understand how the world works (or not) and to get it out of the way. Lesley Marincola spent many years working as an intern and then design engineer for traditional design firms before she became the CEO of Angaza Design. Jona Raphael took on many technical and international internships while working his way up to become the vice president of Lumeter Networks. Finally, Mark Henderson spent many years volunteering and working for the Peace Corps in Africa before landing a job with UNICEF.


9. Most Work On Work-Life Integration Rather Than Work-Life Balance

None of the social innovators work 9-5, Monday through Friday. Although their hours vary greatly, most have learned to integrate their work and life rather than struggle with a “work-life balance.” Many have the freedom to do something personal at work and deal with work at home. Though many interviewees struggled to make time for family and friends, they did carve out specific quality time to maintain healthy relationships. Although Nigam Shah, a professor at Stanford, is incredibly busy, he is home at least four times per week before bedtime for his kids and spends one day every weekend with his family outdoors with no electronics. Andreina Parisi-Amon finds it difficult to walk away from her work because she cares deeply about her organization’s mission, but at least one day per week she works from home instead of the office. She marks Tuesdays and Thursdays on her calendar for going home earlier to make dinner with her fiancée and early Friday mornings for bike riding with close friends. Scheduling this time can go a long way to forestalling burnout and enjoying positive relationships, and improving your mental wellbeing.

10. Most Learn to Leverage Their Network and Pedigree

Ultimately, professional networks significantly influence how things work, who gets funded and who gets contracts. Your pedigree (college degrees, fellowships, etc.) and network are critical to accessing new resources and opportunities. While this is unfortunate, it is a natural consequence of scarce resources and opportunities distributed by people who prefer to delegate to those they trust. Solving Problems That Matter would not have come together if not for a professional network developed over a decade.  If there is one thing I have learned from this project, it is the importance of continuously building, nurturing and growing your network. Networking is not a theoretical exercise or a burdensome chore but rather an empathetic mindset and a series of thoughtful actions to help others succeed by facilitating their journey. And yes, it goes around!


Khanjan Mehta is the Founding Director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program at Penn State.



Education, Energy