How to Build a Career that Will Change the World: Six Keys to Shifting Your Work Toward Social Impact
Gianmarco Marinello was once a financial analyst in Switzerland. Sriram Damodaran formerly worked as a technology consultant in India. But despite their lack of professional backgrounds in the social impact sector, the two created Nai Nami, a social business that runs a highly popular city tour led by former street children in Nairobi that is actively helping young people move out of poverty and become role models. As of 2020, Nai Nami had hosted 4,000 visitors to Nairobi from over 100 countries, and it is one of the most highly rated Nairobi tours on TripAdvisor. More importantly, its city tour guides have become role models for their communities, and some of them have moved out of the slum and into apartment buildings. “We didn’t go home and write a concept note and build a model,” Marinello says, recalling the project’s origins. “In just 10 minutes of walking with the youth who used to live on the streets and would go on to become tour guides, without wasting any time or money, we got so many insights that we built into the solution.”
Nai Nami was first conceptualized and prototyped as part of Amani Institute’s Post Graduate Certificate in Social Innovation Management. As co-founders of Amani Institute, Ilaina Rabbat and I spent 10 years helping thousands of people like Marinello and Damodaran move into social impact work. Theirs is just one of the many stories we were inspired to tell in our book “The New Reason to Work: How to Build a Career That Will Change the World.”
The book, published last November, came out at an opportune time: With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to throw daily life into varying degrees of disruption around the world, work life has been transformed by phenomena like the so-called “Great Resignation” and the even more transformational rise of remote work. The pandemic has had such a profound impact on young workers that it’s easy to see echoes of other pivotal moments in recent history, from the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to the Great Recession of 2008. Like those historic moments, we believe that this one will cause a similar soul-searching amongst young professionals, prompting a frank assessment of the current status of their careers and a deep questioning of how they’d like to spend their professional lives.
The Movement Toward Impact-First Work
COVID-19 isn’t the only factor driving this global reassessment of the meaning of work. When you add to the mix the overdue but increasing push toward diversity at every level of society and the growing sense of impending climate catastrophe, it’s no wonder that millions of people are questioning the very purpose of work and pushing their organizations to do more to address social problems. There is, in other words, a growing push towards impact-first work.
Impact-first work is when you dedicate the majority of your time and effort to the primary goal of improving the human and/or planetary condition, instead of just your own or your organization’s bottom line. It’s where social impact is not a possible side-benefit, but rather the core purpose of the job – where your day is organized around moving toward impact.
Impact-first work is an option, regardless of what sector or type of job you hold. But how do you break into this field, what opportunities lie ahead of you, and how can you build a long-term career designed to leave a legacy you can be proud of? In “The New Reason to Work,” we explore countless opportunities for impactful jobs at every level, laying out six essential keys that can unlock a dream career in social impact. I’ll explore these six practices below.
Six Keys to Unlocking a Career in Social Impact
Designing Your Own Education: In today’s world, universities are woefully underequipped to prepare students for the fast-changing future of work, because their emphasis on academic learning from the past is at odds with the types of future-facing skills that are currently in demand by employers. Being able to take control of your own professional education outside of the university context – from designing your own internships and/or volunteer work more effectively, to creating on-the-job learning experiences, to immersing yourself in different learning environments through travel – is an essential ingredient in stepping into the career you want.
Aligning Who You Are With What You Do: As the famous Annie Dillard quote goes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” If we spend most of our days at work, then happiness and fulfillment are most likely to come when we can align who we are – our values, purpose, beliefs and mental models – with our job. This doesn’t just involve the sometimes-trite “find your passion and you’ll never work a day in your life” approach to career planning: It requires a deeper look at what you believe about the world, what types of work fit those beliefs, and how to bring your skills together to pursue that purpose over the long-term.
Becoming a Social Innovator: There is no skill more valued by managers and bosses than the skill of problem-solving, which comes from the discipline of creativity. For instance, Marinello and Damodaran were practicing the techniques of problem-solving when they hit upon the idea that would become Nai Nami, while talking with Nairobi street children about the challenges they faced. These essential creativity skills are not just for launching new enterprises, however. They can be applied by anybody at any stage of their career, whether you’re launching a new product within an existing organization, trying to resolve a cultural issue within your team, or navigating any other situation that calls for a new way of thinking.
Weaving a Network of Relationships: No social impact happens alone. To succeed in your career, you need to be able to call upon a network of friends, allies and supporters. And yet, for many people networking has an “icky” feeling – there’s something inauthentic and transactional about it. But it does not have to be that way. There are different approaches you can try to reimagine your networking activities, like focusing on one-on-one relationship building, and exploring ways in which you can give to others rather than just seeking opportunities for yourself.
Owning Your Story: The use of storytelling as a professional skill that gives leaders and managers an edge has been in vogue for more than a decade now. The ability to build a narrative – both to inspire and inform your colleagues, beneficiaries and clients, but also to make sense of your own career trajectory – is one of the most helpful skills to master. And there are simple ways to develop this ability, from understanding the structure that makes stories work, to learning how to make it easy for the audience to say “yes.”
Realizing It’s a Marathon: True social change does not happen in a few years; in fact, it can take a career or even a lifetime. That’s why it’s essential to pace yourself for the journey and develop the practices that can help you stay sane, grounded, optimistic and in sync with those around you. These practices range from investing in your relationships to cultivating your empathy, and they can often be the difference between success and failure, fulfillment and disillusionment.
Putting These Principles to Work for an Impact-First Career
One example of somebody putting these principles to use is Morris Litvak, a Brazilian social entrepreneur and the founder of Maturi, the first organization in Brazil that connects people older than 50 to opportunities for professional and personal development. Today, Maturi’s online platform has registered more than 150,000 people from all states in Brazil, and it is becoming the country’s go-to resource for older people seeking employment. While establishing the organization, Litvak learned how to build teams and partnerships, and how to pivot when something is not working. He also learned how to be a great speaker and writer. Today, he is a lecturer and a columnist in a major Brazilian newspaper. He even learned how to organize events: In 2019 he ran Brazil’s first festival catering to entrepreneurship and work for older professionals, attracting over 500 people in just three days.
Litvak and Marinello are just two of the many regular people who have transitioned to a life of changemaking – their stories are among the many we highlight in the book to illustrate how this career path is accessible to anybody, anywhere. We hope that “The New Reason to Work” will help millions more join the already swelling ranks of ordinary people who are choosing to make a living by making a difference in the world.
Photo courtesy of EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid/I. Valencia Romero