From Student to Entrepreneur: 18 Tips for Starting a Career in Social Impact
Each year, hundreds (if not thousands) of engaged students walk through the doors of schools, colleges and universities around the world eager to learn the art of social change. Classes in social innovation, social entrepreneurship and design thinking, among many others, have become increasingly popular. Of course, this might all be seen as a good thing. After all, the world needs as many smart, engaged citizens as it can get, particularly when you consider the multitude of challenges we face as a planet – not to mention, of course, the global battle against COVID-19. But does a career in social change really begin in the classroom, or out in the “real world?” How much social change is planned, and how much accidental? And which approach tends to lead to the most meaningful, lasting or impactful solutions?
While classes in social innovation, social entrepreneurship or design thinking promise to teach you all you need to know about the mechanics of the discipline, one thing is often missing: a target for all that passion and energy. More often than not you only find this once you’ve gotten yourself out into the world and come across a problem that troubles or disturbs you – and that’s challenging enough for you to dedicate your life to putting it right. Finding that one thing is by far the most important piece of the puzzle, and it’s the part people struggle with the most. As Howard Thurman reminds us, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who come alive.”
When I started my social entrepreneurship journey back in 2003, the world was very much my classroom. At the time we were all blazing something of a trail as we explored the potential of mobile phones and the internet to help solve global challenges. None of the people I worked with back then had any qualifications other than curiosity and a passion for getting caught up in their work. We all learned as we went, and all these years later I still feel it’s the best approach. Get yourself out there, see the world through the eyes of those you want to help – and then worry about that MBA.
Since those early days, I eventually found my purpose, threw everything at it and came out the other side – founding kiwanja.net, and developing FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text message communication system that powers thousands of social change projects in over 190 countries around the world, among many other projects and initiatives. I’ve learned a lot along the way and feel that the least I can do now is help others who might be at the beginning of their own journey – whether that’s by giving advice, providing encouragement, giving tips on fundraising, making introductions or offering to be a soundboard as their ideas grow and develop.
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned as I stumbled my way through the world of social innovation. I hope some of these prove useful as you travel your own path.
- Ask yourself: Do you really understand the problem you’re trying to solve?
- Then ask: Are you the best person to solve the problem? Be honest, and if not go and support the work of someone else who is.
- Don’t be competitive. There’s plenty of poverty to go around.
- Don’t be in a hurry. Grow your idea or project on your own terms.
- Don’t assume you need money to grow. Do what you can before you reach out to funders.
- Recognize that volunteers and interns may not be the silver bullet to solve your human resource issues. Finding people with your passion and commitment who are willing to work for free can be time-consuming and challenging.
- Pursue and maximize every opportunity to promote your work. Be relentless.
- Suppress your ego. Stay humble. Remain curious.
- Remember that your website, for most people, is the primary window to you and your idea.
- Learn when to say “no.” Manage expectations and don’t overstretch.
- Avoid being dragged down by the politics of the industry you’re in. Save your energy for more important things.
- Learn to do what you can’t afford to pay other people to do.
- Be open with the values that drive you. People will respect you for it.
- Collaborate if it’s in the best interests of solving your problem, even if it’s not in your own best interests.
- Make full use of your networks – and remember that the benefits of being in them may not always be immediate.
- Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture: Whatever you’re trying to solve is bigger than any one person or organization.
- Don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling to find your passion. You’ll find it in the most unlikely of places, and if you don’t it could very well find you.
- Finally, strive to be a good person and a role model for others. And if you do succeed, remember the importance of giving back.
Fueled by the spread of the internet, the ubiquity of mobile phones and other technological innovations, there are more people working to solve pressing social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history. Indeed, our collective humanity is powering communities, governments, health institutions, companies and nearly every aspect of society as we battle the novel coronavirus.
Given the many problems we’re facing as a planet, that can only be a good thing.
Photo courtesy of Free-Photos.