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"I Graduated. Now What."

By Esther Chou

In a recent blog featured in the Washington Post, author Dylan Matthews writes of successful do-gooders at high paying Wall Street jobs who have opted to cash in for good instead of pursuing careers for good through what he calls “earning-to-give”. Matthews highlights MIT grad Jason Trigg who spends his days writing code at a hedge fund on Wall Street; Trigg believes that he can make more of an impact on the world by donating his hard earned income to organizations that are making a real difference. “A lot of people, they want to [help] and end up in the Peace Corps and in the developing world without running water… [but] I can donate some of my time in the office and make more of a difference,” says Trigg. Arguably, Trigg may be able to give away more money in a year than most people give in their entire lives.

In my job at the Social Enterprise Institute at Northeastern University, I come across many recent grads who believe that there are only two such paths for doing good. The Bill Gates’ of the world are hard hitting tech or finance billionaires turned philanthropists, while the John Hatches of the world are idealist Peace Corps volunteers who start their own charitable organizations. What Matthews and Triggs fail to highlight are the numerous other paths to doing good for the world – paths that don’t involve sacrifice, or pay cuts, or digging wells for poor people in Africa.

A few years ago, one of my students graduated from Northeastern and got a high paying job at a top four accounting firm. Let’s say her name is Shari. Last year, Shari came into my office unexpectedly and updated me about her life — she moved to New York City, lives in a fabulous apartment, makes more money than she can ever spend, has no student loan debt, and as a first generation American-Indian, has achieved the quintessential American dream in every sense. She recently completed her CPA, and has ample opportunity to grow at her firm, but she asked me, is this enough? Because being a middle manager at a great accounting firm, volunteering on the weekends, and donating money to her favorite organization wasn’t fulfilling a deeper sense of urgency. Shari was tired of doing taxes for rich people, and wanted to use her business skills and knowledge to make a real difference.

A year later, she sent me an email, subject line: Remember our Conversation in November? “The conversation I am referring to is the one where I hate my job and its killing me working there. So that’s still happening but the feeling has become more suffocating,” she wrote.  

I believe the path of social entrepreneurship leads to meaningful, well-paying careers for young people who understand enterprise as the solution to the world’s most pressing social problems. They are leaving behind the concept of traditional charities and non-governmental organizations and pursuing jobs at the intersection of business and development. This past May, the Social Enterprise Institute graduated its largest class of seniors. Since we began in 2008, our students have gone on to pursue wonderful careers in finance, accounting, investment banking, or even entrepreneurship. However, as more students graduate, I’m surprised by the number of alumni like Shari who send desperate emails one-to-two years into their careers, seeking advice and encouragement to leave their desk jobs for something else.

Then I think of our alumni who are pursuing careers in the private sector, the public sector, through fellowships and other non-traditional paths – and I am compelled to respond.

For instance, Myles worked two years at a mobile healthcare start up before he left his job, the apartment he owns, and his friends/family to live in Kenya for six months to consult for a mobile tech social enterprise through Village Capital and Frontier Markets Program. Emily turned her passion for writing into a career at Root Capital, one of the largest social finance organizations in the world. Tim could have taken a finance job anywhere, but he also chose to work at Root Capital where he analyzes the company’s lending portfolio (mostly fair-trade coffee) from the mountains of Peru.

Or take Cynthia, who also left her job at a top accountancy firm to work at New Profit Inc., a venture philanthropy fund that specializes in high impact organizations and social enterprises. Sean is working as a research analyst in Kenya at Invested Development, an impact investment management firm investing in clean and mobile tech. Catia is working in the public sector at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Innovation Office on the cutting edge of government social impact bonds.

Meanwhile Nele is at the Paradigm Project, a for-profit B-Corp that sells solar cookers to lessen the environmental impact on our world. Sarah is working for mSurvey, a mobile tech company developed by MIT grads to service emerging markets. Gwen is working at S3IDF, an organization that invests in infrastructure development projects in rural India.

Lucas was recently awarded a Fulbright Fellowship where he will be researching the impact of fracking on the environment in Germany. From Atlanta to Seattle, we have a number of Teach for America Corps members working in the country’s toughest schools – in fact, Serrano turned down a lucrative offer at a management consulting firm to join TFA instead. Caitlin is heading to India with the Clinton Foundation to work for the American-India Foundation

In an otherwise tough job market and economy, our alumni inspire me. So while writing at my desk, I send Shari an encouraging email with lists upon lists of fellowship opportunities, domestic jobs, and international postings, none of which involve well intentioned voluntourists or digging wells in rural Africa. I am hopeful for her, and the many other graduates who know that earning-to-give is one path of many to meaningful, fulfilling careers that make the world a truly better place.

Shari responds. “I wanted to let you know I applied for the Kiva Fellows program and got a first round interview! I am anxiously waiting to hear back. Thanks for the encouragement – I really hope I’ll be selected and make SEI proud!”

And that is enough for me.