"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.