In July 2013, a roundtable event was organized at the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Grameen Foundation. With the help of an intern named John Weiller, I organized the event and invited a group of professionals within the social sector to a discussion about breaking into the sector and the knowledge and techniques needed to do so. It was originally published on the Grameen Foundation website. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion. Click here for highlighted excerpts and background (including short bios on the participants) on the Grameen Foundation website. A PDF of what appears below has been on the Grameen Foundation website all along, but now it is available in HTML which will make it more easily discoverable through web searches. I particularly wanted to make it available to my recent and future students at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. — Alex Counts
Alex: My name is Alex Counts, president of Grameen Foundation, and for years been having people of various stages in their careers, but mostly early in their careers, come to me to say “I want to break into the field you’re in.” Sometimes it’s not for profit, often it is any kind of international humanitarian work, particularly doing something that feels a bit innovative. They ask, “How do I get involved?” Sometimes they have some kind of connection to me through a mutual friend, though other times it’s just a total cold call from someone in college or a recent graduate. I almost always talk to them. Because there were people that received me when I was at that stage in my career, and so why should I turn someone down now. It wouldn’t seem fair.
So I’ve been in a lot of these conversations over the years, and I often feel inadequate in giving people good advice, partly because of the unusual way I broke into this field. But I usually offer the advice that I have, and sometimes I send them to other people, in fact I probably sent a couple to you and a couple to you and at least one to you Kate, and these guys probably know more recent, more relevant information. Behind this whole thing, I feel like, to the extent I’m not giving good information to people, we’re losing great talent in the social sector. And so I feel, I don’t know why I feel this, but I feel a certain sense of, a kind of urgency, to give people the best advice I can. And sometimes I wish we could pull together some of the people that I have observed who have used creative ways to break into this kind of work. Sometimes Time magazine pulls together 7 experts in a certain field and has an extended conversation with them, and then they edit the transcript down to the best content. This is what I am hoping for today — creating a transcript that I can send to young people wanting career advice, instead of or before I invite them to come talk to me.
So I’m very excited that you’ve chosen to join. This is part of a kind of a larger summer project that John Weiller, an intern, is working on. And maybe John, if you just want to say a couple things about how this fits in, and he may even be turning this project over to another intern in the fall, to take the next couple of steps. But firstly I just want to thank you John for project-managing this, and maybe if you want to just say a few things at the outset about what is going to be happening and what other things you may be doing.
John: Well, I’m trying to come up with a sort of comprehensive online resource for people who are trying to break into the social sector, be they college students, people transitioning from one career, or people who have worked a career for some decades. And this is definitely part of our goal on that, assembling a group of professionals. Compiling relevant online materials, collating what might be hard to find online, answering frequently asked questions, trying to create one place online that you can go to, and say, this is how I’m breaking into the social sector, and these are the steps I need to take.
Alex: Why don’t we do a quick go around, people can introduce themselves, where they’re working, what they’re doing professionally now, any bit of background that might help us in the dialog, just to understand where you’re coming from. Kimberly?
Kimberly: Hi, my name is Kimberly Davies. I work here at Grameen Foundation. Been here for four years, started in operations, moved over to program work on some big new exciting microsavings projects, which are now winding down. I’m transitioning to a general financial services officer, focusing on our human-centered design processes.
Jordan: My name is Jordan Nelson. I was at Grameen as an intern, my senior year of college, and I managed to turn that into a little over a year after college at an international microfinance institution. After that I ended up back in DC, worked for a little bit with USAID and now I work with a consulting company, mostly with the IDB and the World Bank on energy policy, specifically renewable energy and energy efficiency, so kind of a smattering of everything.
Nicole: I’m Nicole Stubbs, CEO of First Access, which is a social enterprise that’s helping consumers use their prepaid mobile records to turn into an asset and establish credit worthiness when they apply for microloans. Working in Tanzania right now, I worked in microfinance in Latin America, Africa, and Asia for several years before starting this, and the main problem I was encountering is just that there isn’t enough reliable information out there. And so, many developing countries over the last few years have started requiring that people register their phone numbers and sim cards with ID’s, which means that suddenly they have a potential personal financial record, and so we’re trying to bring those out in to the open in our kind of mobile companies and make them a usable tool for consumers.
Kate: Hi everyone, I’m Kate Griffin. I currently and working with the Corporation for Enterprise Development, or CFED, which is a national nonprofit based here in DC, and I’m actually working to help low-income Americans access services that help build their financial capability. Prior to that I spent 12 years working in international microfinance, 6 of those right here at Grameen Foundation, including a lot of work on the project Kimberly’s been spending time on, microsavings, but all of it really looking at helping folks with limited resources get access to both the financial services and other resources that they would need to help build income and hopefully assets.
Alex: By the way the microsavings project which was funded by the Gates Foundation, $9.9 million, so we can’t quite say we had a 10 million dollar grant but very close. It’s winding up this October, and in our August board meeting we’re going to be doing a kind of a lessons learned celebration and we’re also going to be doing a celebration in October in the Philippines. And so I’m sure your name will come up any time, and congratulations for setting that up so well.
Brian: I’m Brian Weinberg, actually engaged with Grameen in 2007 as part of what we call the Dallas Grameen Foundation, and I worked with them for three years until graduating college and moving on to MicroVest, which is a impact investing fund, about 200 million in assets, and I focus mostly on America, and recently I just left to start on a new social enterprise, focusing on socially responsible products.
Khuloud: Khuloud Odeh, the director of IT at Grameen Foundation. This year is actually my tenth year in the international development sector, here at Grameen this is now my third year. I worked for another international development organization called CHF International. And now it’s known as Global Communities. I also worked at as head of IT at CIL. I probably have a different career path from most here that I wanted to share. I entered this field by pure coincidence, and it ended up being a turning point in my career, where I decided to continue working in the international development sector, and I didn’t realize that I have such passion for this work, and especially for when it comes in the area of IT and security, so I’m here today to share that.
Kaveh: My name is Kaveh Azimi; I’m the CEO of an impact investing fund called Encite Capital. Encite focuses on small-medium enterprises in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Haiti first shortly thereafter the Dominican Republic. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the DR for a bit and worked in microfinance in Haiti for Fonkoze. About a little over a year ago I graduated from the Harvard Kennedy school which is when I started Encite, so it’s been about a year, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of different organizations like the IDB before, and a little with a private equity consultant for a little bit, focusing on the small-medium enterprise space in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
One of the classic cases that I find is someone who is nearing the end of their college studies or maybe recently graduated and saying, “I’d love to do the kind of thing you’re doing, how do I get my foot in the door.” There might be a variation on that, someone who is maybe working in some good job that doesn’t really have meaning for them or someone that’s patching together money waiting tables or doing something like that, but somewhere in there had got a motivation to want to contribute, to solve problems, and often times when they come to me it’s on the international stage.
Another type of case is the mid career person, you’ve been working your career for 10, 15 years, satisfied or dissatisfied or whatever, had lots of people, there are a lot of variations. People who left the workforce to raise kids or tend to family matters, people who want to re-enter doing something like this, so where do they go? Some had a role model; some read and said “I want this to be what I choose professionally.” Some of the reasons I’ve picked you all is you’re some of my favorite people, it’d be fun to spend an afternoon together, but also because you know, it seems that there is some sort of path like that but it’s not exactly that path, and we’re just going to get into still as many tips and ideas and resources and insights as we can from this dialog.
Hopefully it’ll go live in the fall, like every project it’ll probably take longer than we imagine, but it’ll come to market by the end of the year. I want to start by asking each of you to talk about your own experiences of breaking in, of getting in to the kind of work you’re doing now, and we’ll kind of go from there through a number of other things. But does anyone just have any questions or suggestions about the process, or things they’d like to say, because now you can kind of get what we’re trying to do here, anything before we jump in?
What I’d like to do, just because it relieves a certain tension, is usually just to start with someone and go around clockwise so we’ll probably do that. At the same time, let this really be an open forum, so this is why we kind of have the time if say, Jordan is saying something and Brian, you kind of want to piggyback on it or disagree or probe a little more about how that happened or say you had the exact opposite experience, just do that, and then maybe we’ll rejoin whatever process we were in or not, so I’ll kind of assist with a light hand, I just want this to be as organic as it can be, I think that will give us the best content. So who would like to jump in with basically just sharing your pathway, and maybe if it helps give the context what the insight or what the light-going-on motivation was why you would want to strategize and get to this kind of work.
Brian: I think it all probably dates back to when I was a sophomore, and to me it was the typical, you know, I was a business student, and I was kind of like planning, and joining contests, and people were saying I was going to go to Wall Street and make a lot of money, and that was my path. And I was kind of filling out my resume as much as one could and I ran for what I thought, had been serving in student government, and thought this was my time to run for president of the student body, and it was a close race. I’m talking Al Gore vs. George Bush. I put everything into it, and to me it was the end-all be-all situation, and I was a straight a student, very dedicated, and I lost. I lost. But two weeks earlier I was in the study abroad office, and I said my backup plan, if I don’t win I’m going to South America and I’m going to learn Spanish. I had the meeting, I picked up the program, and after I lost by like 200 votes out of 35,000 students. I thought “I don’t really know what this means, but hopefully later in life I’ll think this is the best thing that ever happens to me.”
So I spent six months in South America, and if anyone has seen the movie Motorcycle Diaries, I kind of didn’t ride a motorcycle, but I went up on bus from the bottom of Argentina up through Chile and to Peru by myself, meeting people, talking after 3 or 4 months of intensive Spanish. After I arrived home in Texas, I walked in to my house, and I was just like “Wow, this is a big house”. It was, seeing real poverty, especially in Peru; it created a distinction I had never had in my life. Europe is much different from South America, even more so with Africa, I showed up and I was kind of going through culture shock. I had this prestigious entrepreneurship fellowship, with a job and everything, and they said, well they saw I was having trouble focusing after all the things I had seen, you know, small children stealing your change at the subway and what are you going to do about it. I had all these mental images, and one of my teachers at the fellowship gave me an article in fortune magazine about Dr. Yunus. I had never heard about microfinance before, and I carried around the article in my pocket for two weeks just thinking about it, thinking, “I’m going to call him. I’m going to call Muhammed Yunus.”
But sure enough there was this other business leader in Dallas that I was kind of bugging. All I knew was that he did international business. I finally got him to go to Starbucks with me on a Sunday morning, and he says, we’re speaking Spanish and talking about the poverty in South America, and I said “I just heard about this thing called microfinance, have you heard of it?” He told me he was actually reading Banker to the Poor right now, and I pulled the article out of my pocket and he told me he was actually on the board of a local microfinance organization. And we had this idea, a program that I later became the director of, called Recycle to Eradicate Poverty, and we were recycling cell phones to fund microfinance, a Nobel Prize concept at the time, and it was an incredible moment. I ran that for three years and wrote my thesis on microfinance, and really developed my thinking, but upon graduation in 2009 which was you know, a terrible time to graduate, I had all this experience working with organizations like this.
I started off trying a new business of my own, after I kind of left this project, and I fell flat on my face. You know, you spend money to make money, end up getting in debt, and it was a tough experience. I quickly ended up getting a job at a Fortune 500 company called Fiserv, it was devastating because I felt like I had sold out, and it was out of line with my values, even if I was doing Corporate social responsibility programs. It felt like they just weren’t hearing me, and I had people telling me that I wasn’t going to get in there. People were pretty blunt. I kept trying, and applied to a lot of jobs including one at Microvest, the impact investing job I just recently left. The first interview I had at Microvest, they didn’t hire me. It wasn’t until 8 or 9 months later that they called me with another position they wanted to consider me for. I think the best advice I had in that situation was to look on the bios on the Microvest website, and have an honest conversation with yourself as to what you are missing. What are the skillsets and tools that you need to be competitive and have the talking points in those interviews? You need to be able to weather the storm, and you need to take your extra time and volunteer and learn whatever skills you need. So that’s a little more about my story.
Alex: A lot of potential follow-up questions and you’ve actually bled into the second question, which I expected a lot of you would do. Well why don’t we go with, I don’t know, Khuloud?
Khuloud: My entry into this field was by pure chance. I’ve been in the information technology field working as a programmer and coder, and in 2003 when the dotcom market crashed that what was I doing, and I happened to have a friend who was working for an NGO, and they needed someone for the web based systems that they were working on at that time, to do an evaluation. So I went to evaluate this web-based application, and I found it interesting, the first path and project I helped in that organization was not related to IT at all, it was related to Arabic. Speaking Arabic and coming from Palestine, well, for the longest time that social aspect was what I did on the side, I grew up in Palestine in a conflict area, so working with communities and being politically and socially involved has always been part of what I do… but not part of my career. So I looked at that with IT and figured with my career, I could do something on the social side, through volunteer activities.
The first week I consulted with them, I was approached, and they said “Oh you speak Arabic, could you take a look at something we’re developing for Palestine?” For me it was exciting, in my career as an IT professional and programmer, no one had ever cared that I spoke Arabic, or that I had knowledge of the Middle East, so it was exciting to know that other parts of my passions and skills could be useful besides the technical aspects. I didn’t realize I had such passion for working in this environment where I could also contribute with my IT skills, so I ended up in a month getting a full time job with that organization, knowing that I could have just invested my time applying for the next big paying job, but really the satisfaction I got as being part of a mission, the mission of an organization that has programs in a region I know as well as other region, opened my eyes and I learned technology is not just for little gadgets, but could also be used to solve peoples’ problems.
I remember one of the interesting questions, when I was excited about the technology and the organization; I was asked how technology could help a woman fetching clean water for her family. The man who asked, he said “Tell me what technologies could do that, and I can get as excited as you about the power of technology.” That was really a hint to me that, wow, there is way more in the world where technology is needed than in these gadgets and programming language. So that, for me, was really a kind of a big source of passion and interest in that area. Working with that evaluation, I learned more about how to be sustainable, and even learned the word sustainable, and realized it’s something very hard to measure, and from there developed more interest in sustainability, and later in the year focused my PHD research on how technology can contribute to economic development. At that time, because I entered that area in a very, not-planned way, without knowing what sector I wanted to target, I kind of learned in reverse what I could have done to really establish a career in international development, and I learned a number of things about the realities of that field.
So that was the first and number one reality check, and I usually challenge anyone who comes to me and says “I really love what you do, and I want to be a part of it.” Especially people from the information technology field. The first thing I usually say is “First you really need to be passionate, and really have the desire to help and not care as much about how much money you’re going to make.” Because for somebody switching form IT to the social sector, that is the first thing to realize. You have to be fulfilled and satisfied doing the same work you did before for a different purpose, for less money. That sometimes is an interesting reality check to start with, and I’ve even started saying that to other people, from other fields. International development looks cool from the outside, you think you can travel, go interesting places, get great experience, which is true, but it’s also very difficult, and for people coming in at a junior level they have to know it might be several years before they even get to go out to a field office, or to really go and directly be part of a development program. Sometimes people are instinctively curious, but they don’t really consider the details, and, I won’t call them sacrifices, but to be less comfortable. So I usually offer the advice that you should make sure you’re ready in terms of what you can get.
Kaveh: So I guess my path, or my story would start with the fact that I was born into a very activist family, so from a very young age I felt compelled to do something in the social sector. For me, it was always a question of figuring out exactly what I was going to do. There really could have been a lot of different things. I had no idea what to do coming out of college, after studying economics and international relations, and the thing is, I’m a very practical, non-ideological person, so the thing that got to me was international development, which seemed very practical and the most simple way to improve peoples’ lives.
So I joined the Peace Corps, out of college, thinking this was going to be an opportunity to learn a new language, get on the ground experience, experience a new culture, and I before this had not had much of an opportunity to travel much. My real sort of exposure was pretty in line with your average American growing up in California. I’m half-Iranian, so I have that sort of connection, but still very much a guy from California.
I spent some time in the Dominican Republic, and got a chance to do a bunch of different development projects. Public health, microfinance, small infrastructure projects, community organizing. The thing that stuck out to me as most impactful was microfinance. When I finished my Peace Corps stint, I was thinking what to do next. I could have gone back to the United States and gotten a job, but the thing that drove me to Haiti to do microfinance was realizing that abroad, I could take on a lot more, and have more opportunity than in a junior position in the US. So by moving to Fonkoze, in Haiti, I got to direct a national microfinance program, being 24 and managing 15 to 20 people. You know, it’s not your typical path, and I probably shouldn’t have been managing so many people. It was a great learning experience and I had a lot of support which helped me learn which areas to improve as a team manager.
Fast forward two years, I had worked in Haiti for two years, Dominican Republic for two years, had developed a strong commitment to both countries. In both environments you have an opportunity to be very much connected to the people you’re working with, different from the interaction you get with a lot of development organizations, very grassroots. I thought what we were doing was making an impact, but I also had a desire to pivot and keep looking for the thing that was going to be most impactful, and for me that was moving from micro enterprises to small-medium enterprises. After leaving Fonkoze, I had the opportunity to study for two years and refine my understanding, figure out what was most impactful and how to make that impact. That led me to start Encite Capital with a couple of other co-founders.
I think, looking back, it sounds nice, like there was a nice and well thought out trajectory. But the truth is, there’s a real path dependency to this. Like, I did one thing, setting me on the path to do the next thing, and you can pivot in there. Looking back on it, it’s interesting to look back and realize how much was out of my control and how I was set on the path that I’m on today. I guess I will just sort of stop there, and pass it on.
Alex: A lot of good stuff, including the pros and cons of Peace Corps. I’m not sure anyone else is ex-Peace Corps, but I’m sure many of you have met people who took that course. We’ll probably come back to that.
Kimberly: I’ve been in international development now for about six years. The real interest started after I studied abroad my sophomore year in college. I grew up in an area that was upper middle class. I realized that this was a bubble wasn’t real life. In college most of my friends studied abroad in Italy, but I decided I wanted to go somewhere to live with a family, and experience a different culture. Having worked on Spanish some, I decided to go to Chile.
I think studying abroad was one of several points that led me to where I am today. I had the opportunity to meet people who had had different opportunities than I did, and observe how things work in a different country. I think it really helped open my mind. I used to think there was a correct way to do something, and when I studied abroad just being in a different country watching someone spend five minutes just to fold two bags, because their time and resources were valued differently than in the US, was eye opening. I was once in a store and noticed how many attendants there were. It seemed like far too many people, but then later realized it was because only someone knew about the items we wanted, someone else would get them off the shelf, and someone else highly trusted would ring you up and deal with the money. There were so many employees in that store, but how a wage difference, skill difference, and turnover can create different standards than in the US. Their staffing was much more complex than I initially realized.
After my time in Chile, I ended up going back to UC Davis. I took several of courses about development, and learned about the idea of international development helping others in a sustainable way. Learning about microfinance actually came out to DC for an internship program. I was not fortunate enough to get an internship in international development-very hard to find. But, I ended up doing a research paper on microfinance to meet people and try to learn a lot more. That’s where I found out that my own little farm town where I was going to school had a microfinance organization, Freedom from Hunger. After my time in DC I went back to Davis and tried to get an internship with them. I was rejected initially because my GPA was not high enough for the extremely competitive program.
I really wanted this internship so I tried to tactfully try to remind the organization that I was available, and interested without being another. After enough follow-up a woman decided I was worth a shot. We had some interviews, I talked about my experiences, and I was hired as an intern. Sometime later the HR manager credited my careful persistence ( without pestering anyone) to ensure I didn’t slip through the cracks. Follow-up and checking in helps.
I was a part of a big intern class, and I decided my first day that I had to work really hard and stand out. Clearly ten people would not be hired in a thirty person office after this internship period. I was fortunate to be the one intern that was considered for a staff position.
Even though I spent time in Chile, and Peru, I failed the Spanish test required to work on Freedom from Hunger’s program team. I was extremely disappointed, but luckily they ended up identifying a few other organizational needs and built an operations role for me. I could come on as a receptionist, supporting travel and finance to cover all the little needs they needed. I began to take on extra projects, talked with colleagues, and while I was at Freedom from Hunger my role changed a few times into new and more meaningful opportunities. However, then the economy crashed and San Francisco, where I was, was a terrible place to be.
Big companies like Yahoo were laying off thousands of people and everyone was all in a panic, but I think what helped was that there were a lot of people in the beginning who took the time to have coffee with me, and talk to me, and tell me “Oh you know, there’s this microfinance group here…. A lot of people really took me under their wings. I joined groups, followed blogs, started a series of happy hours with casual development conversations, tried to talk to people whenever possible, and got real lucky. I realized there were a lot of people trying for just a few jobs so I had to really apply for things I could prove I’d done before, and not just things I had the capability of doing in the future.
I focused on my experience. I landed a telephone interview at Grameen, got the job, flew cross country on a red eye and started work the next day. I tried very hard to be as involved as possible, and was just excited to be a part of the organization. There was so much to learn. I really lucked out when Grameen got a grant and was hiring some more people; I actually talked to Kate Griffin, and lucked out with a project in India, The Philippines, and Ethiopia. I think there was an acceptance that no one is going to know Amharic, Tagalog, and Hindi, and so this language thing suddenly was not an issue. I really did luck out, and while I think it’s very helpful to have additional language skills, it’s not always required. So I got to where I am today, got out to the field in my third or fourth year in the industry, and was rejuvenated seeing why we’re here doing what we do. It’s really still exciting, and I’m continuing to learn. I’d recommend any abroad experience whether it’s studying abroad, Peace Corps, or travel after college, it’s important to see and experience a developing country on your own.
Alex: Maybe it might be interesting to hear at some point, from you Kate, about how you sized up Kimberly, I mean, you gave her that big breakthrough, her big moment. Jordan?
Jordan: Some common themes that have already been expressed… well number one, graduating in 2009 was terrible [because of the economy]… Number two, starting out kind of sophomore year, and number three just the grind and frustration of trying to find a job. But you know, without going too far back into my own history, I would say starting college thinking I wanted to be in the CIA or the FBI, I found out that was really uncool…
Alex: He is a CIA agent, actually. [Laughter]
Jordan: You know, I have been accused of that several times… but anyway, I’m not. Which is what I would say if I was! In any case, I realized that wasn’t the path for me, and in sophomore year I went to Ecuador to stay with a family, another theme I think we can all pick up on. The person I stayed with was involved in WEM, the local microfinance group, and she told me about it. We went into the mountains to visit her group, and I thought that was really cool. Then I came back to school, and I took some courses on development economics, in Latin America and the Middle East. I also interned in Congress, and realized that was not cool either.
Then I started thinking about what I need to do to work at one of these places, what are some skills I could gain, so I took a course on microfinance that was offered at school, pretty fortunate to have that offered, and also took a basic course on business accounting and finance, and I interned at the Grameen Foundation my senior year. I actually applied, put my application in, and it had gone kind of silent after a couple of emails back and forth. As chance would have it, Alex was on vacation in Key West (where I’m from) and he met my Mom and Dad, who are very persistent people and a little crazy, and so that I think got my resume back in front of someone at Grameen and the conversation picked up, and I was able to land the internship at Grameen. While I was at Grameen a position for somebody who had Spanish and English ability and was experienced at a small nonprofit institution in the DR, I jumped at the opportunity, they hired me, strangely, and I went down there to work for fourteen months.
That was a cool experience, because I was literally every day listening to stories about peoples’ lives and businesses, and what they wanted to do. Even if those stories got repetitive, they helped me get some insights into what was actually going on. My contract ended I felt able to hand off my responsibilities, the classic put yourself out of a job development approach, so I came back to the US and started applying until I got a job at this company that basically hired me as an employee of USAID. Worked at USAID for a bit, that was always a short-term position, and then I put out probably 200 resumes looking for another job. I got a couple callbacks, a couple interviews, and things really weren’t going well. I decided to put out five more, and if nothing happened to go home and save money. And then at my very last interview, I got hired at this company that does consulting on infrastructure, mostly water and power, in developing countries. And my very first day, they said “Do you want to do water, or power?” And I was like, well, in the DR when the power went out, that sucked… power?
That brings me to another thread a couple of people have mentioned-now I get to do things I probably shouldn’t, which is an important lesson. You have to be audacious, you really have to be audacious, and overestimate your abilities and just be a little fearless. So that’s where I’m at right now, been there about two and a half years, I’ve graduated from analyst to senior analyst, a distinction without difference.
Alex: I’d just like to object, in the strongest possible terms, Jordan’s parents are only a little bit crazy, but I will leave it at that until the happy hour[*]. [Laughter]
Jordan: The first and last connection I ever got from my parents.
Nicole: Sounds like it mattered though, that sounds really cool.
Jordan: Definitely, especially in that transitional time.
Nicole: Yeah! Well… I had a lot of similar experiences, I studied abroad in Brazil during college, I had always been really interested in languages and other cultures, and I grew up speaking French and wanted to learn something else-
Alex: You grew up bilingual?
Nicole: Sort of, my parents are Francophiles, they like French literature a lot, so they kind of nerded out on that sort of thing. So I love languages, and I wanted to learn a new one so I decided to go to Brazil because I could only go learn a new one if it was a language my school did not offer, and I went to a very small liberal arts college, Kenyon College.
I had designed my own major there, which was another silly but great thing. I was doing mostly cultural anthropology, and I was living with this totally wonderful family in Brazil, in a very poor community, but it just was really transformative and I still talk to them almost every week. Seven years later and they’ve been a huge part of my life. My little sister was eight at the time, and she just turned fifteen in January, which is a huge birthday in Brazil. We actually managed to bring her to the United States for six weeks, she wanted to learn better English and I was like, “I speak English and I have a couch! Come, we’ll make that happen!” And I think that’s the culmination of the things I learned to do because in spite of the fact that my parents always told me “Nicole! You’re so special!” learning that I have something to contribute just being me was sort of an important moment.
I think the first moment that really sticks out at me as salient and empowering was when we went way into the interior, on a bus to visit these people who were part of the landless rural workers’ movement. Brazil has a quirky almost-loophole in its legal system, where if you go camp out on land that isn’t being used productively, you can actually earn the title to that land. This was a powerful right to have for people who do not own any land, and fascinating from a policy perspective, so we went to an encampment for the landless workers. Everyone was living in these tents made of thick torn plastic and sticks, basically, that they had made themselves. Even a little wind would blow them over, but people would live in them for months or even years.
I spent the afternoon talking to a woman living in a tiny little tent with four little kids. Her kids were awesome, and it was just so sort of surprising to see someone make this commitment to getting a little plot of land, I think they had been there for six months, they didn’t know how many years it would take, and it was a community of maybe a hundred people. But anyway, she had no shoes. When we left, I gave her my shoes, realizing I could get more because I was going back to a city, and somehow that moment changed something in me – not that I would advocate that as a model, giving things away, but it was just the first time where I thought “I have shoes and somebody I know can really use those!” It just made me realize that there are things I have to contribute and that it’s hard to help a ton of people in a huge, sustainable way, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore individuals and the situation on the ground.
I stayed in really close contact with my host family, and when I went back to college a year later I started focusing very intensively on economics, I had been studying cultural anthropology and while I felt like that was enabling my understanding of things, it didn’t really enable me to do anything proactive when I saw situations or initiatives that I might be able to contribute to. So I started to focus more on specific tools that would help me do something, and I deliberately didn’t look for a job all of my senior year during college despite lots of stern words from various people. I moved to China because I wanted to learn a non-Romance language, and I knew I wanted to do something with economic development. China seemed to make sense because it was experiencing the largest decrease in poverty in human history, and obviously a lot of that is unique to China but I wanted to figure out what they were doing from a policy standpoint. What they were doing right, what they were doing wrong, and whether there were any transferable lessons to other places.
So I got to China and I was living in Beijing and I signed up for Mandarin classes, found some English teaching classes, and this probably goes without saying but since no one has specifically mentioned it, if you grow up speaking English as a native language, that is a huge asset. You can use it; you can survive on teaching English part time in many parts of the world and in the rest of your time get practical experience as a volunteer doing what you want to do, and kind of making yourself essential. That’s what I tried to do, I knew I wanted to do something related to development but I didn’t know whether it would be health, education, or financial services. And so I actually found three simultaneous volunteer jobs. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I was working at Planet Finance China, which I found through Google, and happened to be in the building next door to me, in a residential building-
Alex Counts: What year were you there?
Nicole: It was around 2007, 2008. And so I applied for the job, and they wanted a native Mandarin speaker, and I was like “I started Mandarin lessons three months ago… but, I live next door to you!” And they were like “Oh that could be pretty useful.” So they hired me anyway, bless their hearts, and one of the things I did to compensate for my Mandarin skills was to find four other volunteers through local universities who were native speakers. I worked with them to translate the things I was doing. Because I didn’t know how to do anything really practical in the field yet, I focused on making web content for them, so I did little articles on policy changes in China, and what was happening in microfinance in the country, and then they would translate it.
So I did that Monday-Wednesday-Friday, and Tuesday and Thursday I worked a public health foundation that gives free health care to Tibetans. They have an office in Beijing, and they have a clinic in Qinghai province, and so I met the founder through someone, or maybe even on Google as well, through the internet, and I went and talked to him, was really passionate about what they were doing-providing free healthcare, including meds, to seventy thousand people, in the last twelve or so years, and so I wanted to learn about that, so I did that on Tuesday and Thursday, and then on Sundays I taught at a school for migrant kids. I had a sixth grade class I sort of adopted, fifty-seven students ranging in age from ten to seventeen, so that was interesting and wonderful, they were great people. I came out of these three simultaneous internships, volunteer ships, feeling like each-education, health, and financial services-could each be argued as very catalytic for improving livelihoods, but financial services felt by far the most doable. So that was what I focused on.
Planet Finance wanted to start this thing called Escape, which is now called MicroWorld. It is a big NGO in over eighty countries also focusing on microfinance, and they wanted to create something in their network to leverage all the resources they have. And they’re a big umbrella organization, so they have microinsurance, savings; they do technical assistance for microfinance institutions all over the place. Kind of everything. And so what I wanted to do was help get capital from individuals in the developed world and funnel that to microfinance institutions. I was hired to go set that up in Madagascar. There was one person hired to go to Senegal, and another person to Mexico, to do the same thing, and then our manager was in Argentina with an intern in Paris. So five different people in different time zones and parts of the world, which was kind of complicated.
We made quite a bit of progress, but then the government of Madagascar was overthrown, so the embassy told all the Americans we had to leave, so I went back to France after that and kind of split time between France, China and Senegal for a while, kind of setting up MicroWorld, and then I was in a similar situation as some of you guys: I had been working abroad and had gained a certain level of responsibility, and I was really loving it, but I knew if I came back to the United States I would probably end up being an intern or something like that, it would be really hard to find a comparable level of responsibility, and so I started using graduate school as an excuse to come back to the United States, but I had also identified all these really important things I had to learn because I had never studied finance or statistics, for example.
So I knew microfinance operations extremely well and had been working with loan officers every day doing evaluations, but I hadn’t studied finance, management principles, raising capital and things like that. So I came back to the US for graduate school which I finished a year ago, and during that process I started to focus a bit more on social enterprise and entrepreneurship. Learning how to make change from scratch, which I would argue is probably the most difficult way to get involved in mission-driven work, so I would not advocate that. I think there is a much stronger argument for finding someone who has a really compelling idea, helping them on the side in your free time while you’re working or a student, and kind of making yourself an essential part of that project. I did this because there was a very specific problem that I was trying to solve that needs to be solved and no one was doing it, and had I not already started something like MicroWorld from scratch where I knew the process, with legal issues, financial management, software development, recruitment, you know understanding all these components, I certainly wouldn’t have had the courage to start something from scratch, and I don’t think it makes sense to unless you’re really doing something totally new and you have a lot of support behind you. Because I had moved to New York, I was very fortunate to be able to network with a lot of different people and raise some financial capital very early on.
So I think volunteering, particularly for startups, is a great way to get some experience, get your foot in the door on the cheap, in terms of the opportunity cost, if you are a student or if you have a day job that you can hang on to while you’re trying to understand exactly what kind of work you’d ideally be doing. Learn as much as you can in those margins of time by being proactive and getting involved in different things that interest you. If you decide to make a move from your current job or you want to work for that organization or one like it after graduating, it’s a lot easier to transition in.
Kate: I grew up in rural Ohio, went to school in rural Ohio, and I wanted to get as far away from that as I could in life, which is how I ended up studying Chinese and living in China. And all of that was sort of my international piece of it, and certainly just this idea of really understanding this thing that was so different started there, but it wasn’t actually until my senior year of college in a seminar we read a book by Frances Moore Lappé, called World Hunger: Twelve Myths, but this was a book that really talked about, you know, people aren’t poor because they’re stupid. They don’t get out of that situation when you give them money. It really talked about the root causes of problems like hunger and poverty, and about the different solutions in the world, of course one of them being the Grameen Bank. And that was really what started my mind jogging.
After some time in China, I moved back here to DC and put the research skills I learned in college to use and looked up all of the organizations that were in that book. What ended up happening is completely through a cold call throwing a resume in the door, getting a job at the Microcredit Summit Campaign. Which is interesting, my first job in microfinance was not with a company doing direct work; the majority of what they did was convening: bringing the field together. That meant I was at the nexus of an enormous learning opportunity, and my first year I got to know all sorts of people, and I got to know all the big debates and conversations, I got to see it all up close. That sort of started me on top, it was vital to get as much knowledge and pick as many brains as possible.
One of the other passions in my life, at that time, was women’s’ rights. I had this whole other dream to go and get my Ph.D. in anthropology and work on the women’s’ labor rights movement in China. I had this amazing job in microfinance, and I spoke to the woman who was going to be my advisor for my Ph.D. telling her all this stuff I was so excited to use and she said “That’s great! In six to eight years you’re going to be able to do that!” That was when I realized I needed to do something now, and when I committed to sticking in with this.
I ended up getting a Master’s in development here in DC, and my first couple of years was just bouncing around getting to know people and networking and zigzagging my way up the ladder. Ultimately I ended up at a think tank at the University of Maryland, where they had this USAID contract and they hired me because I knew who Alex was, who all these people were who were up in arms about this project… who had no faith in the University, so I had to be PR for this project. And then ultimately Grameen Foundation hired me because I knew something about China, I knew microfinance and China. I was looking forward to doing more policy work and my chance was when I arrived here at Grameen, to really work in China and across Southeast Asia, so that was a big piece of it. I’ve had the opportunity to get a lot of career advice over the last few years, and I’ve taught a microfinance class over the last three years, so I’ve had a lot of people ask for advice.
Alex: One little insight related to the Microcredit Summit Campaign. It looks like “Oh my God I went into the field but it’s not a direct service provider, it’s just conferences…” It may seem like a horrible way to break in but as you found by seizing the opportunity, it was actually a great way when you compare to breaking in with any other number of organizations, with the access to leaders and the things you can do. So now we’re going to go around, can’t hear from everyone, but I’d like you all to grapple with the question of your own experiences, and tell me what you tell people when they come to you. Perhaps you could put it in terms of, “Here are things I did, that you should do. Here are things I did, that you shouldn’t do. Here are things I saw other do that you should do.”
Kate: So the one I’m going to start with is that passion alone isn’t enough. Everybody I talk to wants to help the poor. And my eyes glaze over, because it’s tough work number one, and I think people forget you need hard skills to do this stuff, particularly when we’re talking financial services work and if we’re talking about going to work at a microfinance institution. That’s a financial institution, and they need people with accounting skills, and IT, and HR, and marketing skills, and this notion that I’m going to save the world glosses over what you actually need to bring to the table. And that’s kind of interesting for me because I’ve always sat at the level of an intermediate, so my hard skill is project management and getting money from point a to point b, and securing funding and things like that, so that’s a very valuable hard skill and one that you need to have in certain places in the field.
I want to know what you’re going to bring to the table. What piece of this world do you have influence over, that will let you make it a better world? That’s one piece of it, and the other is I always get very frustrated with people who think the social sector is a big broad thing, like “I’m going to go work in that piece.” and it’s such a heterogeneous field with so many ways to tackle it, go do your homework. Figure out who does what, what they’re trying to achieve, and find the one that really fits you whether it’s the type of organization or type of approach, but getting to that level makes you much more sellable, when you can sit down and say what speaks to you, and how you can contribute. And that, to me, is exciting and those are the people that I hire.
Alex: Interesting. The floor is open.
Jordan: I would just add to what Kate said, of all the classes I took at Georgetown, probably the basic introduction to finance and the Spanish courses are the ones that got me my job, I mean, I wrote fantastic term papers on women’s’ weaving cooperatives in the Andes, and I don’t think that mattered a bit. People think too much about what they want to do and not about what the employer wants them to do.
Nicole: I’d like to add that, I think one of the problems here is that there isn’t really a social sector. I mean, social covers the entire range of potential things that you could do with maybe very few exceptions of certain industries, but within microfinance alone you definitely need hard skills but sometimes there are things like communications. Like let’s say you love to write. If you find a volunteer job, like the Microcapital Monitor for example hires volunteers to write things that then get sent out to hundreds of microfinance professionals across the world, if you’ve got time to do research and you can write well and you can synthesize, that is a hard skill. I didn’t know anything about finance, but I loved to write, and I think that’s one thing that people sometimes overlook, and microfinance institutions like anyone else have to do well with communications.
Language is certainly an issue, but there are lots of English speaking countries out there or countries that also speak English, or maybe you need to reach a broader international audience for fundraising purposes or something, and so there’s always that possibility. But beyond microfinance in general, one of the hardest things about being in the social sector is that it’s not a sector, like the companies I engage with are microfinance institutions on the one side but then mobile Corporations on the other. They don’t really even know what a social enterprise is. There are people doing toilet systems, or plumbing, just every conceivable thing. There are a huge range of tangible skills that you could bring to that and doing your homework on organizations, seeing their profiles and the people they hire, is a great piece of advice. Graduate programs in particular, there are a lot of people who work for a few years and then think to go to graduate school for more skills without knowing quite what they want to do, so many people do that and end up unable to specialize.
I think one of the good pieces of advice I heard before going to graduate school was “Figure out what kind of organization you want to work for, if you had to decide today, what you were going to do for the next five or ten years. Who would you want to work for?” Well I thought, maybe the Gates Foundation because they have almost unlimited resources to put towards some of the world’s most intractable problems, so I called different schools and asked if they had anyone who was working at the Gates Foundation who was a recent alumnus, and I talked to several people. It turned out nobody cared where your degree came from; they cared what you got out of it. But of course that’s an organization that’s working at a high level across practically every sector, so if you can narrow it down to “I want to work in water, or sanitation, or financial services…” there’s such a huge array out there, and some of it is just figuring out how many things there are, how many you don’t know about, and looking into them. I guess legitimacy for a social enterprise doesn’t’ come from being a social enterprise, it comes from doing what it does well, which often is a social mission, but your mission is why you’re doing something and not necessarily what you’re doing, and so you have to figure out what skills you need to make it happen rather than just the passion to accomplish this and an end goal, and especially small organizations trying innovative techniques for doing those things, don’t get any legitimacy for being social enterprises because most of the world has not heard of that, and so passion for social enterprise in general is much less compelling to me as an employer than passion for the specific work that you’re doing.
Someone that comes to me really interested in mobile technology in emerging markets for the purposes of micro transactions, and knows something about mobile payments, that’s much more engaging than just having passion. The more specific you can be, even when there are bunch of things you could be interested in, talking about one thing you are specifically interested in and why is important. Narrow it down.
Brian: One of the things I always found helpful when thinking about where I wanted to be or when offering suggestions to people was to think both thematically and functionally. Thematically, you need to know what kind of organization you want to work for, and functionally you need to know what you want to do on a day-to-day basis. And I would actually suggest that people think functionally, because the way you interact with that organization is what you do on a day-to-day basis. And the thing that is going to keep you inspired and fulfilled is feeling like you’re making a contribution, and I think that’s a function of your role with that organization.
Kimberly: I’m going to agree, but also disagree. I think the function is incredibly important and you need to bring that value to the organization to feel fulfilled, but a lot of the time I think you also just need to get your foot in the door. I think a lot of people are very proud to have studied or worked x number of years and they have a vision of what should be happening. They are seeing current opportunities as stepping stones to what could later happen.
Alex: So we’ll hear from others, and hear some more questions, but the basic question I have is, what advice do you give people? When someone you really want to help says, “I’m on the outside, I want to get on the inside somehow.” And the raw material (in terms of the person’s talent and intentions) may be good, and your intuition is that they may do well in whatever organization they can latch on to, what’s your best advice?
Khuloud: My advice is, in this economy, with the difficulty of finding jobs, to network. To network any time, any event. A great example: last night I was going from the airport to the parking lot and it was like one o’clock in the morning. I was wearing my George Mason t-shirt, and the driver of the shuttle was like “Oh you went to Mason!” He asked about what I studied and where I worked, I told him IT and I worked here, and he asked if I was looking for anybody in IT. He said he had a friend with a contractor looking for IT work. And this is exactly, when people tell me to network, you have to talk to everybody. You never know what your next lead on a job is, it could be in the line waiting for a market it could be in the elevator, networking doesn’t need to happen at specific events, networking is anywhere at any time. Especially if it’s an area you’re really actively looking for, it may not be the person you’re talking to but it could be someone they know-Jordan’s parents! I think networking is key, and it’s good for your purposes. You have to be clear on the area you want to focus on; you need to narrow it down by talking to people doing different things. If you want to help the poor, you can start by talking to relevant organizations. It’s okay to start work with people who are doing different parts, and then work into what you want to do.
Brian: So I spent time networking, and sometimes it really bugged me…
Alex: George Soros famously said “Networking means not working.” But can you elaborate on that?
Brian: Sure. Well, I’m coming from a conference, and the words you learn to hate are, “Where are you from and what do you do?” The way I see things is every person is important, especially in this type of work. You know, [in microfinance] we’re talking to beggars and people at that level of society and getting them loans, and so our basic attitude is, they’re all important. And I don’t see that acted out in the networking we do. I think it’s about being audacious, even ferocious. You have to talk to people and ask questions and do your homework and know the issues. The sexy term right now is impact investing, everyone is into it. But if you can’t talk to your clients that speak French and Spanish, what use are you to that organization? If you can’t read financial statements, and tell a story about the state of the company, how are you going to invest money as a fiduciary of someone else’s money? I really like the theme of you know, what skill sets do you have and what industry and company are you in, whatever role you have, I think everyone is important to the whole. I think the secret is to look at yourself and figuring out what skills you really have, a lot of people think they have a lot of skills but don’t really know. Especially coming out of college, when you think you can do all these things but you don’t really know yet. All of the things that I learned, you just don’t know what you don’t know, and people should assume that they don’t and be a sponge to learn. Everybody makes mistakes on their resumes, and if you really want it you need to narrow it down and get it down right.
Alex: Networking is a series of connections and conversations that can open doors. Looking back I remember trying to make time for it, but there are some techniques that work better than others, right?
Nicole: Kind of on that note, there are some tools available now that make it so much easier to do these kinds of things. I think social media is overrated in a lot of ways, but Twitter in particular is a powerful tool for tracking jobs and organizations. When I think of all the time I spent just on Google looking for different organizations, digging through websites, figuring out what they were actually doing, that’s all in short sentences on Twitter now and it’s live, and I think for young people in particular, that is an amazing tool that you should be taking advantage of. Follow every organization you’re interested in, look at whom they’re following and who is following them. Everything is represented on there, and I actually use it all the time for work now. I can’t really figure out how you would use it for personal purposes, but for professional reasons to figure out what’s happening in your field, there really is nothing parallel to that.
Kimberly: I was actually really surprised last year when someone told me they made sure they spent five minutes a day on LinkedIn. You never know who switched jobs or someone you used to know just moved somewhere. People think of networking like, “I need something now so I’m going to go out there”, but it’s really continuous and something you should regularly do. You never know what the future will be like, so it’s important to stay connected, especially as industry changes and new players show up.
When job hunting, I suggest keeping a spreadsheet, or as you go from blog to blog and website-to-website you’ll get lost. A spreadsheet can keep track of interesting things you want to check back in on. You never know when you’ll be at an event and everything from online will all come together.
Alex: Interesting! Networking is very important. I think coming back to the Peace Corps and pros and cons of taking that pathway, as you did Kaveh. It played a similar role for you that being a Fulbright scholar in Bangladesh was for me. Rotary Fellows and Fulbright Scholars and probably some things I’m not even aware of can give that first field experience. These programs help make that first field experience financially tenable, though I have seen some people who don’t come from a lot of wealth cobble together their own pathways without institutional support of any kind, but it’s certainly a steeper climb.
Kaveh: So just before that, two quick things on the outside looking in. One: It’s important to have a pitch of yourself and your skills and how you brand yourself. At a conference or having a cup of coffee, you should be able to say who you are, your interests, and your accomplishments. In terms of getting in touch with people, I’ve found if you know the people and you email them, even a cold email, very few people will not take a fifteen minute meaning.
Alex: Let me just add that, from the other side, when you take the fifteen or thirty minute meeting, you quickly learn that there are some people that do that and don’t have the discipline fourteen minutes in to say “I realize I asked for fifteen minutes and I should wrap up.” And of course there are some times where you’ll say, “No no keep going, this is great.” But there are some that actually forget they asked for a fifteen minute meeting and immediately you make a judgment there about the person you are meeting with.
Kaveh: Yeah, I think you hope it turns into a forty-five minute meeting, but you should have the discipline to stop after fifteen. But I think networking is really a two-way street. You should always be thinking how can I help you, not just how can you help me? In the long run you will be rewarded for that, it’ll come back to you. I think it’s useful to know what types of work the organization is doing, what kind of problem they have, and maybe you don’t have what they need but you can connect them to someone who does, you can facilitate that. That’s probably the clearest example. On LinkedIn, I’ve found it really useful if you don’t have a direct contact, you can go through your connections to get connected to the ultimate target through your mutual connections.
Brian: When you meet someone like Alex Counts, in a conference, you need to be creative and make yourself useful to him. I met a guy who teaches at Berkley, who is a venture capitalist, and I said something like, “This guy knows what he’s doing; I want to learn as much as I can from him.” He told me he was teaching a class to fifteen universities, and asked if I knew any universities that would be interested in simulcasting his course. I said yeah, and in that odd moment I said “I’ll get you fifty!” So I had committed myself to that. Sure enough, next year we had fifty, last year we had seventy-five, and now we’ve become like great friends and he’s more of a mentor to me because I hustled and added value to something he’s doing. The other thing I just wanted to say about networking is just that you are not you job. You’re much more important than that, and sometimes we get caught up, embellishing or depressed based on what we think we have to offer, and I think it’s important to understand yourself and what you can contribute. The other thing I wanted to say on the networking is, if you have a job, you are not your job. That is not the definition of you, you are much more important than that. Sometimes we embellish, or get depressed because we don’t have enough to offer, and I think it’s enough just to be there and to help.
Kimberly: That’s a really good point. I think sometimes we’re so passionate we define ourselves by our jobs, instead of all the other things we are. When you network, it’s okay to work in a little more than just where we work. If you focus on just that one thing, it can get overwhelming.
Brian: One thing I learned is to make the thing that you are hearing from the person the most important thing in the world, to act like they are the one person in the world when you’re talking to them.
Alex: I don’t agree with that entirely. I think you need to be credible, and true to yourself. When someone is saying something worrying, or wrong, or offensive, they are not the most important person in the world. People have difficulty putting themselves in the chair of the person they’re trying to get to. You all spend your days doing things that are boring or exciting or wonderful or bad, and you’re busy but maybe not as busy as people would figure you were, and people appreciate being affirmed, and there are times where being affirmed by another human being is really satisfying. Putting yourself in their shoes and thinking like they do can make a really big impression. You need to think about what can make that person come away, in a conversation, feeling better. I think each interaction is its own creative moment, and sometimes you’re very intimidated, nerves can make it hard. I mean, how many times in your life do you meet someone totally new? It can be hard to start a conversation. A lot of it takes serious practice. Just relax, and try to have a value-added human interaction with people you’re networking with, and practice that. Anyway, why don’t we go back to Kaveh, and the Peace Corps?
Kaveh: Well, I think from my perspective there were a lot of personal things I got out of the Peace Corps, but to focus on the professional things I think you come out with a great network. You end up with people who are sort of dedicated to social good, and it’s also a great opportunity to work locally wherever you were sent. You’re going to meet a lot of people, learn the culture and the language; you’ll beat out other international competition. It’s also a great stepping stone for grad school. It gives you plenty of fodder for your essays, they give you a lot of help, there’s a lot of support and some grants, and it helps you check things off the list that maybe you don’t want to do. It can help you narrow where you are focused, and it’s valuable to be able to cross things off and know what you don’t want. The cons, maybe, well you really need to be a self-starter. You don’t have much support, you’re out there in the field, and there are too many people and not enough staff. If things aren’t going well you have to make them go well. On the personal side, I think learning a new language, learning a culture, developing empathy for these people, that is invaluable and it really stuck with me and solidified my career track. Without it I don’t think I would have the same commitment I do now, and it’s very powerful.
Alex: Great! So I kind of tabled some questions, and I want you guys to think, as we approach the end of this, think about who will be reading this, and what little philosophies or techniques will help people.
Nicole: I just have two things to say. So I think of the things you threw out there, I’ve got a few answers. I often get asked for advice on graduate school courses, and as much as I loved getting a degree for international relations at AU, I would say don’t get a degree in international relations unless you really know what you want to do. If you know where you want to go, and what you need, go ahead and get a graduate degree. There are multiple paths, and you are the best judge of what you are missing. We also talked about how to make yourself useful to people, well after working in the field a long time I sometimes don’t have time to keep up with all the latest literature, and a lot of the time I’d like to learn from you. If you’ve done your homework, if you have something relevant to share, I’m going to be impressed. On the same lines as talking about my degree, I am still paying off student loans. It limits you. I was offered an amazing unpaid internship right out of school that I had no way of doing. It can be tough, and sometimes the best thing you have is internships and temp jobs to get your foot in the door, and you have to look for whatever you can get that works financially. On hiring, I know when I look at an ideal candidate who I want to hire; it’s all in the resume. Sometimes there’s nothing about microfinance, but the best people read the job description and know exactly what I’m looking for and what we need, and sell me on that.
Alex: Are they typically people that have made that point, that want to go into the humanitarian sector or people who are looking for the next job?
Kate: It’s mostly people who are really focused on it, and a lot of them are mid-career and have really done their homework. Many people come out of another career and have taken classes or training to have more relevant skills, which really shows their commitment to getting their skills and what they want to do, and the connection they make to what they want to do.
Khuloud: A couple of resources I found very useful, a place to find all the jobs you are looking for is Devex, which was a great help for people who want to understand who the players are, even if you just look at the members there you will stay up to date. It’s kind of interesting how the focus in some areas has changed, Peace Corps doesn’t get your foot in the door as much as it did, where I used to work maybe 80% of people were former Peace Corps. Now I think that’s less so, because there are many things needed to do international development. I think other technologies and knowledge’s have become more readily applicable to development, and that is changing the entire sector. Technical skills are more relevant.
Kimberly: One thing I wanted to add, I’m surprised sometimes I talk to a lot of people that are job hunting who say “I’ve sent my resume out to ten places today, or one hundred places, and no one has responded.” How can you accurately represent yourself to one hundred places? When I was unemployed, over six months, I actually applied to seven jobs only, and then was in the top 3 for 3 of them. Because it really took a long time, to understand what work people are doing, learn the language, write a cover letter, it can be hard, but I think a lot of people just apply with a resume that doesn’t change. You need to adjust what’s on top, what bullets are used, and sometimes it’s just down to luck. But when people get frustrated they try for quantity in their applications instead of quality.
Jordan: I agree with that. If you’re going through all the effort to get a job in the social sector, and you finally found a job, why not find a job that really pulls you aboard and makes you excited to come aboard. You want to be able to tell them “Everything I’ve ever done has led me to your doorstep, and to this job.”
Alex: “I’m passionate and I’ll work hard.”
Kate: I will say that the people who I hire are the ones who come to me with really good, thoughtful questions. When I know they’re thinking about it as thoughtfully as I am, that’s a big thing.
Kimberly: I have a book with good questions for interviews, that I used a lot applying to jobs that was a big help. I mean, of course you know a lot if it’s an organization that you want to go to work for, why not show that off a bit? I had a roommate who used to read the 990’s of non-profits and actually ask specific questions purposely to show she knew non-profits, her questions and concerns, and she’s in a really awesome job right now.
Khuloud: And sometimes when you apply for jobs that may be entry level, it may not be that exciting, it may not be exactly where you want to be, having an entry point in an organization is always great if you’re interested in that organization. Always you can meet more people, get more connections inside the organization, and then work your way to the job you want to be doing even if you came in at an entry level.
Alex: Well this goes to an interesting question. In the not for profit sector there are typically a lot of organizations having fundraisers and willing to train people from scratch, so I wonder, if you were earlier in your career, what would you think would be the pros and cons of going down that route as a way of breaking in?
Kate: I think that track, once you start in it, is hard but not impossible to get out of, but I will say that fundraising is a diverse field. There’s a lot of different types of fundraising, and you have to really get into the ins and outs of the how the organization runs, and you can learn the organization really well doing fundraising. It’s really just about how, when you’re in that role, what you’re soaking up about the organization that you can utilize.
Alex: Excellent. I definitely have met a lot of people in fundraising with great connections. Now, as we’re wrapping up, any final thoughts?
Jordan: One thing on courses, of course I wish I would have taken basic webdesign, I don’t think there’s a single organization that doesn’t have to do something on the internet and wants to do something to improve their online presence, and if I had had that I would have been much more attractive to a lot of employers. Just a real practical skill.
Nicole: On that point, coding for example, you can go to Codeacademy (codeacademy.com) to learn coding, it’s one of those massive online open courses (MOOC), you can take at Coursera (Coursera.org), and both are great resources for learning new skills. There are all sorts of things you can learn online.
Brian: I got this question about resources a lot. I created this site blendedprofit.com, where we have different perspectives all coming together online in one place to grow the sector, and there are so many things on there that make it sort of a one-stop shop. In terms of the skills you need, I think web design, fundraising, and graphic design, maybe social media, those four things can make you very effective if you match them with research skills or writing ability, you’re locked to be an intern or volunteer at the very least. I think every organization can use people doing those things, and they’re a great way to get in.
Brian: I just want to caution, on the learning skills randomly. I think back in the day people would be like watchmakers, and have trades, and your skills need to fit into your trade, hopefully they’re within your range of present skills and complement them, so you can build up yourself and be crafted to contribute.
Nicole: On that note, always have something you’re excited about, that you want to help do. There is always someone out there who can use your help. Use your weekends, use your evenings, reach out to people and ask if there’s anything you can do for them so you can later apply and tell them “I’m doing this.” It’s about what you’re excited about, what you’re doing. So don’t spend all your time sitting around researching things but get out and do things and get experience.
Kate: That’s a great point because there are things you could do five, ten hours a week.
Alex: This reminds me that people I have stuck with the most are, first, excited about what they’re doing, and second, they don’t talk about it to the exclusion of figuring out what’s exciting to me. In some sense the topic is secondary. I find that many people mainly respond to the energy of a conversation. In some cases I’ve made notes from a meeting saying something like, this person may not be right for the job but I’m going to track this person, to see what they end up doing. You know when you’re around someone who isn’t excited, even when they have the exact skills you need.
I’d like to thank all of you who came for this, and also our audience. We’ve got a lot of great insights from this event. I really hope that we’ll be able to say within a fairly short period of time, where someone can tell us about a job or something they landed as a result of what they heard today.
[*] Alex and Jordan’s parents are close friends, and this comment was made light-heartedly and in jest.