Ever since humans have been able to look around and think about the greater good, many of us have been interested not just in seeing our toil produce goods or make us money, but in ascribing meaning to our work and purposing it to have a positive impact.
What is perhaps different today is a greater collective belief that doing well for society—and its opposite, having a negative impact—is genuinely possible via almost any industry. Companies are now being held to account by their employees, and new hires are asking more searching questions. The pandemic, meanwhile, has given some of us the chance to reassess what we’re doing with our lives, and has perhaps pushed some of us to choose a new, more purposeful direction.
Our Dec. 9 workshop, part of our Quartz at Work (from anywhere) series, featured a panel of professionals who have steered their careers into social impact, in various industries and in a variety of ways. Click the large image above for the complete replay, and read on for a recap of what we learned.
You don’t have to solve all the world’s problems at once
Deciding what planetary or social problems to try and solve can be overwhelming, acknowledged Daianna Karaian, co-founder of Today Do This, which specializes in helping companies, and their employees, make big changes in doable, incremental steps.
Karaian suggested a five-minute exercise that anyone can do to take the first step toward creating positive change in the world. Make three lists, Karaian suggested. On the first, list all the skills and responsibilities involved in your day job. On the second, list the social and environmental issues you care about most. On the third, list any ways in which the skills you have can be brought to bear on one of the issues on your second list.
Then, crucially, pick just one thing from the third list and decide on the smallest possible action you could take to start the process of achieving it. If what you need to do is contact someone, just open your email client, Karaian said. If you need to write something, “just bash out the first clunky sentence.” Each tiny step will get you closer to your goal.
“One of the biggest barriers for moving from intention to action is that there are so many things we could do and we… become paralyzed by choice” and end up doing nothing, Karaian said. “Most of the time, just doing that tiniest possible action gets the ball rolling, and before you know it you’ve carved out time to make some progress.”
You don’t need to work alone, especially when changing an organization from within
Rick Benfield, director of sustainability at the consulting firm Re_Set, noted that social “intrapreneurs,” who work within their organization to make changes, should be on the lookout for likeminded people and unite to maximize their impact. “You don’t have to leave and set up your own organization, set up a charity, set up a social enterprise,” said Benfield, who has done all of those things in his career. “There’s huge impact that can be had by harnessing the resources within existing organizations.”
Creating or tapping into networks can be very powerful here, Benfield suggested. Working with others, one of the main skills of the intrapreneur will be to identify where social impact can “map back” onto business objectives, he said, so that the company can more easily get behind changes.
If you do decide to make a radical change, be brave
Jihan Abass left a job as a trader at a London financial firm to move back to her native Kenya and start a business which she saw as fulfilling an unmet need, namely helping more Kenyans provide themselves with the safety net of insurance. The resultant company, Lami Technologies, of which Abass is founder and CEO, was featured in Quartz’s African Innovators list for 2021.
Abass acknowledged that she was in an easier position than many to take such a big step: She was young, and didn’t have family or other dependents relying on her support. Abass suggested that would-be entrepreneurs not get too hung up on big decisions, though. Starting a company will likely involve multiple wrong turns, idea pivots, and moments of uncertainty, she said. But optimistically she suggested that the outcome of wrong decisions is often learning that can prove useful on the overall journey.
How to cut through the buzzwords
“Purpose” is a noisy place now that many companies, big and small, have realized they need to try and talk the talk of sustainability and planetary care. So how can we cut through the buzzwords either at our own employer or when evaluating one to join? Karaian suggested focusing on three words that all begin with P: interrogate an organization’s products (what is it putting out into the world), its processes (how does it do what it does), and its people (how does it hire, and who does it support internally?)
Benchmarks can help in our evaluations. Maria Correa, head of marketing and communications at B Lab Europe, which oversees B Corporation certifications for companies, of course suggested that the B Corp structure is a good one to look for when assessing an employer because it necessitates that they go through a rigorous assessment about everything from supply chains to people management. B Lab Europe also recently collaborated with other organizations on a tool for big and small businesses to use to assess their sustainability.
Attorney Erica Crump described falling on her feet when it came to deciding her own career path as a charity-specific lawyer. As a former literature student living in Japan, she read an article by a lawyer at Bates Wells, which now has the largest team of charity and social enterprise solicitors in the UK. She ended up training in law and working at the firm, which is a B Corp.
Help is out there, Crump suggested, for those starting the journey of trying to set up organizations to have purpose at their core. Crump described a spectrum of possible business structures ranging from purely for-profit at one end to charity at the other end, noting the impact that an organization’s structure can have on its development. For example, large donors might find it easier, for tax reasons, to give money to charities versus social enterprises.