Alisha is one of the smartest cookies I know, and I’m lucky to call her my friend as well as a trusted advisor to Boredom to Boardroom. We sat down for a virtual cup of coffee and she dished the dirt on all things non-profit.
Can you tell us about your career path? What have been the highlights or the coolest things you’ve been able to do through work?
I always think that when you look back at your career, you can craft a great and linear story, but at the time things never felt like that. My career really came about as a result of luck and chance decisions – sometimes even being in the right place at the right time.
My first job was corporate strategy consulting, a job that I took in fact because I wanted a visa to stay in London, where I had finished up my graduate degree. But I ended up working for them in New York, doing marketing strategy for big pharmaceutical clients, and I realized pretty much in the first week that it wasn’t where I wanted to be. I had studied gender and development and envisioned this career with social change right on the forefront, and I felt really far from that. So I decided that I was going to quit, but I couldn’t without another job in hand. Lucky break number 1: I ran into a college friend at a bar who told me I should come interview at her firm doing corporate philanthropy consulting. So I did and I got the job that pretty much put me on the path of a career working in CSR. After moving to London, for personal reasons, I had another lucky break when a friend told me about a bank I had never heard of who was running a community program supporting adolescent girls – it turns out they were hiring at the moment, and I ended up at Standard Chartered then. Now I’ve moved on to head up TrustLaw Connect at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
My job is amazing and I’ve gotten to do so many cool things through work – have dinner with Prince Charles and lunch with Mary Robinson, play netball with a bunch of young girls in India, or walk through Tiananmen Square on the anniversary of the protests. I’ve traveled to incredible places and met amazing people, usually running nonprofits or starting social enterprises in challenging circumstances – meeting those people in aggregate is probably the best thing I’ve gotten to do!
It seems like every other person graduating right now wants to work in CSR, or ‘Sustainability’ as people now like to call it. What’s the best and worst thing about working in the field?
It’s definitely a popular field to get into and for good reason – it does combine the perks of working in the private sector with the feel good factor of working for a nonprofit. The best and worst things are sitting right at that nexus between the two. It’s amazing because you get to harness unparalleled resources that big businesses have – not just money but the power of their products or services, or their industry – to do something really good. I love being able to channel those resources to the best organizations around the world who are making the biggest impact.
The worst bit is that it’s not as glamorous as it seems on the outside. You’re always a “cost center” not a “profit center” in your business, so your priorities are rarely at the top. You are probably on a short-staffed team that works really hard and sometimes thanklessly. And you’re subject to the whims of your corporate leaders. I’ve had big senior guys put the kibosh on an amazing project when it was pretty far down the line for ridiculous reasons. Corporate politics are not fun.
What do you say to people worried about $ prospects – can you have it all, making a decent salary while saving the world? ;)
My dad always told me that if you do what you love, and you’re really good at it, money will follow – and he also says to make your money seem big by making your needs small. I’m not great at the second point, but I follow the first one like gospel. My very first job paid really well, and when I decided to quit after 4 months, I took a salary cut and had to pay back my signing bonus. But I went from a job I hated to one I really loved, and there was no price tag in the world that I could put on my happiness. Now that I have children, it’s even more important to do something I care about – if I’m spending time away from them, it better be for something good. I’ll never make as much as an investment banker, but by following my heart and working hard (and smart!), I manage to do alright for myself.
What skills do you think are most needed now (for entry-level hires) when it comes to working in non-profits? Can any of these be developed before getting a ‘real job’?
ABSOLUTELY! Whether you work at a nonprofit or a big company, you need lots of skills that you can start to develop while you’re still in school. Meeting deadlines and being responsive are huge.
I also think volunteering is a great way to learn about how nonprofits really work and to see what kinds of jobs you might like – or might not like. There’s lots of enthusiasm to work in the sector, but not always a lot of savvy. If you get to know the field you’re interested in and can talk intelligently about that, it will make a difference in an interview.
What advice would you give your 22-year old self now, looking back?
Negotiate more!! I still need that advice now, but at least I know I should, even if it’s uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to value yourself properly, even if you’re in a nonprofit type job. They can always say no, but if you don’t ask it’s no one’s fault but your own if you’re not happy with your salary.
Are you an Alisha-wannabe? What do you think about job prospects in the field of CSR?