A few weeks ago, I interviewed a young woman named Lilly* who was seeking to intern at my social change consulting company. Five minutes into the conversation I could tell she was a great match. Her wit and wisdom married well into her youthful brilliance and self-starter attitude. I was elated!
The conversation took an odd turn when I stopped asking her about her skill set and starting asking her as to the reason she desired to intern at my small, boutique firm. She stumbled as she threw out a few bland answers:
“I really want to make a difference.”
“I care about women & girl’s issues.”
“I want to have a job I leave everyday feeling like I made an impact.”
I’m not going to lie. I’ve heard these comments time and time again from various Millennial colleagues. And it’s begun to get old.
Of her three statements, I dove into her ‘I care about women & girl’s issues’ response. “Can you share a bit more with me as to what exactly in that space you have concerns about? What keeps you up late at night, reading, researching? Where does your grief lie when you think about how women & girl’s are treated across the globe?”
She’s very quiet after I ask this.
“Well, I suppose the sexual assault that is happening on our college campuses really upsets me. I’m a year away from graduation and it’s been an issue amongst my friends since I arrived. I could help with the organizations you consult with that address these issues.”
I relaxed back into my seat a little bit. It was as if a resume and cover letter had once sat across from me where now, there was a human being. She started to smile and let out a small sigh of relief, as I sat there, witnessing her and not saying anything. Slowly, I watched her smile fade as her bottom lip began to quiver.
“Actually, I care about that issue because I was a victim. At a party, freshman year. I had a friend speak out for me but nothing ever came out it. I’ve kinda hated myself ever since for not reporting it. I'd like to help other girls who might feel like I did that day."
I was not expecting this and as I sat across from this young woman, I realized something I had been ignoring all along as I sought to support her social change career aspirations. She was supposed to be here. She belonged in this grief-filled, system-changing, fierce and fearless work. If I had not been able to slow down and take the time to ask more about her desire to “make a difference”, I may have missed out on the opportunity to nurture someone who could go on to become one of the greatest women’s rights activists of the next decade. I would have been a foolish mentor.
I paused in that moment and reached out for her hand. “I don’t think I’m a match for you right now, Lilly. But, I know exactly the organization that could benefit form your skills & talents as well as your lived experience and heart.”
I can tell she’s holding back tears now. Her face is all scrunched up and she mutters a quiet, “Thanks.”
As we get up to walk outside, Lilly turns back to face me.
“I want you to know that I’ve been on twelve interviews for internships and part-time jobs in the past few weeks. All for nonprofit or social justice organizations and you’re the first one who asked me what my personal mission might be alongside my career aspirations. I just wanted you to know that and also, that I now know what I’m meant to do.”
She extends her right hand to shake mine and with a special, powerful wisdom beyond her years, places her left hand on top of our handshake.
“Thank you, Alyssa. I’m thrilled to follow up with the organization you recommend and give them my time and energies.”
She walks down my front steps to her car, opening the door and sliding into the driver seat. I walk back inside the house and watch her rest her forehead on the steering wheel for a few minutes, before driving away. As she lifts her head again, the windows roll down on her car. I hear Beyonce blasting from the radio and she starts to pull away, a half smile illuminated on her face.
She’s not going to work at my company and if the goal that day, had been solely that, for both she and I, it would have been a great missed opportunity. Carving out a career in social change, beginning to map your way to that profession that ‘makes a difference’; it requires that we confront the fact that our own lived experience is the most authentic motivator.
There is so much more to one's desire to do good, create impact, and make a difference. Often, it is rooted in trauma, pain and frustration that we aren’t always asked to unearth and put on a resume in front of those who we seek to collaborate with in social change.
If you’re like Lilly, I invite you to ask these three questions of yourself, before heading out into the world of 2.1 million US nonprofits. Put yourself on track to seeking a professional opportunity that feels impactful, personal and game changing.
I:) What is a challenge you face that changed your life? Who supported you through that challenge? How can you design a career that guarantees that support system is always in place for others?
II:) If you imagine your life in 50 years, what is the vision? What big thing were you a part of and how is that vision connected to the challenges you underwent as a young adult?
III:) If you work at a nonprofit, what is working for you and what isn't? What aspects of the work make you feel disconnected? How, in your life, do you find connection? How can you do this within your work? And if you can't, you might need to find a cause to work for that keeps you rooted in who you are.
*Names have been changed for privacy.