It took writing the following into the card for a departing colleague to remind me of the kind of work that sets my heart ablaze:
“I don’t know what to say other than thank you. You challenged me without even knowing it. You made me think bigger. Made me aspire to be something greater. Showed me what it really meant to commit to your values and lead with purpose driven work…”
All of those words are undeniably true, and he deserves praise well beyond that small paragraph for being such a positive force in my life. But I didn’t realize when I wrote this card, that the reason I felt so inspired by the way he led his life and work, was because he reminded me of a group of exceptional people who made me who I am: my friends in Rochester, NY.
See, when I first moved to Rochester in late 2008, I had just left journalism and was trying to pivot to marketing. With little to no depth in the field, I decided to get experience by volunteering.
One of my first encounters on that journey was an introductory coffee chat with a now wonderful friend Katelin, about how I could help the (then) Ad Council of Rochester. Soon after, I did a roundtable with a group of marketing professionals to help a regional Girl Scouts office, and the rest is history. Dozens of events, fundraisers, golf tournaments, roundtables and volunteer campaign work later and I had built a meaningful and deep connection with my new home. But more than that, I had found a group of fantastic like-minded people who cared about the same things that I did.
Throwing myself into volunteer work that I loved started surfacing paid work that was in line with my passions. Suddenly, I was getting tapped to create marketing collateral for local mission-driven organizations and writing articles for the local paper about my friends who were out in the community changing lives for the better.
This work made me happy, but I didn’t have enough of it to leave my day job, and my day job at the time was killing me. So, I left a great community of people in a city I loved to try my hand at something fresh in Chicago.
And Chicago has been an exceptional place to start anew. I got to be a student, then a mentor, then an instructor at an awesome startup bootcamp. I got to experience being the very first hire at a young, seed-stage startup, building everything from scratch alongside the company’s two founders. After that, I had the chance to try my hand at fintech – growing a fraud detection company from nothing, to a business that caught the attention of federal agencies, national news publications and global card brands. I had the opportunity to travel and present at conferences all over the country in that role – from NYC to San Francisco and everywhere in between. And my success in that job landed me all sorts of other connections and opportunities – including my most recent gig.
By all accounts, I have had an incredible four years. I’ve done exactly what I came to do, and have met a ton of cool people while doing it. But I think about that crew of generous, kind people back home a lot. And it wasn’t until I met this friend, that I knew what was missing in my work – positive social impact that leaves the world better than you found it.
It’s not that any of my jobs here in Chicago have had damaging intent. In fact, all of them had good missions with a desire to improve things. But the mission gets muddled when you’ve raised millions and are under extreme pressure from investors to quickly acquire customers, get revenue and grow your team.
So, where does this net out for me and my career? I’ll be honest and say I’m not 100% sure yet. I’m after a social impact job, but they’re tough to nail down.
But no matter what, I know I’m going to dedicate at least a small chunk of my time to pushing things forward that I care deeply about and I think can change the world for the better. The first one on my list is working with that aforementioned friend and a team of other wonderful folks on trying to launch a democratically owned design cooperative – which you can read more about here.
I’m not building this co-op for myself, nor do I expect to hold a formal job there once it’s a thing. We have a steep hill to climb to make our vision a reality, but I think what we’re chasing after can change the face of the industry for the better. And I think my friends in Rochester would be proud.