“Social Entrepreneurship” was born long before millennials roamed the Earth. However, within the last ten years, it has quickly become “the gold standard” in regards to how business should be done. With the rise of the internet and social media came an abundance of instant, real-time information about our world that historically did not always make it to the forefront of news headlines. Young travelers were posting on their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter about intense world issues like the clean water crisis, sex trafficking or the world of child soldiers. All of the transparent documentation that started to surface ignited a movement for entrepreneurs where they could take a business model, fuel it by tying it to a social good cause and scale it to creative product and web design. It opened the eyes and hearts of the movers and shakers.
During the height of this sexy, startup, screw-the-nine-to-five-workday-movement, I was at my dream school, Creighton University, completely unfulfilled with my current line of study. It was 2011, and I decided to take a risk, withdraw from all of my pre-dentistry courses and finally see what all the buzz around social entrepreneurship was all about. My Instagram feed was full of people like Blake Mycoskie, Sophia Bush and The Buried Life dudes, who were all posting photos from far off places like Argentina and Kenya of them traveling and doing good in the world. I thought, “Hell ya, I want to do something like that.”
So, just like any good millennial, I started to differentiate myself with one goal in mind; I wanted to make a positive impact on our world without succumbing to the complacent corporate world. I knew that as a young twenty-something going to college in Omaha, Nebraska, I needed to get out there and make my name known. Without much experience under my belt, I knew I had to use my personality to get a foot in the door. So, to start, instead of finding any excuse to party on my fall break in 2012, my best friend and I road tripped to Los Angeles to visit social enterprises and non-profit’s we admired. Call it drastic. We called it hustle.
First up was TOMS, the famous one for one shoe company. After stalking LinkedIn and the TOMS website, being refused a tour due to their secret new office and convincing the security guard that we had an important meeting, we walked into the beautiful TOMS HQ in Playa Vista, California with no real plan. The receptionist laughed when we told her that we just wanted to talk to someone about internships, but was friendly enough to give us her business card and show us around a little bit. I made a connection, took her advice and got the relevant experience she recommended. Fast forward two and a half years, and I was part of the summer 2014 intern class at TOMS. Talk about full circle.
For Krochet Kids International, I randomly attended a networking event at their HQ on that same LA trip. I cannot tell you how many people commented on how cool it was that I came all the way from Nebraska to attend the event. Luckily, their intern manager was also impressed, so I diligently kept in touch with him until I graduated. I landed the internship and then spent six months in Peru working hand in hand with the amazing impoverished women who knit and crochet all of their fashion products. After that, I took a position in Uganda with charity: water, an organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to the world. A year prior, I made it a point to meet the founder, Scott Harrison, at an entrepreneurship event I helped execute. I gladly volunteered to drive Scott to the airport from the event and had 30 solid minutes of getting to connect with a guy I admired so much. When he got out of the car he said, “Come work for us some day”. Needless to say I almost fainted. But then, a year later, I worked there.
For other opportunities, I walked straight up to a panelist at an event at New York University and said “I want to work with you” and they quickly snapped back, “Why are you worth my time?” That gutsy approach and my 30 second pitch landed me a five month business partnership planning social entrepreneurship meet-ups and bootcamps in NYC. Side note, if you go to the trouble to do this, make sure you have business cards. I ended up writing my information on the back of my MTA Metro Card. I guess at least I stood out.
Not every opportunity is found by “polite” persistence, but in the beginning of your quest you cannot be scared to raise your hand, speak up and shake hands with the experts. Also, you cannot be scared of the pushback you are going to receive from the traditionalists. I distinctly remember when the director of the career center at my university said to me, “So, Lucas, what exactly is the type of work you are trying to pursue? You know we can easily get you on at a Fortune 500 company. Don’t you think this social entrepreneurship goal is a little unrealistic?”
Well, Mr. Career Center, in the past five years I have worked for four different social enterprises and organizations, travelled to over thirty countries and have gained real life experiences that solve real world problems all across the globe. Granted, I did not take a salary for the first year of my post-graduate life, I slept on my sister’s couch in NYC when I couldn’t afford an apartment, and I took an internship two years after college, when most people are full-time. However, all of that struggle was completely outweighed by the unique opportunities I kept receiving. All of these opportunities came from me sticking my neck out in the right circles and networks, and from sticking to my guns.
Finally, after two years of bouncing around, I landed to my absolute dream job at buildOn, complete with full salary, benefits and a retirement plan. Needless to say, my parents were over the moon excited about those last details. buildOn is breaking the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations through service and education. I remember sitting in my driveway in Los Angeles scrolling through idealist.org on my phone, frustrated that I was not finding any great opportunities for after my TOMS internship, and I decided to look at one more page of countless job opportunities. Then “Trek Coordinator” caught my eye. I will never forget how quickly I skimmed through the job description and how pumped I was when I read things like travel to seven developing countries, lead teams to build schools and work with high school students. Bingo, I fit the experience description! I quickly applied, but realized I had never heard of buildOn or knew anyone there. However, that did not stop me from scouring LinkedIn and introducing myself to anyone I could find. This time, the introductions had a little meat to them since I had relevant experience. Finally, I scored an interview, flew to San Francisco, had three more interviews, was told “no” once, and then was finally offered the position based out of none other than Stamford, Connecticut. I had never even heard of Stamford, but I went any way.
Now, I sit here 28 months later. I have taken 22 teams of inspiring high school students, university teams and high-profile donors to Nicaragua, Haiti, Nepal, Malawi and Senegal to build primary schools. I transferred to our New York City office and have settled in nicely working across many departments at buildOn. Looking back, I reflect on not just learning from the sustainable methodology buildOn employs, but on all of the incredible people I have built relationships with from the buildOn movement. From community members learning how to read or write for the first time, to high school students flying on an airplane for the first time, to corporation executives stepping out of their comfort zone by living in a house without running water, they have all positively influenced me in one way or another.
Whatever the future holds for me has already been paved nicely. It has been paved by the non-traditional experiences and unique trajectory I have taken, by the people who have taken a chance on me, and by a lot of hard work, grit and determination. If I can leave any piece of advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs reading this, it would be to never count yourself out, because if you are willing to really put yourself out there, the right people and movements will notice you.