A Letter to Wesleyan Social Entrepreneurs and ENGAGE Readers:
I recently attended an event on campus where I was able to share my career experiences with a group of graduating and rising seniors. As I listened to the other panelists and reflected on my own past, I realized, among many things, that a career—meaning the job or position in a field that one will do for the rest of his or her life—takes time to find and develop. My story, while not unique and interestingly having common threads with all the panelists from the career event, demonstrates that gaining skills and seeking experiences while continuing to learn will ultimately lead to a successful career covering all domains, including physical, emotional and financial. This is extremely important for all the social entrepreneurs and civic leaders that want to change the world right now. Some graduates may have everything one needs to immediately start a successfully career, but many more still need further expertise, which can only be gained through real-life practice. My advice is simple: have and hold those dreams and passions, but do not forget that following the beaten path for a while will likely increase the opportunities for one to make a difference over the course of a lifetime. This is NOT financial security now, philanthropy later. This is learn, experience now until ready to apply, change later.
While my career is still young and will likely have many more twists and turns, I have found an industry that I want to be in for the long haul. I work in the impact investing field, a rapidly growing financial sector that deploys investment capital for positive social returns alongside financial gains. I started the Local Farms Fund, a farmland impact investment fund focused on supporting early stage sustainable farmers. I consider myself a social entrepreneur, not because I am creating a new product that is going to save the world, but because I am breaking traditional investment barriers and altering an industry that has created both amazing wealth and amazing problems. Local Farms Fund provides land security and a path to ownership for farmers through long-term lease-to-own arrangements. For those not familiar with the issues facing farmers, the number one challenge for young farmers is access to land. Local Farms Fund is using patient investment capital to address this huge challenge. Investors receive modest returns; farmers receive land tenure.
When I left Wesleyan in May 2005, I did not jump into impact investing nor did the concept really exist at that time. In fact, many current and recent graduates will likely have careers in fields that do not exist right now. My first few jobs were very traditional finance positions. I spent seven years (with one 11 month break to travel—I did go to Wesleyan after all!) in the investment banking and private equity world before I found the perfect career for me, managing impact investments. The seven years I spent on the “traditional path” taught me many valuable skills. Accounting, business valuation, negotiating, interpreting legal documents and business management just to name a few. These skills blend perfectly with the values Wesleyan instills into the student body for a career in impact investing. Without the confluence of both my work background and my Wesleyan education, I would not have been able to launch and manage Local Farms Fund.
I encourage all the students and recent graduates, especially those with strong entrepreneurial spirits, to think boldly and dream big. Pursue goals that seem unattainable and be willing to fail. Failure happens to everybody, but remember that you may not have all the skills and experiences you need to achieve your aspirations right now. Wesleyan teaches its students how to think and learn. Go out and be a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as possible. Everything you absorb will help you down the road when you are ready to step out and chart your own path.