Four years ago, at the age of 28, I had a mid-life crisis. Perhaps some would say I was too young to experience such a thing, but I knew differently.
I needed a change.
I had been working for the past two and a half years for a large corporation in the New York City area, expanding the company’s marketing operations. During that time, I had become increasingly disillusioned with traditional corporate models. Terms like ‘sustainability,’ ‘health,’ and ‘save the environment’ were popular buzzwords in the business community, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was often more lip service than impact.
Current profitability standards demand that companies prioritize maximizing shareholder profits over their potential social impact on people and communities. Companies that are most eager to embrace opportunities for visible sustainability and social impact investments are often those whose products have some negative side effect they need to mitigate. While such corporations often express interest in developing new products that could change the sustainability landscape, the default solution in the meantime often requires selling more of their existing product to drive growth.
Despite the fact that I had a comfortable job, a career trajectory, and even qualified for a pension—a rarity in this day and age—I couldn’t shake the feeling that by going to work every morning I was part of the problem and not the solution. I longed to work for an organization that successfully combined profitability and optimal well-being for the populations it served.
“I longed to work for an organization that successfully combined profitability and optimal well-being for the populations it served.”
To facilitate this change, I started reading as much as I could about socially-oriented businesses around the world. I had always been captivated by stories of entrepreneurs who were brave enough to tackle a difficult social problem with an innovative and sustainable business solution. A quote from Adam Lowry, a founder at Method, a company that produces environmentally-friendly cleaning products, became the major catalyst for my journey over the next four years.
“Along with Eric Ryan, I founded Method on the idea that business, as the largest and most powerful institution on the planet, had the greatest opportunity to create solutions to our environmental and health crises. Since the dawn of the industrial age, business has traded off people’s health and the state of the planet for growth and profit, but it doesn’t need to be so. In fact, after having spent a number of years working on environmental issues at the Carnegie Institution, I was convinced that business is the most powerful agent for positive change on the planet.”
I had finally found a business mantra that resonated with my own beliefs. Yet, despite the fact that social enterprise appeared to be my path forward, I still didn’t know where to begin.
In reality, I had always been entrepreneurial, using creativity and business to develop solutions to problems. I had already worked to start three companies, two of which were successful on a small scale. My first was a professional photography business, which I started as a freelance photojournalist in high school and run to this day. The second was a sweatshop-free collegiate apparel company, which is still in operation, though I ended my involvement after one year.
While these two examples represented small successes for me, I struggled to bring these businesses to the next level. I have always been the idea guy, my mind constantly swirling with ideas for ways to improve the world. I carry around a notebook, or my iPhone, jotting down notes and innovative approaches to challenges I encounter in everyday life. What I recognized during this mid-life crisis, however, was that without execution, those well-intentioned ideas remain scribbles on a piece of paper, helping no one. If I really wanted to impact the world on a larger scale, I needed a more solid foundation in entrepreneurial business to ensure the highest probability of success.
It was at this point that I decided to leave my job and pursue an MBA, only to quickly stumble on a new challenge: where to focus my studies. While I had previously been concerned with sustainable and environmentally-friendly products and services, I was increasingly interested in social inequalities and the asymmetrical access to services and opportunities that undermine economic growth in so many places around the world. Working for many years as a photojournalist and portrait photographer, I have had a unique opportunity to understand people and the different lives they lead. Two students, both equal in capability and intelligence, can lead wildly different lives simply because one doesn’t have clean water to drink in the morning, or a safe place to sleep at night.
Prior to starting my MBA, I took five weeks to travel and volunteer in South America to gain a better understanding of the circumstances many people face in different parts of the world. My most profound experience involved a man I met in Peru, named Paul Opp, who had started a non-profit organization called the People of Peru Project in the city of Iquitos. He helped young mothers and children surviving on the streets to live and study for school at a safe haven he called Poppy’s House. While photographing the organization, I was caught in a game of cat and mouse with one of the little boys at Poppy’s House. He would run towards my camera and then turn his head every time I tried to take his picture. His playfulness reminded me of myself as a child. I suddenly realized how easily we could have switched places. He wasn’t in his current situation through any fault of his own, just as I had no part in choosing my life of privilege and opportunity—we were both born into our circumstances.
This experience quickly helped me focus my MBA studies on entrepreneurship as I explored the ways in which business can provide more people with access to the resources and opportunities that I had always taken for granted. For many, the first step is to improve their immediate situation, providing basic necessities—access to clean water, sanitation, and healthy food. Maslow’s hierarchy of need is right—such simple amenities are a critical foundation for a fruitful life. After all, a child has no time to use a donated computer if she has to walk all day just to fetch clean water to drink.
Now, four years later, the crisis is over and I am again satisfied with the direction my career is headed. As an MBAs Without Borders Advisor, I am currently serving in Nairobi, Kenya, working with Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP). My role is to help define business models in four different markets that can provide communities with access to improved sanitation. Not only do I appreciate the opportunity to travel between Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, and Bangladesh, as a part of this role, but I’m happy to be part of a new approach to improving lives, one which empowers consumers by providing market-based choices to help solve their challenges. Through this role, my passion for social entrepreneurship has converged with my ability to fully execute on business ideas. This experience will undoubtedly be one that transforms and defines my personal and professional life for years to come.
Jeff Walcott is a recent MBA graduate from the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, where he focused on entrepreneurship and marketing. He is currently completing a six-month assignment in Nairobi, Kenya, as an MBAs Without Borders Advisor for Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP).