REDF is committed to building leaders in the social enterprise field. Portfolio Director Karen Chern shares her journey from Farber Intern to leading REDF’s portfolio team.
I first arrived at REDF almost seven years ago as a Farber intern, a program that places MBA students within a REDF social enterprise partner to complete a 10-week technical assistance project.
I began my career as a consultant to biotech and pharmaceutical companies. At the same time I began this career path, I also became more involved in my local community and started grappling with how I could contribute to solutions to issues like homelessness and poverty. After reading about Warren Buffet’s decision to pledge his fortune to the Gates Foundation, I was intrigued and began learning more about the world of philanthropy, nonprofits, and the intersection of business and social good. Several years later, I enrolled in business school hoping to transition to social sector work.
I first learned about REDF and the field of social enterprise right before starting business school through my involvement with Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund, a donor-advised philanthropy group. Then, on my second day of classes, I met a classmate who had been a Farber intern the previous summer. The stars aligned, and it was clear that this was exactly what I was looking for to make my career transition.
As a Farber intern, I worked at the Weingart Center, a transitional housing shelter in Los Angeles. They had launched their employment social enterprise 360 Degree Solutions just a few months before, with the help of REDF, and were interested in strategies for strengthening their new pest control business.
Working at a social enterprise showed me first-hand the challenges and roadblocks our partners face each day. I learned how expensive it is to start a social enterprise from scratch – and how difficult it is to scale. For example, 360 Degree Solutions learned that it is difficult to acquire a pest license in the state of California if you have a history of incarceration, which limited who they could employ. By the end of my summer at the Weingart Center, I had helped them produce a plan to strengthen their pest control business and a roadmap to add new business lines once the core business was strong.
One year later, after completing my MBA, I jumped at the opportunity to return to REDF for a year-long Farber fellowship. This time, instead of being placed directly with a social enterprise, I was placed at REDF’s headquarters and had the chance to work with the portfolio staff to provide technical assistance to multiple grantees. Halfway through my fellowship, I was converted to a full-time Senior Portfolio Associate. In my five years at REDF since then, my work has continually evolved and I have had the opportunity to hold several roles – I’ve worked as a Portfolio Manager, managing REDF’s relationships with our portfolio grantees, and as Associate Portfolio Director, managing our team of Portfolio Associates.
I currently serve as REDF’s Portfolio Director, overseeing our grantmaking initiatives and portfolio of grantees. Drawing on my experience as a Portfolio Manager, I decide how to allocate resources to our social enterprise partners and determine what resources our portfolio team needs to accomplish our advisory services goals. My work requires me to be innovative and wear many hats – from partnering with our grantees to ensure they can execute on the business advice we provide to determining how REDF as a funder can move the field of social enterprise forward.
What has remained constant throughout my time at REDF is the remarkable and inspiring work of our social enterprise partners. Not only do they provide a quality service or product, which is difficult enough on its own, but they do so while deliberately employing people who often have limited or no work experience and are committed to their success. As consumers think about how to spend their dollars, I hope they will recognize how their spending can impact the communities they live in and consider buying from social enterprises.
I feel very fortunate to be in this role and to work at REDF – and I do not take that lightly. It is a unique opportunity to do this type of work and to apply my background in business to social issues. I have found a workplace that allows me to continue learning and keeps me engaged with challenging problems that are both interesting and impactful. And I have the opportunity to work with bright and engaged colleagues who are smart and passionate about their work – I learn from them every day.
Perspectives on Impact – Meet Our Staff Blog Series highlights our team’s unique backgrounds, expertise, and contributions to REDF’s mission.