It’s Not All Puppies and Rainbows – Lalu Beré, Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

I discovered the Farber Internship program during the fall of my first year of business school. I came to the Kellogg School of Management to make a career switch in earnest from early professional roles in financial services to one in the social impact sector. I began that journey prior to school, having left my role in banking to work for a non-profit, but after one year I was still searching for the right career opportunity that married market-based solutions and catalytic interventions to improve the lives of people striving for a better life. The REDF Farber Internship provided me with the opportunity I was searching for. For the summer, I worked at Goodwill of Central Texas (GCT) in Austin, supporting its staffing services division. I was thrilled to be placed with GCT, as I thought of Goodwill as the original for-profit, social good model. This was a perfect chance for me to explore what it was really like to work for a social enterprise.

Spoiler alter: it’s not all puppies and rainbows. There are tradeoffs.

This discovery wasn’t rocket science (tradeoffs were the theme of my first Business Strategy class, after all), but I was surprised how tough some of the decisions that the GCT team had to make every day. For example, the phenomenal recruiting team would interview dozens of candidates daily to fill temporary positions. Many of these candidates faced extreme adversity, coming from low-income households, not having much formal education, and in many cases struggling to find work while being hampered by histories of incarceration. The recruiters provided career supports and acted as a sounding board for their interviewees, in addition to placing them positions that would hasten their success. That interview might be the only moment in the day or week that the candidate felt they were being heard and valued. Recruiters’ time with candidates, however, was limited because the engine of the staffing business was to put as many candidates to work as possible per day. Often, the team could not spend as much time as they would have liked with each person and sometimes had to focus their efforts on placing candidates who were the most job ready, even though the stories of those still working hard to get there were deeply moving. It was a true testament to balancing product, profit and purpose.

This example, along with many others, highlighted to me how complex the tradeoffs can be when an organization is driving for business goals and serving a population with high employment barriers. Unlike in a traditional business whose bottom lines are more singularly focused, social enterprises must constantly balance profit and purpose. The decisions they make have a direct impact on people’s lives, and their ability to support themselves and their families.

The care and heart that each member of the GCT team brings to their work was an inspiration to me and reinforced how important it is to have a passion for the work you do. Each year, the team places thousands of hard-working people into transitional jobs that allow them to develop a work history, improve their skills and their self-confidence, which leads to more stable long-term employment in the future. Seeing the model at work proved to me that, like any other business, social enterprises require refinements over time, and the outcome of those refinements—tens of thousands of lives transformed, stronger families and communities—makes it an investment definitely worth making.