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Witnessing the Power of Proximate Leadership – Liz Kanovsky, Haas School of Business

This August, before starting my second year at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, I re-visited the gigantic Google doc where I had taken notes on my internship search. In the middle of pages of bullets on REDF and the Farber program – I had done my research! – was a list of the different social enterprises in REDF’s portfolio that I was most interested in working with. The list largely reflected my desire to work with returning citizens or leaders with lived experience, interests that I had developed through courses and extracurriculars at Haas. It was a full-circle moment to see Clean Decisions, where I ultimately had the privilege of spending my summer, at the top of that list.

Liz with some of the Clean Decisions employees during their weekly dinner.

Clean Decisions is a DC-based social enterprise that was founded by, is led by, and employs returning citizens. Clean Decisions has grown significantly over the past few years and, thanks in part to the work of a previous Farber, had reached $1 million in annual revenue for the first time in 2021. Much of this growth had come opportunistically by saying yes to whatever jobs came Clean Decisions’ way. Heading into my summer with them, Clean Decisions wanted to take a step back and think more strategically about how to grow moving forward.

My project addressing this question had two parts. First, I conducted a cost-benefit analysis of Clean Decisions’ different service lines, comparing their financial sustainability, mission-related benefits, operational requirements, and market potential. This entailed analyzing financial data and reviewing third-party market research, tasks which I was familiar with from my previous work as an economic consultant. But I also had the opportunity to speak with Clean Decisions’ employees and industry experts to learn how different service lines could contribute to Clean Decisions’ mission, an entirely new experience.

Based on the results of the above assessment, I created a growth strategy for Clean Decisions. This strategy, and the tools I provided to help Clean Decisions achieve it, will hopefully help the business meet its goals of tripling its revenue and headcount. I am also optimistic that my work will help Clean Decisions continue to provide its employees with meaningful career pathways while avoiding employee burnout.

Some of the Farber 2022 Fellows during the REDF Community Retreat in Portland, Oregon

For as much as I hope I taught Clean Decisions through my work with them this summer, I took so much more away from my time with them and the Farber program. I learned the value of simplicity and providing accessible tools that can be used broadly for years to come, as opposed to complex Excel models that may be fun for me to build but will sit in a Google Drive folder figuratively gathering dust. I got to witness the power of proximate leadership firsthand, as Founder and CEO Will and Operations Manager Uncle Bill led day in and day out with empathy, relationship-building, and a commitment to their employees above all else. And I made memories and developed friendships that will stay with me, from singing karaoke with the other incredibly talented Farbers during the last week of our internships to discussing finance, fatherhood (not firsthand in my case!), and football with Will and Clean Decisions’ amazing employees on my site visit.

I had a great summer testing my career hypothesis, gaining more experience in strategy and nonprofit work, and learning about the power of employment social enterprises to change lives. I am so excited to follow Clean Decisions’ journey over the next few years and see what else Will and his team can accomplish.

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