What do we _SocialStarters have in common?
When I booked my flights to Rio there were a lot of things I didn’t have the answers to. At first I didn’t tell many people what I was doing, partly because it didn’t seem real yet. But it was also because it was difficult to justify to other people why I was leaving my full-time job for something that I couldn’t quite explain fully — to them, or even to myself.
“What will you be doing?” Not sure exactly, it’s to do with social enterprise. “What’s that?” Good question! It’s actually rather a hotly contested topic… “How can you be a consultant if you’ve never worked in that sector before?” I… well, I guess I’ll find out!
As my departure date drew nearer one of the biggest questions for me became: what are all the other consultants going to be like? I felt like the _SocialStarters Rio programme was an exact fit for me and where I was in my life — who were these other people from different parts of the world who could possibly feel the same way?
Four years out of university and I felt like it was too early to feel so cynical, closing myself off from a lot of the things that used to excite and inspire me. I had a strong emotional but abstract desire to “do something good” but I didn’t know what that looked like and how my commercial skills and experience would fit in. I wanted to experience the intense highs and lows of living abroad again and to nail Brazilian Portuguese, preferably with a Carioca accent. I couldn’t quite believe that there were eleven other people in the same position at the same time.
The answers came to me pretty soon into the _SocialStarters Bootcamp. There’s nothing quite like brainstorming, pitching, designing, debating, eating, drinking, exploring, getting lost, dancing, laughing and spending almost every waking hour together for a week to fast-track your relationship with people. Despite the huge variety in our personal and professional backgrounds, the fact that we had ended up in the same place was proof in itself that we had something in common. But what was that exactly?
I was not surprised to discover several others like me who, five years or less into jobs that we had fought hard to get and which had initially challenged and excited us, were still riding the buzz of handing in their notice without another job to go to. For a lot of us, finding the _SocialStarters Rio programme had been the tipping point that allowed us to re-evaluate that uncertainty about the future. The big flashing question mark that was once a source of unease and self-doubt was now a blank canvas of opportunity to take into our own hands, experiment with and shape into whatever we wanted it to be.
Similarly, I had expected to find people in the group with a decade or more of professional experience behind them and who had developed an expertise in more than one area — corporate finance, advertising, writing, health and wellbeing to name a few. There was a sense of jadedness too here — of being fed up with the politics, the short-sightedness, the lack of creativity of the conventional corporate environment — but also a strong sense of opportunity. Each of these people saw something unique in the programme that fitted neatly into their plans for where to go next — be that gaining start-up skills, learning about social business models or just having the chance to work on their own ideas and career goals in a more stimulating and collaborative environment.
So, perhaps because my own biases were shaping my expectations about the programme, I had assumed that most of the other consultants would be suffering from corporate burnout in one way or another. But I hadn’t anticipated the high proportion of recent graduates or current students in our group. Had they started to feel disillusioned with their careers before they had even begun?
Discussing this over happy hour caipirinhas, I found out that it wasn’t just push factors attracting people to the program — there were a lot of pull factors that I hadn’t given as much thought to. Graduates wanting to work in the non-profit or international development sector already had a sense that the current models were not working. Students with no background whatsoever in business were seeking new frameworks to generate innovative solutions to social challenges, and were taking a punt on social enterprise to see whether this could be it.
It’s not yet been two weeks but I’m already starting to understand what it is that unites the twelve of us. None of us came here expecting or wanting a traditional volunteering programme. In our roles as consultants we are looking for a two-way exchange with our clients — of course we want to have a tangible impact on their projects, but for ourselves as much as for them. There is a strong sense of personal development and none of us are shying away from that.
We weren’t satisfied with the career options that were on display for us back home, but we couldn’t articulate what it was that we were looking for. Whether or not we had considered ourselves to be risk-takers before we decided to come here — and I certainly had not — everyone has taken a massive leap into the unknown by coming here with no precedents, no idea what to expect and no guarantees. It is maybe this last point that is the most important. The fact that everyone has shown themselves to be genuinely open-minded, willing to let go and see what happens — that, for me, is what has made it one of the most unique and exciting experiences of my life so far.