An Open Letter to the Class of 2016 (and beyond) from a Young Alum

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An Open Letter to the Class of 2016 from a Young Alum

Dear Reader,

Do you seek to change the world by working for a social enterprise?

If you answered yes, this post’s for you.

After graduating in May, I spent eight weeks in Tanzania working for a social enterprise hotel and primary school. The experience was everything I could have hoped for it to be, but it wasn’t stress-free. I worked seven weeks straight with only two days off. I became a part of the staff in the truest sense, seeing all aspects of the business and receiving more responsibility and trust than I anticipated. My expectations didn’t always match the reality, so I wrote down the things that I learned along the way. As you look for a job and prepare for life after graduation, I hope these lessons will help you develop a more realistic picture of what it might be like to work for a social enterprise.

#1 – Years of experience will teach you some things that a class, club or summer internship never can. When I first discovered Stella Maris and committed to spending the summer there, I thought I could act as a social impact consultant to the organization. Though I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, I thought that I would be able to step into this role somewhat comfortably given my passion for the field and my experience studying, practicing and discussing social entrepreneurship. Instead, I found that there are soft skills you have to practice over and over again in order to be an effective agent of change. I had a lot of ideas about how to improve the hotel and promote the organization’s social mission, however I deeply respected the Tanzanian staff and knew changes needed to come from them – not me. Despite how much I wanted to present recommendations in a guiding, supportive way, most of the time I varied between being too vague or too overt.

Luckily I had the chance to watch two people act as respectful and compassionate consultants to the general manager as she sought to make the business and the primary school better. Those people were Mailisita Foundation board members who have decades of experience managing consulting and investment banking firms. Their ability to facilitate change could not be taught. They spoke and acted in ways that I didn’t even know were important to making things happen. Though I might have learned a lot over the last four years of undergrad, I’m realizing now that I have a lot more to learn. Post grad is a whole new world of education.

#2 – Change takes time. You’ve probably heard this one before. I thought that I understood it, too, which was why I committed to a “big” block of time to work in Tanzania and hopefully make an impact. The thing is, time outside of college seems to work a bit differently. I wasn’t stepping into a structured research project or semester-long class. Instead, I was working for a small business with day-to-day concerns, challenges and rotating priorities. After a few weeks, I realized that the most I could do was lessen the front desk workload, accomplish a number of minor goals, make guests’ experiences more informed, and learn a lot about myself and a social enterprise along the way. Though these are all commendable efforts, they aren’t the same as starting a project and seeing it through to a big, tied-with-a-bow success. Instead, I learned to celebrate the small accomplishments when they did in fact happen. I learned to take the time to process what I was experiencing so the lessons would stay with me as I moved on to the next thing.

#3 – Working for a social enterprise is still a job. The first time I heard this lesson was in April at the Irish Impact on the Road event in Chicago. A Notre Dame MBA grad reminded the room full of social entrepreneurs that even if you find your dream job or start a social enterprise, it may not completely fulfill you. Ever since I found out about social enterprises, I figured that working for one would be the dream come true. Day-to-day life would just be better, more purposeful and more exciting than I had previously experienced. Stella Maris gave me a big reality check. 12-14 hour days anywhere will be exhausting, and sometimes you will end up doing work that doesn’t always “feel” meaningful or beneficial to the social mission. This summer opened my eyes to the fact that for me, forging a career in social entrepreneurship won’t guarantee that I’m completely happy and fulfilled everyday. Instead, I’m better off working to achieve a balance between all the things that I love, including my faith, family, friends and career.

All the best,

Colleen Wade, Class of 2015


2014 Irish Impact Interns, Colleen Wade and Elisabeth O’Toole, along with Jonathan Ng of Ashoka at the 2014 Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Conference

Postscript from Irish Impact to Colleen:

We at Irish Impact are grateful for your significant contributions to the Irish Impact/Social Entrepreneurship program at Notre Dame.  From creating social media strategies to writing and editing blog posts to strategizing, planning and executing the Irish Impact Conference and On the Road events, we are indebted for your thoughtful, intelligent and impassioned approach to social entrepreneurship, and can’t wait to see how you inspire others into the future.

With grateful hearts,

The Irish Impact Team

2 responses to “An Open Letter to the Class of 2016 (and beyond) from a Young Alum

  1. Thanks so much for sharing these wise words, Colleen! You are truly representing the best of what our ND graduates can be – and I look forward to seeing what you do next!


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