Reflection, risk, and reward in social impact

By Eric Askins

“We see trees from above ground and don’t often think about what goes on underneath. The same is true for supply chains. Just as a tree relies on more than one set of roots to survive, one brand has a multitude of suppliers to source, create, and deliver its products,” said Katrina Gordon, MBA 17.

“Root systems and supply chains are essential, often unseen support systems. It’s time for us to focus our attention on where goods come from and how they are made, as a first step to transforming the systems that enable forced labor abuses and ecological exploitation around the world.”

Katrina appreciates and understands both forests and supply chains. As a student, she was president of Redwoods@Haas. Today, she is a manager at Humanity United working in the Forced Labor & Human Trafficking portfolio. Through the Sidecar Innovation Fund, she makes grants to support pre-investment and seed-stage social enterprises developing innovative tools and services to increase supply chain transparency and improve working conditions.

Another facet of her work is overseeing research into supply chain tools employing open and integrated approaches to data. “There is a lot of data out there, but right now it’s in silos. We want to find ways to make the data accessible and inter-operable. Being able to share data—from the resources used by a company, to worker safety and human rights conditions, to how goods are transported and delivered—has the potential to make global supply chains more transparent and keep companies accountable,” Katrina said. “It is exciting to work with organizations that are exploring the use of technologies like big data and blockchain to protect vulnerable workers and source responsibly .”

With a career at Boeing and several fellowships in social enterprises behind her, Katrina followed her instincts and curiosity down several paths during her time in the full-time MBA program at Haas. “My hypothesis was that I would be able to work in social change movements while earning a living, but I did not have a firm grasp on exactly which specific career path would align best with my values,” she said.

Christina Meinberg, associate director for Social Impact, in the Career Management Group (CMG) suggests students pursuing social impact careers first take the time to reflect on what social or environmental impact means to them personally. “That has a cascading effect,” she said. “That knowledge can affect your choice of coursework and extracurriculars and help you connect with likeminded classmates and professionals.”

Katrina pursued a wide array of coursework and experiential learning opportunities to narrow her path and gain the skills needed to make a career shift. For her International Business Development class, Katrina was on a team working with NESsT in Peru looking at early-stage impact investments. That project, she said, “helped convince me that, yes, my MBA studies could position me to pivot to an impact investing role without a background in private equity.”

In her Design, Evaluate & Scale Developmental Technologies class, her interdisciplinary team developed a go-to-market strategy for one of the innovative technologies developed by engineers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. For Katrina, that underscored one of the benefits being at a world-class university offers, “being able to work with people studying a variety of disciplines. That really expanded my network and taught me about different approaches to problem solving.”

Early on, Katrina thought consulting would give her the best of both worlds: a corporate employer and the opportunity to contribute to positive change in the world. She landed a summer internship at Deloitte, followed by an externship on a consulting project with Kimberly-Clark’s sustainability team as part of her Strategic & Sustainable Business Solutions class. Although both experiences taught her a lot, the most consequential lesson was that consulting was not the right path for her.

“Even when my consulting projects related directly to a specific community need, I missed the direct involvement with the community,” she recalled. “I felt that distance—sometimes geographic, and always cultural—diminished our ability to contribute to sustainable impact over the long term .”

When Deloitte offered her a full-time job, Katrina turned it down.

That was a big risk, and a decision a lot of people would not have made. “My parents didn’t love my decision, and I had moments of anxiety,” she said. “But I knew I couldn’t lie to myself about how I wanted to spend my working years and about the impact I wanted to have.”

It helped to have classmates going through the same waiting game while looking for positions focused on social impact. “We supported each other to find meaningful work. Erica Peng, one of the CMG advisors, encouraged me to find moments of grounding during the often chaotic job search process. She would tell me to take off my shoes and feel my feet on the earth,” Katrina said. “That, along with more traditional job search advice, speaks to the holistic support you can find at Haas.”

Social impact job searches are not at all “cookie cutter,” according to CMG’s Meinberg, and they are “heavily networked.” During her last semester and into the summer following graduation, Katrina applied at various growth-stage start-ups and impact investing firms, while also reaching out to connections she had cultivated while at Haas.

While working at Humanity United’s San Francisco office in the Presidio National Park, Katrina and her colleagues visited the woods as spaces to walk, talk, and stay grounded. Now based in Santa Barbara, she heads to the beach and canyon trails to find harmony in her life and work.

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Posted on March 9, 2021
Themes: Alumni  |  Social Impact
Eric Askins
Eric is the Executive Director of Full-time MBA Admissions. He partners with students, faculty and staff to recruit a diverse student body that enhances our community through innovative leadership and academic excellence.