Corporate Experience Doesn't Go to Waste for Social Entrepreneur | Net Impact

Corporate Experience Doesn't Go to Waste for Social Entrepreneur

Parag Gupta, Founder, Waste Ventures

Parag wanted to work in service from the get-go. Such efforts virtually consumed his time at the University of Chicago, where he worked on state issues with Senator Dick Durbin, city issues with Mayor Daley, neighborhood issues with local aldermen, and served as student body president. Somewhere in the middle of all that work, he found time to teach in rural Jamaica – and get to class once in a while, too.

Balancing the brain and the heart

And yet, after all of that work, he didn’t end up in public service. Instead, he decided it was more important to equip himself with analytical tools that would serve him when he finally was ready to go into public service. So he became a business analyst at a management consulting group instead.

A year in, the September 11th attacks happened. In the suspicion-laden aftermath of the tragedy, he knew he wanted to contribute something positive. Get back into government. Maybe start a nonprofit around the protection of civil liberties. His first step before making any decision, though, was to do his research.

“Anyone who takes the first step in creating a social mission,” says Parag, “needs to look at what’s out there already. It’s very easy to step in and take action, but how do you make sure your action will count?”

Parag didn’t know much about nonprofits, and he certainly didn’t know about the nonprofit consulting firm The Bridgespan Group. But once he discovered the firm through his research, he saw an opportunity to blend his analytical skills with his passion for service. Relying on his for-profit consulting background, he joined Bridgespan at the associate level to start learning about the nonprofit space.

But direct service kept tugging at his sleeve, and after a couple of years he began to feel he might make more of an impact in international development. He started by dipping his toe in the water as a volunteer consultant building the specialty coffee sector in Nicaragua. Six months later, he came back to the U.S. to attend Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which exposed him to a blend of social enterprise and international development.

Learning to read between the lines

Coming out of the Kennedy School, Parag took a position as Associate Director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. Part of his role was conducting due diligence – a lot of it. He was exposed to multiple sectors, many geographic regions, and thousands of organizations. “One thing that struck me,” recalls, “was the ubiquity of waste pickers. In almost every country I looked, there were organizations that worked with waste pickers.”

So why wasn’t this more of a formalized sector? Why hadn’t someone made it commercially viable? In an attempt to answer these questions, Parag realized he’d found an opportunity.

Launching Waste Ventures wasn’t exactly easy. It took a lot of research, trial-and-error, and connecting with the right people along the supply chain to make it coalesce.

But ultimately, Parag created an organization that turns waste picking into a profession, complete with subscription-based waste removal services, standardized uniforms, a living wage, and recycling of the waste. It’s intense and consuming work that keeps him in India half the year, but it’s the most rewarding work of his life. And while it’s a completely different place from where he started in student government, that experience – and all the rest of them – is what makes him a successful social entrepreneur today.

Parag's advice

Parag has some advice to offer those who are considering a career related to the social sector.

  • Don’t overlook the “soft skills”: Whether you’re in business school, policy school or in the workforce, skills related to public speaking, leadership, and negotiation may be as important as your analytical abilities. Work on growing these skills and your career will grow as a result.
  • Get out of your comfort zone: Traveling in a developing country, regardless of your long-term career aspirations, is a powerful way to gain self-awareness and challenge your assumptions. In the case of waste pickers, Parag learned quickly that they had the same aspirations as anyone else.
  • Failure is great if you learn from it: To really get somewhere in a new area like social entrepreneurship, failure is an inevitable byproduct. Embrace it. Anyone who can learn from failure has what it takes to be an innovator.
  • The lines between sectors are blurring: In many ways, it doesn’t matter what you do first in your career. It’s becoming much easier to move across sectors, which may give you more options—so keep an open mind.