Teaching the Teacher About Social Innovation | Net Impact

Teaching the Teacher About Social Innovation

Lindsay Stradley, Co-founder and CMO, Sanergy

Lindsay has traveled many roads on the way to the social enterprise destination she’s arrived at with Sanergy in Nairobi, Kenya. While she now spends her days helping turn waste into electricity, she got her start as a student activist at Yale. She was one of those hardy souls who coordinated fiercely independent groups of people to run successful campaigns — not an easy task. While Lindsay recognized the power of her organizational abilities, what she wanted even more after college was to develop her “chaos muscles.”

Seeking out unfamiliar experiences

Wanting to get an on-the-ground understanding of urban poverty, Lindsay went to Teach For America (TFA). In contrast to the communications and organizational skills she honed at Yale, Lindsay sees what she did at TFA in New Orleans as the development of what she calls “improvisational leadership.”

“Dealing with a classroom of twenty-five 14-year-olds, you can’t plan everything out so easily. You go in knowing a lot of them don’t want to be there, most won’t do what you want them to do, and they might have a fight at any moment. You need to have a lot more nerve and flexibility.”

Learning-by-doing pays off

Lindsay’s “chaos muscles” came to the fore even more acutely after Hurricane Katrina. With her students scattered to the four winds and the city closing many schools, Lindsay dove in and helped create a charter school, doing all the legwork to get it up and running amidst a city in turmoil.

Despite this rewarding work, Lindsay recognized that she needed some big company experience to grow her skill set. TFA’s association with Google offered her a great opportunity to learn more about business and technology. So she made a huge shift and became a marketer for Google Adwords. Looking back on her time at Google, she believes her path made her more effective:

“I always tell people to get more 'learn-by-doing experience' first. If you actively create your own path, learn about yourself, and identify new skills you want to develop, it will help you get much more from an established organization.”

Find your community

With these diverse experiences under her belt and an interest in applying business to the problem of urban poverty, Lindsay made her application to MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She cites a few reasons for her return to the classroom. One, Sloan was known for incubating great business ideas and had specific courses dedicated to solving poverty issues. Two, she knew there would be smart, like-minded students there - collaborators. All of this turned out to be true. Sanergy was conceived by Lindsay and business school friends on a hiking trip.

One of Lindsay’s business school friends had a grandmother in India who used a low-tech solution for converting cow manure into biogas to generate electricity. After some investigation, Lindsay and crew realized they could work with engineers at MIT to adapt this technology to apply to human waste.

Their business school training pushed them beyond simply adapting a new technology, though; they ended up building a social enterprise aimed at creating an entire sanitation infrastructure throughout slums in developing countries using a simple franchise system to create jobs and maintain a small footprint.

Now that Lindsay is working full time on Sanergy, she has quickly found that the skills she developed at TFA (communications, improvisation) and Google (marketing, quantitative analysis) have made her uniquely qualified to sell her sustainable system in a less-established business environment.

Lindsey's advice

Lindsay's got a thing or two to teach us about building a career with impact:

  • Surround yourself with amazing people: Lindsay went out of her way to join organizations that had employees who challenged established ways of thinking. By working with them she challenged herself, built a strong network, and grew her abilities.
  • Take less on the front end, get more on the back end: Lindsay took risks early in her career, taking on jobs that required a lot but didn’t pay a ton. This helped her stand out and later win roles at Google, get into Sloan, and start an innovative social enterprise.
  • Don’t be afraid to set crazy goals: At TFA, Lindsay learned what you can accomplish by forcing yourself to set ambitious goals. The things you’re willing to do to achieve them – clear-eyed measurement of your progress, for one – will make you tougher than the rest.
  • Your skills are transferable: At first glance, there seems to be little in common between TFA, Google, and a social enterprise like Sanergy. But Lindsay learned that the skills she developed at each of these organizations helped her succeed with things she did later. The lesson is to value all the skills you develop and don’t assume they won’t apply to something new.

Not everyone is cut out to be a social entrepreneur. But Lindsay’s experience makes one thing clear. Everyone can benefit from diverse activities that expand their skills.