The Art of Not Selling Out

By Kelly Gonsalves

When it comes to social responsibility, it's easy to talk the talk: Anyone with a decent moral compass would say they want to be a force for good in the world and make some kind of positive difference in the issues that matter to them.

But what about our personal aspirations and interests? It's not a crime to want to chase the creative spark and become a designer or to get a thrill from running huge corporate accounts in the financial sector. And with the cherry on top of trying to afford rent every month and put food on the table every day, it can be a struggle to balance the call to create change with everyday needs.

"I don't like the idea that we have to demonize an industry," says Swipesense CEO Mert Iseri. "I don't like this idea that we can't do good without well also. Let's dump that idea."

This past Thursday evening, the Global Engagement Summit brought together a panel of four Northwestern University alumni back to campus to discuss how they're working toward professional and societal goals simultaneously in their respective fields. We called the event "Professionals for a Purpose."

Iseri co-founded Design for America, an organization of college students using human design to solve social challenges. He's not CEO of Swipesense, a medical device startup aimed at eliminating hospital-acquired infections in the U.S. and beyond.

An Urban Studies and History major at Northwestern and a GES alum, Karin Scott, now serves as Program Director at Allowance for Good, a non-profit teaching Chicago youth how to get involved with philanthropy and social change projects.

Video journalist Leah Varjacques works at Free Spirit Media to provide education and access to media production for underserved youth, where she spends her days teaching high school students digital media and documentary filmmaking on the west side of Chicago.

Finally, fellow GES alum Kristin Coveney, is now a legal associate at Katten Muchin Rosenmann LLP, focusing her practice on complex corporate litigation.

Here are some key lessons we can learn from these four accomplished alumni for keeping social responsibility at the heart of your career:

1. Do good in your own industry.

You don't have to be doing non-profit work or direct social services to make a positive impact on your community.

It's easy to look at more corporate professions - consulting, marketing, product development, law and the like - as being too embedded in "the problem," be it economic inequality, environmental damage, promulgation of harmful stereotypes or broad structural oppression of marginalized groups.

But just because there are issues in a system doesn't mean you're becoming part of the problem by getting involved in it. Avoiding industries involved in social ills is the easiest way to let them win. Change has to start somewhere, and oftentimes, it comes from within - ethical people working within the system to bring about fixes in the way the business works.

"You can be a catalyst for those companies doing good," Iseri said.

Take Coveney, a corporate lawyer whose practical deals mainly with defending large companies in the financial services and insurance industries from lawsuits. Her job doesn't exactly scream "social changemaker," but the way she sees it, she's able to minimize the amount of corporate dollars going to frivolous lawsuits so that the money can be better redirected toward cases that matter, where consumers really do deserve compensation via financial settlements.

Moreover, the experience and expertise she gains at her official gig at Katten, as well as the legal prowess she developed while working at the U. S. Attorney's Office prior, are transferrable skills that she takes with her to fulfill her other philanthropic endeavors. For example, Coveney also volunteers with the Katten Legal Clinic at José de Diego Community Academy, teaching legal concepts to middle school students as part of the Lawyers in the Classroom program.

In short: Go wherever your career takes you and learn. Gain skills, and find ways to use those skills toward tackling social problems.

Coveney never expected to become a corporate lawyer, she admits, but she sees it as just one stepping stone toward her greater goals of helping people though the legal profession.

"Consider what your long-term ambitions are and take tiny steps toward that," Coveney says.

2. Find an issue that speaks to you that your particular craft can address.

"Pick up a newspaper. In the headlines, I can give you twenty different problems that happened in the last two weeks," Iseri said. "Finding a challenge isn't the hard part. Devoting your life to solving that challenge is the hard part."

While students at Northwestern, Iseri and his roommate, Yuri Molina founded Design for America to gather fellow student engineers, designers and entrepreneurs and task them with solving a host of specific social issues. Iseri and Molina partnered with North Shore University Health System, the hospital across from where they lived, and observed firsthand the staff hygiene issues that contribute to 100,000 annual deaths attributed to hospital-acquired infections.

Together, Iseri and Molina used their tech backgrounds to develop a hand-sanitizing device and data platform called Swipesense, which has since increased hand hygiene by 64% in hospitals that have adopted the system. The startup completely took off: it was one of the final five in The Wall Street Journal's Startup of the Year competition in 2013, and last year the co-founders also made the Forbes "30 Under 30" list.

The key to their success, Iseri explains, was that they took a sector they were already passionate about - tech and startups - and used it as a tool to tackle a problem they had observed in the world around them.

"You should pick the wrong that you want to right, and do it every single day," Iseri says. "That's how you bake in social responsibility in your day-to-day job."

3. The money comes later. For now, just do.

"Don't chase a paycheck," Scott said.

As a journalist and documentary filmmaker, Varjacques specifically uses her craft to give voice to underserved and unheard populations. For example, she recently finished her first transmedia documentary, Beyond the Seal, which traces the story of small banana farmers' fight for fair trade.

There isn't a lot of money in the endeavor and Varjacques said that when she first embarked on this project, she had no idea where the money would be coming from. She had just discovered the story and started reporting. Similarly, her next project involves following a group of dancers in Chicago. Currently, it has no financial backing - it's a total passion project.

"I don't have enough equipment. I don't have any funding. I don't have anything," Varjacques said. "But I do have a camera and a mic and a tripod, and I'm going to do these things."

Sometimes the combination of your personal interests and the causes that drive you don't immediately lend themselves to some sort of profitable business model. That's okay. When you are doing great work for a greater purpose, eventually people will see you and want to support you.

Beyond the Seal was made possible through a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign.

"People will respond to you," Varjacques said. "People mostly do want to pay it forward and help out."

4. Explore the options.

We often think big companies are the only way to make a decent living, but literally millions of people make careers out of non-profit work and for-profit development work. These change-oriented organizations do pay; some even pay well.

"There are a lot of problems out there in the world that you can solve, and it's okay if you mess around in some of them for a little while," Scott said.

Scott recommended making mental checklist of issues you really care about and believe in and going through them one by one, exploring what possible careers in those areas could mean. You'll find that while there may be plenty causes you believe in, not all of them will speak to you when it comes to working on them on a daily basis.

Take some time doing work in different areas, and eventually you'll find the one that you are truly passionate about.

5. Sometimes it's enough to just be in the room.

This is especially true if you're a woman, a person of color, an international or a member of any other minority identity group. Coveney, for example, noted that she's often the only woman in the room when meeting with legal teams, clients and corporate boards. For her, just being in the room speaks volumes. Just being in the room makes a difference.

No matter your background or particular identity, if you're coming at your career from a lens of social responsibility, that perspective will color everything that you do. It will affect your work, the people around you and the work that your company does.

Even if you're the only person in the room thinking about how your team's work will affect greater society and the individuals you interact with, your presence alone can make a huge impact on the types of projects your organization embarks on and the types of strategies it uses. Voice your concerns when ethical issues arise. Stick to your guns. Be loud. Be the global citizen in the room.