By Angie Kamath ‘97
The best analogy I can draw to how I have managed my career is to liken it to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. I recently discovered this children’s book genre with my 7-year-old daughter, and it strikes me as the perfect playbook on how one could manage their career. I am not being flip at all. In retrospect, I see how each decision related to internships and jobs at Cornell and after felt so big and high stakes. In reality, all the different decisions and paths I took landed me in the exact same spot: one focused on social entrepreneurship, but with a new skill set and a sharpened perspective each time that I applied to the work I believe I was meant to do.
As a first-generation American, my immigrant parents made two things quite clear—they moved from India to America to provide a better life and future to themselves and our family, and we had an obligation and responsibility to help others in whatever form that might take. At Cornell I experimented with topics that touched the left and right sides of my brain. I loved the exactness of my finance classes and the study of cultures in my rural sociology classes. Perhaps my favorite class was business planning and entrepreneurship, but it was rivalled by my semester and internship on Capitol Hill during my time at Cornell in Washington. Or maybe it was discovering Europe through the lens of an art history class? But then again, traipsing through the woods in a field ornithology class was pretty great, too.
My exploration of career and the interwoven path of finding my purpose carried on throughout my four years in school. In my opinion, this is Cornell and CALS’ greatest educational strength; I could get a taste of so many subjects, ideas, cultures and world views in one semester. I could master topics and fall in love with completely different disciplines. That would certainly explain my crossroads in the spring of my senior year: Do I take the Peace Corps assignment in Latin America, or do I take the banking job in New York City? While the private sector won out in 1997, I had a suspicion that my small-business classes and interests in entrepreneurship would win in the long run. And so my career has played itself out with stints in finance; turning a small volunteer organization into a fully staffed and growing nonprofit; working in government managing an employment and job placement agency that helped thousands of jobseekers and businesses match up labor market needs and jobseekers’ interests; to my work today overseeing a nonprofit social enterprise that trains IT talent and re-shores technology jobs from overseas.
My own self-discovery along the way has been that first and foremost I love to build and create things that help people—especially those who do not have access to opportunity—to succeed. While the terms social justice and income equality were not mainstream when I was in college roaming the Ag Quad in the 1990s, I figured out that creating nimble, adaptive organizations to solve social problems was fun, entrepreneurial and rewarding, both mentally and financially. “Find a need and fill it”—this was the mantra in my small-business class, but the class might as well have been named Social Enterprise 101. I learned as an executive director to master sales, marketing, finance and product design. Or to use nonprofit-speak, I can fundraise, advocate for policy change, balance a budget and create a reserve fund, and design new curriculum for high-impact programs.
I feel really fortunate to be involved in the Dyson Advisory Council as an alumna of the business management and applied economics major. When I speak to students I share the advice I wish someone gave me: Don’t just take the finance classes—get out to the other colleges; don’t just do the typical internship for name-brand companies—explore smaller organizations where the impact can be greater; and working for a social enterprise does not mean you have to struggle financially. As in all labor markets, employers of any stripe will always pay for good talent. Don’t define your path to purpose by following the leader and doing the jobs that only lead to the fancy resume but an empty experience. Figure out what energizes you, enlivens you, and fires you up. My own two cents is that the world has plenty of intractable, complex problems that need enterprising, technology forward, risk-taking leaders to solve. Success is about impact, making change and following the proverbial tenet of making the world a better place. Cornell is, perhaps in my biased view, one of the best training grounds around to build the diverse and sharp toolkit that the world needs right now.