How do I get a job in impact investing?

WSIC2013I had the chance to speak at the Wharton Social Impact Conference this past Friday.  It was fun, engaging, and energizing to see so many students so immersed in this space.  Indeed Wharton’s Social Venture Fund – I met the team while on campus -has 35 members (selected from more than 100) who give 5-10 hours a week to source, diligence and recommend potential impact investments across numerous sectors; and they have just raised enough funding to make early stage investments in a number of these companies for the next few years.  Great stuff.

Inevitably, one of the questions one gets asked in these sorts of settings – directly and indirectly – is: “how do I get a job in impact investing?”

I found myself answering the question two ways.

If the question meant, “if I want to be the person doing the impact investing (in the developing world?), how do I get that job?”  in which case the answer is pretty straightforward: build experience both in deploying capital directly in private transactions (e.g. in private equity or venture capital) and have direct operational experience in the geography where you’d like to deploy that capital – ideally working in the sector in which you’d like to invest.

And then try really hard to get picked for the job that you want.

The problem is, I think it’s way too early to be asking that question, because it fundamentally overestimates where we are in the evolution of this industry.  “Impact investing” is a nascent, messy, ill-defined space that’s somewhere near late toddlerhood.  We can barely agree on definitions of what is and is not an impact investment, and we’re a long way off from being properly organized as an industry.  For something so new, with so many talented people excited and looking to make an impact, the orientation cannot be around how to get picked for the tiny number of jobs that exist for the massive number of amazingly qualified applicants.  Instead, the opportunity is to create a job, a role, a set of experiences that will allow you, over time, to help us all shape and move and define this new space.

Ultimately, letting go of the notion of a job search broadens your opportunity set in two ways.  First, it forces you to recognize that the odds of getting picked for that 1 in 1,000 job you think you want are not good enough odds for someone as capable as you are.  And this is good news, because the moment you realize it is the moment you can take on the work of shifting your orientation from job-seeking to job-creating, which I’d rather you do sooner than later because it keeps you in the driver’s seat.

Second, once we recognize how early it is in the creation of this new ecosystem, we can begin to understand that people who will define this new space won’t just be investors, they will also be entrepreneurs and company-builders and thinkers and connectors and fundraisers.  They will be troublemakers in big institutions who can bend a big operation in a new direction, and free agents who are skilled at connecting ideas with people with money to make things happen.  Mostly, they will be the kind of people willing to do the hard work of creating something new.

This sector doesn’t need people who are looking for jobs – and it won’t for a while.  What it needs are people (like the folks I met at Wharton) who have a 10 year head start on those of us who are already in the industry, people who are willing to take the whole sector to another level and, I hope, to a better destination.

More shapers and visionaries and big thinkers, please.  We are still just at the beginning.