After working in higher education careers services at Georgetown University Law Center, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, and INSEAD for almost 15 years, I’ve learned that that all employers are seeking candidates with an entrepreneurial spirit. Don’t let the term mislead you. Entrepreneurial spirit is not limited to start-up founders and risk-takers. Employers from large conglomerates to non-profit organizations are also looking for employees with mindsets open to and actively seeking change.
I sought that change outside the day-to-day routine of my work, by spending four days with the students of Shanti Bhavan in a volunteer capacity. I learned about Shanti Bhavan after watching a four-part documentary series, “Daughters of Destiny”, on Netflix. Like most Netflix subscribers, I often binge-watch my favorite drama and comedy series. “Daughters of Destiny” was the first documentary I binge watched; all four hours with no break. Impressed by the work of the school and the intelligence and grit of the girls profiled, I immediately visited the Shanti Bhavan site and made a donation. The site also details volunteer experiences with very explicit instructions: a four-week minimum commitment, waived only under special circumstances. Unable to take a month away from work, I emailed the school sharing my LinkedIn profile, enthusiasm for the school’s mission, and a bulleted list of topics I could teach.
Within a few days, I was contacted and the change I sought was soon becoming a reality. Shanti Bhavan is a residential school in Baliganapalli, Tamil Nadu, about two hours from Bangalore. I arrived in the middle of the night in complete darkness. It wasn’t until the following morning I could see where I was — a community alive with children ages four to 17. The campus is full of energy. It is palpable. Before I could even catch my breath, students were asking where I was from, how I learned about Shanti Bhavan, and why I was visiting.
Two hours later, I was flexing my entrepreneurial spirit: pushing myself, innovating, continuously improving, and executing in a very short amount of time.
One student early on remarked, “this is the first time someone visiting the classroom about careers is not just talking at us, but making us think about what engages, energizes, and gives us meaning.” I countered, “that is an innovation; you are doing something new.”
I was also doing something new. Here is how I was moving beyond my comfort zone while volunteering at Shanti Bhavan for only four short days:
Take a small risk. Before volunteering I did my due diligence. I viewed the documentary, read first-hand experiences from former volunteers, reviewed the organization’s website, and even followed Shanti Bhavan on social media (Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn). Of course I did not know everything before arriving at Shanti Bhavan, but I performed the research necessary to know that my chance of success in a volunteer role were much greater than my chance of failure. It was a worthwhile risk to push myself out of my comfort zone (graduate higher education) into something fairly unknown (pre-K through high school).
Do something new. The Director of Operations asked me to deliver three, 40-minute workshops to 9th and 11th graders over three days on personal branding, networking, and interviewing. Additionally, I was asked to discuss specialized business masters and MBA programs, how to find scholarship opportunities for graduate business school, the most beneficial skills for a career in business, and careers available in business to Shanti Bhavan alumni who had graduated from college. This proved to be a wonderful opportunity to look at career development in a new way. What could I teach during such a short amount of time? I was questioning my delivery, content, and relevance. These queries led me to innovate in a space that is generally very comfortable for me.
Make gradual improvements. If you can win over a group of 14 intellectually curious 9th grade students it give you the confidence that anything is possible. Convincing students of the value of my instruction over two hours would never have happened but for the fact that I was focused on continuous improvement. After my first workshop I reflected on what had worked, when the students were most energized, and what fell flat. The following day, I took corrective actions and deleted from my teaching repertoire what did not work and implemented more of what did.
Get things done. Volunteering at Shanti Bhavan allowed me to see a project all the way from inception through to implementation. Shanti Bhavan gave me free reign to create content and deliver it. I wasn’t micromanaged and more importantly I didn’t get caught in levels of hierarchical approval. This resulted in me, and only me, being responsible for executing. Discipline, ability to prioritize, and personally being in touch with the objective was required to get it done.
Personal passion is key. Something I constantly teach my students is that nothing beats authenticity and passion. Be who you are and do the work that makes you come alive. My volunteer experience at Shanti Bhavan could not have connected more with my values, motivators, and strengths. It gave me an opportunity to give back, make an impact, and do what I love best: teach students about finding callings, not jobs.
Sometimes you are lucky in life experiences. But, as my dad has often told me “you make your own luck.” Volunteer experiences rarely, if ever, find you. You find them. Owning your career also means owning your experiences and having the courage to seek out new and different opportunities. Effort and attitude determine everything, even when volunteering.
Volunteering at Shanti Bhavan allowed me to flex my entrepreneurial spirit which is important to my career, my staff, and my overall well-being. But, more importantly, it helped me find another outlet for my passion. I am continuing to volunteer with Shanti Bhavan in numerous ways including mentoring two recent Shanti Bhavan college graduates, sponsoring a current second grader, and working on future careers-related programming for the school. Who knows? I may just polish off a few more skillsets while making a difference.
Katy Montgomery is the global director at INSEAD Career Development Centre.