Originally published 11.23.20
“If you really want to make a difference, don’t give up on the business world, yet.”
I was in an interview for Pratt Institute to study Creative Enterprise Leadership in Design Management when the woman who would become my mentor said this to me. I had left my job as an auditor in an accounting firm, in both China and the US, and I had been searching for a way to connect my performance and the success of my firm to the giant, complicated living system that was struggling with rising sea levels, children living in hunger and poverty, and species dying. I wanted meaningful work, work that could offer a return on the investment I was making in it.
“When we feel that what we do is meaningless, we do less than we could and only what we must.” – Mary McBride, Chair of Creative Enterprise Leadership Program, Pratt Institute.
So many of the young professionals I meet are struggling with the same desires—a sense of purpose, a way to make the world a better place. What is becoming increasingly clear to my generation is how modern economies create a divide between life and work. The business models we use and the metrics we apply to gauge success are solely about a startup’s ability to drive profitability and scalability. They are not evaluating the degree to which the enterprise will provide shared value or return on investment to living systems and human communities as well as to investors.
However, since the adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 191 nations in 2015, finding ways to connect work and life, and to create shared prosperity and a healthy planet is becoming easier. According to a CONE report, 88% of millennial employees said their job is more fulfilling when they are provided opportunities to make a positive impact on social and environmental issues.1 And the finance industry, a world I once wanted to leave, is taking the lead by pivoting toward Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations as part of a company’s value to society. The result of the latest European CFO survey reveals that 87% of respondents believe the overall performance of ESG issues has at least some impact on its cost of capital today.2
In the past four years, financial advisors and portfolio managers have gathered at the Sustainable Investing Conference in New York to discuss the latest issues and trends in ESG investing. During Climate Week NYC 2020 Cornerstone Capital Group and Sir David King, founder of Centre for Climate Repair, spoke about how to embed climate action into work and find areas of future collaboration.3
1 See 2016 Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement Study, 2 November 2016,
2 See Deloitte Insights: Financing a Sustainable Transition, 18, August 2020
3 See Cornerstone Capital Group’s A Conversation on Climate with Sir David King, 29 September 2020,
My research in interdisciplinary design for sustainable development, social innovation and impact investing has enabled me to see an emerging movement in the world of social enterprise, organizations that address a basic unmet need or solve a social or environmental problem through a market-driven approach.4 At Be Social Change workshops, people are asking “How can I work for a social enterprise?” The reply is often “Maybe helping our current company transform into one is equally meaningful, if not more.” Net Impact NYC’s Service Corp program receives hundreds of applications from young professionals working in technology, consulting, healthcare, etc., who are willing to offer their time and business skills to help local nonprofits or mission-driven organizations.
I’m finding meaningful work by connecting my creativity and my business skills within this environment. Over the past few years I have offered consulting services for businesses and nonprofits to create shared value and collective impact through cross-sector collaborations. By applying design principles and processes to innovation projects, I invited collaborators to reimagine their customer journey from both the experiences view and the systems view. As a communicator, I shared compelling human stories and have conceptualized, written, and illustrated a picture book From My Window: Children at Home During COVID-19 , which was published by the United Nations in June.5 Aligning making a living and living vital lives is possible!
We know that our world is changing and challenged. Quarterly growth, while necessary, is no longer sufficient in a world at risk. Customers and employees want growth that contributes to wellbeing, not profit at any cost. This is the job that needs to be done.6 If we focus our business strategies, innovation investments and technological capability on integrating work with social values, young professionals will sign up. Customers, employees, and investors will be fans and followers of our shared mission.
4 See Social Enterprise Alliance
5 From My Window: Children at Home During COVID-19 printed book is available at UN Shop:
6 The theory of Job to be done is introduced in the book Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Clayton M Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David S. Duncan. According to the theory, customers don’t buy products or services; they “hire” them to do a job.