THE BLOG
07/24/2013 03:56 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

Positive Impact, Positive Returns - Tips for the Impact Investment Job Search

Last summer's communications associate at Acumen, Emma Vaughn, kindly offered MBA students and job seekers "7 Tips to Landing a Job in Impact Investing," a list whose recommendations continue to provide valuable guidance in the search for a meaningful career in the field of impact investment. As this year's summer associate, I'd like to offer a few more tips for MBA students that I've found helpful in my own experience thus far, along with further encouragement to others to explore opportunities in this emerging sector.

1. WHAT DO YOU KNOW HOW TO DO?

I moved to San Francisco in October of 2008 (In a stroke of youthful over-confidence, I resigned from my job in crisis communications the weekend after Lehman collapsed) in pursuit of joining the clean tech industry. It took several unsuccessful job applications and a very fortunate internship at a clean energy consulting firm for me to realize that unless you are an engineer, clean tech is not a distinct skill, but rather an industry that has roles in sales, finance, strategy and communications, like any other. It is critical to keep in mind which existing skills and strengths you offer and how they are relevant to the field that you are hoping to dive into, whether its impact investment or winter sports. It was my background in investor relations and my sense of the grinding toll the quarterly earning process takes on management that led me to seek to apply those existing communications skills to this space, working with investors and companies towards a more long-term view of performance that spans beyond the next quarter from a communications standpoint.

2. MAKE YOUR JOB AN IMPACT JOB

Many of us haven't had much demonstrated impact experience that we can point to when applying for positions in the impact investing field. Don't let this limit you in illustrating how your existing skills can contribute to this field by considering parallel comparisons. For example, how have you effectively made the case for an action whose value might not be immediately realized, such as longer payback energy efficiency investments or employee engagement initiatives? Demonstrating the value of these projects last summer as an EDF Climate Corps Fellow at News Corp provided me with a deeper understanding of the obstacles of finding alternative benefits that supported my recommendation for investments that fell outside of the standard corporate payback period. Your ability to walk potential employers through these experiences while drawing reasonable comparisons can serve as a powerful tool in demonstrating your potential. Additionally, consider where these opportunities lie within non-impact firms, and suggest how you can contribute to that shift.

3. WHOSE JOB DO YOU WANT, AND WHO SHOULD HIRE YOU TO DO IT?

This nascent industry is overloaded with bright-eyed and eager grad students such as myself looking for the right opportunity to drop out of the sky. (Personal pitch: I am seeking full-time employment once this internship ends in August and would be happy to hear from interested employers.) A wise-beyond-his-years former coworker once told me to find the person who's job you want and find a way to pick their brain, whether it's through a carefully orchestrated run-in or a mutual contact. However, in this field, it strikes me that there is a step beyond doing so - which is carving the same role for yourself in a competing company or firm who might benefit from that position. I'm in the process of taking my own advice on this step, and it seems a logical strategy in a space where those entering the field have the rare opportunity to shape it.

4. SIX DEGREES OF IMPACT

More like two or three. My experience is that this is a small universe, where everyone is, at most, two LinkedIn connections apart. All it takes for you to use this connectivity to your advantage is a foot in the door. Pony up to attend a conference and don't be shy once you're there! Volunteer at an event. Find local happy hours and mixers. Identify firms whose approaches are of interest, and rather than broad internships, see if you can pitch a specific project based on area of need, such as competitive research. Rooted in demonstrated interest, experience and genuine enthusiasm, you will be better positioned to make meaningful connections that will assist your search.

5. EDUCATE YOURSELF ON THE SPECTRUM OF IMPACT

I find it helpful to consider impact investment in this commonly referenced spectrum that provides context of the range from traditional investment to philanthropy. When delving into each segment, keep an eye out for trends, main players, and relevant debates. For example, Acumen's patient capital model takes a completely different approach to impact than Sonen Capital's competitive investment solutions. Be comfortable explaining why this is the case, and what you think about each approach. This is not only helpful in the job search, but also in honing in on the part of the spectrum that is the best fit for your interests, perspective, and skill set, leading to our next point.

6. FIND THE RIGHT FIT, CONTINUED...

Some investment professionals might not have the stomach for Acumen's early stage growth and patient capital model, while others are excited by its transformative potential. In last summer's post, Emma wrote that "you'll find different funds with similar philosophies, pursuing different goals with varying strategies," a point which I'd like to reemphasize and encourage you to dig deeper into your true interest in impact. Identify what drives you to pursue this path, and the past experiences that have led you here, and build your story from those realizations and anecdotes. Rooted in personal experience, this approach is more likely to resonate with impact professionals who have likely followed their own instincts. Remember those B-school admission essays? Dig them out and re-read them, looking to identify trends or past experiences that can help guide you to a story that illustrates your personal intersection between this transitional, growing space with your past experiences. For me, it was Acumen's systematic perspective, and consideration for scalability as an investment requirement. These values resonated with my personal perspective and interest in innovation. Considering systems in their entirety strikes me as the only possible foundational method for identifying those levers capable of transformative change, of which Acumen's many successful portfolio companies serve as a testament.

7. WHAT CAN YOU ADD?

In a space where everyone is learning by doing, think strategically about existing gaps and figure out a way to add value. Whether through an independent study or a blog post, hone in on the questions that people in the industry need answered and start looking for a way to find some answers. You'll discover that people return your calls and emails, because it will be clear that you are interested in contributing to the conversation rather than jumping on board the most recent trend.