Chelsea Miller, a senior at Columbia University and cofounder of Women Everywhere Believe (WEBelieve).
You might call me a risk-taker, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But risk-taking has allowed me to explore opportunities, challenge my world understanding, and pursue my dreams in ways I never would have been able to by playing it “safe”. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. At the age of 16 I traveled to Burma to understand women’s empowerment on a global scale. At 18 I then traveled to Turkey and Tunisia. At 19, I co-founded a non-profit organization, Women Everywhere Believe, to train the next generation of women leaders by centering the voices of women and girls of color. And in under a year, we expanded to thirteen universities. Because of my past experiences, at the age of 20 I was selected to work in the Obama White House as an intern working on criminal justice reform and economic opportunity. Based on my experiences, many people assumed I would stay in the public-sector. After hearing mixed reviews about corporate America, I didn’t know if it would ever be the right fit. But I figured I'd never know unless I tried.
So last summer, I took my public-sector experience — In addition to the Obama White House, I've worked in the New York State Unified Court System and New York City Council — and went to work as a human resources and communications intern at Unilever, a $62.9 billion global company. As a joint intern, I had the opportunity to contribute to a number of projects that focused on community impact, including Growing Roots, Unilever’s commitment to building healthier communities through access and education. I enjoyed it because I truly felt that my work was making a difference and was valued. At the same time, it was a chance to think outside the box about how to address some major issues through a corporate lens.
Despite my initial hesitancy, by the end of my internship the risk proved to be well worth it. I learned that you can do valuable work on the issues you’re passionate about at a big corporation. If you too are willing to step outside your comfort zone and try it, I suggest keeping these thing in mind.
When looking into companies, the first thing most of us do is Google. We search for reviews of the culture, average salary, and seek out the wisdom of others’ experiences. While you’re at it, go to the websites of organizations affiliated with causes you care about, and check out who their corporate sponsors are. You’ll start to see a pattern in who is contributing to funding these important initiatives. I believe that where a company spends its dollars is the best indicator of its values, and when you see those strong values, you’ll have a lead on companies at which to search for roles.
The true measure of impact is not what spaces we occupy, but rather what we do in those spaces. We live in a society where, whether we choose to see it or not, practices in both the public and private sector affect us on an individual level. Take this to heart, and put a pin in worrying that you’re selling out. Instead, consider where an organization’s goals align with your own and where you can exchange value with it.
So what if it doesn’t quite work out? We often put unrealistic expectations on ourselves to have everything figured out right this second — or at least by a certain age. I attribute this to our fear of failure and judgement from friends and family. But let’s be real: Everyone has his or her own story to tell. You can always take the skills you learn in the private sector and apply them to your next role in the public sector, or vice versa.
There’s no doubt about it: Big corporations can be bureaucratic. But with that often comes substantial room for innovation. Use this to your advantage. Know your information (data, research studies, competitors) cold, understand all the stakeholders’ stances, and see where you can build consensus. At Unilever, I learned the importance of a strong and positive presentation. It was important that I remember I was hired for my skills, insight, and because I could add value. With this knowledge, I was able to go to my boss confident that my ideas were good. That way, I could move right into addressing the most relevant questions. Is this feasible? If not, why? What are the risks? How does it affect our bottom line? If I could give the right answers, more often than not, I got the go-ahead to innovate.
Perhaps I’m lucky, but at Unilever, I always felt the company was honest about its willingness and ability to allocate resources to various initiatives. Because they were transparent, I could be transparent too. To be transparent allows honest conversations that allow you to challenge yourself and your team. There are enough yes-people in the world. You want to be the person who, when invited to the table, helps create the best end result by challenging others to rise to the occasion. This doesn’t have to be hostile. It can come through affirming, questioning, and highlighting the ways that the whole team can take its work to the next level.