Joining the Family Business

In a search for meaning, a social entrepreneur gets back to her roots

Illustration by Faye Zhang

Illustration by Faye Zhang

Essay by Nancy S. Cleveland

I had an uncle we thought must be a CIA operative.

At his memorial service, I was talking with one of his colleagues (a guy whose body language screamed, “Don’t ask me what I do!”). I was prattling on about my uncle’s purposeful, passion-driven work and how I wanted to do something meaningful like that. 

With an intensely penetrating look, he responded, “So, what’s stopping you?” 

It was a question that spun me around. 

I thought about my long career as a lawyer and how I’d reinvented myself many times. I’d worked as a litigator, in real estate and in telecom, building out wireless communications infrastructure. Despite a lot of career reboots, for me, practicing law evoked a near constant yearning for more purposeful work. My primary way of doing good was writing checks to charities. Good, but not that personally inspiring or meaningful.

I thought about my mother and her lifelong passion: women’s empowerment. Her passion for helping women inspired her to scale new ways of getting women into the skilled workforce that she needed for her local medical practice. She changed lives. Maybe not a lot of lives, but over time, her efforts had a ripple effect through two generations. It was from her that I learned two important lessons: Social impact doesn’t have to be monumental to be meaningful and important, and a strong and passionate belief in the change you seek can make a difference. 

I grew up in a family where making a difference was just what people were supposed to do. I was hardwired to become a social entrepreneur. And yet, there I stood at my uncle’s funeral, and a man I’d never met before was asking me directly: What’s stopping you?

The answer? Me.

Anyone considering an entrepreneurial move faces the risk and fear of failing. But those aren’t the only things you have to hurdle. It requires some soul-searching with questions like, What would I sacrifice? What will I gain? Is the change important enough to me? You have to knock down a lot of barriers to succeed as a social entrepreneur. But just getting started, getting out of your comfort zone, is the first and biggest—and one that I realized I had control over. 

That conversation at my uncle’s funeral was 13 years ago. It took me two years to find a strong enough passion, another year to change career paths and 10 more to hone ideas, meet my co-founder, assemble a team and launch a totally new software-based approach to sustainability management for business. Every day, it’s the purposeful, passion-driven work I was yearning for. 

Bringing a social-impact product to market is never the result of a single human being’s efforts. It is evolutionary, dynamic, collaborative and complex. And those are also the qualities that make being a social entrepreneur hugely rewarding, never lonely and well worth it. 

My mom passed away a few months before my uncle, so she never got to witness my journey. But I know she would be proud of the work my team is doing to make the world a better place. It makes me happy to think that, in a way, I’ve finally joined the family business.

_____

Nancy S. Cleveland is a principal at Sustrana, a software company that provides sustainability management solutions.