173, Cheryl Dorsey, Echoing Green | How to Find Meaningful Work

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Echoing Green identifies and invests in transformational leaders.

How we spend our time is how we spend our lives. Unless you’re independently wealthy, there’s a good chance that right now you’re getting ready for work, on your way to work, you’re already at work, or you’re thinking about work.

If we’re going to spend this much time at work, we might as well make that time count. But the path to meaningful work is not always a straight route. In fact, it might only make sense in hindsight. So, if meaningful work is so important, and the path is not always clearly marked, how do we find our way?

Cheryl Dorsey describes her path to her work as “fairly circuitous.” She even went so far as to say, “I’m the Forrest Gump careers. I had no clue most of the time what I was going to do, or where I was going to end up. I just stumbled into things.” But when pressed, you hear a slightly different story. She didn’t know where she was going exactly, but she figured out how to find what was right for her. The secret is being awake for the journey.

As Cheryl looks behind her, the path makes sense in retrospect. What she can see is that, at each juncture, there was a sign pointing the direction. But, you must be alert to notice. “I think maybe there is a grand plan and there are signals and data that we receive all the time. Most of us ignore it and don’t pay attention to it. But I think if you’re open to it, and allow those experiences in, it really does lead you to your path.”

She sees a key characteristic in the many entrepreneurs she knows. “I think the most successful entrepreneurs are amazing, not necessarily because of their entrepreneurial effort. It’s because they figured out their passion and their purpose and they’re completely aligned. They’re doing something that is the physical manifestation, aligning their gifts, talents, and skills.”

Cheryl’s passion for social justice started early in life. She grew up in Baltimore, the daughter of two public school teachers. Her parents instilled in her a respect for education as a tool for upward mobility, especially in an African-American household. Cheryl was born with a sense of social justice. “My mom used to tell me that my most common refrain was ‘That’s not fair!’ It was a child’s expression of ‘Why are things the way they are?’”

When she arrived at college, even though she was premed, she spent a lot of time studying history, in particular, African-American history. This study provided a historical context for the structural inequities she saw around her. She could see both the existing inequities and the distance traveled by African-Americans.

As a medical student in 1990, Cheryl read a five-part series in the Boston Globe called “Birth in the Death Zone,” that documented racial distinctions in infant mortality in Boston. Cheryl told me, “At Echoing Green, we often talk about people’s “moments of obligations,’ when you are struck by something and a problem becomes yours to own.’” Cheryl asked herself, “Why does this problem exist, and what is my role as a citizen to do something about it?”

Cheryl went to work with Dr. Nancy Oriol to solve the problem of infant mortality in minority communities in Boston. Together, they developed the concept of The Family Van, a community-based mobile health unit.

As Cheryl was searching for funding and support for the project, she happened to see a flyer for a fairly new organization, Echoing Green. Echoing Green identifies and invests in transformational leaders with disruptive ideas.

In 1992, Cheryl received a fellowship from Echoing Green. The fellowship came with seed funding. But it also came with something just as important: a community of social justice leaders. Other Echoing Green fellows include Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America; Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, co-founders of City Year; and Maya Ajmera, founder of Global Fund for Children.

Cheryl and Dr. Oriol ran the Family Van for a couple of years, but Cheryl needed to complete her pediatrics residency, so they turned the operations over to a new team. About the time Cheryl’s residency completed, she was invited to join the board of Echoing Green.

Cheryl spent time in Washington working in the Department of Labor under Secretary Alexis Herman. This was a momentous time of digital transformation and disruption. And, under Secretary Herman, Cheryl had a chance to work on pay equity issues. However, Cheryl says “You go to Washington to see how the sausage is made. I recognized that it is not for me.”

Around the time that Cheryl was leaving her role in Washington, Echoing Green was in need of a new President. As a member of the board, Cheryl volunteered to step into the role for what was expected to be two months. That was 15 years ago.

Echoing Green identifies exceptional emerging leaders. They connect these leaders to a global network of more than 750 Echoing Green Fellows working in more than 70 countries. They accelerate the growth of these leaders in order to increase their impact.

A Call to Action from Cheryl Dorsey, Echoing Green

When I asked Cheryl for a call to action for listeners of Social Entrepreneur, she began with this: “Be less reactive and more reflective.”

Cheryl points out that, globally, we are in a time of transformation. This is a time of great challenges, but also of great opportunities. Therefore, it is critical that each of us tap into our inner wisdom to guide us in making a difference.

Cheryl says, “I think that each of us is uniquely suited to do something special and particular that is aligned with our gifts, passion, and purpose.” She encourages you to be still and reflective. Take the inner journey to discover not only your strengths but also your weaknesses. She encourages you to become familiar with your “core IP,” that part of you, that makes you unique. “Figure out how to best align your core to the problems in the world that you most care about.” That requires you to be very still and very honest. That is where you’ll find your path.

Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Cheryl Dorsey

“We talk about people’s moments of obligations.”

“It just was not fair.”

“We were passionate and committed. We didn’t have much else.”

“What was supposed to be a two to three-month transition – here we are 15 years later.”

“We just have to be open to the universe.”

“In many ways, [Echoing Green] is an intermediary organization that stands between service and problem.”

“Echoing Green is in many ways a leadership development organization.”

“Leaders solve problems. Leaders are atop all great social movements.”

“Leaders mobilize communities and others around them to help solve problems.”

“Echoing Green provides the onramp for next generation talent.”

“We’re now getting close to 3,000 applications from over 160 countries.”

“We’re looking for a transformative social change leader who has a disruptive innovation that can lead to significant change.”

“Our relationship begins the moment someone thinks about applying to Echoing Green.”

“We are a community for Fellows, by Fellows, with Fellows.”

“It’s a very sticky network. Once a Fellow, always a Fellow.”

“The first piece of advice is, do not start something new.”

“You need to know your problem and own your issue better than anyone else.”

“What impresses me about social entrepreneurs is, they inhabit the issue.”

“Be an expert of your own issue, problem, and solution.”

“Have a couple of North Stars that are nonnegotiable, and nothing else matters.”

“The minute you write your business plan, it’s obsolete.”

“Be less reactive and more reflective.”

“This transformational moment is upon us.”

“It is a time of great challenge, but also opportunity.”

Social Entrepreneurship Resources:

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