Taking the time to come to Haas and do an MBA can be an incredible opportunity for exploration and introspection, especially for those of us that are interested in sustainability and social impact. But the task of figuring out what you want to do next and how you want to make an impact can feel daunting at times.
With that in mind, we’ll be delving into the question: “how might we chart our path and discover our purpose” in this episode.
We are first accompanied by Professor Robert Strand, also known as “Mr. Nordic.” He is the Executive Director of the Nordic Center and the Center for Responsible Business at Haas and tells us about his career history, what motivated the major pivots in his journey, and finding inspiration in the Nordic region.
We then hear from Jenelle Harris, a Haas alum from the class of 2017. Jenelle is a Consulting Manager at Bridgespan, where she leads engagements with social impact organizations, and she is also a career coach here at Berkeley Haas, where she works with mission-driven leaders. We talk with Jenelle about how we can find purpose and meaning in our career search.
On work-life balance & boundaries (Jenelle)
51:56 – When I’m working with folks in the social sector, that’s like one of the biggest things we’re working through is, what does it look like to do this work and to do so in a way that is nourishing and doesn’t leave us wiped out. And how do we both hold like the sacredness and importance of this big, important work we’re doing and take care of herself and feel permission to do that too.
Some of the best advice Jenelle has received (Jenelle)
31:09 – Pay attention to those things that just continuously light you up and spark anger, because that’s a clue as to where you are best positioned to be a service.
On always looking up to Berkeley (Robert)
09:32 – I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I have this opportunity to be at the University of California, Berkeley. A place I’ve revered all my life, even as a little boy growing up in middle of nowhere in Wisconsin, I looked to the University of California, Berkeley, and it is just a beacon educational opportunity for all, for the many people. And I firmly believe that. And that’s in the idea of, it’s inequality of opportunity that at its core is really, you know, we can call that that’s the American dream. And I think that the University of California, Berkeley is an American dream factory.
Nordic vs. US ways of thinking about community (Robert)
24:37 – Here is where I fear that we in the United States of America have developed a “me, me, me” mindset. Hyper selfish, hyper-focused on myself. We need what I would call in a Nordic context which is still, you have individual responsibility. There is still an importance for me, but they’ve recognized that if they build systems for the we, each of us “me” will benefit.
- Robert Strand’s Faculty Profile
- Robert Strand on Coursera
- Robert Strand on Google Scholar
- Robert Strand on LinkedIn
- Robert Strand on Twitter
- Jenelle Harris on Linkedin
- Jenelle Harris’ Website
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Adriana: Welcome to Sustainability at Haas Mini Series, a podcast series looking at how the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business is shaping the next generation of sustainable business leaders. I’m Adriana.
[00:10] Olivia: And I’m Olivia.
[00:11] Adriana: And today, we’re accompanied by Professor Robert Strand who’s also known as Mr. Nordic. And he is the Director of the Nordic Center and the Center for Responsible Business at Haas. Also, Jenelle Harris, a Haas alum of class of 2017, a consultant at Bridgespan, and a career coach here at Haas.
[00:31] Olivia: Hi, Robert. Welcome to the show.
[00:33] Robert: Thank you. It’s so great to be here.
[00:35] Olivia: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. We’re excited for the conversation.
[00:39] Robert: Well, I am grateful for the interest. So, I look forward to it.
[00:44] Olivia: Great. Well, let’s get started with your background. Maybe more than most, you have an interesting and varied background with an industrial engineering, start working in manufacturing to business and getting an MBA, and really becoming a thought leader with even a PhD in sustainability. So, just to kick us off, I’m curious to know a little bit more about what motivated those seemingly major pivots in your career.
[01:18] Robert: Well, thank you. And first off, thanks for doing some good homework there. Way back, I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and then pursued an industrial engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin and joined corporate America and worked with IBM and Boston Scientific for about a day in a range of roles, manufacturing, supply chain, marketing, strategy, investor relations.
And I’m grateful for those experiences. I draw upon them very much today. But I also felt something was missing. And I didn’t feel as if I was necessarily pursuing a purpose that I felt good about, that I believed in. And I had the opportunity to go the academic route, was very fortunate to receive a Fulbright scholarship after I completed an MBA to go to Norway. And that changed my life. That set me upon the path that I am today that included pursuing a PhD, and now here at Berkeley Haas and all the work I do that is really looking to the Nordic region, not because I have all the answers but because, in my own experience, my time in the Nordics revolutionized my American mind where I came to know what America was more and I came to understand and get a sense for some of the problems that I felt in America that there might be some solutions out there.
[02:43] Olivia: Fascinating. I’m curious, from your MBA, why Norway?
[02:49] Robert: The reason I grew up in Wisconsin was my great, great grandparents, Knute and Nona Strand, came to the United States from Norway in 1861. And so, that’s the start of my family story, oftentimes, as we tell it. So, I always had my mind, or I should say my eye, toward that part of the world, toward Norway and the Nordics, more broadly speaking—Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. And as a little boy, my grandma would bring out the Norwegian flags around the holidays and be baking our ideas of what Norwegian food was. Whether or not that was current or not is subject to debate. But I always had that part of the world on my mind.
And then it was during a particular class in my MBA at the University of Minnesota, I did an evening weekend MBA program there while I was working in corporate America, and I took a class on world economics. And I couldn’t help but notice that there was always this little cluster of countries that seem to be bucking the trend, that somehow seem to be balancing economic prosperity with environmental and social prosperity. And my economist professors were telling me, to do such things there’s always going to be a tradeoff. You want to do some of that social stuff or some of the environmental stuff? It’s going to come at a cost.
And here I saw, I was like, “What about them? What about that part of the world?” So, I had my mind toward the Nordics because of family reasons. But then, I really developed a real modern interest in the Nordic countries because of that course, and then immediately after my MBA having the opportunity to go to Norway on a Fulbright and experience that firsthand.
[04:29] Olivia: Got it. So, you had a bit of a family connection, but also an academic interest.
[04:35] Robert: Absolutely.
[04:37] Olivia: Before we move on, I want to go back to one other area of interest. You mentioned working in corporate America and feeling like something was missing. Were there any pivotal moments during your time in corporate America that you can recall that made you stop and think, maybe this isn’t what I want to do? Maybe I should go get an MBA? Maybe I need to pivot, somehow?
[05:08] Robert: Yes, I was an industrial engineer with IBM and I was the Labor and Capacity Planner at an IBM site. And it happened to be at the time the world’s largest IBM factory in Rochester, Minnesota. And I found myself treating people, considering people “labor” no different than the equipment, no different than the capacity planning that I was doing. And it was in the meetings when we had our monthly labor and capacity plans and demand goes up and you need to hire people and get more equipment, demand goes down, you need to lay off people and retire equipment.
And I just found we were treating… and I was discussing, I was part of it, discussing people just as inputs. It was really a crisis of conscience. And woke up one morning and just the world was a shade of blue, I couldn’t get out of bed. And I knew the life I’m living, what I’m doing, it’s not what I truly believe inside. And I didn’t know exactly what to do with that. I didn’t know what to make of it or what direction to go. And that then fast-forward to when I had the opportunity to go to the Nordic region and see a very different structure of companies and where employees, by structure, it was not even possible to just treat people as inputs. It was structured where people are valued as human beings.
And I’m not saying that the people who live in the Nordic region are any better or worse than the Americans. But the structures they had in place better ensured that everybody was going to be treated as a person. And these structures include having employees on the board of directors. Employees had a seat at power by law in the Nordic countries. It includes having mandatory health and safety workers, if you have a company over so many people, 15, 20 people. And it included having an ombudsman, people in the structure that you can go to if you have some concerns. And due to those structures then, I found a more humanistic approach to business. I was drawn to that. And that set me off to say, what can we learn and bring back here in the United States?
[07:30] Olivia: Thank you for sharing that story. I think those moments can be really difficult, but also really important learning opportunities and wake-up calls. So, thanks for sharing.
[07:48] Robert: Well, I’ll just say one thing on that. I feel very fortunate and, frankly, very privileged that I’ve been able to have the discretion and opportunity in my life to pursue a path where I could do something about that. And I feel very much for folks that are in positions, for example, individuals working in those factories, that don’t necessarily have the freedom that I’ve had because of various reasons in my life who may be the subject of being treated as inputs and the hollowness. But they do it as a duty. They have a family. They have kids that they have to take care of. So, I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to actually do something about it and having the opportunity to be at Berkeley Haas and working with the leaders of business in the years to come, that’s a very privileged position, and I don’t take that lightly.
[08:40] Adriana: Thank you so much. And some of us had the opportunity to experience that passion that you have for the Nordic region in our trip to Copenhagen. So, Professor Strand or Mr. Nordic took us to his loved and special place. And we were able to explore from a humanistic perspective, from an educational perspective, from what building is, and from so many visions and angles, the love and the structures that actually work in other places around the world. So, I just wanted to hear a little bit more from you on that side. How exactly do you bring your students along? And how do you help students figure out what is, in particular, your special why and your purpose in that space?
[09:29] Robert: Well, thank you. And I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I have this opportunity to be at the University of California Berkeley, a place I’ve revered all my life, even as a little boy growing up in middle of nowhere in Wisconsin. I looked to the University of California Berkeley. And it is just a beacon of educational opportunity for all, for the many people. And I firmly believe that. And that’s in the idea of it’s inequality of opportunity that, at its core, is really… we can call that, that’s the American dream. And I think that the University of California Berkeley is an American dream factory.
And so, my purpose, what I feel, is I firmly believe in educational opportunities for all. And I also have deep, deep concerns about growing inequalities and divides throughout the world, and particularly, here in the United States of America. And from what I’ve seen and from what I’ve experienced, the Nordic countries and their longstanding investments in education for everyone, even when they were the poorest part of Europe, when they were impoverished, when my great, great grandparents fled Norway because they didn’t have food to eat and came to the United States of America, seeking opportunities, even at that time, with what meager resources they had in that part of the world, they invested in education.
And they weren’t trying to establish a bunch of elite little institutions. They weren’t looking to establish a bunch of little Harvards around the Nordic region. It was education for the peasants, for the many people. And I wouldn’t say that we’re a bunch of peasants here at UC Berkeley. But we’re regular people. And a lot of first-generation university students, more first-generation university students at the University of California Berkeley than if you added up all the Ivy Leagues plus Stanford combined. I think that’s beautiful. I love that.
And that sort of commitment is the norm across all the Nordics, and this idea of how do we ensure that everybody has access to opportunity. And there, I think we have a lot to learn. Because in the United States, I find most of the dominant political dialogue is about—and particularly in the business communities—about cut taxes, get government off me. And we’ve made the state our enemy in the United States. And what I see in the Nordic region is they see the state as a tool. And a tool is neither good or bad nor itself. But when it’s applied efficiently, a hammer can be very useful. And that’s what I see in the Nordic region. I want to expose that sort of idea to more of us here in the United States. And that’s what I humbly hope we can do in our new program that goes to Copenhagen. And the title of the course, as you know, is Sustainable Capitalism in the Nordics?
[12:29] Adriana: Nice. So, following up on that one, so, what do you learn in this class? And how exactly do you communicate this to students?
[12:39] Robert: The class itself that travels to Copenhagen is preceded by 10 torturous asynchronous weeks where I force our Berkeley Haas students to read my book. And the book is titled Sustainable Vikings: What the Nordics Can Teach Us About Reimagining American Capitalism. And so, that is the introduction the Nordic region, comparisons with America, going right down to ideas of, when we talk about capitalism, what exactly are we talking about, and level setting there. Within the book, one chapter, we look at the individual level. So, leadership—what you and I can do as individuals. We look at another chapter as the organizational level. So, companies—what are company’s strategies? And starting to understand a few companies in the Nordic region like Ørsted, like Carlsberg, like Novo Nordisk, like IKEA—some companies that are doing some really incredible things in sustainability.
And then, also, we look at the societal level. And here’s where I hope that we can take the great leap in this course, because business schools in America, we’ve been predominantly focused at the individual level, leadership development, and at the organizational level—corporate strategy, for example. And those are important. And they will remain important always for business schools. And I would argue we need to move up a level to the societal level and better develop future leaders who don’t just worry about themselves and their companies, but also have deep concerns about society. And that relates very much to your comment about Bildung because Bildung is this concept that’s been incorporated across Nordic education, an effective way to say you take responsibility for yourself and you take responsibility for your community and society as well.
[14:34] Olivia: That’s a super interesting concept. What I’m curious about next is, when you’re working with students as a professor in your capacity as Director of the Center for Responsible Business, how do you help students figure out their why and what motivates them? And maybe, in particular, how do you help them connect their personal why to a broader societal and global level why?
[15:03] Robert: That’s such a great question. And I think about this a lot. And I have a response to it. I certainly don’t have the answer, but I have a response. And one is that I’m very much drawn to the framework of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs. And the Sustainable Development Goals, they represent 17 challenges, or 17 greatest challenges we face on this planet. Number one, no poverty. Number three, good health wellbeing. Number four, quality education. Number 10, reduced inequalities. Number 13, climate action, etc., etc. Huge challenges. Huge problems. Well, the SDGs bring them all together in one framework.
And I would contend that the SDGs are an incredible purpose compass. If you look at these challenges, these are problems, these are real problems that we face in this world. And inevitably, each of us is drawn to one or two of them more than the others. We come alive when we think about them. And for me, SDG number four, quality education, and SDG number 10, reduced inequalities, those speak to me. It speaks to me why I want to be at the University of California Berkeley, because I think UC Berkeley is an institution, an organization, that addresses those grand problems, those wicked problems of how is it that we can better ensure that more of us have access to good quality education.
Now, someone else is going to be drawn to another SDG—SDG number 13, climate action, for example. Now, I see where my SDGs connect to that. I see where good quality education and where reducing inequalities actually makes it more likely that we can effectively tackle SDG number 13. And somebody else is going to have another perspective on how they tackle number 13. So, how to find one’s purpose? I’ve come to really rely upon the sustainable development goals as a purpose compass. And then, from there, we can go in many directions. But it’s a good common global language.
And then, I’ll also say it brings me back to the Nordics, because when we look at the SDGs and performance against them and look at the SDG Index, for example, that happens every year since the SDGs were launched in 2015, and lo and behold, year after year, you have a Nordic country that’s either number one, number two, number three. They’ve topped the list for the last so many years. And that also relates to why I’m excited. A more recent title that I have in addition to the Director of the Center for Responsible Business is I’m now also the Director of the Nordic Center at UC Berkeley, which we’ve launched just this year. And with good support from many friends, including Barbro Osher who’s a long-time friend of the University of California Berkeley, and so many folks across UC Berkeley, we believe that UC Berkeley can be the global platform where we sign a bright global spotlight on the Nordics to both challenge us here in the United States of America and also challenge the Nordics, because we need their leadership.
[18:13] Olivia: I love that idea of thinking of the UN SDGs as a purpose compass. I’m curious, just to follow up on that, how almost tactically would you recommend students figure out which of the SDGs resonates with them most? Maybe, you could speak to your process for coming to the realization that UN SDG number four and number 10 were those that you felt most passionately about.
[18:44] Robert: I think this is a great exercise that one can do as an individual and then get together in a group. And oftentimes, in classes or workshops that I have the privilege to lead, I’ll put the SDGs up there. So, I think the starting point I’d say is, look at those 17 SDGs, and they’re beautifully packaged. It’s beautiful suite of colors and logos that are actually attractive. They’re easy to look at. And that’s important, because that attraction, it draws us to consider them. And so, the first thing I do is I just put this colorful framework projected. And I ask everybody to take three minutes and identify the one in a forest, start by saying the one that you’re most drawn to. And I like saying the one because, oftentimes, people, it’s very hard for them to say one. They’re going to find two.
But that’s the great starting point for a conversation. I’m sorry. You know what? I do oftentimes, even before that, whether it’s the one you’re drawn to. I start by saying, which is the most pressing SDG? Which is the biggest challenge that we face in the world? Now, oftentimes, people we’re colored by what we’re most passionate about. So, if I’ll say SDG number 13, climate action, is the most pressing problem, and lo and behold, when I say what’s the one that I come alive and most passionate about myself, it’d be SDG 13, oftentimes. And I like starting, actually, at that standpoint of what’s the biggest most pressing problem, because then we have a discussion and debate between people who will say, “No, I believe SDG number four is the most pressing problem, and here’s why.” “No, no, no, SDG 13 is the most pressing problem. Here’s why.” People naturally just come alive. And then, by extension of that, you can see, clearly, you care about this one more than the others.
And it’s not that one is right or wrong as being the most pressing problem, but these are wicked problems. And by definition, a wicked problem is interconnected with other wicked problems. And this exercise can help us understand which is the one that I’m the most passionate about.
[20:43] Olivia: I think there is also so much under the surface driving this question of, what are you most passionate about? I think other questions that come to mind, and curious to know if this is something that you will work into the discussion, but I would think about which of these makes me most upset? Which of these do I feel like I am best equipped to contribute to, given my experiences and my skills? So, I think there’s just a really interesting list of questions that you can ask yourself when looking at this framework and thinking about the UN SDGs as a purpose compass.
[21:25] Robert: Olivia, I couldn’t agree more. And when I say passionate, that passion can be anger. And frankly, I’m angry that the inequalities that are only growing in the United States of America. It angers me from a sense of fairness and justice. And it angers me, if I go back to my industrial engineering days as an efficiency, we’re inefficient. The more that we allow inequality grow and exasperate, it undermines our ability to efficiently deliver services in American society, and frankly, run a democracy. We are undermining our own democracy by allowing such inequalities. And that angers me, absolutely. And then I want to do something about it. And I feel like being at UC Berkeley, being surrounded by such wonderful, talented, passionate students, I feel like I can fulfill my purpose best by being part of this and helping to be a facilitator of sorts for conversations and explorations on what might we do about it.
[22:28] Adriana: I really liked your point about the interconnectedness because it makes me think about how do you bring up the system thinking view and the societal level view of the SDGs. So, to me, climate change is my driver, but I see the potential with my Bildung thought and ideas and all that into a fundamental allocation system. So, how do I connect both sides of the coin? And how do I bring the passions into what I love the most, like how do I develop the development world? So, how do I connect all of those into one and create it as a driver for my life? So, that’s really interesting. So, I was wondering, what is your point of view? What is your thought about connecting the systems thinking and the SDGs and all of that together?
[23:23] Robert: You’re 100% correct, we need a systems view of the world. And we’ve, for too long, atomized business, atomized our society. And we need a systems perspective. And the SDGs really helps us to see the problems, their interconnections. And of course, a system is a series of interconnections of elements within it. And if we’re just looking at the elements, we miss the point, we miss seeing the interconnections. And also, we miss the overall purpose. And I think that this kind of systems thinking forces us to ask, what’s the purpose of this system?
And I’m really drawn to the offerings of Donella Meadows thinking systems. And I’m also, I’ll say, for all my anger, I also have such hope. And I look at Meadows, when she asks, how do you change a system? And do you try to change all the elements first? Do you try to change all the interconnections? And she wisely brings us to the point of saying, first, we have to understand the paradigm in which that system was born. And a paradigm, you could also call it a mindset. And here is where I fear that we, in the United States of America, have developed a me, me, me mindset, hyper-individualism, hyper-selfish, focused on myself.
We need what I would call in a Nordic context, which is still you have individual responsibility, there is still an importance for me. But they’ve recognized that if they build systems for the we, each of us me will benefit. So, I see it as a we-me mindset. I argue that, in America, we’re stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma, where each of us, clouded by our own me, me, me selfish interests, we are preventing ourselves from coming together, building systems that actually would benefit each of us. And the best way to get out of a prisoner’s dilemma is to demonstrate to each individualistic selfish actor that it’s actually in their own interest to cooperate. And that’s my humble hope by bringing folks to the Nordic region, to see, when people come together and actually build systems and establish smart policies, to do things like ensure universal access to education, universal access to healthcare, and then they efficiently run those systems, each of the individuals within the Nordic context, they benefit. And those sorts of seeing that firsthand is the best way I know how we can provoke change here in the United States.
[25:58] Adriana: Fascinating. So, Robert, thank you so much for your time. I think we’re running out of time, but I just wanted one more thing from you. What is your takeaway and your burning question? As you ask us in every single class, I just went to get that in a couple of sentences.
[26:16] Robert: I love that exercise. And now you’re turning it on me, the takeaway and the burning question. I’ll say that my takeaway or a summation piece here, a lot of this relates to ideas of freedom and democracy. And I believe in the idea of the land of the free. I firmly believe that. I love that narrative. I believe in the American dream—the American dream for everyone. And so, that’s my takeaway, is that we don’t need to invent new language here in the United States of America. We don’t need any other narratives. But my burning question is, do we have the courage and the wherewithal and the perseverance and are willing to put in the hard work to ensure that we truly are the land of the free? To ensure that we, in the United States of America, make it possible, where everybody, independent of who they are, where they’re coming from, who their family is, everybody has access to realize the American dream?
That’s my burning question. And I pose it as a challenge. And here, I want to appeal to that competitive American spirit, because frankly, we’re getting beat at the American dream. The American dream is a reality in the Nordic countries. Every child, independent of their background, has access to good quality education and can flourish. I want to appeal to the competitive spirit of Americans and say we should be the global leader in the American dream. We’re America, for God’s sakes. We should be the American dream leaders. So, that’s my burning question, are we up for the challenge?
[27:50] Olivia: That’s a great question. I am also thinking about what you said, how you described the challenge as being stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma, not as something that I think I’ll take away from this conversation and continue to think about.
[28:07] Robert: Well, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity here. And please, also do sign up for the mailing lists at the Nordic Center at UC Berkeley. We’re going to have a lot of events, going forward. And also, here’s a call for help. We need help to ensure that the Nordic Center lives on beyond our two-year probationary period. So, we need supporters out there. So, if anybody’s interested in reaching me, my email is easy. It’s MrNordic@berkeley.edu. So, I look forward to hearing from you.
[28:41] Olivia: So, now we’ll shift gears and start our conversation with Jenelle. Jenelle is a Manager at Bridgespan where she leads engagements with social impact organizations, and a career coach at Berkeley Haas, where she works with mission-driven leaders. We’ll be talking with Jenelle about how we can find purpose and meaning in our career search. Welcome to the show, Jenelle.
[29:00] Jenelle: Thank you so much for having me.
[29:02] Olivia: It’s our pleasure. Well, let’s kick it off by talking a little bit about your background and your career journey. We would love if you could share a little bit about your path to Haas, and then, maybe, a bit about your time during Haas.
[29:16] Jenelle: That sounds great. So, prior to joining Haas, I had spent my entire career in the social sector. I graduated from college. I’m going to date myself in ’08. And I knew coming out of college that I wanted to work in a path that involves service. I didn’t quite have a vision for what that would look like, but I knew I wanted to help other people. So, I found myself working at Teach For America on staff at first. And I initially was pretty resistant to the idea of being a teacher because I had witnessed my mother have her entire career in education and all the ups and downs of being a teacher and working in different capacities at schools. Working at Teach For America was really compelling and really got me on board with this idea that transforming education was a path to greater equity in the US.
And so, after a year and a half of working on staff, I became a teacher. I ended up teaching for three years seventh grade math, also, for the first two years focusing on students with special needs. And so, during my time in the classroom, I was open to the possibility that, maybe, I would just love teaching and want to teach forever. But I also tried to keep my eyes and ears just alert to other dimensions of education that were really compelling or that might give me a clue as to where I should go next.
During my training as a teacher, there was a piece of advice I received that really stuck with me. And it still sticks with me to this day. She was someone who worked at a pretty prominent charter school in Atlanta called The Ron Clark Academy. And I remember her saying as advice for those of us who were not quite sure what we wanted to do after we completed our two-year agreement with Teach For America, she said to pay attention while we’re in the classroom to what angers us, because she said that you’re going to be placed in schools that have a lot of disadvantage. And your students will be in challenging situations. And a lot of what you see will be incredibly heartbreaking, but pay attention to those things that just continuously light you up and spark anger, because that’s a clue as to where you are best positioned to be of service.
So, in the classroom, I just kept finding myself getting really frustrated by two things—leadership, and at the time, I didn’t have the language for this. I didn’t even know strategy was a thing. But it was just an absence of strategic decision-making. My school, in spite of being one of the lowest performing schools in the state of Georgia, had a ton of really passionate and very well-educated educators in the building, people with multiple master’s degrees and PhDs. And we just could not turn things around in a way that felt meaningful. And it just got me really wondering, how do other companies and industries solve problems? Because the way that we’re doing this feels like we’re throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, and nothing is really working.
And long story short, I arrived at campus at Haas really excited about the idea of becoming a strategist and specifically wanting to enter consulting, because how else does one become a strategist? At least, that’s how I thought at the time. And really curated all of my coursework to focus on what I felt like would give me the strongest set of skills to become a strategist.
[32:25] Olivia: Awesome. Well, just as a follow-up to that, I’m curious, where did you do your internship while you were at Haas? And how did that, maybe, shape your idea of what you wanted to do after? Or was it something that generally reinforced your idea of what you wanted to do?
[32:46] Jenelle: Yeah. So, I came in with tunnel vision. I only wanted to do consulting. So, I was on the consulting bandwagon from day one and all-in on case prep, etc. So, I interviewed with almost every consulting firm that came on campus in the fall. And I landed an internship with Deloitte. I ended up, it was, in essence, strategy consulting specifically focusing on some of their tech engagements, focusing on sourcing and procurement, so, like supply chain. To someone who is more familiar with supply chain, the project might have seemed very boring. But for me, this was the first private sector project I’ve really ever done professionally. And it was really intellectually intriguing.
The summer was pretty intense. There was a lot of travel, like the traditional weekly consulting travel, really intense pace of work, long hours. And I was still learning a lot. I was doing a lot of new things while learning new things. And so, I learned a lot from that experience, but did not end the summer feeling like for-profit consulting was probably the best path for me. I did end feeling still thinking that strategy was what I wanted to do, but just had mixed feelings about whether or not consulting was the right path.
[34:01] Olivia: I was going to ask, I think of the things that’s most important, especially during the summer internship when you’re really testing out hypotheses is to regularly tap into how are you feeling? And how does this work make you feel? Are you excited to get up every day and go to work? So, I’m curious, how did you feel while you were working at Deloitte in supply chain?
[34:29] Jenelle: I had a number of existential crises that summer, where I was calling my—so, I did Management Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT) program before entering Haas. And they provide support while you’re in school as well. So, I had a coach. And I called her a number of times, just having mini meltdowns around “I don’t really feel like this is meaningful. I don’t feel like my work really matters. I’m not really making a difference.” And that was really the first time I had to contend with that possibility of what does it actually feel like to do work that’s not in the social sector.
Part of what drew me to teaching was I really wanted to be in the trenches. And I was doing an internship at a Fortune 100 company, helping them save maybe $8 million out of a really big denominator by transforming their supply chain processes. It was intellectually cool and interesting to me. And yes, it would have positive effect on their business, but it just didn’t feel as inspiring or motivating. And that’s something I really grappled with, too, about could I actually see myself doing this work? And could I come up with a story that would make this feel meaningful for me? And that was a challenge.
[35:43] Olivia: I imagine $8 million might have been a drop in the bucket for a Fortune 100 company, but imagine you were thinking how far could $8 million go out of school or in a school district. So, I imagine that would be challenging.
[36:00] Jenelle: It kind of sparked an internal dialogue with myself about the type of work I really wanted to do. And I think, at that time, I was also thinking very binary about how I could be a strategist. It really felt like it had to be in the private sector. I didn’t have a vision yet for doing strategy in the social sector. I’d never even heard of people doing that, really. And I definitely felt a little bit stuck, so stuck that I actually gave myself permission to not recruit that fall my second year. I studied abroad in Barcelona. I just lived my best life. I traveled. And I just told myself I will just deal with my career when I get back. I do, however, try to focus on courses while I was studying abroad at ESA that were still strategy-focused because I knew that that was still what I wanted to do, but I just paused on the recruiting front to give myself some time to just take it all in and reflect.
[36:57] Adriana: Existential crisis sounds so familiar.
[37:00] Jenelle: Glad to hear it wasn’t just me.
[37:03] Adriana: If you’d like, let’s go through that, especially going through a program like Haas, exploring, understanding ourselves, and viewing our self from different angles. That to me has been fascinating. And I just want to hear, what were those critical moments in your path through Haas that really made you? So, you mentioned that you worked at Deloitte apparently. What were things that were so critical that were like, “I just have to stop, slow down, take it in,” or maybe an experience that really trigger you to think differently beyond the strategy or beyond the consulting role?
[37:42] Jenelle: I think it would probably be two things. And most of it still revolves around that summer. I started to have a little bit of dread leading up to the summer, but I had just worked so hard, like not a lot of sleep, hours and hours of case prep, and had felt very triumphant when I got the offer, and then had a really casual spring because I didn’t have to recruit anymore. But then, as the weeks were leading up to the internship, I just got this gut feeling that this might not be what I was expecting it to be. And I think that set the tone for the summer. I’m just feeling a little bit thrown off.
And then, secondly, I haven’t really shared this publicly, but it feels relevant. And I’ll just thought I’d share. I didn’t actually get an offer to come back to Deloitte at the end of the summer. I wasn’t totally shocked because the work was hard and it was so new for me. But I was still shocked because I’m a high achiever and not used to not getting opportunities. So, it felt very rare for someone to say like, “You worked really hard at this thing and we’re still not going to take you.” I was embarrassed because, when I came back to campus, the first thing people said to me was, “Well, how’s your summer? Did you get an offer? Are you going to go back?” And I was just like, “Oh, my God. I don’t want to talk about it.” I just evaded the question and didn’t really talk about it.
So, both of those pieces of the experience really started to have me question, is it the right path for me? Because it felt pretty discouraging to have worked so hard for something and it just didn’t feel great. And then I also didn’t get that external validation that I was on the right path.
[39:22] Olivia: So, you ended up landing a full-time role with Bridgespan. I’m curious, in the lead up to your start date, did you have a different feeling? Was there a little bit more excitement or feeling that this is the right path, this is where I want to go?
[39:37] Jenelle: Yeah. And I also felt a little bit of surprise because the opportunity of Bridgespan wasn’t one I engineered. It felt more like a combination of serendipity and divine intervention, like there was a puppet master at play in the background that had pieced this together, because it wasn’t even a solution that I invented. At no time during my time at Haas that it occurred to me strategy would still be a great fit. And I should really think about doing that in the social sector, which I know doesn’t sound like it makes any sense because I spent my entire career in the social sector. But I still had just had this very narrow view of what was possible in terms of the path that might look like to become a strategist.
And one of my classmates actually who also did Teach For America, who was also on the consulting path, was case-prepping with me that spring, leading up to graduation. Bless her heart, still working with me, even though she had then had a job offer. And she suggested that I consider Bridgespan, connected me with an alum who was in her, I think, second year at Bridgespan. We had coffee. She referred me. And then I started the interview process.
And that process also just felt so different. It was like the most pleasant calm interview experience I’ve ever had. The way it all lined up for me, again, just continuously felt this sense of surprise, like it doesn’t actually have to feel so hard. I could be in an interview and feel very confident. And just the entire experience felt different in a way that all along made me feel more sure this is where I’m supposed to be.
[41:15] Adriana: Nice. So, since you left Haas, your vision has transformed and transitioned through your experience. So, how has that vision transformed into more of a coaching role? And what do you do in that space?
[41:33] Jenelle: I was trying to tell that story neatly. So, in parallel to my consulting path and my journey at Haas, I was also in this biggest journey of deep introspection and healing and personal development. Actually, truly, roots were planted during my first year at Haas. And I had a reflection, probably a year or two into my time at Bridgespan, that I would probably be most satisfied with my career if I could somehow find the intersection of being of service combined with wellness and personal development. And I had no idea what that would look like. That also triggered another set of internal existential questions. I was thinking things like should I be working at Headspace on their strategy team? Do I need to look for a new job? What does it actually look like to center strategy and wellness, personal development, but also being a service in that way?
And so, I honestly just started to really sit with that question. I wanted to feel like I was both being of service but also really pursuing my calling and my purpose. I started to read a book called The Calling by a really well-known coach. Her name is Rha Goddess. And she also actually typically coaches folks in the social sector. And it was really during the time I’m reading that book and sitting with these questions, like how am I best called to serve, that I had this insight about becoming a coach. And so, I literally had the idea like I should take coach training. Thought it over maybe for a couple of days, Googled some programs, and within a few weeks was enrolled and started this path in 2020. It was really fast. It was once I heard the answer it just resonated so deeply. I didn’t really need to mull it over. I just took action.
[43:27] Olivia: I think something you said that’s really interesting to me is about the role of introspection in your journey and coming to the realization that maybe this job, this dream job at Bridgespan, this role in strategy and social sector, consulting, that might have felt perfect on paper was still maybe not quite enough is so important. And I think introspection looks different for everybody. But could you maybe speak a little bit about what introspection looks like for you? How do you find time to think about how, I guess, to do that introspective work?
[44:15] Jenelle: I can talk about how it started and then what it looks like now. They’re very different. But in business school, what it looks like was I’ve always been an early riser. So, it typically looked like me waking up at 5:00 or 5:30. And I would really refuse to do anything school or work-related until—I think sometimes I might give myself a boundary of you cannot look at email until 8:00 a.m. And so, I would use the time in the morning for reading and journaling. I actually began my journaling practice fall of my first year. And I still journal every morning to this day. And I would read from books on psychology and spirituality and personal development, just things that helped me grapple with questions, but also motivational and really about expanding my mindset. That was particularly important during, I feel like, the recruiting process when I was just so anxious. So, those were the two biggest ways. Since then, it’s expanded to include therapy. And I have a coach who I’ve been working with for two years. I meditate now, a daily meditation practice. So, those are the early pieces of it. And then it’s just expanded since then.
[45:27] Olivia: That’s awesome. I think just speaking personally, I was working in consulting before coming to Haas. And I remember feeling like I just had no time to even think about what I wanted to do next. And I actually had to take a six-month sabbatical. And during that time, I was just amazed at the number of thoughts that just came up when I had my wandering time. So, I think, since then, I obviously don’t want to have to take a sabbatical every few years. I think one of the things I’m striving to do is [inaudible 00:46:09] time into my daily needs.
[46:07] Jenelle: I will also say that maybe it’s okay to be the type of person who does just need a sabbatical every so often. I took a two-month, probably, sabbatical last year. And I actually remember telling my doctor that I’m doing that. And her reaction was so funny to me. She was like, “Yeah, that just might be something you have to do from now on every year or so. Just take two months off.” I was like, “That’s a thing. I didn’t know that people just did that, but great.”
[46:37] Olivia: Yeah, I highly recommend. Well, great. Shifting gears a little bit, I wanted to talk about a line that I actually read in your LinkedIn profile when we were first connecting. You said all social justice work is radically imaginative because we are co-creating a world we have never seen before. And I was so struck by that because I have been exploring the intersection of sustainability and social impact in my time at Haas. I think sustainability work is and should be even more linked with social justice work.
So, I think I see a lot of parallels in myself and my classmates with just being in a space where we also are striving to co-create a world we have never seen before. And I think a lot of the mission-driven leaders who come to Haas go on to experience some frustration when they’re in the workforce with the limits of what the organizations they join are willing to do. So, I’m curious, your path has been working at Bridgespan, working with social impact organizations, maybe it’s a little bit different, but I know you work with Haas students, maybe past and present. And I’m curious, how have you grappled with those frustrations? How have you, maybe, helped others work through some of those frustrations?
[48:02] Jenelle: Well, this is going to sound super consultancy. But I think, at its core, it’s really about having your own clear sense of your own personal theory of change. And that’s a fancy way of saying knowing what your vision is and really understanding and believing in your own definition of your purpose and how the work you’re doing is in service of that. It’s really about being tightly connected to the bigger picture, which I think makes it easier to navigate those day-to-day frustrations.
I want to share some context on the radically imaginative part of my bio on LinkedIn. I came up with that concept. I really have to credit two writers and activists, Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha. They actually co-developed an anthology that looks at Octavia Butler’s writing and the intersection of science fiction with social justice movements. A way that they characterize their work that they both come back to, but I pulled up some writing from Walidah Imarisha. And basically, what she says is, to quote, “When we talk about a world without prisons, a world without police violence, a world where everyone has food, clothing, shelter, quality education, a world free of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism, we are talking about a world that doesn’t currently exist. But collectively dreaming up one that does means that we can begin building it into existence.”
And so, that is why they’re essentially saying that all organizing or replace the word “organizing” with social impact work is, in essence, science fiction because we are quite literally trying to co-create a world that we have not ever seen before and that does not currently exist, even though there might be sparks of possibility. And coming across that quote for me really just expanded my whole world. It really helped me understand what my coaching and my strategy consulting work is in service of. And it’s really in service of radical imagination, like dreaming up new possibilities, envisioning who we have to become in order to have a bigger impact, to live really full and robust lives.
And recognizing that we’re all in service of something so much bigger. So, as hard as we each individually work, we’re only one of potentially thousands and generations of contributors to that vision. And so, I think, in addition to having a vision, dealing with the frustration also requires a bit of acceptance existentially of the role that we each play. And that’s some of the work we’re doing, is to continue beyond even our own lifetimes. I think being really rooted in that helps a lot.
[50:46] Olivia: That is so beautiful and powerful. Thank you for sharing that. I’m glad that you pulled up the text. I love that.
[50:55] Adriana: Yeah, it is impressive. And I just wanted to hear a little bit more. So, as a coach of mission-driven leaders, how do you coach future leaders to embody these radical imagination? I’m just super curious about how does this vision look like for you.
[51:13] Olivia: I think, especially when most of us are working within the system, and so our day-to-day is maybe about the numbers and the PNL and stuff like that.
[51:25] Jenelle: The way that I typically see the frustration panning out is people really hitting their limits with regards to burnout, overworking, feeling like the problems that they are working in services are so big that, who are they to stop working at 5:00, or who are they to set limits on how much they’re willing to work, and really grappling with that. This is actually more important than me and my personal wellness. How can I set boundaries and not also feel tons of guilt?
So, a lot of times, when I’m working with folks in the social sector, that’s one of the biggest things we’re working through, is what does it look like to do this work and to do so in a way that is nourishing and doesn’t leave us wiped out? And how do we both hold the sacredness and importance of this big important work we’re doing and take care of ourselves and feel permission to do that, too. So, that’s the biggest way that it shows up in the way that I coach folks. And giving themselves permission to set those boundaries and pace themselves, because the reality is that, when we don’t, our bodies will eventually force us to.
And so, a lot of times, people I’m coaching, you and myself included, have hit those walls because our bodies would not let us continue overworking and self-sacrificing in that way. And we’re almost forced to figure out another way to show up.
[52:49] Adriana: You told very much for me. Even the weekend student, working, studying, being a mother, and having so many arms and legs, I feel like the work—I’m balancing everything in a daily basis, I’m prioritizing on daily basis some things, like having that time and stopping and hearing you talk about sabbaticals and taking time off, I’ll actually just quit my job so I can think a little bit of drifting time and space. But yeah, it is impressive, how do you just hit the limits and set the boundaries and start thinking about you in order to be able to help others and elevate pillars in a different angle. So, thank you for sharing.
[53:35] Olivia: Well, I guess, just to wrap up our time with you, Jenelle, is there any other advice or words of wisdom that you have for current or prospective Haas students who are at an exciting time in their career where they’re maybe pivoting or thinking about what’s next?
[53:53] Jenelle: Yeah, I have the privilege of hindsight. So, I can now see how all these things fit together several years later. But at the time, I didn’t have any clue where my path was heading. There’s a quote. I’m laughing because the quote is from The Secret, the movie, which is all about this idea of manifestation. And so, some people think the movie has really anything credible in it, and others do, but that’s neither here nor there. But the quote in the movie that they say is you could drive from California to New York City in the dark, pitch black, no lights. But as long as your car has the headlights and you can see the next 10 to 20 feet, you could drive 3,000 miles that way and get there safely. And I think that’s actually exactly the same way that my path and most of our paths evolve, is we actually cannot see much further than that. I think that we have been swindled into believing that we need to have these big plans, like five, 10-year plans.
And I think it’s more about potentially understanding your north star, as we would say at Bridgespan. What is your vision? Do you have any sense of where you think—what is your best guess about where you’d most like to be or the type of work you’d most like to be doing. Or if you can’t even get there, the type of world you most like to see exist that you would be actually really excited about being in service of creating. And then trusting that things will fall into place, that you’ll meet the people, conversations will happen, opportunities will present themselves, that will help you get to that path. And that the path itself will be probably incredibly windy and that you can’t overly engineer it intellectually. It is a lot of self-trust, I think, to be discerning about which opportunities are truly in service. But knowing that you’re going from California to New York and trusting that you’ll be able to, at least, see the next 20 feet the way through, that’s the best metaphor I can offer for how to think about navigating that ambiguity. Because it can certainly feel, really, like you’re loss a lot of that time because I know I certainly felt like that.
[55:58] Olivia: That’s the perfect metaphor. And the takeaway for me is just the importance of self-trust and patience, which definitely resonates as a graduating second-year in the Full-Time MBA program. So, thank you so much, Jenelle. This was such a pleasure. We really appreciate you making the time.
Thank you so much to Robert Strand, aka, Mr. Nordic, and Jenelle Harris for sharing your story and your passion with us and for your sage advice on how current and prospective MBA students can work toward finding purpose and meaning in our careers.
[56:37] Adriana: And to our audience, thank you so much for tuning in to the last episode of the Sustainability at Haas Mini Series. We hope that you learned from our speakers how UC Berkeley Haas School of Business is driving the development of sustainability leaders through our curriculum, how faculty are doing some research, and how alumni are getting and creating careers in sustainability.