An interview with Amelia Alberghini

Amelia Alberghini (MBA Class of 2001) has been a wonderful mentor to me on the HBS Social Enterprise Mentorship program. Here she shares her experiences and thoughts on a variety of topics, including tradeoffs between social enterprise and private sector careers, making social service an integral part of everyday life, and striking a work-life balance.

What did you do before HBS?

I was the fourth employee at the Initiative for Competitive Inner City (ICIC), a non-profit organization focused on increasing business activity in inner-cities as a means of generating jobs and wealth for inner-city residents. The idea for ICIC began with some students of Professor Michael Porter, who had worked with Professor Porter on some research on the aftermath of the LA riots on inner-cities while they were MBA students at HBS. I think this speaks to the power of student research in the field of social enterprise.

I came across the job primarily by luck. I was looking for a job in Boston with the help of a headhunter, and found this temporary job at ICIC. However, when I got there, I found that ICIC had wonderful potential to make a difference, so I stayed.

Like work in any small non-profit, my job description included doing a bit of everything, including doing a lot of research on retail markets in inner city neighborhoods alongside teams of BCG consultants. For example, we completed the first study on the size of the inner-city market for retail services.

The aim of this work was to bring information to retailers so that they could tailor their offerings to what inner-city people were looking for. We wanted to raise awareness in political and commercial communities that inner-city areas were good, profitable places to do business. This was a real paradigm shift – we were one of the first organizations that looked at the advantages – not disadvantages – of doing business in inner-cities.

A lot of our work was based on applying Michael Porter’s theories of competitive advantage. Therefore, I had the privilege of working with Professor Porter and other staff on their public speaking engagements, and helped write some of their speeches. It was a real pleasure to work with Professor Porter, and to see how he thought about problems.

Professor Porter dedicated a lot of his time to ICIC, and he set high standards for everyone who worked with him. It was inspiring to work with someone who had so much influence in the business world, yet was willing to invest so much in the social community.

What did you find most attractive about your job?

I was attracted to the mission-driven aspect of what ICIC was doing – i.e., their willingness to look beyond the bottom-line to consider the larger impact they were having. I could really see the impact of our work very quickly, for example, when a CEO’s eyes would light up when he/she heard a presentation on opportunities in inner-city retail.

I also liked the entrepreneurial aspects of working in a small non-profit. I enjoyed having my hands in many different areas at the same time, and the unstructured nature of the job appealed to me. I loved working on the ground, and helping an organization to grow – ICIC is now a national organization with 40 employees across the country.

Most of all, I enjoyed the opportunity to make a difference.

What did you find least attractive about your job?

Most people have the misconception about non-profit that it is a cushy job. Nothing was further from the truth. In a startup non-profit like ICIC, you frequently have to work very long hours for very little pay. ICIC took up most of my life while I was there – work regularly spilled over into weekends, and work-related thoughts/concerns stayed with me at night even when I was at home.

There were also a great deal of political sensitivity associated with lobbying work, and a lot of public-relations issues that you had to worry about. You had to make sure that you touched the right people at the right time, and that everyone was involved and in the loop in what you were doing. It was sometimes frustrating to work in such politicized areas.

Finally, as in most non-profit organizations, you spend more than half of your time fund-raising instead of working on operations. This is because, unlike for-profit startups, non-profits never become self-sustainable – there is a continuous need for new funding. I spent too much time writing tailored funding proposals instead of working on creating actual outputs, which I much preferred doing.

Why did you decide to go to HBS after 3.5 years at ICIC?

I had not considered business school coming out of college. (I was a psychology major.) However, through working at ICIC, I realized that the business world is the arena where most socially significant decisions were made.

I decided to go to HBS partly because I wanted to “speak the language”, since business is essential to making any change. In particular, the professional and personal circle that you develop as a business person gives you a great deal of influence. For example, people listen to Michael Porter because of his expertise in the business sector, so he is particularly effective in stimulating change through social enterprise-related work.

I really enjoyed HBS, and the highlight of my time at HBS was serving as co-president of the Social Enterprise Club.

While at school, I also worked on a strategic plan for another non-profit organization called “WiredWoods”, started by another group of HBS alumni. WiredWoods’s goal is to use traditional summer camps to teach inner-city children how to build websites. It runs at traditional camps (with swimming, rope-climbing, etc.), where each child is given a digital camera to take photographs of their activities. Each child then builds his/her own website using these pictures and describing their camp activities.

What did you do after HBS?

After graduating in 2001, I went back to ICIC to work with their Boston-based inner-city project, where I was able to see how the nationwide work I did before translated to the local level. At the same time, I continued to consult with WiredWoods.

After nine months, I moved to my current job with John Hancock’s Bond and Corporate Finance group. I wanted to see what it was like working in a large for-profit organization, to learn about how businesses are run operationally – how groups are structured, how workflow is managed, how staff is organized, etc. I also wanted to have another couple of years of intensive training in financial analytics, building on the skills I acquired through my MBA education. On a more personal level, I wanted to experience working in the private sector, to see whether I could do it, and whether I would like it.

Now that you are working in a for-profit organization, how do you integrate social enterprise work into your life?

I serve as a board member at WiredWoods, and continue to give them advice on fundraising and strategic direction, and also introduce them to potential fund-raising sources. I also serve on the board of the Hattie Cooper Community Center in Roxbury (I got involved with this through a United Way-sponsored program called “The Board Bank”). As head of its finance committee, I help work on their budget, fundraising, etc.

In total, these commitments occupy 2-5 hours of my time each week, mostly after office hours or on weekends.

What are the trade-offs working in for a large corporation in the private sector vs. a startup non-profit?

Working for a non-profit, you have the additional, direct motivation coming from knowing that what you do helps other people. Financially, the private sector generally pays somewhat more. However, for-profit organizations do not have the mission-driven aspect of work. I find that I now need to look for this in other parts of life – e.g., spending time with friends and family, and volunteering.

Second, in a large for-profit corporation, you get a lot of direction and acc
ess to people with experience in the field. In a startup non-profit, you’re on your own in figuring out the strategic direction of your company and your career path (which is usually unclear).

Thirdly, in a well-structured, well-run for-profit, you get various benefits e.g., the ability to work part-time when you want to start a family. In non-profit, you cannot leave your work behind so easily because of resource constraints. There is less infrastructure and support around you.

Lastly, in non-profits, you work with other people with same interests as you – you know that you are likely to get along because of your common values. You’ve all actively chosen the same off-the-beaten-track career path, so there is a natural bond. This is not the case with all for-profits – people could be at a particular company for a variety of reasons.
Given your active involvement in non-profit board activities in addition to your full-time job, how do you think about work-life balance?

To be honest, I’m still figuring out my work-life balance. In a sense, though, doing volunteer work makes me a happier person – so I do not consider it a work-related time-commitment. It’s something that enriches my life. I am not married and do not yet have kids, so I have time to do this.

More generally, many people I have talked to are less concerned about working constantly to make a good impression coming out of business school: many worked very hard before business school and saw the consequences of devoting too much to work. It’s easier to say “no” to people, because post-business school, you are now more comfortable with yourself, and more committed to living life on your own terms than others’ terms. There are times when staying late is unavoidable, and times when it is not – I find that it is easier to see the difference between the two now.

What advice can you give to current MBAs on trying to strike a work-life balance?

Try to live life on your own terms as much as you can. A lot of your life is under your control – there are specific choices you make about your career that will affect your personal and professional life much more than it might seem on the surface.

For example, working at John Hancock has different lifestyle implications than working in investment banking. You must be willing to make those trade-offs, and to think very consciously about what works for you. However, also remember that something unexpected always happens – so can’t plan your life completely.

What advice do you have for students considering careers in social enterprise?

Think about the different fields of social enterprise and what area you want to work in. Just as there are many distinct industries in the private sector, there are many distinct areas in social enterprise. Working for an economic development group will be very different than working in education, for example. Research each sub-sector well, and focus as much as you can on the area you’re interested in. Also, use the HBS network – it is a wonderful resource to have. Many of the cutting edge innovative social enterprise organizations that exist today are lead by
HBS alumni or connected to the business school in a meaningful way.

This profile is part of a semester-long series that highlights the lives of HBS alumni involved with nonprofits, socially oriented for-profits, and government. Each featured alumni is a participant in the Social Enterprise Club’s mentorship program, which currently facilitates interactions between 35 mentor/student partners. For more information about this program, please contact Ted Hill at