Q&A with Sarah Perry

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with my Social Enterprise Alumni Mentor, Sarah Perry (MBA 1995), about her career in the social enterprise sector. Sarah comes from a consulting background and is currently the director of a consulting organization that provides pro-bono consulting services to non-profits in the Boston area. Here are her thoughts:

What is your role within the social enterprise sector?

I am executive director of Community Action Partners (CAP), a program of the HBS Alumni Association of Boston, which provides pro-bono consulting services to local non-profits. The program is similar to the Volunteer Consulting Organization (VCO) at HBS, only we engage volunteers who are HBS alums instead of students. Within this capacity, my responsibilities include recruiting clients and volunteers, measuring impact and ensuring satisfaction, and promoting and running all aspects of the program. I also volunteer for a number of different organizations, including City Year, Citizen Schools, and The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

What type of non-profits receive services from CAP?

Since CAP’s inception, over 400 alumni have participated in CAP projects, working on more than 75 projects for a diverse array of Greater Boston non-profit organizations. The array of client organizations served includes community development agencies, health and human services, arts and culture, educational and environmental groups, and youth-oriented agencies among others.

How did you make the transition from for-profit to social enterprise?

My transition from the for-profit to the social enterprise sector happened quite unexpectedly. After graduating from HBS in 1995, I took a traditional path and accepted a position with McKinsey & Company in New York. While I loved McKinsey’s intellectually stimulating environment, I was constantly on the lookout for opportunities to combine aspects of my business experience with my passion for social change.

One day on a business trip I was reading Revolution of the Heart by Share Our Strength Founder Billy Shore – a book about how non-profits can create revenue for themselves through profitable enterprise and partnerships with the private sector – and I was so inspired by it that I called up Billy and arranged a meeting. Fortuitously, at the time he was starting a consulting company (Community Wealth Ventures) to help non-profits with social enterprise ventures. At the end of our meeting, he offered me a job as a managing director of CWV. I accepted immediately.

How did you find the transition?

I found the transition from the for-profit to the social enterprise sector exhilarating and fulfilling, though I must say that it came with some challenges. For one, I naively found myself applying HBS- and McKinsey-like business models to non-profits who didn’t understand the language or have the capacity to implement some of our initial recommendations. Also, the pace was much slower than I was used to at McKinsey, which could be frustrating at times. Last, as frequently happens when one is charting relatively new territory, I felt at times that we had so little foundation to build off of that we had to create so much from scratch.

What are your favorite parts about working in the social enterprise sector?

What I like best about the SE sector is that it is extremely rewarding – both emotionally and intellectually. You feel that you are really making a difference in people’s lives and you get to apply new, creative ways of solving social problems. And the sector is full of passionate, smart, ambitious people who are wonderful to work with and to learn from. Also, the non-profits I work with are very appreciative of the help we give them, and I can see the direct impact of our work.

What are the drawbacks about working in the social enterprise sector?

On the downside, there is so much more to be done and only a limited amount you can give. At CAP, we turn away clients because of over-demand for our services, and it is frustrating to have to say “no” when we know we could make a difference if only we had the resources.

This profile is part of a semester-long series intended to highlight the lives of HBS alumni working in the social enterprise arena. Each featured alumni is a participant in the Social Enterprise Club’s mentorship program, a pilot initiative launched this year in the Boston area. This program, currently facilitating 20 mentor/student partnerships, will be rolled-out nationally this fall.