This is the first part of a series in which I write about how Nanette worked for and finally got accepted into Kiva, a well-respected microfinance organization. She’s now having a great time in Nairobi helping borrowers and improving the operations of Kiva Zip. This series of posts is a gift for her and a tribute to her hardwork.
The sun was setting over Manhattan, and Nanette was staring at Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides on her clunky work laptop. Throngs of tourists seethed through Times Square 20 floors below her at Ernst and Young’s Times Square office.
It was January 2014, and Nanette felt lost and unsure of herself. She had been working for Ernst and Young—EY according to their recent rebranding campaign—for two and a half years. She knew that something was missing, but figuring out what that something was and how to get it, would take her more than a year.
“I find myself sitting in front of Excel sheets or PowerPoint decks, and I don’t know what happens to those docs after that,” said Nanette when I interviewed her in January 2015. “When I was young, I always thought that I would do something bigger. I think at that time, I felt disappointed with myself.”
Nanette didn’t always feel this way. She graduated in 2011 from University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce with a degree in accounting and finance. After graduation, Nanette moved into an apartment in Manhattan’s midtown east at 245 East 44th Street with her friend and classmate Alyssa. She had received a full time offer from EY in November 2010 and began her first day of work on October 6, 2011.
When I asked Nanette in the second half of 2013 how she initially felt about her job, she said her first year at EY was “one of the best years of [her] life.” Nanette had just broken up, for the final time, with her previous boyfriend. She was single and free. She traveled around the continental United States on business trips with other young, fresh-out-of-school colleagues. She often had to put in long hours, but her travel and living expenses were paid for. Nanette enjoyed the VIP statuses awarded to her by airlines, hotels, and rental car companies. She relished it all: the experience of new cities and her single, carefree working life with some jetsetter charm sprinkled on top. She had walked the streets of Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, Santa Monica, London, and Edinburgh among others.
Nearly two and a half years later, Nanette began to feel a certain type of hunger. She began looking for ways to volunteer. She kicked off 2014 by attended eight networking events to meet like-minded people and “explore ways to make helping people a bigger part of her life instead of just volunteering a few hours a week.” These networking events focused on social entrepreneurship or impact investing. What interested others, however, did not always appeal to Nanette. One woman at a Meetup event described her idea of creating a community group dedicated to eating organic food. But Nanette is not passionate about food. She felt others were as lost as she was. Available job openings were for community managers or did not sponsor work visas. Nanette quickly realized she had to stop talking and start doing.
It took Nanette months of searching within herself and online to figure out what she liked and an applicable opportunity. In January 2014, Nanette began spending three hours a day for three months on her search for something new. In March, she found Net Impact, a nonprofit organization where people can contribute their professional skills to various social and environmental groups. Through Net Impact, nonprofits that don’t have money to hire consultants get them for free. This organization matched her interests and background. Nanette wanted to apply but realized she had missed an application deadline by several days.
Luckily Nanette’s Ernst and Young colleague Ali Briggs was the Programs Co-Chair of Net Impact’s New York City chapter.
“Remember I decided to do more instead of just talking and networking? So I did a lot of research, and then I stumbled onto NI’s page. I went to the about page and saw my friend’s name there. I thought, ‘Alright, I should apply.’”
Although Nanette did not submit an application, in March, Ali helped place her with a non-profit organization that paired Jewish entrepreneurs with Jewish mentors. According to Nanette, the group’s goal was not only to help entrepreneurs but also to create a sense of community. Nanette met at least once a week with two young Jewish women who were full time employees of the nonprofit. They prepared fundraising materials, clarified the nonprofit’s mission, and reviewed how funds were spent.
“That was a good first project to give me a window into what non-profit work was like…To see how they need to fundraise all the time. They need to keep costs down all the time. They have a lot of restrictions.”
PresenTense wanted to grow but faced many resource restrictions. The group wanted to expand to other cities and become bigger through marketing and new business development. At the same time, according to Nanette, they wanted to improve their operations and clarify their mission first. And they wanted to do all this on a limited budget of time and money.
Nanette enjoyed working with PresenTense, but she still felt something was missing. “So I got into Net Impact…but after a couple of weeks I discovered it wasn’t giving me a lot of new things to learn. I felt that I still had a lot of time. My project back then was a nine-to-six job. So I had a lot of free time.” Ernst and Young had staffed Nanette in a project management role for a large bank.
About three weeks after Nanette started volunteering with Net Impact and PresenTense, she applied to volunteer with Accion. This nonprofit organization gives loans ranging from $2,500 to $50,000 to local entrepreneurs who are not able to get loans through banks. Accion also provides their borrowers with pro-bono consultants like Nanette.
Although Nanette was only in the second class of volunteers Accion had assembled, she was impressed by how organized it was. Nanette had to report back regularly and felt accountable for her work.
Accion assigned Nanette to help a woman in her mid-30s who ran an online business selling alcoholic cupcakes. This woman started her business almost two years ago and had recently received a loan from Accion. She wanted to use the money to sell more cupcakes in more places. Nanette worked with another volunteer to analyze where else the online bakery should sell its cupcakes. Whole Foods, Fairway, or Groupon? In the end, they recommended that the owner try selling on Etsy.
On June 11, when all the projects were finished, Accion’s volunteer consultants presented their work to other volunteers, their business owner clients, and Accion board members. The CEO of Accion’s east coast chapter Paul Quintero also attended. Around eighty people gathered in the corporate offices of Pimco in midtown Manhattan that evening.
After these two experiences, Nanette realized she didn’t want to be a pro-bono consultant for businesses that had taken out microfinance loans but wanted to contribute to microfinance groups themselves. Her next volunteering experience with Zidisha would let her do just that.