Pursuing a Career in CSR: Green & Sustainable in Orange County? No, Not Really

by Aman Singh Das | July 21, 2010

  • My Vault

Geetanjali 'Geet' Singh graduated in June 2010 from University of California-Irvine's Paul Merage School of Business with a concentration on CSR, general management and strategy, and is the recipient of the Paul and Lilly Merage Visionary Award for 2010 for exemplifying the ideals of Paul Merage: vision, innovation and philanthropy. In a wide-ranging interview with Vault's CSR Editor Aman Singh, she discussed her motivation behind business school, why she picked University of California-Irvine, how her focus shifted to corporate responsibility, and how her summer internship with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) realigned her career objectives from pursuing work in the nonprofit sector to catalyzing change within organizations.

Formerly from Mumbai, India, Singh is currently looking for a corporate responsibility job in Orange County, California and outside, and hopes that Silicon Valley will soon wake up to the business value in CSR. Connect with her on Twitter.

Initial interest in CSR and the road to business school

After completing my bachelors in computer engineering, I wasn't sure what kind of job I wanted since I wasn’t interested in programming or developing code. I did a few basic jobs without finding my niche. Fortunately Tata Consulting Services (TCS) had an opening for a technical communicator, which I applied for and got through. Despite having the technical aspects—my engineering background helped—it was the people interactions and the training aspects that appealed to me the most. Luckily in my first month there, I inherited Cisco as a client, allowing me to work with two great companies simultaneously and learning a lot about change management and communications management.

Advice on  Jobs, Careers and education trends in CSR and corporate sustainability

My initial interest in pursuing an MBA was for the sake of resume building. But as I began to tackle the essay writing exercise, it really hit me. My work with Cisco had allowed me some insight into their exemplary corporate responsibility initiatives and I decided to talk about social entrepreneurship and socially responsible companies in my essays. My niche became helping companies do CSR well and helping the community that needs it the most and becoming that important link between corporate and social.

 

Paul Merage School of Business, University of California-Irvine

I mostly interviewed in California because I have lived here and enjoyed the discussions with like-minded people in the area, and the weather was a plus too! UC Irvine's small class size (100 students) appealed to me as well. I ended up being one of two people among 100 students who wanted to pursue a career in the third sector and was passionate about CSR. My first year at Irvine was consumed with learning more about how the nonprofit world works and how my business education could help make a difference. However, with no previous experience in the nonprofit sector, come second year, looking for fulltime opportunities proved really hard.

 

Internship with UNDP

As added pressure, I wanted to do my internship in India. Thankfully I landed an internship with the UNDP. What it taught me first and foremost was how unprepared I was for the nonprofit world. Even though UNDP is a global nonprofit, the mentality, the attitude and the way work is conducted is very different from a corporate setting.

This was when I decided to connect my passion for working with grassroots and inclination toward a corporate setting by focusing on CSR.

 

Defining CSR

I see it as both a culture and a department at the same time, because only when you have the culture can you actually be open to having a department about it or allocating those resources. If you’re a supply chain or a manufacturing company, you will incorporate CSR at every step of your process, which is important from a business perspective. But then again, since you are a company that’s thriving in a community, you need to be cognizant of your impact on the community and be responsible for that impact. This will not be done only through business and employment, you need to do something extra and that’s why I think the department is important: structured programs for environmental sustainability, compliance, employee engagement and corporate giving (to name a few) are important to be successful.

 

CSR in business school course curriculum

Funnily this is one of my selling points for candidates as the co-president of the Net Impact chapter at UC Irvine: That even though you’re not applying for a CSR position, if you are knowledgeable about the sustainable actions of a company, share it in the interview it will tell them that you’re reading about them and are genuinely interested in them. Because even though everybody does it for a good purpose, it’s also a very big branding exercise.

This is also something we’ve been working on with our dean. Dean Andy Policano is very passionate about nonprofit management and wants to bring it as a track in school. Again, with the UC funding being cut last year, we could not do proceed in 2009. In fact, my college mentor, Kristen Parrinello was instrumental in initiating this conversation with the Dean as the 2009’s Net Impact chapter leader. They’ve been working on the curriculum together, where she continues to consult with the school. For now, we have a CSR class and a nonprofit management class and interested students are encouraged to take independent studies in areas of their interest. Also some of our classes like supply chain, operations, and IT cover cases of sustainable companies.

Besides curriculum, the interest in CSR is increasing. For example, there were five of us interested in CSR in my class. In the 2011 incoming class, there are 10 to 12 students who are not only interested but also knowledgeable about CSR and our school administration encourages it. So, it’s definitely a trend that’s going to stay.

 

Jobs in CSR

If you look on Simply Hired, Indeed.com or any other job site, anybody who is recruiting for CSR is only just catching on to the trend. So they’re recruiting directors and vice presidents and promoting others from corporate communications, public relations, and HR internally into CSR. So the teams are from within, but someone with decades of experience heads them. For graduates like me, this creates a problem since we don’t bring that kind of experience yet find entry-level positions closed off for us.

A couple of jobs openings that sounded promising came back to me and said frankly that they were looking for more experience. Others have just been blind positions, so you don’t really know where you’re going with them. But with companies that I know of in the Bay Area, it's common knowledge that they either promote their interns or hire internally.

My alternative at this point is to look for jobs that match my previous work experience and my MBA education. With California being a strong technology base, I think that is the route I’m going to end up taking, especially since I am an international student and need work sponsorship. My involvement with Net Impact is helping immensely as well. They have a program called “Impact at Work,” that you can join or pilot it at your company and work with your managers and team to create impact. You stay involved and you also end up showing your corporate teams that you are interested and passionate about CSR at any level in an organization.

For companies who have a strong CSR focus, this is the only way to navigate into a job and maneuver it toward CSR work without the relevant work experience.

Advice on    Jobs, Careers and education trends in CSR and corporate sustainability

CSR in a recession

First of all, being green and sustainable isn't exactly a trend in Orange County. So if companies are sprucing up their sustainability initiatives, it's predominantly to cut costs and sometimes be reactive to an event. CSR tends to get a bad rap for being “soft” but if you look at CSR analytically it can save companies a lot of money if the strategy and end goal are defined right. A perfect example of CSR that directly affects bottom line is the alternate “green” packaging adopted by Amazon, Mattel, and Sony Pictures. Not only is this packaging greener but it is also much lighter, and takes less space while shipping a product.

Technology companies like Microsoft, Cisco and Intel have incredible educational programs in developing countries like India, China, Lebanon, Vietnam and Philippines. Harnessing talent in growing economies will eventually help these companies have a stronger presence in these countries. Also, these countries are where their future consumer is. They all might have a little heart in it, but its mainly sound strategizing and I feel that is CSR should be taken as seriously as marketing or sales or finance in an organization.

I feel that a lot of companies have taken different stands during the recession, some have reduced or changed their CSR focus and some have increased it all to maintain that very important bottom-line. Because of the recession this spotlight is shifting to North America. For example, at a recent Net Impact conference, I asked the Microsoft CSR director how they could justify laying off personnel in the US while continuing to spend a lot of money on education in India. At least his response was atypical: He said that Microsoft was a global company and their social responsibility was global, rather than being focused on one country.

 

The role of social media

Twitter, especially, has played a big part because before I joined it, I was pretty much in a silo. I knew people I had meet at previous Net Impact conferences, but that was the only kind of exposure I had to people in CSR. My business school does not have a big CSR presence yet, so my network remained small. Twitter for me became the predominant way of finding like-minded people. Especially for school consulting projects, the CSR community on Twitter really came forward to help me with informational interviews, surveys and experienced perspective.

Apart from that, I don’t think it has directly helped me with the job search, although it has broadened as well as strengthened my network.

 

Advice for job seekers

Even though people hate it—sometimes my classmates and I get really tired of listening to that word—networking. You have to put yourself out there; you can’t just assume that something is going to be handed to you. You have to be on top of it day and night and keep reiterating what you are looking for.

Personal branding has become very important these days, especially with social media. Establishing that personal brand so that not only you but others can also talk easily about who you are and what you believe in and what you’re looking for is crucial.

For more news and commentary on pursuing a career in corporate responsibility, visit Vault's CSR blog: In Good Company or connect with us on Twitter @VaultCSR.

Filed Under: CSR

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