How Do We Create Social Impact?

Featured Illustration: Heart Design Studio

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I’m from Dhaka, a city known to be crowded, congested, and buzzing with ambition. I’ve always felt deeply connected to my home, its colorful characters, and truly believed in its potential to be the greatest place on Earth. At the time, we lived in a gated community surrounded by evergreen trees, a private playground (which I cherished), and neighbors who were just like us — in terms of their income, social standing, and access to opportunities.

The neighborhood is separated by a single railroad from the rest of the city. I remember, whenever a train passed by, we would patiently wait in our cars, and once the security guards lifted the lever, we would zoom through.  

When I was in the heart of the city, busy pedestrians, blaring horns, and small businesses livened up the streets. But what I always noticed were the disparities between where I lived and the rest of the metropolis. When we were stuck in never-ending traffic, I would look out the car window and oftentimes see mothers and their children trying to find an idle spot to rest on the sidewalk. I would watch fathers and their sons trying to make a living by selling children’s books. Witnessing others toil for the necessities I took for granted while I comfortably sat in my air-conditioned car didn’t sit right with me. I knew there was something inherently wrong with that reality. 

Although I only lived in Dhaka until I was six-years-old, those few years shaped me, my identity, and my aspirations more than I could have ever imagined. I became even more cognizant of the unique advantages I possessed while living in Jakarta and later in Dubai. 

These experiences made me realize that I wanted to make a genuine difference in the world. I wanted to create tangible, positive change. I just didn’t know how.

Embarking on an ambitious journey

Only when I started writing The Impact Mind: Unlocking Your Ability to Create Change, did I learn of the different ways we could lead social transformation. I had the incredible opportunity to learn from, converse with, and ask questions to 22 leaders in the field. The stories of social entrepreneurs, impact investors, non-profit founders, and international development professionals helped me construct the 14 principles of The Impact Mind, which provide a blueprint for how we can shape our lives around our mission. 

Beyond those 14 key lessons, this incredible process of conceiving and authoring The Impact Mind has left me with three striking pieces of wisdom, ones that I will never forget and hope you don’t either.

You can make a change in the world. 

“I can’t change the world but I can make a change in the world.” Those are the words of Essma Bengabsia, an outspoken and compassionate friend, mentor, and impact investor. I met Essma when I was in my first year of college and she was about to graduate and start working as a credit analyst at an asset management firm. However, she soon realized that conventional finance wasn’t the right path for her. 

Especially as an Arab American hijabi woman, Essma felt frustrated that many of the products she structured and sold to clients were a detriment to the flourishing of communities like hers. Her role didn’t enable her to serve or uplift others, so Essma felt driven to act and became determined to find a space in finance in which she could make a difference. Through her relentless pursuit of such a position and continuous research, she landed upon the world of impact investing.  

Impact investing focuses on allocating capital to socioeconomically marginalized groups and businesses in the US. Impact investing funds those who lack initial resources and helps those who have been traditionally excluded from investor circles to grow. Such investments also have the potential to bring about substantial and sustainable financial returns. Essma knew that impact investing would positively affect people’s lives in the short-term and long-term. 

Now, as the Senior Associate in the Sustainable and Impact Investing division at Glenmede, Essma disperses capital where it’s desperately needed so she’s able to support people, businesses, and ideas in her local community and across the country, which is exactly what she had envisioned for herself since the start of her career. 

Impact investing alone isn’t going to tackle and resolve the systemic issues that confront us, but it’s still one way for us to make a change in the world. After hearing Essma’s story, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that even if my work benefits one person or just a few, it’s worthwhile and worthy of pursuit.

You don’t have to pursue “impact” full-time. 

I used to believe that making a difference was only possible if my full-time job was centered around social impact. But my interviews revealed that that is not the case. It’s not feasible for every individual to transform their socially-oriented endeavors into their careers as a result of financial, familial, or personal circumstances.  

Instead, what I learned is that many social entrepreneurs, advocates, and non-profit founders who pursued risky and unpredictable paths held full-time positions while dedicating the rest of their time to building out their passion. And that is exactly what Jhillika Kumar is doing. 

Jhillika is a fervent disability rights activist, who’s been inspired by her older brother, Vikram, a non-speaking autistic individual. Vikram has not only filled Jhillika’s life with his love and kindness, but also countless lessons — the most important one being that Jhillika has the privilege of using her voice to enact change. 

As Jhillika witnessed that Vikram was often hindered by the traditional employment processes from offering his talents and skills to the world, she founded Mentra. Mentra is an app that uses artificial intelligence and an autism-first design approach to create holistic candidate profiles to match neurodivergent candidates with inclusive recruiters and meaningful roles in which they will thrive. While Jhillika continues to develop the app and expand its reach, she is also contributing to enhance accessibility for disabled individuals in the workplace through her role as Assistant Vice President of Accessibility at Bank of America.

Although both of Jhillika’s positions are geared towards positively affecting others, her story demonstrates that your personal venture does not have to be your main income-generating pursuit. You can still make an impact even if it isn’t.

You can engage in social impact in infinite ways.

There is no one way to engender positive change. You can work across entrepreneurship, nonprofits, international development, impact investing, advocacy, or organizations that are committed to transforming structures, practices, and policies.  

Jonathan Goldman’s story is an example of such possibilities. His philosophy of being open to different experiences molded his unique professional trajectory, which began in the Mayor’s Youth Commission and is now focused on the Student Clinic for Immigrant Justice. The Mayor’s Youth Commission addresses issues that are relevant to young individuals and collaborates with the City Council president to share opinions about local government and learn about the various ways in which it functions. Jonathan’s time in the Mayor’s Youth Commission and various other government positions helped him solve pertinent issues faced by his community and empowered him to make a positive impact on young individuals’ lives. 

Although Jonathan valued and appreciated his roles in government and later in education, his college course on Immigration Human Rights ultimately inspired him to become the fierce champion for immigrants and asylum seekers that he is today. His dedicated interest and passion led him to found the Student Clinic for Immigrant Justice, an organization that fights for a just immigration system by training students to be immigration advocates who are driven by their unwavering desire for systemic change. 

Jonathan’s career is proof that there isn’t just one way to make a difference. In fact, there are a multitude of journeys and stories that can find a home in the expansive and ever-changing field of social impact.

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To learn more about the 14 principles of The Impact Mind, you can purchase the book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble (Paperback and Ebook). You can follow me and my work on Instagram and LinkedIn.