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Jumping ship: Why some local leaders are leaving the corporate world for the social sector | Arts & Culture

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Jumping ship: Why some local leaders are leaving the corporate world for the social sector
Jumping ship: Why some local leaders are leaving the corporate world for the social sector

By Melinda Clynes
This story originally appeared in Rapid Growth

Thriving cities benefit from a mix of for-profit and nonprofit leadership, and Rapid Growth is taking a look at some West Michigan leaders who have left the corporate world for work in the social sector.

Other than thrifty living on a paycheck with fewer zeros, what adjustments do corporate executives confront when they shift gears to the nonprofit arena? What are the lessons learned in the business world that they’ve applied to social sector work? And what have they learned as leaders in the nonprofit arena that could be put to use in the corporate jungle?
 
We wanted to know the answer to these questions and more, and that’s why Rapid Growth is hosting our next Speaker Series event, "Jumping Ship: Leaders Who Left the Corporate Sector for the Social Sector," on Wednesday, Aug. 27, at 5:30 p.m. at WorkLab.
 
In partnership with Michigan Nightlight and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, six Grand Rapids leaders who have jumped ship will tell all in a lively conversation moderated by Valerie Lego, health and community reporter at WZZM.  
 
As a teaser to what you might hear, here are some words of wisdom from our panelists:
 
 
Mindy YsasiAfter serving in a variety of for-profit human resources roles, Mindy Ysasi recently accepted a position as HR consultant for the clinical areas at Spectrum Health. As for lessons that could be applied from the nonprofit world to the business world, she notes the depth of collaboration.
 
“When you have less resources or are serving a common goal, like the health of our community, we figure out how to work together better,” says Ysasi. “Of course, that can’t always be the case in the for-profit world, but this trait of collaboration is something that I admire.”
 
In transitioning from corporate life, including a stint at Herman Miller, to the nonprofit healthcare scene, Ysasi notices a discomfort with not having a clinical background when her internal clients are nurses. “They speak a different language, and the stakes are much higher for them each day than for me,” says Ysasi. “I truly admire them, but don’t know very much. It is humbling to say ‘I don’t know’ or have to go and ask for help. This has been good for me.”
 
Ellen CarpenterEllen Carpenter has been with Heart of Michigan United Way as the vice president of product development and marketing for just over a year, having formerly led marketing efforts for Lake Michigan Financial Corporation.
 
She enjoys the diversity of the workforce in the nonprofit sector that she did not experience in the for-profit sector, working with people of all ethnicities, ages, and education levels, and from backgrounds ranging from corporate to collegiate to financial. 
 
“I believe this increases creativity, communication, and problem solving because everyone brings a different perspective,” says Carpenter. “And, given the complexity in solving social issues, having this kind of brainstorming and problem solving available is critical.”
 
Carpenter also thinks that to raise the bar on social sector work, the myth that social programs are “hand outs” needs to be dispelled. “The social sector works very hard to help the people who are digging themselves out of a crisis or have life circumstances that make it difficult to succeed,” says Carpenter. “The business community can relate to the idea that life’s challenges never end. One problem is solved to be replaced by another: just like a business.”
 
Stuart RayAs a former 30-year owner and president of a large Burger King franchise and CEO and owner of his own companies, including a coaching and consulting firm, Stuart Ray, the executive director of Guiding Light Mission since 2009, hasn’t turned back – and doesn’t plan to return to for-profit scene.

“At my age, that would be difficult. I’m not interested in a small sandbox,” he adds.
 
Ray was invited to apply for the Guiding Light post by a former for-profit employee.

“I knew nothing about this population. I was very happy in my for-profit role, but decided to pursue the opportunity,” says Ray. “I’m glad I did.”
 
While Ray was surprised by the number of different constituents in the nonprofit world, he sees many similarities: “For me, it’s financial accountability, integrity, honesty.”
 
Mary Buikema, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, was a designer and project manager with BDR Executive Custom Homes before taking the helm at Habitat. She was drawn to Habitat’s mission to transform lives and neighborhoods through homeownership.
 
Buikema points to relationship cultivation and stewardship as keys to sustainability for any organization, but sees subtle differences:  “For-profit success is built on positive referral; not-for-profit success is build on positive advocacy.”
 
Working sales within the natural food industry for 20 years, with the last 15 traveling multiple days each week with young children at home, Starla McDermott was ready for a change.
 
“It got to the point that I hated to be on the road. Changes were happening in my industry, and I was not enjoying my work. I knew something had to change,” says McDermott. “I read a lot. I wrote a lot, trying to figure out my next path. I met with a career coach a few times.” 
 
Eventually, she quit her job and went back to school for public administration in nonprofit, learning to live minimally as a poor student. Today, she is development manager of special events for Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes.
 
“Now, four years later, I am a pro at living simply. It is an adjustment switching to an income from sales to the nonprofit sector and much lower wages,” McDermott says. That said, she loves what she does and has no intention of returning to for-profit work.
 
Mike KerkorianMike Kerkorian has always strived for excellence professionally, and his work ethic hasn’t changed since moving from an east coast investment firm to directing workplace campaigns for Heart of West Michigan United Way. But the responsibility feels greater.
 
“The funds we raise at United Way directly support a large number of social services in the local community, so failure feels worse," says Kerkorian. "If we don't raise that money, local citizens are worse off, and that is a tough reality to stomach.”
 
In terms of elevating social sector work in the eyes of funding sources, policymakers and the general public, Kerkorian would like to see a bit more spent on administrative costs. He meets successful, talented individuals each week who would be assets to the nonprofit community, but who are unable to make the transition without a reasonable compensation package.
 
“If we focused more on bringing in talent and retaining those individuals, we could really move the needle on community issues in a way not seen in the social service sector,” says Kerkorian.
 
Want to hear more? Join us on Wednesday, Aug. 27,at  5:30 p.m. at WorkLab on the second floor of the 99 Monroe Building for "Jumping Ship: Leaders Who Left the Corporate Sector for the Social Sector." This event is open to the public and is free to attend. Open bar will also be available. See you there.

Photography by Adam Bird

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