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Private sector careers can be in service of the public good, too

by Neil Desai

The Globe and Mail
December 5, 2015

I’m technically too old to call myself one, but I’m the cliché millennial when it comes to my career. I want it all. Early in my career, I wanted to go from the mail room to the C-suite on the express elevator. At the same time, I wanted to feel like my work was meaningful beyond the cubicle and company I spent the majority of my life in.

That sense of purpose drove me to the government upon graduation from university. Where else could a young, idealistic person serve his fellow Canadians and make a decent living? While I exuded pride in the work I was doing, there were a number of drawbacks that led me to question my original thinking: institutional inertia, lack of intergenerational understanding and a perceived remuneration imbalance with the private sector. These factors ultimately made me believe the grass would be greener elsewhere.

My next career foray, and attempt to change the world for the better, took me to the university sector. While I knew they shared many of the characteristics of government, universities are places of forward thinking, at least on the surface – places where some of society’s greatest minds would tackle the globe’s greatest challenges for the betterment of humankind.

These lofty goals are absolutely true. The people who pursue them are some of the most dynamic individuals I’ve come across in my young career. However, the organizational incentive structures that inhibit real-world impact beyond the university teaching realm left me less than satisfied.

Ironically, it is my most recent career move, to the private sector, that has reinvigorated my idealistic optimism. Many of my colleagues in government and academia portrayed the private sector as everything from a club of short-term profit-seekers to a sadistic group trying to take over the world with little regard for the less fortunate, the environment or other public goods.

While I’m sure there are many businesses that operate shortsightedly, my personal experience has been exactly the opposite.

I have the privilege of working at one of Canada’s fastest-growing technology companies. Our team is young, idealistic and driven by a mission that is truly a public good. While the technology is important, the company’s true ethos isn’t defined by the ones and zeros that make up our products – it’s defined by the purpose, mission and vision that drive the people working there. Our leaders highlight the meaningful work we’re doing every day, and remind us not to lose sight of it when the going gets tough.

The company has grown through the energetic efforts of a cadre of young, talented developers, marketers, salespeople and other professionals who are not only looking for high-quality jobs, but for ways to make a real, positive impact.

Yes, there have to be short-term metrics – profitability, product releases, sales targets and bonuses – but they are congruent, not competitive, to the broader mission and vision.

Since taking this career step, I’ve been asking myself if my company is an anomaly, and I’ve come to the realization that it’s not. There is an entire generation of “technology” companies emerging whose real value is their purpose and passion, not simply their innovation.

I think of Uber, whose stated purpose is to “make our cities more accessible.” In an era of urban gridlock and climate change, this is a noble goal. Ironically, most savvy innovation observers would tell you that there isn’t much groundbreaking technology behind Uber’s platform. It simply leverages GPS technology already embedded in smartphones with remote payment systems and simple principles of supply and demand.

What’s novel about Uber is that it’s taking on entrenched interests head-on, empowering ordinary citizens to solve these immense public challenges in an incremental fashion, every day. It’s worth noting that the company’s last round of financing placed the company’s value at more than $50-billion (U.S.).

Closer to home, the educational technology company D2L (formerly Desire2Learn), based in Kitchener, Ont., set out to reshape the way we educate children, university students and adults as they continue to learn and progress through their careers.

Challenging the status quo in education by ensuring learning systems evolve to meet the unique needs of every person is a lofty technical challenge. But I’d argue it is an even greater societal challenge. Needless to say, D2L has emerged as a globally competitive company in the fast-growing educational software industry.

If there’s a moral to my career story to date, it’s that no sector has a monopoly on serving the public good. To millennials (and millennials at heart) who share my desire to change the world in a positive fashion, government, not-for-profits and universities are all great career options. At the same time, there is a new option emerging: For-profit and purpose businesses that are defined by their lofty missions and the people who share the vision to achieve them.

Neil Desai is an executive with Magnet Forensics. He also serves as a fellow with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He previously served in senior roles with the government of Canada.


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