Yasmeen Shaheen-McConnell, Program Manager, The Franklin Project at The Aspen Institute

Mission Driven

Do you remember the moment when you decided you wanted a career in the non-profit sector?

The quality of jobs are what brought me to the sector, but it’s the opportunity to work on mission-driven projects that kept me here. Being a problem-solver is a core part of who I am, so I knew early on that to stay motivated in a career I had to be tapping into that. It wasn’t until college that I realized another key part of this sector really spoke to me, and that’s the mission-driven aspect of being at a nonprofit or social enterprise. Once I learned that you can make a career—and in fact, many—out of tackling our nation’s and world’s most pressing challenges, I was hooked. And it’s never boring. We need smart, creative, innovative people tackling water scarcity, healthcare, peacebuilding, and human rights. For me, it was the opportunity at age 22 to take a job at the interplay of leadership development, policy, and culture. And I never looked back.

You are an AmeriCorps alumna, how was that experience?

It was challenging, rewarding, and made me feel like I was part of something so much bigger than myself. And at 21, that experience was incredibly important to my personal growth and development. Although I can't pinpoint the exact moment during my service year at which I came to believe national service should be universal, the power of giving back to my community and country changed me. I realized that citizenship isn't a passive state—it’s active, and requires my time and attention. When I served in the Arab American Resource Corps (part of AmeriCorps) in 2008, young people all around me were signing up to serve our country in civilian or military service capacities. I'm proud of our generation for stepping up like that.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

The people I work with are smart. There is nothing more humbling and inspiring than striving toward a common goal with a team that kicks butt! If you look at the people to the left and the right of you every day, respect the hell out of them, and know that together you’re working to do the right thing, there’s no way to lose your inspiration. Sleep, maybe, but not inspiration.

How important is a good support system?

Invaluable. The best advice I ever received was to create a personal Board of Directors, composed of people you don't pay for advice but who you can turn to whenever you're at a crossroads. The women on my Board have helped me evaluate every serious change I've made since college. As I grew older, I learned to trust myself more and more, and didn't need to crowdsource smaller decisions. However, the process of talking through my options with them continues to be critical. Your Board should be composed of people who know you deeply and understand where you come from and what your values are, people who are brilliant, and most importantly, people who you trust. For salary negotiations, graduate school decisions, or job options, the women on my Board are the people I turn to for guidance, support, and a cold dose of reality whenever I need it.

Furthermore, I’m a huge fan of shine theory, and having the strongest, happiest, and smartest women in your corner is simply the best.

What advice would you give women who are interested in working for a non-profit?

Protect yourself. People who work for mission-driven organizations have a tendency to give everything to their jobs, and I've seen women in particular sacrifice their health, social lives, and potential career advancement for the sake of the mission. While I find the concept of work-life balance to be a bit of a fallacy, take some time to decide where your hard lines are, and stick to them. For example, in the start-up and social enterprise world, funds can be tight. If I want to save my organization money by staying with friends when I travel instead of paying for a hotel room, that makes sense. But my hard line is that I never stay with a friend if I can’t schedule in some quality social time with them. In that case, either I don’t travel, or I splurge on a hotel room, but for me, it’s important to protect my friendships. Whether it’s your morning run, your standing Tuesday family dinners, or rules about healthy traveling, figure out what your bottom line is to protect yourself and stay sane and stick to it.

You have been in the field for a long time, what are some lessons learned?

  1. Be brave. Take risks. Life is long, and trepidation will get boring quickly. If you feel afraid, put on an outfit that makes you feel like a million bucks, take a power stance, and fake it till you make it.

  2. Work your butt off to be a good team member. The stronger the group of colleagues you cultivate, the more they'll have your back when you need it. And believe me, one day you'll need it!

  3. Don't forget to call your mom. Or that friend you've been meaning to reach out to since his break-up. Or your college roommate who you thought about last week. We all get busy, and sometimes we put our personal lives on hold to get through a rough patch at work—that’s ok. But never let that mentality become permanent. Your work can mean a lot to you, but it can never mean everything.

What are a few of your favorite must-haves (like can't leave the house without)?

Chapstick with SPF in it. Spotify Premium. Fresh flowers. Diorshow Mascara. Oh, and breakfast. It's hard to start your day off strong, and solve problems like a pro, if you're hangry.

AmeriCorps Shine Theory Take a power stance