Bullish: How to Use Your Career to Make the World A Better Place

I’m writing this column from the Dartmouth College campus, a place about which I am deeply ambivalent (see Bullish: Social Class in the Office), but where I also founded my first company and was able to join the coed boxing team and do a lot of punching.

Once upon a time here in the green, liberal-artsy woods, I attended an event about feminist workplaces. There was a bit of a generational disconnect. The panel consisted of Dartmouth grads of a variety of ages; they talked about working in an all-female workplace, forging your way in a male dominated workplace, etc. But it was like they were speaking Klingon; it seemed that most of the attendees wanted to be full-time activists, and had attended in hopes of being assured that they didn’t have to get big, dirty “jobs” after college.

After some talk about how it would feel like a betrayal of women’s causes to leave activism (the kind where you do stuff on a college campus in the middle of the woods) for the working world, I finally just kind of exploded. “You have an Ivy League education and most of you — statistically speaking — have wealthy and powerful dads. Don’t you think you could do more good for more people by, you know, getting a job as an investment banker and giving the money to a domestic violence shelter? And then maybe that job at the shelter that pays $9 an hour could go to … you know … a woman recovering from domestic violence?”

OMG, I have never been less popular. (Good thing I was ready with all the punching, just in case!)

I am certainly not the first person to note that with power comes responsibility. If you have access to family friends who fund foundations, and instead you choose to sing folk songs on the Mall in Washington hoping that the peace and love emanating off of you change the world, then you are practicing nothing but self-indulgence. If you have access to power and you want to help, then you need to access that power.

And if you have no particular access to power, it’s totally fine to do nothing philanthropic at all for a decade or two while becoming wealthy. And then one day you can just turn around and buy an inner-city elementary school 1,200 books.

I’m assuming here that philanthropy — or some world-changing ability — is an inextricable part of the American lady-dream. Who among us plans to live a long life and die without ever helping anybody out? So, here are some ideas.

If you’re in a position to charge rich people or large corporations a lot of money for something, stay there (or leverage that).

When I ran my internet marketing company, I did get certified as a woman-owned company, but this actually doesn’t help you very much unless you have the ability to supply the military with 800,000 wingnuts per month — that is, the only benefit of getting certified is receiving preference in bidding on certain contracts with the government or with very large corporations that have set aside some of their vendor contracting slots for women and/or minority owned business.

None of these “set-asides” ever applied to my company until finally, I was alerted to a Request for Proposals from a large corporation needing a website. The company was Philip Morris, the nation’s largest manufacturer of cigarettes (now largely hiding under the name “Altria”).

I was troubled. I worked on a proposal and reluctantly assigned one of my designers to make a mockup. Never have I commanded someone to do something in a less commanding way.

I slept on it. I woke up with a solution: I will make a website for anything, from Philip Morris to crazy hate groups. And I will charge them double (maybe more than double, perhaps a sliding scale of loathsomeness). And I will give the extra half to the United Negro College Fund.

After all, if Philip Morris has money, that’s bad. I would like them to have as little money as possible. So it would be morally better that I have their money. I will spend it at the Diane von Furstenberg store and stimulate the economy. It would be morally even better for the United Negro College Fund to have Philip Morris’s money. So (almost) anything I can do to move money in the right direction, I will.

I met a woman at a networking event who worked for Coach. She was inviting everyone to come clean up a park. This, she said, was how she compensated for the fact that she was dedicating her young life to selling handbags at a 70% markup.

Hmmn. Interesting. It’s certainly lovely to clean up parks on the weekends. But it’s not wasted effort to make contacts among those who have copious amounts of handbag profit floating around. Organizations that sell expensive things to women have often been known to sponsor women’s causes, even. Who better to push such a project through than someone within the company?

Overpriced handbags are simply going to be sold; if it’s you selling them, all the better. And if later in life you decide you want to be a full-time activist, you’ll have a network of powerful people in place, as well, as Courtney Love put, some credit in the straight world — plenty of potential donors will take more seriously someone who had a “normal” career and felt strongly enough about an issue to transition into activism than they would someone who (in their view) went hippie straight out of college.

For tales of people who transitioned from regular jobs into full-time activism or philanthropy, you might enjoy this quick read: a little photo-filled book full of stories of a handful of people who, despite many career lumps and bumps, have changed the world in substantial and inspiring ways.

Money isn’t evil; it simply magnifies the desires of whoever holds it.

Money is really, really important for feminism. It keeps Planned Parenthood open. The more of it we have to support political candidates, the more political candidates will support women’s causes — not out of love, but out of fear for their own reelections. (See Bullish: Is It Better to Rule Through Love or Fear?)

If you secretly hate money or rich people, it would help both you and the world to get over it. Sure, some rich people are douchebags. Some rich people only seem like douchebags because you’re jealous or simply lack context. (For instance, sometimes rich people complain about their property values. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; if someone came in and fucked up the biggest thing you’d ever bought, you’d be mad too.) Some rich people are just you in fifteen years if everything goes really well. That is, they are totally fucking awesome.

It really helps to meet a few of these people. Conversely, the worst way to be broke is when all your friends are broke, too. When I was a teenager, I once stood by the side of the road during an election season and waved a sign around (“Honk if you’re voting Democrat”). That didn’t help anyone.

At the time of the 2008 election, I was doing much better. I was doing a bit of standup comedy (as I had been for years), but mostly ran a tutoring company on West 35th Street and happily worked evenings and weekends.

Some people I knew started holding Obama fundraisers, advertising them on Facebook, and listing them in Time Out — all places where people are used to finding out about things that are free or less than $10. Then, after the fundraiser, they’d post, “We raised $180!” And I would sigh. If holding a comedy show were a good way to make money, wouldn’t we all … have some?

Of course, you have to admire people doing the best they can. But it would help to know the sorts of people who think of money as something that exists in four-digit increments.

Not everyone is cut out for on-the-ground contact. That’s not necessarily a disadvantage.

Also during the 2008 campaign season, a guy I was dating took a bus trip to Pennsylvania to go campaigning door to door. I generally work weekends, so I said I couldn’t go, but honestly: I would rather eat bugs than go door-to-door to people’s homes trying to persuade them to vote for Obama. I’m sort of Victorian in that I don’t like meeting new people without introductions or context. That is why we have the Internet! I want to know about you and you to know about me before we have any encounters whatsoever. I’m an open Internet-book. So, I am not knocking on some Tea Party dude’s door so he can bark at me on his doorstep.

My boyfriend-at-the-time, however, was actually the perfect person for the job — in fact, we ultimately had a very friendly breakup over the fact the he was an incredible extrovert and I was an incredible introvert (Me: If I am planning to spend time with just you and you invite several other people, it is like someone is invading my soul. I need at least two days to prepare for this. Him: People are fascinating! Can I tell you what I learned when I talked to a homeless guy for an hour?)

So, I quietly became Mr. Extrovert’s patron. When he told me he took an official Obama campaign bus to go persuading people door to door, I nodded and then went online and donated $200. (Gas money for the bus.) When he told me he went to a phone banking event in Bushwick, I went online and gave $200 (warehouse rent?) It added up. Up to the federal maximum of $2,300, in fact. He and I made a good team, even if he didn’t know it.

No one needed an incompetent phone bank operator (which I undoubtedly would have been). Instead, I did the thing I was really good at (tutoring people). I took on some extra clients during hours I really didn’t want to be working. I thought to myself as I was doing it, “I am fundraising right now and no one even has to know.”

You can have the American lady-dream without necessarily becoming someone who picks up trash in a park or becomes somebody’s “big sister” (even plenty of people with kids only like their own kids). Sometimes people who are really good at teaching English to refugee children need to buy gas, which you can buy for them, even over the Internet.

Of course, some of us — even at the peak of our careers — have more skill and cleverness to spare than money. I still think you should build that up in the same way.

I don’t think you have to fit in two hours of volunteering per week now (although certainly helping others can put things in proportion in your own life). It’s fine to wait until you have the skills to really help. Hustle for the next decade and become a PR god, for instance; THEN volunteer, at such a time when your awesomeness shoots straight out of your forehead the way Kali the Hindu goddess of destruction was birthed from the furrowed brow of Durga, goddess of justice (come on, that’s awesome).

Fortunately, the things you need to be doing now to build up your career for yourself (see Bullish: How To Go To There and Bullish: Personality Qualities That Are Way More Important Than Anything on Your Resume) are precisely the sort of things that will allow you to use your career to make the world a better place once you’ve become wealthy, powerful, and otherwise the fantastically even-better version of yourself that you can now envision.

originally published on The Grindstone

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