When I think about lessons from my professional life, I wonder what I might share as an entrepreneur and professional still in advance of what I would consider mid-career, that could be helpful to other growing innovators. After finishing an MIT Ph.D. four years ago, I co-founded one biotechnology company and then led two scientific projects. One, directing strategic partnerships at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, focused on neuroscience. The current, directing special projects at the MIT Probabilistic Computing Project, focuses on artificial intelligence. Between these experiences I found Springboard: an organization of female entrepreneurs that has become my sisterhood. Considering Springboard made me think about ideas and stories that I would exchange with my own sister. A recent phone call came to mind, discussing how to do enough "good" while also balancing our careers. These were the actionable ideas that came to mind about serving the community while managing a professional road map.
Make Service a Part of the Professional Process
Today when our personal, social, and professional worlds are tightly linked, I find that it can be efficient to serve a community within your profession rather than as an occasional project. Meeting with the Principal Investigator for my current role, he described limiting his collaborations to "those either in the public interest or of fundamental scientific interest." This framing led to the group's collaborations with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation combating poverty; deploying artificial intelligence toward ethical governance; re-imagining psychiatric diagnosis; and contributing to the Innocence Project for criminal justice. Similarly, my prior role at the McGovern Institute was motivated by Ki, a scientist who entered her research area after a family member had suddenly become afflicted with mental illness. The service focus was a pathway to success for both projects.
Use Your Current Role as a Platform
One of our business heroes, Elon Musk, started his career by launching technology companies including those in financial services. Using this platform, he impacted the clean energy vehicles and space travel industries. During my recent scientific projects, and before that in my company, we worked with donors, investors, and entrepreneurs who followed a similar pattern: alternating work focused on financial security, with work focused on higher-risk community or public service. Jeff, a hedge fund owner, enabled our MIT NeuroImpact project by translating neuroscience into human impact.
Building a platform from which to serve also includes noticing how one job role can cross-pollinate another. One entrepreneur, for example, took a role on a television show as a platform for visibility to her areas of activism, including animal welfare and LGBTQ causes. In my work, I look for similar opportunities - e.g., a speaking engagement or document with wide distribution - to give additional visibility to a cause.
Consider Volunteer and Philanthropy Work that Matches with Life Stage
One approach in designing a service strategy is to observe how peers contribute at a similar stage. Many philanthropies like UNICEF, for example, have distinct opportunities for next generation individuals in their 20's and 30's. These opportunities expand traditional late-career philanthropy options to Millennials and Generation X. While most of my cohort is not yet serving on the boards of the largest nonprofits and NGOs, many dedicate time as board members for local nonprofits in the arts, education, etc. Entrepreneurs at this stage also have the capacity to mentor and lead entrepreneurship programs. In Boston, I was inspired by a friend who launched the Next Mile Project nonprofit accelerator, another who mentored with TechStars, etc. I led one social entrepreneurship accelerator, planned events with Springboard, and I enjoy philanthropy events. Time spent this way is efficient: it combines fun, time with peers, a chance for service, and a learning opportunity.
Whether community service is the focus of your main job, alternating with it, or performed on the weekends, there are many rewarding ways for those of us at mid-career and earlier to make a real impact in our communities.
About the Author
Veronica S. Weiner is Director of Special Projects at the MIT Probabilistic Computing Project, an AI group aiming to give computers simple forms of judgment, intuition, and creativity side-by-side with humans. The group collaborates broadly and has seeded two venture-backed companies. Prior, Veronica was a Director of Strategic Partnerships at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research; there she received a Deshpande Innovation Award for research toward a new therapy for PTSD. Before that, she co-founded Resilience, a startup advancing therapeutics and diagnostics for PTSD and other stress-related disorders. Resilience was #1 life emerging life sciences startup in North and South America in 2014 via OneStart; a 2014 Springboard company; recognized as one of 10 disruptive US women-led startups; and a MassBio MassCONNECT startup. Veronica received four MIT degrees including a Ph.D. in Neuroscience as an NSF fellow with her discoveries reported in Nature News, RadioLab, TIME, and others, and a French master's degree in AI from Paris.