As her definition of success evolved, Cheryl took a much-needed risk, stepping off the medical track and into a Master’s in Public Policy. As the president of Echoing Green, a pioneer in the social entrepreneurship movement, Cheryl works to unleash the next generation of talent in order to solve the world’s toughest social challenges. In addition to awarding over $30 million in start-up capital to over 500 entrepreneurs, Echoing Green was an early funder of Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America and Mrs. Michelle Obama who started the Chicago office of Public Allies.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: I suspect that like many, my professional path has been circuitous. Where and when I grew up, success meant being a doctor, lawyer or engineer. That was the brass ring and there were not a lot of examples of more diverse career options. As a result, I became a doctor but it was a decision based on others’ expectations of me rather than personal passion. Yet along the way, I constantly stepped off the medical track, a clear sign that in my heart of hearts, I knew I belonged elsewhere—there was time off from medical school to pursue a Master’s of Public Policy; deferring my pediatric residency to co-found a mobile health unit in inner-city Boston; serving as a White House Fellow to learn more about policy-making in the executive branch of government. When I finally released the goal of pleasing others, I gave myself permission to follow my bliss. I’ve been doing social change work ever since.
ON On Women
Q: Does your business offer products, services or support for women? If yes, please explain what that is and why it brings you great personal fulfillment?
A: Echoing Green unleashes next generation talent to solve the world’s toughest social challenges. We are best known for our prestigious global fellowship which provides emerging, young social entrepreneurs with start-up capital and support to launch innovative social change organizations. Echoing Green was an early funder of Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America and Mrs. Michelle Obama who started the Chicago office of Public Allies. More recently, we supported incredible next generation leaders like Katie Orenstein, founder of the Op-Ed Project, which trains women to add their vital voices to the public square, and Jessamyn Rodriguez, founder of Hot Bread Kitchen, which prepares low-income immigrant women for living-wage careers by helping them to preserve their cultural baking traditions.
Q: What are 3 characteristics that you believe define great leadership?
A: Echoing Green has been supporting some of the world’s best social entrepreneurs for the past twenty-five years. We have learned a tremendous amount about this type of transformational leader. We believe that the best of these exhibit “high SEQ” or high social entrepreneurship intelligence, a constellation of qualities and characteristics strongly associated with social change success. These include: 1) core identity alignment—these leaders are authentic. Their head and heart are aligned and they walk through the world with a clear understanding of their purpose; 2) willful naiveté-the status quo uses shame brilliantly to dismiss the innovative ideas of these leaders. These leaders refuse to accept the critique that they are inexperienced or don’t understand the way things are. They won’t’ let their visions of what could be rather than what is be marginalized; and 3) asset-based thinking—the best social entrepreneurs see problems as opportunities and can identify the strengths, talents, and possibilities that are immediately available in themselves and others and any situation.
Q: Innovation requires creative thinking. How do you tap into the creative thinking resources within your business?
A: Innovation is a powerful strategy for creating value and driving progress. “The Innovator’s DNA” is one of my favorite articles about some of the actions great business innovators take to generate breakthrough ideas. These actions include questioning, observing, experimenting and networking. Collectively, these actions, which can be cultivated in all of us, can lead to powerful new insights.
Q: What are your top 3 tips for networking?
A: First, be prepared. Any time you attend an event or conference, know who’s in the room beforehand. Set a goal of meeting three people who’ve been on your radar. Even think about reaching out to them in advance to set time to talk. Second, create the conditions that will make you most successful. If you’re shy, think about attending the event with a friend. If you’re not great at small talk, scan the headlines for three topics that will help you strike up conversation. Third, actively listen. Everyone appreciates being heard and real engagement. When you’re talking to someone, it should feel as if they are the only person in the room—no looking over her shoulder to size up a better networking opportunity!
ON Career Transitions
Q: Many people become discontent with their current career yet are too afraid or reluctant to make a change. What’s your best advice for women in this situation?
A: My favorite quote comes from Robert H. Schuller: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Fear is the great paralyzer; it prevents most of us from taking risks and achieving our best. You must first acknowledge the fear and then deconstruct it bit by bit into manageable chunks. If you’re afraid to make a significant change, simply start by having coffee with a number of women doing interesting things with their career. Consider taking a class or volunteering in an area that you think may be of interest. Map out the worst things that could happen if you did indeed make a change. Chances are that worst-case scenario is never as bad as you imagined.
Q: Who has been your greatest mentor?
A: I have been blessed to have an extraordinary mentor—Dr. Nancy E. Oriol, Dean of Students at Harvard Medical School. Together we co-founded a nonprofit organization, The Family Van that provides basic medical, preventive and outreach services to low-income residents in inner-city Boston. She has taught me everything about living by your own rules and setting your own North Star. She believed in me before I even believed in myself and her non-traditional and iconoclastic approach to work and family continues to inspire me. Perhaps the highest compliment she ever paid me was that she has learned from me as much as I have learned from her. Recognizing the bi-directional nature of a strong mentoring relationship was a profound insight for me.
ON Starting Out
Q: If you had a young sister or a daughter who was a senior in college, anxious about landing her first job or unsure of what she wanted to do, what would your advice be to her?
A: Just starting out on one’s career journey is an incredibly exciting time of possibility and potential. I always encourage young people to lighten up and open up to a variety of opportunities. Explore a variety of experiences when you are first starting out for it is through real-world experience that you’ll begin to understand what moves you as well as what you’re especially good at doing. And be okay with failing along the way because that is where some of our most valuable learning occurs.
ON Letting go
Q: Can you share an example of how letting go enabled you to reach something new?
A: I spent my twenties convinced that I had to be really good at everything. My self-worth was incredibly tied to this vision of excellence and it was simply exhausting and unrealistic. As I got older and wiser, I finally released this unrealistic vision of myself and instead focused on strengthening the few things at which I excelled and building a team that compensated for my deficits.
ON Taking Risk
Q: How do you overcome feelings of insecurity, fear or discomfort when deciding to take a risk
A: Human beings have survived because risk aversion turns out to be a pretty good evolutionary strategy. It protected our ancestors from a variety of threats. In today’s world, however, where creativity, problem-solving and innovation are keys to creating new opportunities for more of the world’s population, we need to embrace risk-taking more than ever. While I still feel the fear and discomfort when taking a risk, I’ve learned how to manage better these feelings which allows me to walk through them and get to the other side. For example, simply shifting how you frame a situation is helpful. While I might be really uncomfortable and nervous about trying something new, I enjoy learning new things so much that the joy of discovery and learning outweighs the discomfort of being out of my comfort zone.
ON Giving Back
Q: What cause(s) have you chosen to support and why does it resonate with you?
A: I have devoted the bulk of my professional career to supporting the social entrepreneurship movement. Social entrepreneurs are practical visionaries who are taking on and solving some of the world’s most difficult social problems. My work at Echoing Green focuses on supporting mostly young social entrepreneurs and this gives me great satisfaction because young people continue to astound and inspire me with their passion, idealism and commitment to creating a better world for themselves and others. Society talks a lot about the importance of investing in young people but the rhetoric simply doesn’t match the reality. I’ve always loved Echoing Green because it puts its money where its mouth is. Investing in a young person with big dreams to change the world is one of the most powerful investments we can make.
Q: Oprah has that great section in her magazine “What I know for sure”. What do you know for sure?
A: Full disclosure—I love Oprah! Growing up, she was my local newscaster in Baltimore, Maryland, so I have followed her extraordinary career for a long time. I think her quest to empower each of us to live our best lives is her greatest legacy and contribution. So what I know for sure is that we each do indeed have a unique purpose here on earth. Unfortunately, most of us never discern or pursue that path. If there were more opportunities for more of us to discover our purpose, we would move much closer collectively to creating a healthier world.
Q: What is the most valuable lesson your mother taught you?
A: I spent a lot of time growing up complaining about how the world wasn’t fair. Minor sleights to incredible social injustice offended my sensibilities. Time and again, my mom reminded me that the world was indeed unfair but that was no excuse to turn away from inequity or simply accept the status quo. I was taught that if I saw injustice I had a responsibility to name it and engage with it.
Q: Which book(s) has had the most significant impact on your life and why?
A: My two favorite books are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I was inspired by these extraordinary female authors who wrote with such exquisite grace and beauty at a time when women’s genius was marginalized and suppressed. I reread both volumes occasionally and every time I return to those pages, I am drawn in, heart racing despite the fact that I know what’s about to happen. These women were true masters of their craft.