Racial injustice. Climate change. Trauma caused by war, violence, and abuse. With so many aspects of our world deeply and painfully broken, there are also countless opportunities to build a better future. However, with limited resources, how do we decide what cause (or causes) to dedicate our careers or a large portion of our lives to?
For additional insight, I chatted with 16 trailblazing social impact and non-profit leaders from the Dreamers & Doers collective to get the behind-the-scenes story of how they’ve determined what causes to dedicate their lives to.
What’s clear from each of their journeys is that there is a deep, personal connection to each of the causes they’re currently invested in. Ultimately, this is an important reminder that the areas we can have the most impact in are likely the ones that are in closest proximity to us. As the hurdles they’ve had to overcome show, the work will not always be easy. But the profound impact on the world and personal reward will be well worth it.
Founder and CEO of Superbands, dedicated to promoting positive mental health for teen music fans through wish-granting opportunities.
My Journey: As a teen who struggled with my own mental health from as early as 13, I found solace in music. I counted down until the next concert or the newest album release of my favorite artists, which gave me hope to hold on for another day—essentially, keeping me alive. I longed for a community where I could talk about my favorite artists and fit in, and building Superbands was my way of building this community. Through wish-granting opportunities, Superbands provides care packages to music fans to give them hope and remind them to “stay strong and keep rockin’ on.”
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: In the nonprofit world, people generally are not fans of organizations using funding for “overhead.” So for years, I used every extra dollar I personally had toward building Superbands. We faced a lot of resource limitations that caused me to not only burn out, but also limited the number of wishes we have been able to grant. Through connecting with the right mentors in the nonprofit space, I have developed a new roadmap to help me work toward building funding to make a greater impact.
Co-Founder and CEO of SoulWell, a boutique digital booking and discovery marketplace for next-gen communities of color.
My Journey: I always knew I wanted to pour my energy into the advancement of racial equity because racial injustice is the root cause of so many other harms that afflict our communities. For me, it was a matter of looking around and seeing the needs within my community and then looking back and learning from the ancestors upon whose shoulders I stand. It was clear to me that I could make my greatest impact by focusing on holistic systems to build a world that works better for everyone and not just a select few.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: In order to truly hold a greater vision and dream for what this world can be, I have to be willing to look at the work as my calling and not just a job. This work is tough because it takes place across a very long arc of transformation and it requires that we believe in a result that we have never seen or experienced. I hope that I will work myself out of a job because we will come to a collective point in time where every community is full of access, nourishment, opportunity, and possibility.
Board Member of College & Career Options, an organization helping students make informed decisions about their education and their future.
My Journey: As someone from a small town who overcame adversity to attain a law degree, I can say firsthand the hardest part was learning that attending university was an option for me. I work with College & Career Options to help ensure that the kids in my hometown start learning about college in kindergarten and provide resources to help guide them toward their college dreams.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: COVID-19 was a huge hurdle for College & Career Options to overcome. Our outreach to students was heavily dependent on in-person events at schools. School shutdowns and social distancing forced the organization to get creative with its program delivery, which ended up having a positive impact. Hosting events via Zoom allowed us to “visit” more schools and connect with more students.
Founder of IssueVoter, an organization that informs you of legislation affecting issues you care about and helps you see how often you were truly represented.
My Journey: Inspired by my parents and college experiences, I took a leave of absence from working in finance and went to manage a campaign in Iowa. Voters had a simple, key question: “Is my representative actually representing me?” It was so frustrating that there was frankly no easy way to know what happens between elections when the real work that affects our lives gets done. In the five years since its founding, IssueVoter has sent over three million opinions to Congress, from individuals across all 50 states and all 435 congressional districts. IssueVoter has covered 650+ bills and published 100+ articles.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: Our biggest challenge has been amplification, including cultivating our community on social media and becoming a household name. IssueVoter has been growing primarily via word-of-mouth, without any advertising spend. We have worked hard to serve and educate individuals across the nation, and now is the time to grow and expand our awareness.
Founder of Estorie Agency, providing communications and public relations services to organizations and advocates that are addressing today’s most pressing issues.
My Journey: For the past decade I have litigated on behalf of survivors of intimate partner violence and child abuse and neglect, including child sexual abuse and exploitation. Those two causes are the most near and dear to my heart. My experience working with survivors inspired me to found Estorie Agency, a public relations and communications firm that provides storytelling services for advocates working on these issues.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: I’ve had to make changes within the confines of systems that are often flawed. The legal system can be quite bureaucratic and inefficient, and the same can be said for some child welfare agencies.
Founder and Lead Facilitator at Ruam Chuay Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a safer world by preventing interpersonal violence.
My Journey: I didn’t quite have the words to describe unsafe or unhealthy behaviors I observed between peers in my community when I was growing up in Thailand. Instinctively I knew something felt off. It wasn’t until I was in university in the U.S. that I was able to put a name to the experiences my friends had, whether it was some form of harassment or assault. It was powerful to have the vocabulary and allowed me to create healthier and safer relationships. When I returned to Thailand, I felt compelled to put my training in crisis response and intimate partner violence prevention to good use and share these skills with others in my community.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: Even though the data was on our side, we got lots of comments from community members dismissing the need for our work. We operate in a cultural environment where talking about intimate partner violence openly is still considered taboo. A lot of local administrators felt bringing us in to run programs at their organization would be admitting they have a problem. It’s important to us to be both culturally sensitive and effective in our work, so we refined our messaging and used an empathetic approach to sharing our programs with others. Slowly but surely we started getting into local organizations and it took off from there.
Founder and CEO of Miel Design Studio, a full-service marketing and graphic design studio that amplifies the good work of B Corps and other purpose-driven organizations.
My Journey: In 2009, my partner was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma. After a year and a half of being his caretaker, he was miraculously in remission! So I quit my job to launch my design and marketing studio full time. Each day the studio makes the difficult choice to focus on purpose instead of profit and we’re always working to make beautiful sense out of a complex world. We’re dedicated to finding meaningful ways to communicate about difficult conversations, whether it be climate change, race equity, or LGTBQ+ issues.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: Being committed to social change usually means taking a big risk. There will always be very vocal critics. It can be challenging to tune out those critics, but it is necessary to get the work done. My favorite quote from Brene Brown is, “If you’re not in the arena also getting your *ss kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
Founder and CEO of I’ll Go First, a nonprofit that leverages storytelling to provide mental wellness and trauma recovery resources for marginalized trauma populations.
My Journey: I was raised by my maternal grandfather. He tried his best but was a World War 2 veteran and severely impacted by PTSD and alcoholism. As a result, our home was filled with physical violence and addiction. Just after I turned 18, he passed away, leaving me completely on my own. Driven by a desire to find some semblance of family, I set out to locate the rest of my biological family. I found myself in the dusty streets of Calcutta where I was confronted by the realities of human slavery. There, I met survivors of sex trafficking who shared similar stories of vulnerabilities. But unlike them, I was afforded access to key elements they were not. I realized that despite everything I had been through as a child, I was lucky because I had won the birth geography lottery. I decided to dedicate my life to finding solutions so that young girls would know there is hope and healing available to them.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: Because I am a survivor-leader, I have had to consistently work on my own trauma healing so that I am at my best self in order to serve my community. When I first founded, I’ll Go First seven years ago, I was still learning how to trust myself as a founder, especially at a time when mental health was still so stigmatized. I believe we are on the cusp of a mental health revolution, where seeking care and talking about trauma is becoming normalized and encouraged.
Communications and Development Manager at Tuolumne River Trust, an organization aiming to protect and restore the Tuolumne River watershed for present and future generations.
My Journey: I have always known that I wanted to spend my time doing impact-driven work that I feel passionate about. After years of learning as much as I could about our world’s complexities, I found my passion at the intersection of environment and social justice. Knowing that I am a small part of protecting a particular landscape for future generations to enjoy is deeply fulfilling. This work will live beyond all of us, and is contributing to a movement that prioritizes a more balanced relationship between humans and the environment.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: The nonprofit space isn’t always an easy one to navigate. The hustle of working on causes that we deeply care about can easily cause emotional burnout. Through the years I have learned the power of self care and setting boundaries in order to find a healthy work-life balance. We cannot care for others or our planet unless we are able to first take care of ourselves.
Maria Garcia Barea
Executive Producer of Filmstorms, a creative video production company based in New York, Miami, and Madrid.
My Journey: During my work at Interbrand, I realized that businesses have a chance to not only share where they stand on specific public issues, but to drive real change. Purpose-driven companies are looking for purpose-driven partners to create inspiring content for an increasingly socially conscious audience. My goal is to make people rethink their perspectives about issues that are key to contributing to the betterment of society. At Filmstorms, I am now immersed in the production of “Precursor: The Series,” a collection of short films that features uncomfortable conversations about race, transgenderism, and more. Each episode is meant to be educational and act as a catalyst for social change.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: It’s very difficult to compete for attention in today’s loud and crowded digital space. To make it more difficult, we know that the human attention span lasts around eight seconds. The real challenges are to make your cause and content visible, and to create a connection through empathy and compassion. Never underestimate the power of emotions. If a piece of content can make you smile or shed a tear, there’s a strong chance to create a bond, which is what will ultimately drive movement and change.
Founder of Like Hearts Lab, a sustainable, accessible commercial real estate development for social impact companies.
My Journey: This idea didn’t start with a singular problem statement—it started with inspiration, vision, and opportunity. I have been fortunate to visit certain places around the globe that spark joy and a sense of what can be, and give a glimpse into a more hopeful future. I want to replicate that with a focus on empowering socially-conscious companies and organizations sustainably, accessibly, and equitably.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: It can be challenging to articulate big visions that describe a future that doesn’t yet exist in a way that resonates with people. I have been incubating this concept officially for three and a half years, but only started talking about it publicly in the last six to nine months because I didn’t have a clear “it’s the Uber for X analogy” or a perfectly polished 30-second pitch. And while I believe that positive social impact must be table stakes for all businesses going forward, current funding models often prioritize hockey-stick growth and profits at all costs. So there can be a misalignment for impact founders when it comes to financing these big visions and getting from research phases to tangible action and delivering community value.
Founder of Yunus & Youth, an organization that connects social entrepreneurs with the training and resources to build successful and financially sustainable solutions.
My Journey: Growing up in a country with half of the population below the poverty line immersed me in the brutal reality behind extreme poverty rates. I wanted to find humanitarian solutions that would change this reality, so I joined several nonprofits from a very young age. While I was inspired by their mission, I saw the shortcomings of the charitable model—when the money dries up, projects get discontinued. I learned that capitalizing on the intersection between businesses and social causes could become one of the most efficient ways to reduce poverty rates. So I decided to dedicate my career to using technology and innovative financing to enable entrepreneurial solutions to mitigate the consequences of poverty.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: A big problem in the space is that there is a lot of funding available for humanitarian solutions but it is not efficiently allocated. It is particularly difficult for minorities and founders from developing countries to connect with the funding sources. So a lot of the work I did was around building a platform to scale the know-how for early-stage founders to help them with the building blocks they need to strengthen their solutions.
Co-Founder and CMO of systemCHANGR, an expert community think tank where ESG and SDG collaboration lead to measurable solutions to the biggest sustainability questions.
My Journey: Over a decade ago, I left the theater and began working on documentaries. I knew I had found my passion, but I discovered what I wanted to dedicate my time and career to when I was working on a documentary in Colorado. The story involved the environment, land rights, and treaty rights. It quickly became more than a film in my life and opened my eyes to environmental and human injustices that I had never known or understood. I knew then that I would do everything I could to elevate critical issues people and communities faced and work to change systems for good.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: My journey to working in strategic communication with mission-driven brands was fueled by constantly hearing ‘no’ to important stories and issues that needed coverage. However, they were either too complicated to package in a minute and 30-second story, or might have a positive outcome and therefore were not sexy enough for the nightly news. I had to learn to communicate critical issues to an array of stakeholders for maximum impact.
Dr. Melissa Barker
Founder and CEO of The Phoenix Project, a caring digital community that supports mental health and wellness—anywhere, anytime.
My Journey: I am a survivor of trauma and am building The Phoenix Project to make trauma-informed healing and mental health care more accessible than ever. I know firsthand how hard healing can feel at times but I also know sometimes the only way out is through. I want to create a space where all trauma survivors can have access to high quality healing and care so that they may (re)find their joy.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: Having a social impact focus in the startup space tends to have people wondering how we are going to be a for-profit business, and how we can have impact while still generating revenue. Trauma is also a very confusing space but the more we normalize it as an experience we all have, the less alone people feel. We took a bold approach in taking a collective care model to mental wellness but we believe community is self care.
Founder and CEO of Allobee, a one-stop business solution for the overwhelmed entrepreneur.
My Journey: When I had my daughter, I was working more than 70 hour weeks at an up-and-coming startup that was not flexible for a new mom. So I quit and started into the world of entrepreneurship. It was not always easy to navigate that transition and in-between times and I knew I was not alone in that. Since then, I have created a co-working space for moms that had childcare, as well as my current company, Allobee, which is made up of a workforce of women who have been forced out of the 9 to 5.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: Women who work from home or have left the workforce for a period of time for non-traditional work are often misjudged or looked down upon. This was a factor we bumped up against when we originally were called MOMentum. The “mom” aspect deterred some people from trusting our workforce. When we changed our name to Allobee and started calling our moms, “experts”—which they are—we started to take off.
Founder and CEO of Veneka, a sustainable, ethical, and cruelty-free capsule wardrobe styling service.
My Journey: Fashion is among the top industrial contributors to climate change and the greatest exploiter of females on the planet. We cannot reverse our global climate crises, fix gender equality, or improve upon any of our global grand challenges without fixing our closets. There’s a dormant power lying in the simple ritual of getting dressed, and Veneka exists to unlock it.
The Hurdles I’ve Had to Overcome: I gave birth to my first child in April 2020 and COVID-19 peaked simultaneously. Veneka was gutted overnight with half our customers and many brand partners churning. I was freshly postpartum facing several health issues. As a solo founder, maternity leave was not an option. I would nurse my screaming baby at 4 a.m. while panicking about Veneka’s future. During this time, I pivoted Veneka and got it back to growth.