5 Ways Service Years Prepare You for Entrepreneurship

I frequently meet students looking to become social entrepreneurs after they graduate. They are seduced by the idea of freedom, making a difference and not having “vacation days.” When I meet these students I often ask, “What is your big idea?” I am responded to with a shrug, indicating they will figure it out once they get real world experience. Used to hearing more traditional advice like get an MBA or work in consulting, they are surprised when I suggest a year of service with a program like AmeriCorps.

How can serving in the nonprofit sector prepare you for the day when you start a business?

1. Expand Your Ability to Serve

Customer service is the new marketing. With the rise of social media platforms and comment boards, every brand is subject to word-of-mouth affecting sales. The most successful companies are those who treat their customers with a heart of service. What better way to understand service then to spend a year working in the nonprofit/social services sector?

2. Learn to Make Money go Far

Projection Hub recently gave a break down on how start-ups are funded. They noted that 34 percent are bootstrapped, literally funded off the founders’ personal savings.  Translation: founders have little to no paycheck for at least a few months during the startup phase. And for founders operating on borrowed money, salaries tend to be skimpy early on while investors wait for proof of concept.

To work at a startup, you must be able to create and market products on a shoestring while also living on a minimal salary. Service year programs, like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps, offer you the opportunity to live on a stipend (enough money to cover room and board). Service members are placed to work at nonprofits. That role gives you the opportunity to practice creative ways to market and provide services with out spending money.

Founders coming off of a term of service are already equipped to bootstrap their new startup.

3. Selling an Intangible

Being effective at sales takes practice. People often think that because most nonprofits are not product based and discounted services that there is no selling. In fact the opposite is true. Nonprofits are funded by donations and grants, meaning that the staff are responsible for selling an idea or vision. Wendy Kopp funded Teach For America by selling the idea, “One day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” Yup, people gave her money and the only thing they got in return was a tax donation receipt and the knowledge that they are part of something great. This is not much different than when an investor writes a check for your half-baked app idea that has not even been built or market tested. If you want to start a business, you better know how to sell an idea.

4. Long Job Descriptions

82 percent of nonprofits with a staff have 1-10 employees. This means there are 1-10 people trying to take on the mission of ending homelessness in their town, raising the reading level of every child in a low-income school district, providing a safe place for all the victims of domestic violence in a zip code. To execute on these missions, each staff member (and service year member) must take on multiple roles spanning from events planning to marketing to administration. This is similar to when a founder starts a company. On paper, they are a CEO, but they are also the accountant, the data-entry specialist and the blogger. It is important to be able to learn skills fast and be able to switch between roles if you want to work in the startup world.

 5. Family Style Workplace

Both nonprofits and startups tend to have tight-knit teams that are inspired by passion. They work together on the weekend and grueling late nights. Co-workers know who you are dating and when your father is in the hospital. They are like family. This type of work environment can come with challenges and drama. It is important to learn how to navigate these types of relationships sooner rather then later.


Real Service Alumni Running Social Enterprises


Meet 20 social entrepreneurs that started their career with a year of service on next week’s Journey to Social Entrepreneurship Virtual Summit. We are connecting with alumni from Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, City Year and Teach for America who leveraged the skills learned in their term of service to launch a start up that is working to solve today’s complex issues.

Register for your free spot today.


By Anna Lenhart

Founder, Next Generation of Service

Founder, Anani Cloud Solutions

Past employee of 3 start-ups

AmeriCorps Alum :-)

How to Join AmeriCorps In 5 Steps

1. Set An Intention

What do you want to get out of your AmeriCorps participation? Community service, professional experience and development of life skills are just a few of reasons that might be drawing you to a year of service. Once you’ve set your goal to serve, you need to do your research. There are several types of programs and service areas actively serving communities in over 60,000 locations across the country. In finding the right opportunities to apply to, it’s important to know where you want to work (urban vs rural), what kind of service you want to do (direct service vs indirect service) and the issue areas that excite you. We can help guide you through this application process. Sign up for a one-on-one session today with our NGS guides, most of whom have served a year (or more) in an AmeriCorps program.


2. My AmeriCorps Application

Navigate to the My AmeriCorps site, and select “apply to serve.” From here, you will create a profile and begin your application. The application process is similar to a “common app” for applying to university and allows you to apply to opportunities across a variety of nonprofit organizations in the AmeriCorps network. You will provide information on any past community service and work experience, a personal essay and letters of recommendation. This is a job application and should be treated as such, but it is also imperative that your application as a whole answers the question: Why do I feel called to service?


3. Apply to the Max Positions

Your My AmeriCorps application can be submitted to as many as 10 positions at a time. As positions are filled on a rolling basis, you will receive application status notifications. Do not take rejection too personally. Just trust that you were not a great fit for the program. I highly recommend submitting your application to the maximum of 10 positions at a time even if some of the positions fall outside your primary interests. If the organization is working on issues you care about, submit your application. You may get a first round interview, and this will give you a better sense of fit with the organization. Remember, you will be working at an organization with multiple projects and plenty of need for leaders. There are often opportunities to make contributions to the organization’s mission beyond your stated role. Whether you enjoy your experience is heavily dependent upon your connection with individuals in the organization, so give yourself an opportunity to get on the phone or face-to-face with potential supervisors and colleagues.


4. Reach Out

With My AmeriCorps you are using a standardized application, which does not always give you an opportunity to describe your qualifications for a specific position. A great way to work around the limitations of the application is to reach out to the contact listed on the AmeriCorps position posting (see side bar in My AmeriCorps), and make yourself known as a strongly interested applicant. Some programs will respond with their own additional set of application questions or give you an opportunity to write 1-2 paragraphs (like a cover letter) explaining why you would be a great fit for the role.


5. Persevere!

Again, as with any job application, accept that you might not get the role. Some AmeriCorps programs, like VISTA, are more competitive based on the sheer number of applicants for certain locations or other factors. However, there are plenty of smaller, lesser-known programs across the country that have unfilled positions. If you are passionate about being of service and learning new skills, be patient and there will be opportunities for you. Undertaking national service is having the courage to tackle challenges and build a better future for our country, so don’t give up!


Writen by Anna Lenhart

Edited by Nicole Campbell

Photo Credit: http://magazine.outdoornebraska.gov/

Our Inner Truth on Leading the Self

By Jessica Tang


Four years ago, when I first started teaching yoga, I always aspired for the one day when I can be like this teacher or that teacher and have my own following. I wanted to be a leader, and to me, these teachers were leaders because they had followers. At that time, leadership to me meant being in a position of power, having a “management” role, or having a large following. Although there is no definitive answer to what leadership is, I learned over the past few years that leadership has less to do with your job title or the amount of followers you have. Rather, it is related to how much you inspire and motivate not just other people, but yourself.


Right out of teacher training, I experienced a steep learning curve in finding my own voice as a teacher. The words with which I led class were my teacher’s words. And despite the number of different classes I took to learn from other teachers, I found myself feeling like an echo or a shadow of someone else. As I taught more classes, my knowledge grew, but I felt lost at the same time. Confused as to what my own voice sounds like, another voice started developing in my head — the voice of doubt.


When it comes to my own voice of doubt, it usually comes in the forms of self-defeating statements and constant comparison. As much as I was learning from other teachers, I also found myself comparing my experience level to theirs. The dialogue of comparison soon turned to one of harsh statements that left me feeling small. Despite the positive feedback I received from students, I had a tough time letting go of the nagging internal dialogue that said I was not enough. This voice of doubt not only left me feeling defeated, but kept me from venturing outside the comfort zone I found in a particular studio.


One of my teacher friends once shared that we can’t truly be compassionate towards others until we learn to truly be compassionate towards ourselves. In Sanskrit, there is a term — ahimsa — that loosely translates to “do no harm,” “non-violence” or “compassion.” Although in my classes I taught students to practice compassion and non-judgment, it was paradoxical that my own internal dialogue towards myself was anything BUT gentle and kind. I eventually shared my insecurities with a coach who was also one of my students. In response, this is what she asked me:


If it were a friend who told you about the voice in her head that says “I am not enough,” what would you tell her?


I thought about this one for a second, and this was what I would have told my “friend:”


Come into a comfortable seat, and start to tune into your breath. Take a few deep inhales and exhales, letting go of anything you find that is weighing you down as you breath out through your mouth. Do this for about 5 cycles of breath. Now notice the thoughts running through your head. Without any judgments or labels on them as “good” or “bad,” ask yourself: “Are they true?”


After that meeting, I returned to the dialogue I would have told a friend every time I caught my mind chatter talking down on myself. Instead of teaching others what ahimsa means, I started practicing it too. The breath work practiced in yoga served as a tool for greater self-awareness and mindfulness. In turn, I realized that as much as it was important to share my teachings with students, it was also important to BE a student to my own inner teacher.


Similarly, leadership is not gained through having a certain title or by setting out how many followers one must have in order to be considered a leader. Inspiration is derived from living out our personal values and making choices that align with our inner truth. Beyond the physical practice, yoga teaches us that we each have our own style as leaders, teachers, etc. and most importantly, to always honor and lead with our inner truth.


Jessica is a yoga teacher from Vancouver, BC and recently started the project – Wanderlove Yoga – to share how yoga can be experienced anywhere, anytime. Off the mat, she loves exploring places and capturing moments on her camera.


When we start our career with service it is easy to get overwhelmed with the social issue at hand, to put all our energy into “fixing”- it is important to remember to breathe, to make space for our own growth and healing.

Canyons, Causes and Connections

Last week I spent 5 days and 4 nights trekking through 38 miles of meandering, rocky terrain in the Grand Canyon. I survived off the 25 pounds of food and gear in my beat-up pack. Each day consisted of trying to reach our next “destination” (a plot of land that could fit 2 small tents) with enough water to turn our dehydrated food into a meal.  I agreed to this adventure to prove to myself that I could live simply, off only what I can carry and most importantly away from all electronic devices (headlamp not included).

While walking, I could hardly comprehend the imagery flooding into my brain.  It felt unreal.  Shades of purple, brown and green streamed in infinite lines throughout the rocks above, below, behind, in front.  Unreal. In one 48-hour time span, the only Homo sapiens I encountered were my group mates.  Unreal.

I was overwhelmed with awe, and with fear.  It wasn’t the “I’m-sitting-on-the-top-of-a-rollercoaster” kind of fear, but a more unnerving, “I ‘m-at-the-mercy-of-this-planet” kind of fear. I was humbled and empowered in the same instance; teetering on the edge faith and worry, and having to choose between them in every moment.  It was by far one of the most profound experiences of my life.  Profound in a way that complements my work as an activist and civil servant.

On my drive home to San Diego the day after climbing out of the “big ditch,” I caught up on one of my favorite podcasts.  As I listened to “The Threshold Moment” episode of The Dirtbag Diaries, I began to cry.  The podcast is the story of Kevin Fedarko’s (activist and author of the Emerald Mile) decade-long relationship with the Grand Canyon, and his work to protect this place.

With my own experience of the Grand Canyon fresh in my mind, I learned that the town of Tusayan, located just outside the south entrance to the park, is considering the development of a shopping center near the South Rim. The infrastructure would demand so much water that the aquifers below the canyon would dry up, leaving the streams and springs dry – the same streams and springs that trickled into my water bottles and sustained me on my journey. It hit me that if this development goes through, future visitors would not be able to hike along the Tonto trail they way I had. They would either have to rush through the landscape, never stopping to rest or marvel, or carry 20+ pounds of water on their backs – no small feat.

I became enraged by this injustice.  Would I be one of the last people to do this hike…  Because of a mall? I started to wonder… what if I dropped everything and joined the fight? I could join the protests, host fundraisers…Then I looked at the road sign ahead: San Diego 286 Miles. And I remembered, I am going home. Home, where my life is full, and where my time is consumed by fighting for other causes I care for deeply.

Before feeling despair over my already packed schedule, I reflected on the fact that I am part of this movement, despite living 507 miles from the South Rim. For one, by applying for a permit and walking this trail I made a statement that this place matters.  And when the politicians see the numbers, they will see one more person on the roster of people who care about preserving it.

On a grander scale, every time a young person decides to add a year of service to their career path, they begin their career in a way that builds empathy. I don’t know the leaders that are pushing for development in Tusavan, but I wonder what song they would be singing if they had served as an AmeriCorps VISTA at an Indian Reservation like Pine Ridge?

We might not be able to work on every cause we care about.  Chances are high that there are too many, and not enough hours in the day. In my life, I am content to work for the few causes that intertwine most with my life, and then take some time to look at how my actions in every facet of my life ripple outward to affect change in other areas, indirectly. When I work for women’s empowerment and develop new national service positions I increase the chances that there will be more civically engaged adults and leaders who choose the environment and communities over profits.


Sarah, Hagerstown

When I was in college I became a part of a group called Best Buddies, an international organization started by Anthony Kennedy Shriver. The goal of Best Buddies is to promoted friendship between students and members of the community who have intellectual or developmental disabilities.

I met Karen in my freshman year of college at the first Best Buddies party of the year.  After she destroyed me in checkers (and five years later, I still can’t beat her), I knew we were going to be good friends.  Over my four years of college, Karen and I spent a lot of time together.  I would go to her Special Olympic swimming events, and she would come to my tennis matches. We made a point to see each other every week.
As I moved through college, I faced some personal struggles that left me feeling like a shell of myself. One day in particular, I hit rock bottom; emotionally and physically. I didn’t know what to do.  I felt like couldn’t call home because I didn’t want to worry my parents, and I didn’t have the energy to face my friends with my problems.  At that moment, when I felt utterly alone, the only person I wanted to talk to was Karen.
Karen only saw my good.  She loves the simple things. Making a phone call to just say “hey” and talk about her day means the world to her. When I was with her,  I never worried about anything else. Our friendship was about being present, enjoying each other, and the time we would spend together.

I ended up going to Karen’s house on that night I hit rock bottom.  She was there to remind me that I mattered and that I was worthwhile.  I joined Best Buddies thinking it would be a nice thing to do, that it would make someone else feel good.  I didn’t expect that it would be the thing I would turn to when nothing else seemed right.  I joke now that it wasn’t my time being volunteered, but that it was Karen who was doing the good deed.  She helped me to see the good in my life, and for that I will always be grateful.

Photo credit:http://2010.washcoll.edu/sarahmacht/