Define Your Table

Sheryl Sandberg tells women not to leave the table; Sonal Shah says to define it. No matter what the shape, make it yours.

When economist, entrepreneur, and innovator Sonal Shah walked into our small dinner event tonight and sat at the table, she was joined by a group of excited undergraduate women from the Harvard College Social Innovation Collaborative and Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business who were there to learn, engage, and join in on a conversation.

They wouldn’t be disappointed.

Sonal is one talented woman–it only takes a glance at her impressive CV with names like Google, Goldman Sachs, and the White House peppering the page to leave you convinced of that fact. But for me and for the other women sitting in that room, what was far more impressive–and indeed, endearing– than her  list of accomplishments was how real, honest, poised, and approachable she was as she shared her story and answered our questions. Sonal will be the first to tell you that you can’t predict what step you’ll take next on your far-from-linear path, even though you can make the connections and develop the work ethic now to ensure that you’ll be ready to take it when it comes. In fact, that’s the beauty of the entire life-career trajectory–it completely leaves the realm of any recognizable geometric shape and takes on a life of its own, with you at the helm.

“When you walk through one door, you think the six other doors next to you will close. But what you don’t realize is that once you walk through that door, another six will appear.”

Sonal made it clear that we’re lucky to be living in the time that we are. “I’m jealous of you all,” she said. “You have so many options.”

As the evening went on, the conversation twisted and turned much like Sonal’s career path–going from a broad discussion of the “do good” mentality of our generation to WalMart’s impressive initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint to the kind of confidence it takes to accept an amazing job offer and the courage needed to turn one down.

The conversation was honest, frank, and inspirational in that non-preachy, down-to-earth tone that is so distinctly Sonal. You could tell from the get-go that she is a woman who  knows what it means to take a risk and can accept a job at a premier investment banking firm when she’s ready to get her hands dirty, but is given no job description to tell her how exactly she should do it.

But that’s the thing with Sonal. She is the type of person who will not just get her hands dirty–but will jump headfirst at a challenge and figure out how to organize and work most efficiently with the talented people around her in order to get the job done.

Here are just a couple of mind mints that I picked up today to hopefully inspire your thoughts on this Wednesday night:

  • Sheryl Sandberg is one successful woman. But she is also persistent. When she wanted Sonal to join her team at Google, she called every single day until she got the answer she wanted to hear. So, know what you want, and don’t be afraid to be obnoxiously persistent in order to achieve it.
  • Help the women around you. You will have mentors who will help you get to where you’re going, and one day, it’ll be your turn to pass the buck.
  • Know what you love, leave what you don’t.
  • Despite the gridlock and the partisanship and the struggles on capitol hill, government remains the place where real, large-scale change happens. Instead of just starting a nonprofit that helps keep kids in school, consider aiming to work on policy that will ensure that schools can attract better paid, better performing teachers to work with children across the entire nation and give them a reason (or many) to stay in school.
  • Go straight to the source. We often see companies like Starbucks or TOMS supporting service initiatives and community development projects through their business models–especially because their products are very visible as you walk down the street. Yet, these two ventures represent such a small percent of each of their respective markets. Instead, think about going to the coffee behemoth (Folgers) or the country’s largest shoe manufacturer. Think about how large you want the impact you make to be, and then go and make it.
  • Know what you love and what you’re good at because, sometimes, a job just isn’t for you. So when it’s staring you in the face, don’t convince yourself that you have to like it just because others think you should. At the same time, that opportunity that just came up may not be at your favorite company, but you know that you’d be working with an amazing team. Go there for the people and get ready to embrace everything that you will learn.
  • Companies and employers are increasingly cognizant of their employees’ desire to use their skills to give back to the world around them. That’s why you can get a certain amount of “you” time as an employee at Google, which many use to go out and work on saving the world–or at least develop an algorithm to do so.

I hope all of you are doing well and getting excited for Thanksgiving! For me, that means I’ll finally be visiting my family at home <3

Can’t wait!

Ishani

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