On Purpose

Reem Akl

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On Purpose London April 2018 Fellow, currently a part of the Impact Collective (an impact-economy consultancy set up by On Purpose Fellows) and involved in pro bono projects to support her home country.


Can you tell me about your background and your career prior to On Purpose?

I studied economics and economic history, and after graduating was unsure about the type of career I wanted.

I worked for a few years in international trade and export finance.

However, mainstream finance was not for me, and following my love for photography I took a sabbatical to pursue a master’s degree in documentary photography. It was a year during which I felt great freedom to explore themes that interested me, using the camera as a way into situations and encounters. That led me more formally into the arts, and I then spent time leading programmes in art non-profits in Beirut and London, including at the Arab Image Foundation (a unique photography archive holding a collection of over a hundred years of vernacular photography from the Arab world).

What are you doing now?

Following On Purpose I stayed on with Big Society Capital (my second placement) to continue leading on a one-year pilot programme in mental health prevention.

Since then I have been part of the Impact Collective, an impact-economy consultancy set up by On Purpose Fellows. I have also been involved in pro bono projects to support my home country, Lebanon, which is going through difficult times. This includes being a Trustee for Bedayati, a non-profit expanding employment opportunities for youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, and championing an inclusive economy.

It’s actually been great to put everything I have learnt in the last two years towards initiatives that are close to my heart.

How did you feel in your work before you decided to make a change?

The big change for me came before On Purpose, when I left banking to explore more creative universes. However, being in the non-profit art sector also did not hold all the answers for me.

Art is intrinsic to our humanity, and without it the world would be a poorer, darker place. However, it operates in elusive ways and I was also itching to engage more directly in tackling our social and environmental challenges.

At what moment did you decide to make the change?

I like to think that On Purpose found me as much as I found On Purpose. I was keen to explore more resilient business models that combined purpose and sustainability, and took into account environmental and social dimensions holistically.

A former colleague, and now great friend, told me about On Purpose. I hadn’t really considered going back to a structured programme, so remember looking it up without too much conviction at first. Then a couple of weeks before the deadline I suddenly realised it might be what I was looking for!

Why did you join the On Purpose Associate Programme?

It sounded like a great and effective combination of professional experience and learning, as well as the opportunity to belong to a community of like-minded people.

I realise in hindsight that I acted instinctively, led by a feeling that the world had moved on, that so many social and environmental issues required critical action, and that I felt ill equipped. I hoped that On Purpose might provide me with a robust entry point into a space of better understanding and action.

What was the most difficult thing about making this change?

I don’t think I perceived any of it as being difficult. I have always embraced fresh starts, and the opportunity to learn and grow.

I was lucky in the sense that I’ve always had the full support of my family and that my financial situation allowed me to comfortably embark on this transition.

One source of discomfort was around having to re-evaluate and re-shape what I could bring to a team and to an organisation, based on my experience and the new areas of opportunities that were opening up. But that is part of any personal change.

Can you tell me more about your placements?

I was very lucky to have two very different placements, one operating in the environmental space, and the other in social impact.

At Friends of the Earth I worked with the Innovation team, who design and launch experiments around particular challenges related to the broader organisational mission — from greening the streets, to harnessing the power of artificial intelligence for good. My projects included drafting an MVP for an electric car club powered by community renewable energy, as well as system-mapping people’s savings and pensions in order to find ways of channelling that capital for positive impact.

The general feeling I’ve kept from that placement is a sense of connection (with people and nature), mixed with an awareness of the bigger, existential questions about climate change and the state of our planet.

My second placement was with Big Society Capital, which is the leading financial institution dedicated to social impact investment in the UK. It was extremely valuable to spend a year there, and be exposed to a range of work streams and strategic conversations.

I led on a truly inspiring pilot programme, in partnership with the Wellcome Trust and the social venture ecosystem, to explore innovative partnership and funding models to better support startups developing solutions in mental health prevention. I got to work alongside driven social entrepreneurs, and got to know the tech-for-good scene. Mental health is a hugely important issue, and I was glad to help drive the conversation a bit further.

What’s the most important thing you learnt during your year as an Associate?

I already knew that, but my On Purpose year reinforced the message: it is a big, interconnected world out there, and our challenges can seem complex and overwhelming — yet there is talent and creativity in abundance and we need to work collaboratively across disciplines and boundaries to drive change.

What support did you get along the way?

One of the big wins of the On Purpose Associate programme is being part of a cohort. Of course, you have no control over who ends up in your cohort, and every cohort jokes that it’s the best! But it leads to genuine connections and friendships.

The programme also offers access to mentoring and coaching — I really enjoyed getting to know my mentors and coach, and we’ve kept in touch.

Above all else I would say the year offers an opportunity to start building and consolidating a network of friends, peers and collaborators who can provide support, inspiration and a sense of belonging. With time, people and priorities evolve, including within our circle of family and friends. So it’s great to be able to find a space where we can grow and feel on the same wavelength as others.

How did your year with On Purpose set you up for your new career?

I tend to see my journey as a non-linear, yet continuous one. On Purpose was the channel though which I was able to make the relevant connections at this stage in my life, and this brought me energy and a renewed sense of direction.

I feel better equipped to engage in conversations and contribute towards efforts aimed at addressing our societies’ challenges. It can feel a bit like a bubble — on the one hand, having a community of like-minded practitioners, yet on the other realising that many people are still not engaged for one reason or another.

So the challenge becomes how to engage and preach beyond the converted.

What advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

If you are looking to find more integrated and sustained ways of driving positive change, but do not have a clear pathway to explore this, then the Associate Programme might be a real opportunity to widen your network, see what’s being done and get a taste for a range of approaches and topics.

There is an element of uncertainty that comes with embarking on this adventure, and it would be wise to do it with enthusiasm, a willingness to learn and an open mind.

What do you miss about your old career, and what don’t you miss?

I don’t consider myself as having a single career prior to On Purpose. I do miss the sense of freedom and creativity I felt working in the arts. But I also shifted towards the social impact space because I wanted to work towards more tangible outcomes.

Having worked in different sectors and places, I now tend to focus more on the micro level around the people, the purpose of the work and the organisational culture.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Sunshine and the thought of fresh coffee always help!

Some days I’m driven by things that make me angry, and others simply by whatever the day may bring.

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