CAREERS IN SOCIAL WORK 4: Kristin Meyer (MS’10)

Kristin MeyerThe following interview with Kristin Meyer (MS'10) is the fourth in a series of posts on social work careers, which we hope will be of use to CUSSW graduates who are still job hunting or else are looking to branch out on new career paths. We invite you to leave your comments under each interview. Suggestions for future posts? Please send to swcommunications@columbia.edu.

Hi, Kristin. Before we go into questions about your career, I’d like to hear a little more about you. When did you know you wanted to be a social worker?
I entered the Columbia School of Social Work after spending five years working in community outreach and development. I debated between an MBA and MSW and ultimately decided I wanted to learn about the role of private and public entities in creating social change.

Were you already thinking about social work as an undergraduate?
My undergraduate degree was in English and Marketing, and I originally thought I would pursue a career in advertising! But then I traveled abroad with the University of Virginia on a Semester at Sea, an experience that had a profound impact on my professional development. I can still remember the moment very clearly when I knew that I wanted something more from my life. I was standing in a schoolhouse in a shantytown in South Africa helping teach the English alphabet to a group of elementary-school-aged children. I couldn’t get over the pride and eagerness that was radiating from these kids as they tried to learn our letters. At that point in my life, I couldn’t quite articulate what the experience meant; I just knew it meant something. Eventually, I figured out that I wanted to be a part of developing the systems that would support and encourage positive, sustainable change.

What attracted you to CUSSW?
As a university, Columbia has a fantastic reputation, and the School of Social Work is no exception. I was particularly attracted to the Social Enterprise Administration (SEA) track at CUSSW, with its focus in macro concepts and tangible program administration skills.

What was your concentration?
I was an SEA student with a focus in World of Work. I knew upon entering CUSSW that I wanted to obtain the requisite skills for designing strategic programs, evaluating outcomes, and leading change efforts with multiple stakeholders within a workplace environment.

Did you learn any of these skills from your field placements?
My second-year field placement was with the Ms. Foundation for Women (MS). MS was instrumental in providing me with several skill sets I use almost every day in my current position. For instance, I learned how to assess the financial, organizational and programmatic efficacy of community organizations and, perhaps more importantly, how to build multi-stakeholder collaborations around social issues in order to drive change more efficiently and, ultimately, have greater impact on the community’s needs.

Tell us about your current position.
Currently, I am the Associate Director of Community Partnerships at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. I manage global grant-making and volunteer programs as part of Starwood’s Global Citizenship efforts. Starwood has over 1,100 hotels in over 100 countries worldwide and employs almost 250,000 people. My role at Starwood encompasses assessing how we interact with a given community and how we can maximize public programs and partnerships to drive social change that aligns with our business objectives.

Can you give us an example of a project you have worked on?
Right now I am spearheading the launch of a global volunteer program that will provide 16 hours of paid work time a year to full- and part-time Starwood associates to participate in volunteer activities. The program offers our associates a structured way to give back to their local communities through events, team activities and pro-bono work. The idea behind it is to connect our employees with issues they are personally passionate about while addressing needs in communities where Starwood operates.

What led you to this career choice?
Prior to attending CUSSW, I was managing a public/private community development venture in North Carolina that taught me the benefit of having private interest and investment in public programs—to make them more sustainable. Entering CUSSW, I knew I wanted my career to extend beyond administration of a traditional non-profit organization, so I began to look at the corporate sector. I wanted to understand the role business played in enhancing social change. I ended up taking a course at SIPA on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and never looked back.

How did you find the job at Starwood?
The position was posted on a CSR industry job board and I utilized my personal network to obtain an introduction to the company. It turned out the individual who provided me with that introduction worked very closely with the hiring manager. In short, it took lots of networking and a little bit of luck.

How important is networking to you?
It's very important. Even today, I try to get out of the office and meet with people as often as my schedule will allow. I think one of the biggest misconceptions on “developing a network” is that all the work comes up front, when you are first establishing your connections. It requires consistent communication and attention to cultivate one’s work contacts, rather like being in a marriage!

What advice would you give to someone interested in your area of work?
Social workers are uniquely positioned to enter the field of corporate social responsibility as they understand community needs and know how to develop and operate successful social partnerships. That being said, it is imperative that individuals who want to enter CSR also understand how a for-profit business operates. I'd advise any social work students or recent grads who think they may be interested in this area to take business courses on corporate finance and project management. It will better equip you to enter the field and also provide some context as you embark on interviews. One more piece of advice is that the world of CSR is evolving quickly, which in turn alters the skill set required to enter the field. Be sure to talk to some CSR experts who can advise on the latest changes.

Looking back on your CUSSW experience, what was best part about it?
I enjoyed getting to know the other students in the program: some of us had vastly different interests and backgrounds yet we all seemed to share a personal passion for changing the world. Watching my fellow students go through the program and learn how to harness and direct their passions in some really unique ways—that was incredibly interesting. For example, one of my classmates joined a large international nonprofit as a corporate relationship manager and is working with corporate clients to direct dollars within the organization. Another one went to work for a human rights advocacy group that partners with large, multinational corporations to ensure compliance with international labor standards. While we are all doing very different work, we are ultimately trying to move social issues forward by establishing mutually beneficial public-private partnerships.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew while you were job searching?
I wish someone had told me to feel confident about being picky. It is good to keep your options open and consider every opportunity, but if I were out there now, I would write down the top three experiences or skills I hoped to get out of the next job—and not allow myself to quit the job search until I'd found a position that can deliver on the list.

—Contributed by Sara Pellegrom, Intern, CUSSW Office of Career and Leadership Development, and edited by ML Awanohara

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