I have been working for a new company over the last 6 months, and I have been shocked by how little perspective major companies have about social entrepreneurship.
Aside from my boss, most of my co-workers are in their early twenties to early thirties, consulting on projects for household brands. Now like you, I also asked myself, what does a 21-year-old undergraduate student have to offer these multi-million-dollar companies? Surely they have no need or interest in anything I have to say.
When I started, I went into meetings meek, but eager to learn. I would sit silently, taking notes so that I could provide feedback later on at a more appropriate time to not ruffle feathers or irritate a client.
However, in one meeting early on, while sitting in on a discussion with a new client, my boss paused, then asked, “What do you think, Lily?”
I had of course been following along, ready to participate in any post-meeting email chain about recommendations and engagement strategies. I seized, instantly forgetting any eloquent train of thought I could have previously put together 5 seconds ago, but nonetheless, I turned my microphone on and spoke.
After that instance, I have been asked to actively participate, but I have also taken the initiative to engage unprompted. What I have learned through just a few months of interactions, is that engaging interns and young employees is beneficial for both the employees and the organizations that employ them.
A lack of perspective in the boardroom
Organizations understand that socially-oriented business practices are essential to modern entrepreneurship. The rise in prominence of ESG reporting, DEI training, and B Corp certifications over the last two decades proves the precedent of an industry that benefits from the optics of social inclusion.
Marketing campaigns for Pride month, BLM, and #MeToo have been among many that have graced our screens. However, these are conversations that I don’t think companies are equipped to have. My own experience with my peers, and in the workforce has shown me that organizations are struggling around how to functionally and authentically implement social purpose in a way that resonates with consumers.
As a ‘consultant’, I have the benefit of seeing these instances play out daily. I can recollect times when myself and my 22-year-old colleague have walked into the boardrooms of people three times our age and experience, and have them walk out with a solution they had never conceived of.
I have bussed to the same boardrooms where the people we are meeting with are chauffeured, and they still step away learning something about the state of the world around them.
I have had excellent and productive conversations with businesses surrounding sustainability, Indigenous inclusion, LGBTQIA+ issues, and more, just because there is someone there to answer their questions.
It has made me realize that it is not a lack of knowledge in the boardroom, but rather a lack of perspective that is limiting organizations from becoming more socially impactful.
Young people want to engage
Living in a university town, I have a strong connection to my peers. Working through projects together, sharing notes, and also a pint or two when the former isn’t enough to resurrect your grade.
I am exposed to so many people who are (much) smarter than me, working in internships as resume-builders, doing nothing more than being sent off on useless tasks or busy work. It’s such a waste to me. These organizations lose out on their passion and perspective, and they will most likely turn over at the earliest opportunity.
Young people want desperately to engage in work that matters but don’t feel like they can. A recent Deloitte survey underscores the importance of how young people value socially oriented businesses.
Notably, 42% of respondents under 30 claimed they had already changed or were planning to change workplaces or industries based on a misalignment with their values. On the other hand, 85% of respondents reported feeling unable to influence decisions made regarding social issues within their organizations. Businesses can gain so much from young people, while also keeping them on board, just by asking their opinions.
Young people will stay at companies that make them feel valued. Speaking from first-hand experience, I can tell which of my peers will stay with their jobs based on the way they speak of their organizational culture. It doesn’t matter if a boss is mildly abrasive, or they have to work over the weekend, they want to feel like the outcome of the work they are doing matters. Young people join the workforce with extensive passion and pride, and organizations that stoke this fervor can reap the benefits of dedicated, committed employees.
Authentic inclusion is the only way forward
Engaging young employees is simple, but requires a genuine interest in what they have to say. Just like you can see through the BS of your co-worker’s online shopping while on Zoom meetings, new employees can see through the smoke and mirrors of performative inclusion.
If you want the answers to your business’s social problems, you have to listen, and include them when it matters; beyond ideation sessions and into the boardroom. This may seem daunting, but authentic inclusion is the only way forward to establishing meaningful relationships where young employees will feel valued, comfortable, and confident in sharing insights. When young people can identify that they have the genuine trust of their employers, the confidence to make social impact can be realized.
Your youngest employees take pride in organizations that stand for social causes, and they’re willing and able to help. Do yourself a favor, and take them as seriously as they take your social impact.
So before you hire a consultant, ask what your intern thinks.
Lily Faragher is an undergraduate student at the University of Western Ontario. While studying policy and history, in addition to working at Canadian consulting firm, Impakt, she has taken an interest in exploring how young people can transform the C-Suite to be more inclusive and sustainable.
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