A Business Development Manager Finds Her Missing Piece in Nonprofits.
Sahaar Rezaie, Associate Director of Corporate Engagement, Year Up.
Sahaar Rezaie (rhymes with Hawai’i) graduated from college with a clear goal in mind: land a job that could pay the impending rent. She grabbed the first account management offer that came through, and quickly moved on and up, sharpening her business development skills in marketing and advertising over the years. Then the economy tanked and a successful career came to a jarring standstill – like so many, she was laid off.
Without the security of a paycheck, and facing the fact that she felt something meaningful distinctly missing from her life, Sahaar carved a new path for herself – one that led her, ultimately, to an impact career doing work she loves.
A successful career path…but something’s missing.
Sahaar grew up in a hard-working household. Her mother, a registered nurse, worked at the same hospital for 30 years. Her father ran a successful business and, she says, “between the two of them, I grew up with an influence of compassion and public service, as well as entrepreneurship and a belief in being able to attain the American dream through hard work.”
Having spent her teen years helping her father with the family business, she naturally gravitated toward business development after college, and proved herself quickly as a thoughtful, client-focused manager. The work stretched Sahaar’s analytical and relationship-building muscles – yet without a clear passion driving her, she remained ambivalent about her career. “It was really monetarily driven,” she says of her work helping clients with marketing strategy and consumer data analysis. It was all sales goals, automotive accounts, and online data. In the fall of 2008, she joined an online competitive intelligence service as an account manager.
You’re not always in control.
We were all there, and have heard about (if not lived) the stories: in 2007, the global economy began a downward spiral and for the next several years, organizations in every sector scrambled for cover. As one of the newest employees, Sahaar was laid off just months after joining the company in a sweeping round of cutbacks.
“It was probably one of the most difficult times of my life,” says Sahaar. “Part of me felt like it was the end of the world, almost.” With no paycheck, it was a bit like being back at square one. So she took the same approach as she did post-graduation. “I needed to pay the bills, so I was trying to find a job as quickly as possible.”
Sometimes you are in control.
Newly unemployed and with time on her hands, Sahaar did a lot of thinking. “It really forced me to reflect on what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “I wanted to give back to my community in conjunction with my job search.”
That’s when she remembered Year Up, a nonprofit providing education and job skills development to low-income young adults that she used to pass on her way to her now defunct job. She visited the organization, and ended up volunteering as a guest lecturer. “From my first interaction with the students, it was magic. I immediately felt like I fit in…sometimes it just clicks, and it did – it clicked.”
But there was rent to pay, and it didn’t occur to her that she might actually be able to earn a living working with her Year Up students. She continued to interview for account management and sales roles – and her persistence paid off when she received an offer letter. “It was more money than I had ever made in my entire life,” she says.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks: it was feeling like I was making a positive impact on someone’s life and on the community.”
Most people would jump at such a stroke of luck. She might not get another offer like this. Who knows how long it would take to find a job in this economy? She’d be crazy not to accept. But, she recalls, “For some reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to get excited.” Confused, she began to question herself. “What does drive me? What am I passionate about? What have I enjoyed most these last few months?
“And it hit me like a ton of bricks: it was Year Up. It was working with the students, and feeling like I was making a positive impact on someone’s life and on the community.”
Making it happen.
Yet the economy was in shambles. Sahaar was a volunteer – why would a nonprofit want to hire someone who was already working for free? But Sahaar was equipped – finally – with an understanding of what she wanted her career to look like. She approached Jay Banfield, the organization’s executive director, and told him point blank that she wanted to commit more; she wanted to be part of the staff.
Without much nonprofit experience, and no open positions at Year Up that were a direct fit, she wasn’t necessarily a shoe-in. “We were able to take my background of staffing and business development,” explains Sahaar, “and create a dual role which drew upon my experience and strengths. I was persistent, but also fortunate to find someone like Jay who saw something in me and was willing to take a chance.”
Her current role as Associate Director of Corporate Engagement is very similar to the work she’d done in the for-profit world: she’s working with businesses, cultivating relationships, identifying innovative ways to meet client needs. But now, she says, “it’s almost like I’m using my powers for good.”
Using the skills she mastered in the private sector, she cultivates corporate partnerships, which provide 60 percent of Year Up’s revenue, evaluates company needs, and finds just the right fit among Year Up’s students. “I’m kind of the liaison between Year Up and our partners,” she explains, “so if an intern is facing a challenge in their life, I make sure I connect with their appropriate manager to get the resources they need to remove any barrier to their success.” She also tracks their progress once their placement is over, helping to shepherd them into full-time work.
When Sahaar does her job well – and the Year Up team clearly thinks she does, selecting her for the organization’s Emerging Leaders program – she’s able to bring measurable value to both corporate partners and Year Up interns.
Another kind of payoff.
Moving from the private sector to the nonprofit world wasn’t without risk. As a realist, Sahaar was used to keeping an eye on that paycheck. And she’d spent months without one. “It led me to realize that money wasn’t the number one determining factor for me and my happiness,” she says. “I realized that it was being involved in mission-driven work – so though it was a concern, it didn’t stop me from taking that risk.”
She’s gained in other ways, too, developing deeply valuable skills – what she calls “cultural competencies” – that have made her better at her work. “I remember bringing one man to the company where he was going to be interning, and I noticed as we went from floor to floor to floor, that the only African American was the intern that was with me. Prior to Year Up, that was something that I just wouldn’t have noticed. It enabled me to have a conversation with the intern, to make sure he was comfortable, and that we were there to support him. It’s enabled me to put myself in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.”
Sahaar’s path has not been straightforward, but neither has it been all that unusual. She set out on a career more functional than passionate, and she survived a layoff in one of the most grueling economic climates we’ve known. But what is unusual, perhaps, has been her willingness to ask herself tough questions about what she values, to reevaluate and redefine what’s most important to her, and then pursue it.
“I think it was one of the best things that could have ever happened to me,” she says about her layoff, “giving me the chance to reflect on my life and what I want to be in this world.”