There is no shortage of web content, column inches of newsprint, or bookshop shelf-space dedicated to ‘choosing the perfect career’, ‘finding your element’, ’discovering your passion’. And trust me, I’ve been drawn in often, in the hope some book somewhere will tell me my true vocation.
But if there’s one thing I’ve become convinced of over the past few months, it’s that the only way to really try and work this out is by exploring: opening yourself up to new people, new places, new perspectives and ideas, new walks of life. By observing all of this new experience, who knows what you’ll discover about yourself.
Tomorrow, I’ll spend my final day of training in the HQ of Kiva, here in (the very beautiful) San Francisco. Kiva, by way of introduction, is a non-profit organization with a mission to alleviate poverty by connecting people through lending. Using the internet, and a network of partner ‘microfinance institutions’ based in the developing world, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world. You go on the site, choose a borrower, lend your money and then watch, as someone thousands of miles away uses the opportunity you’ve given them to build a business. In due course, they pay back the loan.
I’m shortly going to be heading off to work for a few months with one of these microfinance partner organisations, based in Zimbabwe. But a prerequisite before heading out to ‘the field’ was an intensive 5 day training programme, with around 30 other new ‘Kiva Fellows’, here in San Francisco. And the experience of seeing Kiva in action here over the past week has brought me a lot closer to understanding what this feeling of ‘passion’ about work might look like. Its been one of the most inspiring and invigorating programmes I’ve come across in a long time.
My years of corporate life in banking and consulting hadn’t prepared me for the world of Kiva. This is an office environment I didn’t recognise. The big warm welcome from the hipster dude on reception each morning isn’t a bad start! Then there’s all the relaxed friendly milling about around the main central open space (’circus maximus’); this being San Francisco, everyone of course has their MacBook Air and organic coffee in hand (and I’ll admit I also now have both…!). Normally, there are a couple of dogs running around, getting spoilt by everyone; up to three can join their owners at the office (there’s a ‘dog calendar’ you use to book them in). When you need some peace and concentration, or just want to chill, you use the ‘quiet room’, with its bookshelves and sofas for a snooze. Or alternatively, you could just go straight to the ‘hammock room’. The tone from the presenters is never patronising or ‘corporate speak’: it’s presented as advice, guidance, tips, best practice – they trust you, as a mature grown-up, to make a judgement call on most things. Pretty early on, I stopped trying to figure out the corporate hierarchy and people’s levels of seniority: cliché as it sounds, these guys are a team, working together without obsessions about corporate titles.
But if you’re thinking all this sounds more holiday camp than work environment, you couldn’t be more wrong. From what I’ve seen so far, Kiva runs one of the most productive and efficient set-ups I’ve ever come across. The training course has been packed with carefully thought through and clearly presented materials with a wealth of information for those of us heading out on fellowships. The whole programme has run like clockwork: one 5 minute overrun on a session today. And this group of people get stuff done! From a pretty lean team, they look after almost 300 partner organisations spanning 85 countries, manage hundreds of volunteers globally and have made over 1.2m loans since they were established. They’re constantly improving and innovating, making use of the constant rapid advances in technology to address the needs of their partners in the field. And they’re rapidly growing the number of people to whom they give these life-changing opportunities: last year they smashed through their targets for bringing on new loans.
All around me this week, I’ve felt a palpable sense of enthusiasm, excitement and optimism. And yes, more than that, ’passion’; people are truly passionate about working or volunteering here and about the tangible impact their work has across the globe.
I have to say, it rubs off. I’ve left the office each evening and practically floated my way home on a little cloud of positivity. Of course being in San Francisco is helping too! I’ve completely fallen for this stunningly beautiful, vibrant and all-round wonderful ‘City by the Bay’. But increasingly I too am growing a passion for what I’ve seen in action here; passionate about Kiva’s phenomenal work in giving life-changing opportunities to inspiring individuals across the world; and passionate also for the Kiva organisation itself, the hugely talented people involved and the way in which it operates.
Meantime, roll on Zimbabwe… !