Darden Student Profiles: From Grassroots to MBA

Last year, I sat in on a speech by Ed Freeman where he shared about how to discover Inspiration. A particularly important point he made is to look for inspiration among those around us. For Ed, inspiration came from within his family.
As we think about the Darden Family, it seemed appropriate to look for inspiration within our family. With that in mind, I'm excited to introduce Clare Seekins to share a bit about her story.
CJ (EMDC President)

Student: Clare Seekins
Impact Investment Specialist
Agora Partnerships - Village Capital

Clare, since 2011 you have been working with Impact Investors and have closely followed this growing field of finance. Your work has taken you across the globe and introduced you to a broad range of entrepreneurs and investors.

Can you share a bit about some of the work you did prior to Darden and what led you down to Nicaragua?

For a few years before Darden I was working with a variety of business accelerators, which means that I worked with organizations (all non-profits) that provide resources to entrepreneurs.
Mine were all focused on seed stage businesses. Accelerators (also called incubators) have become quite popular – especially in the economic development arena –with new ones popping up every week; the iLab here at UVA is a great example of one, especially as it opens up to the community.

I actually think that one of the more lasting inputs we provided was simply the institution-backed belief in the entrepreneur and their idea; many of the entrepreneurs I worked with were pre-proof of concept, and there isn't much institutional support available for this stage of your business. This is especially true in the developing world (I worked with businesses in Egypt & Central America) – in fact, the governance and social structures of these areas can add all sorts of complicating factors.

How did I end up there?

Well, I have worked in grassroots organizing and very much ascribe to this tactic (I’m just not cut out for bureaucratic policy battles). Additionally, I’ve always been drawn to solving difficult problems, and almost any analysis of issues will lead one to the doorstep of poverty and economic inequality. After some years of absorbing these lessons, I determined that entrepreneur-support is a fantastic intersection of the two: a type of grassroots economic development. 

Many students at Darden want to make a difference in their communities. Where do you think MBAs can lead the charge, and what blind spots should we be aware of?

The easy answer: MBAs are uniquely skilled; much of the opportunity comes from lending these skills (either yours or your company’s) to those without. Use your skills - lend hours to entrepreneurs at your local accelerator, sit on boards, visit classrooms, find mentees. I suspect almost every urban area has an organization that connects business knowledge to small business owners in marginalized communities.

Personally, I’m an advocate of a more holistic approach to this notion, and the idea that we are each wired to engage in different ways. For example, Ben Franklin convened his buddies in a monthly discussion group called a Junto. Dedicated to mutual improvement, they used this time to discuss issues of consequence, and plans of action to affect these issues. I realize that we may not all achieve the fame and glory of Mr. Franklin, but I believe that the organizer of these conversations is ‘making a difference’. I know of start-ups and marriages that have emerged from gatherings such as these.

Be aware of the growing movements filling in the spectrum between not-for-profit and for-profit, like impact investing, social entrepreneurship, conscious capitalism. If you’re interested in this stuff, read the books and attend the conferences – be a part of the conversation. Think about your shared value; what are you providing to the world (consciously or subconsciously)?

In summary, I advocate living deliberately, and therefore managing deliberately. I think this is the first step to making a difference.

At the start of last year you wrote about Dean Bruner’s first exhortation, “Go where you believe you will do your best work”. One year later, can you share what this means to you?

Yes, I remember this. About a year ago, I found this to be a powerful message. I was considering not attending business school at all, as I was really loving my job, and had my potential next adventure lined up (and who doesn't want to move to South Africa?). To me, this meant evaluating what my best work could be; I determined that I could do better work with an MBA (and would probably enjoy the schooling in the process).

I appreciate the reminder, because as I’m thinking about my next couple of years, I think this will continue to be a useful guiding principle. To me, doing my best work means choosing the top 2 or 3 priorities for my next few years, and deciding to only deplete my energy in pursuit of opportunities which satisfy those criteria. That is about as specific as I can be right now; it’s on my calendar to think about that more tomorrow.

Clare is a SY at Darden. In between stints in Charlottesville (UVA '07), Clare lived in Portland, OR; New York, NY; Pristina, Kosovo & Managua, Nicaragua, and worked in grassroots organizing and economic development. She considers herself a thoughtful optimist, a foosball enthusiast and passionate about creating opportunities. After Darden, she has plans to learn a martial art, play the drums, and eventually get a dog that she might call Otis. Clare spent Summer 2013 with Target in Minneapolis.

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