Op-Ed: Disillusioned by the 9-5? Entrepreneurship Could Help You Have Greater Impact.

Leena Bakshi McLean As women who go to work every day with a passion to create change and impact in the world, navigating the workforce can be difficult and often lead to cynicism, burnout, and disillusionment. It’s easy to forget why we took the job in the first place, especially when we get too removed from the impact we’re trying to create. I’ve been there too, and it was my own disillusionment that led me to quit my 9-5 job and try another route.

In fact, entrepreneurship was the tool that allowed me to pursue solutions to a problem I cared deeply about—equitable education—without all the red tape and obstacles associated with working in school districts. If you find yourself feeling discouraged about the impact you’ve had (or haven’t had) at your job perhaps now is the perfect time to also consider another route. These are the steps I took in evaluating my transition from my role as a teacher and an administrator to one of founder and executive director.

Know When It’s Time to Go

Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education has always been my passion; my mom would say it was ingrained in me as a child when my grandfather would read calculus textbooks instead of literature to me. I started as a Biology, Algebra and Health teacher before becoming a program director for science at a County Office of Education in California. It was the perfect role to work with districts on a holistic level, researching systems change, fostering teacher leadership, and encouraging teams to look at equity within their district programming. I finally had the opportunity to run science programs at the county and state levels. I thought it was my dream job, and it was until I realized that my programs were not serving every student in the county.

I saw so much racism at play in my school district that I couldn’t ignore the ways it directly impacted students and their ability to flourish. The tipping point came while planning a computer science fair for the students at the court and community schools. Several supervisors spoke up about security concerns—they thought we didn’t have enough security to “manage” certain students. They recommended that we un-invite these students to the fair.

When the team I was on spoke up about the drastic inequity and the blatant restriction of access to our students from the court and community schools, we ruffled feathers. Although we were eventually able to allow the students to attend the fair, my colleagues and I were penalized for it by getting passed up for promotions, having our teams separated, and dealing with supervisors doing “cubicle walk-throughs” to police the staff. This is when I knew that politics and power were being prioritized over students. I had to ask myself: will I sit down in compliance or stand up for justice?

As you plan for the year ahead, take stock of what’s keeping you from having the impact you desire at work. Is it a similar situation where politics are at play and the power of a few is being prioritized over the mission? Is that you just have a few roadblocks in your way that a manager could help remove? Is that you’re in the wrong role or on the wrong team? Trace back your disappointment to see if it’s time to make a shift internally or if it really is time to go.

Consider Your Next Step

Despite all this drama behind the scenes, I loved working with every group of students and helping teachers increase access to quality and equitable STEM education. I knew I wanted to stay in my professional field, so I looked for other similar positions to fill the void created by my 9-5 role. However, none of the potential jobs combined STEM and social justice. This was important to me because I would often end up in professional development where the two topics were seen as separate entities in education. I knew combining the two was key to my mission of creating equitable education. When I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I decided to be the first to create it and jumped into entrepreneurship to do so.

So what will your next step be? Perhaps it is simply making the ask of a manager to provide more support and lessen obstacles. Perhaps it’s looking for a new role. Perhaps it’s even approaching the issue you care about from a new angle. For example, if you work for a nonprofit, are there for-profit organizations you could apply to for a different approach?

If you’re completely roadblocked at your current role and no other job fits you or you find yourself compromising your values and passions for a job, then maybe it’s time to take a leap and try entrepreneurship.

Set Up for Impact

If you’re considering entrepreneurship as your next step, welcome aboard! Entrepreneurship has been a difficult journey, but in retrospect, I would not trade this life for anything else. I do what I love with the people I love, and I get to stay true to my values in the meantime.

If you decide the risk is worth the potential impact, you can set yourself up for impact with the following steps:

  • Strengthen and Reinforce Your Vision: When you find yourself at a crossroads where you have a vision and you want to make a change, and you can’t do it in your own context or another organization, I recommend “dreamstorming” what it would take to carry out this vision. That’s how STEM4Real started: as a vision that is now an educational movement, making STEM #4Real for each student.
  • Own Your Voice: Once you have your vision, you’ll need a strong and distinct voice to share it. Whether it’s online and in marketing materials, in sales meetings, or at networking events, you want to be able to share your vision consistently and with conviction.
  • Seek Other Values-Aligned Organizations in Your Field: I am so inspired by the work we see from our partners, fellow organizations, and other entrepreneurs. Seek out other people and groups who are doing similar work, guided by values that match yours. That community and connection will be invaluable.

Going at it “alone” or from the outside isn’t always easy. But if you’ve tried the traditional 9-5 path and haven’t been able to create the impact you want, consider this your invitation to weigh the possibility of entrepreneurship as the path to impact.

By: Dr. Leena Bakshi McLean is the founder of STEM4Real, a nonprofit professional learning organization committed to combining STEM and NGSS standards-based content learning and leadership with principles of equity and social justice. She is a former county and state-level administrator and mathematics, science and health teacher with research interests in Science/STEM education and figuring out how to create access and opportunities for each and every student regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic status.

(The opinions and views of guest contributions are not necessarily those of theglasshammer.com)

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