Career & Life Vision Conversation with Kate Grant *94

"Money does not equal happiness"

Kate Grant *96 is CEO of the Fistula Foundation, a nonprofit that treats obstetric fistula for the poorest women in the world. During her tenure, the Foundation more than quadrupled its revenue and enabled the Foundation to support more than 10 times the number of fistula treatment surgeries. She's put the Foundation in the top 1% of nonprofit organizations evaluated by Charity Navigator, earning a consistent “A” from CharityWatch and enabling Fistula Foundation to earn nearly 500 perfect 5 star ratings on GreatNonprofits. In recognition of these achievements, in 2014, Ms. Grant was named “Nonprofit Marketer of the Year” by the American Marketing Association and American Marketing Association Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, Ms. Grant served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Staff as the Special Assistant and Deputy Chief of Staff at USAID and as a consultant to USAID’s Mission in Tanzania, the Rockefeller Foundation, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, and the Women’s Funding Network. Ms. Grant holds an MPA from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, where she was elected Chair of the school’s Graduate Student Body. Prior to attending Princeton, she was an advertising executive at two large agencies: Leo Burnett in Chicago and FCB in San Francisco, managing campaigns for Fortune 500 companies such as Levi Strauss, McDonald’s, and Clorox. Ms. Grant has served on several boards, including the Governing Board of Graduate Alumni of Princeton University. 

Read and watch to learn about her transition to the nonprofit world after almost 11 years in advertising, a technique she used to discover where she'd thrive, and why if she won the lottery she’d keep doing what she’s doing. 

1. Why do you like your current job? 

The work I do now makes me really happy. I run a charity that funds hospitals in 29 countries that provide indigent women with life-changing surgery, so the end result of what we're doing is, to me, an unambiguously good thing to be associated with. In terms of the day-to-day, I’d say that what makes my job fun is that it taps into lots of different pieces of me. Sometimes I’ll be looking at medical research. Sometimes I'll be looking at donor communication, people that we’re appealing to for money and that'll hit the marketing part of me, the advertising piece maybe.  I’ll be dealing with donors or board members and having to think about interpersonal skills and soft selling skills. Those people skills, the analytical skills, the creative skills, the fact that I can tap into all of those-I’m not having to leave a whole lot behind. There’s not a whole lot left in the tool bag that I’m not using to advance the organization. That is really satisfying.

2. What was your first job out of college?
Advertising, that I got into at 21 and thought I’ll stay on it for a couple of years. I was in that career for almost 11 years. Now I took a trip around the world about 6½ years into it, and I’d say I didn’t really ever come back, my spirit didn’t come back from that trip. So in some ways that changed my life even though it took me a few years to put that in to practice. So Yeah, that person that took that job, I’ll do this for a couple of years without a whole lot of intent. Sometimes you can roll along if you’re enjoying yourself and learning and wake up and say, ‘I spent too long on that.’ In retrospect I wish I’d shortened that chapter.

3. Tell me about that trip around the world.
I had gone straight through undergrad right into the job market. I’d had internships in the summers and I’d always worked very hard. I’d never taken time out to have a long trip. I had a hunger to see more.  And really, I don’t think I saw it this way before I left, but I would see it this way now, I have the soul of a traveler. Where it’s your journey that's taking you someplace. You're not going on a journey that you’ve prescribed ahead of time where you’re going to be. We spent some of the time in Europe, but probably the bulk of the time we were in North Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and so we were traveling in places that were poor. How could I go back to the developed world and worry only about first world problems? About what kind of toilet paper you’re buying or what brand of jeans, whatever it is we were encouraging others to buy? It didn’t seem very resonant.

4. So you left your advertising career for a new path, completing an MPA at the Woodrow Wilson School. What types of questions did you ask yourself while you were there?
One of the challenges of a place like Princeton, whether you’re an undergrad or a graduate student, is that you’re in a demanding program surrounded by people that are performing at a really high level and sometimes you can get swallowed by “just perform well at what I’m doing.” Maybe not questioning, what is it that I want to be doing. What makes me happy? Not necessarily where can I get an A or a job, but what is it that’s going to allow me to thrive?

5. How did you find what made you thrive? Any suggestions?
At one point something I did, and it’s really pretty basic, I just did this flow of consciousness. I didn’t think about it very long, thought of times I was feeling joy, happiness, excitement, and (tried) not to think too hard. And then the converse of that, when did I feel like I was getting a crunchy stomachache, my sign for tension? When was I bored and felt like I wanted to be doing something else? Who lights my fire when I listen to them talk and who puts me to sleep? It was so idiosyncratic to me and it wasn't all about work environments, it was social environments, it was classes. I was really just trying to focus on what was making me go, and then to try to look for some core elements of those things that were unique to me in a work environment. That’s what I was doing when I was in graduate school. I felt like I needed to do something else. I needed to think hard about this. I wanted to be the person that was looking for an environment where I could thrive.

6. Anything else?

Be really as honest with yourself as you can about what it is that you really like to do. What are the tasks you like to do?  Say to yourself, ‘My job is to figure out what I’m good at, and what I’m not so good at, and be at peace with that and try to sculpt a life and a career that’s about what I’m good at and what I like’.  And nobody, stop listening to anybody else, can tell you what you’re good at the way you can.  I mean people can give you objective measures on it certainly, but you’re going to know in a deep place like, ‘I hit it out of the park, that was great,’ and you don’t need somebody to tell you.  Or, ‘I really am not good at this.’ I don’t need somebody to tell me I’m not good at this or I don’t like doing this.  Or ‘I feel like there’s another place I can put my energy.’  But it’s just being in tune to that … you know that that’s your job when you’re younger is to look for those things in yourself.  What is making you happy? What is not making you happy? What’s exciting you? What’s interesting to you? What do you pick up and read when you don’t have to? What do you watch when nobody cares?  And the flipside, what frustrates you, bores you, that you sort of dislike. What do you grit your teeth around, what gives you a clenched stomach? Pay attention to all of that, and then try to guide your life according to that and not fighting with all those things. Not feeling like, ‘Oh but I will like it, I’ll make myself like it,’ or ‘I was just having a bad day’ or whatever.  Just take that information in and craft your life based on what it’s telling you.  Not what somebody else tells you you should do.

7. Was shifting into the nonprofit world difficult financially?

You don’t go into the nonprofit world with maximizing your financial return as being your goal for your professional life. There are other areas in our private sector, market-driven economy where people are definitely trying to maximize their salaries and that's what it's about. Nonprofits not so much. But does that mean you have to starve? No. Where I am in Northern California, most of the executive or CEO positions at nonprofits make over $100,000 a year. They're not expecting you to live out of your car.

Would I make a lot more money if I had stayed in my career in advertising? Of course I would have. If I had gone to law school 20 years ago instead of going to a policy program and I were a partner at a law firm? Of course I'd be making a lot more money. But I've made a different choice, because I think I'm actually more content, happy, and thriving. And there's tons of research out there that basically says after roughly $70,000 a year more money does not increase happiness. Yeah, if you make less than that, and probably twice that if you're in Manhattan because it's so expensive, but on average, that marginal dollar isn't going to make you happier. So think hard about what work is. If you're only working for money it’s going to feel like work every day, but if you're getting up and going to do something because it's an extension of your soul? It doesn't feel like work. It almost never feels exactly like work.

8. What would you say to young people with dreams of changing the world?
These people that have sort of grand dreams of wanting to change the world, I think those are great dreams, and Princeton's great in that they teach you to think big, but a lot of the real change happens very doggedly step-by-step. Not with grand plans and big reports. I mean not that those aren't a nice thing to have, but a lot of times it's just the dogged one step after the other. I talk about it like we're just putting bricks on the wall, one brick at a time. The house, whatever the metaphor, it's not built usually with walls going up and a roof all done in a day. It happens brick by brick.

9. How can these young humanitarians break into the nonprofit world?
The nonprofit world is in some ways a harder world to break into, because there aren't as many training programs where people go out and actually look for talented undergrads and give them entry-level positions. So in some ways it's harder to crack. Such obvious advice, but as my dad said, ‘Luck comes to those who apply for it early,’ so getting internships or volunteer work that you can do almost for free as a way to test drive organizations or for them to get to know you while you're still an undergrad is not a bad idea. You may need to sleep on somebody's couch or move back home so that you can basically give your labor for free, if needed, to a nonprofit. That gives you a couple things. One, it gives you some things to put on a resume and skills that you can learn at that job and then potentially tell an employer. It also gives you information about whether this is an environment that you want to work. Is this what I want to do? Is this where I want to work? Before you make a commitment you get a sense of what it's about.

We hired a wonderful Princetonian as a summer intern between her sophomore and junior year, and she has a standing job offer with us because she was so sharp. I mean her degree didn't really relate to what we do exactly, but she was just really capable and great to have around. So if you get in an environment and somebody goes, ‘That's a nice person to have around. They're smart, they can take what's thrown at them, they've got a great attitude.’ The devil you know is sometimes better than candidates you don't know.

10. Can you talk about the role that failure has played in your career?
I hate failing. I like succeeding, who likes failing? But, as I've gotten older what I've tried to do is look at failure and say, ‘What am I supposed to learn from this?’ Everybody fails.  Either that, or you're doing nothing with your life. I mean, who that's honest about their career or their personal life would say there hadn't been failures. So the only way to not fail is to never try to really succeed at something difficult. So I try to now look at it and say, "Yeah, that sucked. That wasn't so great, but what do I learn from it?’

Professionally when I've had, I wouldn't say a failure, but some place where I took a job and it didn't work out. Either I wanted to leave and left, or a couple of times, ‘We don't think this is working,’ somebody had to say that to me, because it wasn't. And that's brutal. It's like having somebody break up with you. You don't want to be the person that somebody doesn't want. And yet, it was completely liberating. I wasn’t happy anyway. It wasn’t a good fit. I needed to find a better fit. It’s harder when it's toward the beginning of your career, because it feels more brutal, but it's really just part of that process of getting shown what is your thing.

11. Have you experienced sexism in the workplace?
You know I've been working for thirty years and so I certainly have encountered sexism and still do sometimes. The kind that I find the most frustrating is that there's an expectation of you that's based on someone else's conception of what a women's contribution should look like. Thank goodness we have so many more women in leadership roles in pretty much every corner of our society that the picture of what a leader looks like is changing. What’s frustrating is when you run into it, and more with older people than younger people, the sense that a leader should look like a man. I can certainly think of people that have put me down or set an expectation that wasn’t appropriate or something, but you know people are imperfect. I make mistakes everyday too, and so people make sexism mistakes. But this too will pass.

12. What are your long term goals?
You know I’m really enjoying running the organization. I’ve been helping build it over the last decade and I feel like we’ve been growing dramatically, but hopefully we’re going to continue to grow. By that I mean funding more surgeries for women, helping train more doctors, basically improving women’s health in the countries in which we work. That’s such a big goal.  It’s not like something we’re going to fix. I’m not working on a vaccine for malaria. I mean it would be great to be working on a vaccine for malaria and once that happens it will change the game for malaria. Improving maternal health is a much more dogged proposition because it really is about availability of obstetric care and eliminating poverty. Those are big huge issues that are going to outlive me. There’s going to be a lot of work for me to do until I retire. I don’t really ever want to retire. I think at some point I probably will turn the reins of the Fistula Foundation over to somebody else and work in a role that supports somebody else. I’m not at all at that point now, but at some point I would do that.

13. What would surprise your 21-year-old self most about your life path?
I think one thing that would definitely have surprised my 21-year-old self is how much time and energy and how much of my life goes into things beyond the United States. I mean I’m based here, but how much traveling I’ve done and how many people I know well that aren’t American. I think that would be surprising to my 21-year-old self. Kind of cool and shocking.

14. What advice would you give to that 21-year-old?

I guess the advice that I would have given myself, and I still have to give it to myself every day, is to realize that there's only one person in the world that knows what's best for you, and it's you. That knows what your strengths are and what your weaknesses really are, what you really like doing and what you don't so much like doing. The only way to craft a career and job path that means something to you is to be as true and honest with that interior voice as you possibly can. There's so much in our society that says, particularly if you went to a high-achieving school, that says, ‘Here's the next goal shoot for it,’ and you can become kind of driven by what's on the outside and the rewards you're getting, and sometimes lose track of what it is that’s really making you happy and content.  Where’s your sweet spot?

15. If time and money weren’t a factor what would you do with your life?
If time and money weren’t a factor…If you said talent I can think of other things I’d want to do. But time and money, I’d basically do what I’m doing right now. That if I win the lottery there’s not many changes I would make-really-to my life at all. I still would get up and do what I do. That's that whole thing about it not feeling like work.

This interview was conducted and condensed by Lisa Einstein '13