The Harbus Chief Operating Officer, Natasha Larsen, spoke with HBS aluma, Asha Haji, about EF Education First, how it fits into the social enterprise world, and advice to those interested in the space.
The Harbus: Tell us about your industry
Asha Haji: For starters, I wouldn’t call social enterprise an industry; rather it’s a space that is comprised of many companies, organizations and industries centered on addressing some sort of social need. Social enterprises can be non-profit organizations, public-sector agencies or for-profit businesses—in the case of EF, we are a for-profit, privately held company—but their goals are always to make a social impact while remaining self-sustaining.
TH: What makes EF unique in the Social Enterprise space?
AH: EF is the world leader in international education with a mission of opening the world through education. We offer a range of educational programs from language training and educational travel to academic degrees and cultural exchanges. Our product offerings are broad, but at the core of each of our products is our goal of breaking down the barriers of language, culture and geography that divide us.
When exploring career paths, many MBA candidates feel like they have to make a trade-off between joining the corporate world and creating social impact. I think what makes EF unique among most other social enterprises is that we are a for-profit company where you can develop critical business skills in a mission-driven setting.
EF also stands out among most other large companies due to our distinctive culture. We’ve been in business for more than 50 years and have grown to 40,000 employees across 500 offices and schools more than 50 countries, yet we have managed to retain and foster a very flat organizational structure and entrepreneurial spirit across the entire organization. This translates into everyone getting their hands dirty, taking risks, innovating, and moving extremely fast. We like to say we are the world’s largest (and longest-running) startup. Being a privately held, mission-driven company also means we can plan for the long run instead of being beholden to shareholders and quarterly earnings.
TH: What advice do you have for MBA students who are interested in Social Enterprise?
AH: I am a Harvard Business School graduate (Class of 2011, Section E) who worked for traditional for-profit companies prior to getting my MBA and joining EF. If you are looking to make a switch into social enterprise, definitely take advantage of the resources you have in school. Get involved in the social enterprise conference or club, and take classes that are oriented to this space. Having more exposure to the public sector and nonprofit space during my time at HBS made me more confident to make the switch. You should also look for what particular industries are most intriguing to you, and should feel confident in articulating how you’d like to contribute your skills to any prospective employers.
At EF, all of our staff and recruits have a connection to our mission, but what’s really important is how each candidate can add value. Having a passion for education, travel and global immersion is not a skill, but rather a requisite character trait. We also want to know how your strengths as a team manager, strategic problem-solver and business leader will take us to the next level.
TH: What defines a successful candidate for EF?
AH: EF has been actively recruiting MBA students for full-time positions for the past several years, and has for the last two summers held an MBA internship program for first-year students. Because our culture drives virtually everything we do, finding candidates that are a strong cultural fit is our number one objective. When we discover our ideal candidates, we then work toward matching them up with exciting opportunities across the organization that best leverage their strengths and meet their geographic preferences.
An ideal candidate for EF would be someone who thrives in entrepreneurial, fast-moving environments that encourage risk-taking. Our most successful candidates and staff are very comfortable with a lot of change. If you are used to a structured environment with a clearly defined career path, then this is not the place for you. We love internationally-minded people, who are excited and curious about what’s going on around the world. You should be comfortable (and excited by!) international work-related travel, be willing to collaborate with people at all levels of seniority and across various geographies, and eager to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Working at EF is a total adventure, and we’re seeking people to join us as senior leaders who can make a big impact immediately and who have the potential to run the whole show down the road.
TH: What was your path from HBS to where you are presently?
My background was in information technology and web development prior to HBS. I studied computer science and graphic design in college, and started my career at McMaster-Carr in Chicago as a software developer and IT manager. While freelancing as a web developer for some nonprofits, I discovered the field of digital marketing and decided that I wanted to make a career switch, which ultimately led me to HBS.
While in school, I had a laser focus on finding a job in advertising or marketing consulting, since that’s where I saw a lot of potential innovation in the space. However, I also had this very real interest in mission-based work, and kept feeling like I had to make a compromise when assessing different job opportunities. While attempting to reconcile my professional interests, I got an envelope in the mail from EF that changed my life. The company sounded amazing to me, and with both my parents being entrepreneurs, I really appreciated the culture EF had created. After meeting a bunch of people, I realized this was a place where I could not only work on some very progressive digital marketing initiatives while supporting a mission I believed in, but also launch an incredible career as a general manager.
I spent my first year as the Director of Web Strategy for our educational travel division, and led an initiative to completely overhaul all of our web properties. I then moved on to be a Director of Promotional Marketing for Go Ahead, our adult travel division, which involved creating a slew of integrated marketing campaigns.
For the last two years, I have taken on the role of Director of Global Recruitment for the company, helping us find exceptional talent for senior positions across the globe. About a year into that role, I jumped at the opportunity to move to our London office – our European headquarters – where my role expanded to include leading the global recruiting team’s operational and branding initiatives. I’m having a great time so far, and have no idea what I’ll be doing next or where!
TH: What do you enjoy most about working at EF?
AH: There are always a lot of extremely cool things going on at EF at all times. For example, earlier this year, we celebrated our company’s 50th anniversary with a celebration and Day with World Leaders in Boston, where President Clinton, Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Steve Wozniak, and Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, among others, spoke to our staff about social impact initiatives, innovation and challenges and opportunities in the education industry. We also have some really incredible initiatives happening globally, like being the official language learning provider of the Olympics or the Hult Prize, which is a social entrepreneurship global case challenge we run in collaboration with the Clinton Global Initiative that awards $1 million seed funding to the winning team.
All that being said, I think the people at EF are what make this place great on a daily basis. The work environment is open, friendly, and pretty informal. Our new building here in Cambridge is the state’s largest open work space, boasting a completely open floor format with no offices for anyone, including our CEO. No job is perfect, but I can genuinely say that I enjoy coming in to work at EF each day.
How can students learn more about opportunities at EF?
Definitely check out //careers.ef.com to get an overview of what it’s like to work here. You can also email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or my colleague Mike Kaufman (email@example.com), who heads our MBA recruiting efforts in Cambridge and we’ll be happy to answer any of your questions.