Infinite Careers is a collaboration between Career Services (CAPD) and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision making. Read profiles of alumni with unique career paths, hear their stories and network at a series of talks.
- A.B., English & American Literature, Harvard University, 1998
- MBA MIT Sloan School of Management, 2004
Shenkiat (Shen) Lim is the Director of People & Culture at the Scratch Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to ensuring that kids of all backgrounds have access to creative learning and creative coding opportunities. For the past decade, Shen has held senior human resource roles at mission-driven organizations, including New Profit (as Chief People Officer), City Year (where he was Vice President for People Operations) and Teach For America (where he was Vice President for Staff Support & Administration). Other professional experiences include product development at Fidelity Investments and management consulting with the Hay Group (now Korn Ferry).
Shen’s journey in social justice began as a Teach For America corps member, when he spent two years teaching fifth grade social studies in rural Mississippi. Since that time, Shen has been committed to supporting the work of organizations that seek to ensure that all kids have the opportunities they deserve.
Shen is on the boards of KIPP-Massachusetts, where he chairs the people committee, and Ellis Early Learning. In his spare time, Shen plays violin with the Longwood Symphony Orchestra. He is a graduate of Harvard University and received his MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.
What influenced your choice of undergraduate major? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?
I spent two years teaching fifth grade in rural Mississippi and loved the experience, but knew that teaching wasn’t the right path for me in the long term. I knew I wanted to eventually end up in a management role, but felt that while I had a background in consulting, getting back into the business world directly from teaching would be a hard transition. Getting an MBA was therefore the logical choice as I knew that many folks pursue an MBA in order to change careers.
An unexpected benefit to attending MIT Sloan was that pretty much everyone in every company I reached out to was willing to meet with me for an informational interview. Through those conversations, I was able to solidify my career plans of building my leadership and management skills in the for-profit world before transitioning to a mission-driven nonprofit. Three of my post-MBA job can also be attributed, in whole or in part, to the connections I made through those informational interviews.
What motivates you to do the work that you do?
I love helping people be their best selves, which is why I’ve gravitated to HR work in mission-driven nonprofits. Internally, I’ve found it incredibly rewarding to help and empower my own team to grow as professionals and then to be responsible to do the same thing for an entire organization. Externally, it’s incredibly gratifying to work for organizations whose mission is to advance equity so that people of all backgrounds have access to the opportunities they deserve. I feel really lucky to have found a niche that aligns so well with what I care about.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your career? How have you managed or overcome it?
The biggest mistake I’ve made in career was staying in a job too long which meant that when I left I was trying to get away from a job, rather than moving toward something. I am by no means advocating for unnecessary job-hopping. But for most of us, there comes a time when we know it’s time to move on to the next thing. There have been one or two times in my career when I had that feeling, but told myself “I’ve got a really good gig here, I should stay.” I think I also had an archetype in my head that staying in one job for a long time is “good.” I delayed starting my job search and when I did decide it was time to move on, I was so desperate to get to the next thing that I ended up taking a job that wasn’t really the right fit. I’ve since tried to shift my mindset and accept that when it’s time to move on, it’s time to move on. This has allowed me to make sure that when I change jobs, it’s for a job I’m really excited about.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
One of the senior consultants at my first job told me that your 20s are for trying different things and figuring out what you like and don’t like. Then your career really starts once you hit your 30s.
My senior year of college, I was really anxious because I thought my first job out of school would set me on a path for the rest of my life. And it hasn’t been that way at all. I’ve been a consultant, taught fifth grade, worked in finance, and product development, and for the past decade done HR work in mission-driven nonprofits. I’m grateful that I got advice early in my career that helped me realize that it’s ok to try different things to learn what’s right for you in the long term.
Do you have any tips for networking or job searching for current students and recent graduates?
Do lots of informational interviews! And use them as opportunities to learn more about companies/industries you’re interested in and how others have managed their careers. People love talking about themselves, so if they get an email from an MIT student saying “I’d love to learn more about you and your career,” most will gladly take the conversation. Meet with the most senior person you have a connection to – folks who are further along in their careers are more likely to help you. Always end your conversation by asking “is there someone else you think I should speak with?” Very rarely does the first conversation lead to a job, but oftentimes one conversation leads to another, which leads to another, which eventually leads to a job. And even if it doesn’t, learning more about an organization or someone’s career will help you make good choices for your own career.
And never ask for help finding a job. They know why you’re talking to them, but asking flat-out for help finding a job puts a lot of pressure on someone you have zero relationship with. Pretty much the only time I turn down a request for an informational interview is when then person asks me for help finding a job.
Do you participate in any volunteer/community service activities? If so, how do you balance your professional and personal responsibilities?
I serve on the boards of KIPP-Massachusetts (the largest charter school network in the state) and Ellis Early Learning (an early education center based in Boston). I also play violin with the Longwood Symphony.
For me, the key to balancing professional and personal responsibilities (including the responsibilities of having a family) are all about setting clear boundaries and being transparent about them. Before I started my current job, I was upfront with my new boss that while I’d work the hours I needed to achieve my goals, once I signed off I was fully offline, whether that was for the evening, the weekend, or a vacation. I block off time for my personal commitments, I let folks know in advance when I’ll be offline, and generally try to only focus on one thing at a time.