An interview with Christina Noel, Founder of Arc Benders
What inspired you to become a changemaker?
Growing up, I always felt I was called to make a difference. I had heart surgery when I was 10 years old, and in many ways that was a gift. I realized at a young age that you have to live life to the fullest and I always felt that I survived for a reason.
While I recognize I was meant to take the path that I've taken, I often regret that it took me many years to realize that you can have an impact in your career. After my Senior year at UNC-CH, I found myself interning with Bank of America on Wall Street during the summer of 2008. I was a double major in Economics and Music Performance with a strong academic performance, so I thought banking was worth a shot since it was “prestigious” at the time. I honestly had no idea what other career options were possible other than consulting, and I didn't think that they had consulting summer internships. Looking back, I realize that I was operating on very limited information about the large number of career paths that are possible.
You might recall that by the summer of 2008, Bear Stearns had crashed and Lehman Brothers was quickly failing. I was completely naive to the environment I was entering. I chose to sit on the Sales & Trading floor and requested to work on the derivatives sales desk. I figured, at minimum, I would at least leave at the end of the summer with an understanding of the most complex products on Wall Street.
What I wasn't prepared for was the level of sexism I would face. It is safe to say that by the end of August, I was disgusted by the behavior I witnessed. Within the first few days, my team boasted to me about how they had "gotten rid" of the one female member of their team that they felt was "terrible." They looked for every opportunity to cut me down. I watched as the people that were the most ruthless and cut throat were highly rewarded and celebrated. I was sickened by the fact that everything was about the bottom line, and that the best way to create a strategic advantage was to make a product so complex that the people buying it didn’t even understand what they were purchasing.
When I returned home to find a full time job, I was depressed and the bar was set pretty low for finding my first job out of college. I simply wanted to find a place to work where I felt that I could sleep at night. I landed a role at a Healthcare Consulting firm with a great reputation and moved to Atlanta, GA. The company specialized in identifying insurance underpayments for hospital, which helped bring needed cash into organizations. I felt that helping support a hospital’s mission to heal people was a worthy cause. The company also boasted about its work-life balance and fun-loving culture.
Unfortunately, while many of the people at the firm were wonderful, the job itself left me feeling unfulfilled. The way the company attracted talent was through the promise of quick advancement. If we worked hard and did well, we were promoted to a Senior Consultant role in 21-months. The job didn't inspire me because it wasn’t creative or entrepreneurial, so it was a constant struggle to meet expectations. I managed to land the promotion, but I still wasn't happy.
The one thing that I was very passionate about was the company's Corporate Social Responsibility efforts. I was tasked with managing our relationship with Medshare, a non-profit that shipped surplus medical supplies to developing countries. Helping them save lives was so inspiring that, over time, I began to wish that I could spend more than a few days a month helping support a mission that brought purpose to my life.
What was the catalyst for change in your routine? Was there an epiphany moment triggering the career transition?
My big epiphany came one night after my friend asked me the question I had never thought to ask, “What would you do with your life if you didn't have to worry about money?”
Without blinking, I knew the answer was that I'd dedicate my life to helping others. I wanted to learn how to lead a social impact organization and I felt that, for me, the best way to do that was to get an MBA. My goal was to explore the most impactful way to change the world and to study entrepreneurship. In the process of researching different MBA programs, I discovered the B Corp movement, and from there my life truly changed.
While pursuing my MBA at the University of Georgia, I landed a dream internship with B Lab, the non-profit behind the B Corp movement. I was hired to audit 10 different companies that were using business to solve social and environmental problems. After that experience, I was sold on the power of social entrepreneurship. It was so inspiring to see the impact mission-driven businesses could have on their community. For example, I got to perform an on-site visit with Ben & Jerry’s and I was blown away by how much the community of Burlington, VT loved the company. Ben & Jerry’s paid its employees a living wage, it sourced as many ingredients as possible locally, and it really lived its values in all aspects of its operations. After completing my MBA, I was thrilled to land a job at The Redwoods Group, a Certified B Corp on a mission to create safe communities for all.
What does the next chapter of life look like?
After working for The Redwoods Group for over three years, I recently took the leap and made the difficult decision to leave Redwoods, a company I love, to have the time needed to invest in Arc Benders. In many ways Redwoods feels like family to me, but I've been called to start a social enterprise of my own for many years.
What is Arc Benders?
The mission of Arc Benders is to inspire all people to find their own path to changing the world, and to help change makers who are doing inspiring work scale their impact. We decided to start achieving this mission by interviewing Arc Benders that are already using their talent to change the world. Our hope is that these stories will show people what’s possible, while giving them practical advice on how to become an Arc Bender.
In many ways, I’m driven to solve the problems that I faced when I was in college. If I had read stories about Arc Benders, I would have never have found myself on Wall Street. I’m grateful for the lessons learned through my experiences, but I would love to help people avoid the depression and despair I had to overcome throughout the rocky start to my career.
I think it's so important that these stories are told. It's fascinating to hear what inspired Arc Benders to change the world. I personally have learned so much from the stories they've shared about obstacles they've faced and their advice for people that want to make a difference.
What are some of the challenges that the budding social impact sector faces?
The candid reality that we face is that we need to be doing more. We need to be building community, reaching more people, creating new connections, and training future change makers. In order for that to be possible, Arc Benders truly needs to become an idea that will spread, and I need to develop a business model to support this mission.
We’re starting this venture at a time when Facebook and Instagram have algorithms that are limiting exposure of content to followers. It’s much more challenging to get your message seen.
To be successful, this will force us to find creative ways to truly build community – both in person and online. To share these stories, we’re going to have to mobilize the Arc Benders we’re featuring to help spread the word.
I think the biggest challenge is developing a business model that’s truly sustainable. When it comes down to it, to be successful, a social enterprise has to have a winning strategy in the market that it operates in. While being a mission-driven organization helps support a company’s strategy, and it absolutely helps build raving fans, the company’s strategy has to be successful in its own right.
For example, Warby Parker completely disrupted the glasses industry by providing stylish, affordable glasses. They built a beautiful brand while also having a buy 1, give 1 model. Their model helped grow their following, but selling glasses that are high quality and affordable are a key component to their success. Patagonia creates high quality products and offers a lifetime of free repairs, in addition to doing amazing work to support the environment throughout its operations. If their products weren’t long lasting, people wouldn’t pay a premium for them.
As I create my own social enterprise, I’m going to take the time up front to really figure out what business model is going to be sustainable and successful for the long haul. Thankfully, there are a number of social enterprises with thriving, scalable business models that I can learn from.