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Working in the Social Impact Sector with Student Loans

Social sector work is often seen as noble, but not always the most lucrative career path. Amy Chou has worked in both the private sector and social sector, and would be the first to tell you she personally finds mission-driven work more fulfilling since making the switch two years ago.

After years of working in M&A and volunteering in her free time, she decided it was time to make a change. We sat down with Amy, an Earnest client, to discuss how she balances student loan payments while working in the social sector.

Where do you currently work?

I currently work at AI4ALL, it’s an early stage non-profit whose mission is to increase representation in AI development, research, and policy primarily through high school summer camps at top universities like Stanford, UC Berkeley, Princeton, and Carnegie Mellon. I am a corporate partnership manager there, so I manage relationships with our donors and will build internship and mentorship programs with our corporate partners.

Where did you go to school? 

I attended Berkeley for undergrad and returned to get my MBA in 2016.

What made you interested in getting an MBA?

I was interested in pursuing an MBA to broaden my professional experience and find a career that was more personally fulfilling to me. Before getting my MBA, I spent 9 years at Aon, a global financial services company, doing due diligence on M&A deals. Even though I grew a lot professionally during that time and my role continued to increase in scope and responsibility, I felt like my experience was really narrow and I wasn’t making a positive social impact through my career.

While working at Aon, I often volunteered with youth sports teams and nonprofits, and I really started to wonder if I could merge my professional skills with my personal passions. That led me to pursue an MBA so that I could transition my career to work at an organization with a social mission that personally resonated with me.

After you graduated you worked at Clever, tell me more about the company and why you wanted to join.

What got me excited about Clever was its mission to make web-based learning tools easier to use in K-12 classrooms. I really liked how Clever was trying to solve a painful problem for educators and students, and not just make a flashy tool. I was excited to be involved in improving K-12 education in the US. My first role there was as a customer success manager, so I managed relationships with our applications, like DreamBox, CollegeBoard, and Lexia. After about a year, I transitioned to managing our support team.

Tell me more about AI4ALL and the company’s mission. 

AI4ALL’s vision is a world where diverse thought, perspectives, and voices unlock AI’s potential to benefit humanity. We accomplish this mission primarily through summer camps for high school students who are underrepresented in the field, including girls, racial minorities, students from local income backgrounds, first-generation college students, etc.

Right now, we’re a team of six based in Oakland, CA. This is only our second official year of programming and we’ve already reached hundreds of high school students. Plus, on average, every student who comes through our program goes on to educate 14 more youth by leading clubs, workshops, hackathons, etc. in their own neighborhoods.  Most of our students had limited exposure to AI before attending one of our camps and 91% of AI4ALL graduates feel confident they’ll pursue a career in AI.

What brought you to refinance your loans with Earnest?  

When I took out my loans for the MBA, I was very fortunate that I didn’t have undergraduate loans. My parents were kind and generous enough to sponsor my first degree, and part of my MBA. I took federal loans to cover the rest of my MBA costs and then refinanced right after graduation with Earnest. I took federal loans because had I taken a non-profit (5013C) job right after school I would have had access to loan forgiveness programs.

I liked Earnest from the start because it was a really simple application process that also felt comprehensive enough to get me a good rate. I didn’t have to track down weird info like my last five residences and the interface is really clean. I might have reached out once for support, but overall I like that I don’t have to overthink things or worry about remembering to make payments.

How much have you paid off?

I’ve paid off about 35% of my loan so far.  I originally took out about $40K in loans at an interest rate of roughly 6%.  By refinancing with Earnest, I lowered my APR to 3.5%.

I am in a strong financial situation but at first, I was really scared about getting my MBA. Partly for financial reasons, but I was comfortable that I could do this because I had already taken out a large personal loan before my MBA. Seeing how I was able to steadily pay that down made me think, ‘OK, I can do take on this debt too’.

What recommendations do you have for those considering an MBA?

Student loans can be daunting when you are doing something like an MBA that isn’t strictly necessary to advance in your career (as opposed to a JD or medical degree). It is a big decision that is very personal.

I went into business school knowing that I was pursuing a path that wouldn’t allow me to pay back my loans as quickly as some of my classmates. But having spent almost a decade in the private sector before going back to school and the generosity of my parents really helped me build up an asset foundation that made taking on the debt easier to stomach. I should also be honest and mention that my partner adds financial stability to our lives as well.

How do you keep your budget in line?

I was raised by a frugal immigrant mother who instilled fiscal conservatism in me at an early age. We weren’t poor growing up, but my mom really emphasized only buying things that you really want or need, and that anything I did buy should be on sale. As a result, I am not a very material person, but I love experiences with friends so most of my budget is spent on food and drinks in social settings. Compared to a lot of my peers in similar financial situations, I also don’t travel internationally much, which also saves a lot of money.

Traditionally non-profits and the social sector has had a hard time matching the salaries offered by the private sector.  How do you balance the desire to do good with your own financial goals?

Well-paying jobs in the social sector do exist, but you do have to look a bit harder. Taking a pay cut to do socially impactful work was scary for me. It was hard not to tie my worth to your salary, but what drove me to continue pursuing a career in the social sector was remembering how I didn’t have that personal fulfillment through my work in the financial sector. I gained a lot of valuable professional skills and made lifelong friends at Aon, but now I want to take those skills and drive positive impact in the world.

Images provided by Amy Chou.

This article was written by Carolyn Pairitz Morris, Senior Editor at Earnest.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.