BALANCING IMPACT AND LIFE
An interview with Emzingo Alumni and passionate startup consultant Alie Cirgenski.
In a quiet part of LA, Alie sits in her sunny garden with her dog, Truman, barking in the background as we discuss her career and lessons learned. On the outset she seems to have that balance that we all strive for, she’s happy, enjoys what she for work, can walk to the local coffee shop and yoga studio (ok maybe those last two are my goals) and still has time for family life. As we chat, I learn that it’s taken a lot of learning, growth, self-reflection and hard work to strike this balance.
“What drives me has actually shifted as I get older. It used to be that I was really interested in the arts and design because those were my interests. I realized that was more of a hobby. Now I have a wife and we want to have kids soon so my priorities have shifted to how do I make money and be able to support my family, while still enjoying what I do.”
How did you first decide to get into the impact space?
That was something I learned early on in my career when I was working for an architecture firm. I really liked my job tactically, but I was basically putting more restaurants in NYC. It was apparent to me that my motivating factor wasn’t necessarily money nor was it prestige in the position, but more what am I ultimately doing and if I proud of what I’m doing. So that sort of led me to the social enterprise space. The CFO at the architecture firm pushed me to go to business school and explore what nonprofits and social enterprise is out there. She came from the nonprofit world so she was a great resource in that regard.
Alie attended McGill Business School in Montreal, during which she was extremely active in the community, at school, and consulting. She was part of the student-run consulting group Thinkr where she worked with a local women’s shelter to diversify revenue streams, create programs and help determine their organizational design. She also sat on the board of The Center for Community Organizations (Centres des Organismes Communautaires) for three years while living in Montreal. COCo’s mission is to promote social justice, active citizenship and democracy within community organizations throughout Montreal.
What was the most poignant thing you learned while consulting in social impact during business school?
I saw very clearly that an organization like that really struggled to have a sustainable revenue model. It’s such a shame that so often we see these businesses that are giving back, whether you’re nonprofit or for-profit, they are often so prioritized on the impact and the service that they’re providing to the disadvantaged individual that they sometimes forget to think about the company as a business. More often than not, the people who are doing that, are doing it because it’s their passion, and they aren’t business or fundraising people.
That was actually the impetus to me starting my own firm while I was still in Montreal to say look, I’m surrounded by this community of people who are givers and yet they don’t have this really basic business acumen. Because access to that acumen is really barriered. You have to pay a lot of money to go to business school, where you learn a tremendous amount, but maybe more importantly, you get the confidence to say this is what you should do and why. It teaches you problem solving in a business world. For me, that was a learning that I wanted to translate into different environments. To provide that to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access or feel intimidated by the business world. So primarily with my own consulting firm I’ve worked directly with minority or women-owned or small businesses or artists.
From there, Alie applied to Emzingo so she could flex her understanding and business skills in a social impact context. After graduating business school, she ran her own consulting firm for almost a year, working local businesses in Montreal. She then moved to Los Angeles and transitioned to working for a Singaporean-based Communications/Branding firm REDHILL Communications where she ran their North American office for a year. She now works at Avisare where she now runs their business development department.
What made you switch from working for yourself to working for a company again?
There was a moment when I said, I would rather make money separately and offer my consulting services for free. I was noticing that the people who I wanted to work with, and who really needed my help the most, couldn’t afford my rates and then, the people who could afford my rates weren’t necessarily people who I wanted to help, or didn’t really need it. I kept all my clients when I transitioned, I just no longer send them a bill.
So now you’re in Los Angeles working for Avisare. What drove you to make that move?
When I was at REDHILL I worked for a this with startups and large companies and venture capital firms as clients, helping them with strategy, business development and marketing, which would supplement my free consulting. I got burned out. I realized working remotely wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing, and without a local team on the ground I found myself doing both the business development and sales as well as the delivery of the services and consulting itself. REDHILL was an amazing experience, though, I really love those guys and am so excited to see them continually grow throughout Asia.
I’ve now found a happy medium working for a startup that has a triple bottom line. It’s made me realize that in order to make money, I can’t really work in the nonprofit world. In my opinion, nonprofits spend way too much time on fundraising and lose sight of why they were founded in the first place. My expertise is in developing startups or small businesses and helping them leverage new revenue streams, verticals, targets, etc. Avisare is actually a platform that does this and it kind of landed in my lap and it’s a good marriage of helping small businesses at scale while also allowing me to have a stable salary. I also now sell to governments and utility companies in the public sector. It’s both challenging and incredibly interesting to be working in this space, I’m part business developer and part lobbyist!
Avisare is a platform that helps minority and women owned businesses actually have access to government contracts. Any business can actually come onto our platform and it’s free. We match them with business opportunities, help them with access to capital and bonding, and we’re launching a certification wizard which helps them certify their business. We are breaking down barriers that businesses face in getting more access to business opportunities with the government. For example, ever government agency requires these businesses have certain certifications in order to be eligible for these contracts, Avisare shows you where and how to get these certifications in a way nobody else does. It’s more like a tech version of what I was doing as a consultant, less hand holding and more streamlining the process.
You’ve ebbed and flowed a lot in your career, but you still come back to helping small businesses and startups. What do you you think drives your passion or compassion to help these smaller businesses?
I think it’s because in general I like helping people. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a taxi driver because it was one of the few examples of a simple thing you can do to help another person. I have a lot of compassion, but at the end of the day, I have to feel good about what I’m doing. So I’d say the motivation is: Am I proud of what I’m doing? Do I feel valued by myself and the company I’m working for? Am I actually making an impact?
Alexandra (Alie) Cirgenski received her MBA from McGill University and is passionate about working with start-ups or enterprises that deliver social or environmental benefits to communities to help align their brand perception, activities, and offerings with their values and mission. With a background in design, art and architecture, Alie is often involved in various maker-space projects that reflect the inter-disciplinary collaborative nature of the social economy.
Avisare is a Los Angeles-based startup founded in 2015. It’s is a cloud technology platform that makes it easy for small businesses to compete for local government RFPs by streamlining complicated application and certification processes. In turn, it gives governments more access to minority and women-owned businesses. If you’re a government entity or work in the public sector and you’re interested in hearing more, please get in touch!
Or, if you’re a businesses and you’re curious about making your own free profile, I encourage you to sign up! It takes 2-3 min and instantly gives you access to millions of dollars worth of contracting opportunities.
About the author
Erica completed the NexGen program in South Africa in 2012, and she’s never left the Emzingo family since. In charge of activating the alumni network, Erica spends her days as a marketing and customer experience professional living in Philadelphia and day dreaming about seeing the Big 5 again.