Benjamin Hay, October 2012 Fellow, explores what was important for his career change and how he ended up at Virgin Unite as Strategy & Operations Director.
Change often happens slowly, without you realising. Small decisions that at the time can seem inconsequential can change your life forever and for the better.
After eight years of practising law, often working long and demanding hours, I decided to put my wig and gown away for a little while and take a break. Nothing huge, just some time to reset and recharge. It’s now been five years since that ‘break’ and I’m still amazed at how it changed my life.
In 2010 I was one of the Counsel to the Inquests into the 7/7 London Bombings. My career up until that point had involved several other interesting cases but nothing previously had been so consistently difficult and harrowing. Whilst the hearings were often terribly sad, they were also life affirming with extraordinary accounts of bravery, heroism, recovery and, above all, the quiet dignity of the bereaved families. I spent 18 months working on the inquests and by the end of it I was exhausted.
A few months after the inquests concluded, on a miserable November day, I reached the point where I was no longer enjoying my work. I felt like I just needed a little time off. My Senior Clerk, Dean, for whom I will forever be grateful for the support he gave me, understood and we decided that come January I’d take a three month break.
I started the break intentionally with no real plans. I took a history of art course, I learned to ski, I decided to get fit and train for a triathlon, I read, slowed down rather than always rushing and I spent real time with friends and family. The more I tried new things, the more space and distance I had from work, the greater the realisation that continuing as barrister was no longer for me.
Whilst the bar is an amazing profession that comes with an incredible community of people, for me it was no longer the right career. My focus had begun to shift and the difference I wanted to make in the world through my work, however small, had changed. I also need a more balanced life. Whilst I had no idea where to begin or what that would mean, I also knew it was time.
I started having conversations with new people, engaging with new ideas and having discussions with leaders in the social enterprise space. Their message to me was always the same: identify what’s important, be honest with yourself about what you’re looking for, and stick to the criteria that really matter to you.
My resulting list? I found work most rewarding when making a positive impact upon others, that I wanted to work with a global perspective, that I thrived on continuous learning and tackling complex challenges and that I enjoyed working under pressure provided there was also space for life beyond work. Armed with this knowledge I came across On Purpose – a one year programme for professionals who want to transition to socially purposeful careers – which secures you two six months placements at leading organisations.
The first six months of this new career adventure sent me to Big Society Capital, whose mission is to transform social investment in the UK. After that my next stop was six months at Virgin Unite. Virgin Unite put me to work thinking through how to scale our entrepreneurship work, including developing our mentorship platform, which our partners like Virgin Startup and the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship Caribbean now use.
From the start there was much that I loved about Virgin Unite. More than anything I was immediately taken aback by the endless sense of possibility and potential. No idea was considered too big, too impossible or too challenging. No one day was the same but every day was hugely fun.
I count myself extremely fortunate that a few months into my placement at Virgin Unite, Jean Oelwang took a chance on me, ignored my lack of experience, and offered me a full time role. To some extent Jean’s decision embodies much of the spirit of Virgin Unite – identify some unknown potential, be prepared to take a risk, support it and invest in it and believe that it will make a positive difference. Four years later, I’m still here and thrilled to be Virgin Unite’s Strategy & Operations Director.
Working at Virgin Unite is a constant source of inspiration – we’re lucky to partner with many extraordinary organisations and people each of whom never accept the unacceptable. Alongside this I work with an amazing team – they’re passionate, hard-working, fun and kind.
We have incredible projects coming up in 2017 and I’m looking forward to sharing more with you throughout the year.