7 reasons Peace Corps Volunteers make the best startup workers

peace corps to startup
By Caroline Lucas
May 1, 2015

There are nearly 7,000 active Peace Corps Volunteers, meaning approximately half of these people will return home this year when their two-year service is done. Those people will need jobs – and startup companies need those people.

While perusing endless listings and enduring lengthy interviews in my search for jobs after the Peace Corps, I found myself hungering for something different. Although transitioning into technology was a big leap from my previous work experience, I found it was exactly what I needed to jumpstart my post-Volunteer career. 

Everything I had learned during my two years in Armenia had prepared me to be the perfect startup candidate. Here’s why:

1. We’re self-starters who self-manage.

How many times have we seen “self-starter” or “self-directed” as a job requirement? At a startup, this trait is essential for success. You often won’t have someone to micromanage you or direct your day-to-day projects. This is a tough transition for many people from the corporate world. As Peace Corps Volunteers, the most successful of our ranks were self-directed. Yes, we had support from our program managers, but it was not management in the traditional sense. We were trained to seek out problems in our community and organizations and turn them into opportunities. We not only learned how to create our own structures for success, but led workshops and trainings for community members on how to improve their own processes and procedures. If we waited for someone to tell us what to do, we would have spent two years twiddling our thumbs. We have that “entrepreneurial spirit.”

2. We’re highly creative problem solvers.

Have you ever built a functioning sauna out of a dilapidated shed, a wood stove and some old plastic tarps? Or doubled your Internet speed with a modem extension cord, some nails and a strategically placed metal strainer? We have. We learned how to MacGyver out of a lot of tricky situations. We encountered problems we were not accustomed to having in our previous American lives, and through these we developed the skills to think outside of the box and implement highly creative (and often highly amusing) solutions. Perhaps your startup doesn’t need a sauna (never say never), but what it does need is someone who doesn’t get ruffled by a bump in the road, someone who stays cool under pressure and can use an unconventional approach to solve the tough issues that often arise in startups, and often, with very little resources. Which brings me to my next point…

3. We make magic happen with limited resources.

At Startup Institute, the team will try to adjust (re: lower) your expectations about the resources you may have with your new job, such as minimal marketing budgets, very few amenities or taking a salary cut in exchange for equity or a higher level of responsibility. For those coming from the corporate world, these changes may be a shock. But for those who get startup jobs after the Peace Corps? Jackpot! For my first contract marketing position, the startup founder apologized that I had “only $1,000 per month to work with” for the marketing budget. But my reaction was, “A whole $1,000 per month?!” My mind spun with the endless possibilities.

We’re used to $0 marketing (well, everything) budgets, painfully slow Internet connections (if we have Internet at all) and offices without running water, heat or, sometimes, electricity. Yet we built hundreds of successful organizations and trained thousands of people in 140 countries all over the world. One of our greatest attributes is that we don’t anything for granted; we know the value of a dollar and just how far we can take it. How’s that for bootstrapping?

4. We embrace ambiguity.

Before Startup Institute, I only thought of Ross and Chandler moving a couch when I heard the word “pivot.” But during the program, I learned about the lightning-quick changes that happen at young companies and how the entire direction of a product or company may change overnight. Our soft skills training emphasized the importance of flexibility. A good startup employee is able to adjust to quick changes and doesn’t become flustered when tasked with taking on a totally new direction, often into uncharted territory. As Peace Corps Volunteers, ambiguity was our day-to-day. Not sure when the bus was coming? Maybe it never comes at all? Better find an alternative ride. Or perhaps you started service as a teacher, but quickly recognized that what your community really needed was a new irrigation system. Even if we had never even picked up a shovel in our lives, let alone learned how to dig a well, we had to be flexible and adapt to the needs of our communities – our markets, if you will. Uncharted territory was all we knew for two years, but we learned how to embrace the unknown and acquire the new skills required for success.

5. We’re amazing communicators.

During my first few months as a Volunteer, I was placed with a host family that I depended on for survival – food, shelter, bathing, everything. The problem was I didn’t speak Armenian yet and they didn’t speak English. We learned how to communicate with one another and formed a very close relationship, despite our initial lack of a common language. This becomes a core tenet of Volunteer service: learning how to take complex ideas and communicate these to not just our host families, but entire organizations and communities. Although my language skills increased dramatically over time, I also developed a high capacity for empathy. I could put myself into the shoes of my community members and learned how to communicate new ideas and share best practices. In a startup, communication is key. Not only do you need to clearly communicate, you also need to be a brand ambassador. In young, small companies, everyone has to know the elevator pitch and must be able to deliver the value proposition. Two years of putting ourselves into the shoes of our communities enable us to easily slide into the shoes of potential customers. We also know how to pantomime the words “shower” and “breakfast” really well too, in case that’s ever needed.

6. We thrive on risk and adventure.

It takes a lot to pack up your entire life, jump on a plane and commit to living and working for 27 months in a foreign country. But we embrace adventure. We know the risks and we’ve also learned if you’re willing to take them, you can reap great rewards. Being an employee at a startup is an adventure in itself. Bringing a brand new idea or product to market can be high-risk. Success is not guaranteed, but you’ve weighed the possible outcomes and commit yourself fully to the mission of the company. It’s a lot of responsibility but as Volunteers, we’ve taken on big risks before and we’re ready for the next great adventure. And in case there isn’t a reward from the big risk that we took? Our final, most important attribute as Volunteers:

7. We know failure and we are not afraid of it.

This is the tough part that no one likes to talk about but it’s the most important. The “f” word. Failure. Sometimes, your campaign or product is going to fail. Sometimes, your whole company is going to go under. This can be a brutal experience – intimidating, even overwhelming for many people coming from the corporate world who have never known this sort of professional devastation. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we also know a lot about failure. Ideas fell flat and projects failed because of the nature of our work. We were operating in totally new environments with very limited resources and experience. It could be quite soul-crushing to see your months, even years, of hard work bite the dust, never quite catching on in the community you were trying to serve. But we learned how to overcome these failures by applying our lessons learned to the next great idea. In the end, it wasn’t about failure, but about having the bravery, tenacity and resilience to get back up and try again. This character trait is the key to success of many of the world’s most storied entrepreneurs, and this is a trait that all Peace Corps Volunteers can bring a startup organization. If you’re coming home from the Peace Corps and searching for your next steps, you may find that startup work is a great fit for your skills. And, for all of you startup founders and hiring managers out there, the next time you see “Peace Corps Volunteer” on a résumé or LinkedIn profile, invite us for that coffee. We can bring a lot of surprisingly relevant attributes to the startup table. And don’t worry, we did start bathing again. You’ve got to love indoor plumbing. 

This post first appeared on Startup Institute 

Caroline Lucas

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