Eye to Eye: Stories From A Social Enterprise

by Tomas Quinonez-Riegos and Lainie Rowland
January 22, 2014

Today's double posts come from student interns in this January's Innovate NYC program, a new opportunity from the Swearer Center and CareerLAB that places students for two weeks over winter break in a New York-based social enterprise or nonprofit organization. Tomas Quinonez-Riegos '15 and Lainie Rowland '17 interned with Eye to Eye, a social venture started by alum David Flink '02 that pairs kids with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (LD/ADHD) with college and high school mentors who have been similarly labeled.

Tomas: For the past two weeks, I have spent the majority of my waking hours under the fluorescent-lit conference room of Eye to Eye, founded by Brown alum David Flink. The soft hum of the ventilation system accompanied my every activity as my fellow intern and I dove headfirst into our project of rethinking the model of leadership turnover currently in place in Eye to Eye’s 50+ college chapters around the U.S. The various interviews I conducted shed light not only on the topic of our project, but also on the real and profound impact the organization has on the lives of its participants. At every turn I heard only the best of the college chapter student coordinators, from the student coordinators I heard the best of the National Programing Team, and from the National Team I found the utmost respect for Mr. Dave Flink. I too share this deep respect, yet my story with Eye to Eye begins before this internship.

Last spring I took a seminar titled “Leading Social Ventures.” The seminar was most enjoyable and each of the various guest speakers who were invited over the course of the semester brought their enlightening experiences to share with our class. However the speaker who left by far the deepest impression on me was none other than Mr. Flink. Unlike many other speakers, and the majority of the social entrepreneurship scene at Brown in general, Mr. Flink did not focus on the sacrifices he made for his organization nor the dogged relentlessness with which he committed himself to growing the start-up as a fresh college graduate. Instead, he focused on balance. I sat wide-eyed as this humble, unassuming, lanky man regaled us with his tale of frequently flying to visit his girlfriend in California and how his morning runs were a time in which he intentionally shut himself off from phone and e-mail.  In so doing, he set himself and the organization up for the steady, long-term growth they are currently on.

Although I am certainly a newcomer into the world of social entrepreneurship I have seen my fair share of those who are, quite frankly, obsessed. I have met entrepreneurs whose lack of sleep is apparent by the dark circles under their eyes, whose relationships with friends have long-since withered, who ride each success of their venture to the highest of highs and come crashing down when it falls. I do not want to follow in such footsteps because, as Mr. Flink pointed out in his talk, they will undoubtedly burn out. Fortunately, I could not have asked for a model of a successful long-term-oriented organization than what I found in Eye to Eye.

The office is full of wonderful people who not only care about the organization’s mission and their work, but who also care about each other. Eye to Eye takes time out of its overbooked schedule to conduct staff retreats, regular self and peer reviews, and even host a weekly happy hour. The organization invests in cultivating a determined yet comfortable community wherein its employees look forward to going to work.  This energy permeates the entire workplace and is apparent in how they approach their tasks, how they interact with each other, and how they change lives.

If I learned anything from this experience, it is to never be lazy but to be intentional about investing in reflection and diligent about cultivating balance.

Lainie: What is it like to work in the world of social entrepreneurship?

For the last 2 weeks of winter break, I was lucky enough to participate in Brown’s newly inaugurated Innovate NYC program and experience that work first hand at Eye to Eye. My fellow intern and I were tasked to address the issues of leadership turnover within the college chapters of Eye to Eye. We were given the cases and papers of various chapters and set free to answer a very large, multifaceted question concerning stability and continuity. Everyday, we would research, compare thoughts, bounce ideas off of one another, and conduct interviews on our way to creating a final report (a “deliverable”) that we presented to the Eye to Eye team at the end of our 2 weeks. Everyone at the office was more than willing to lend a helping hand – not only with our project, but in general; taking lunch with us, offering us advice, and even inviting us to a nighttime meditation session. This more than welcoming attitude defined the entire length of the experience and I feel incredibly privileged to have worked with such a passionate, dynamic, and openhearted group of people. I came to understand how certain groups of people look forward to going to work everyday. These people are those who are working to make a difference for a cause they truly believe in, surrounded by coworkers who are supportive and similarly motivated.

Working at Eye to Eye, we had the freedom to pursue different avenues of thought, the ability to talk to and pick the minds of really interesting people, the responsibility to work and think collaboratively, and the feeling that we were part of something important. It hit me that we were there for our ideas and that our perspectives had something unique to offer the organization. That motivated me to think harder and delve deeper. What other internship allows you to contribute to the long-term strategy and planning of a very meaningful organization?

At Brown, we learn how to think thoughts, solve problems, move and create ideas. Working in the world of social entrepreneurship, these critical thinking skills are necessary. While everyone’s reasons for participating in Innovate NYC were different – some seniors were jumpstarting their post-graduation plans, some people were in it for the learning experience, others were in it to meet amazing people, and some wanted to try out working for socially responsible startups – everybody had to utilize skills and enable a passion that, although can’t be picked up from a certain class or lesson, certainly entails extraordinary learning, experience, and growth.

If I got one thing out of my experience with Eye to Eye and the Innovate NYC, it’s the knowledge and assurance that the right combination of passion and thoughtful action can create great things. I cannot speak highly enough of this experience, because the answer to the question “What is it like to work in the world of social entrepreneurship?” is that it is wonderfully unique, empowering, and meaningful.