Jess Schulshenk

Current Job: 
Director, Sustainability Institute

How did you get to where you are today?

In part, by pursuing what I believe matters, and not what others tell you makes the most sense at a given time – often, our parents and families want the best for us, but don’t know that new possibilities exist that are not necessarily realised through predefined career paths. And, also, through the tremendous generosity of mentors who have guided and shaped me along the way. How did you obtain your current position? I had worked for the organisation previously and was asked to come back to support it during a time of transition, which itself developed into taking up the director role. My most interesting and challenging jobs are the ones I never interviewed for!

What does your job entail?
Overseeing and supporting the various programmes we run as a non-profit trust that aim to provide transformative learning experiences in the transition towards just and flourishing futures. We have a Montessori early-learning centre, a partnership onsite with an innovative primary school, a youth programme, a further education and training (FET) college with programmes in early-childhood development and organic farming, and degrees in sustainable development taught onsite in partnership with Stellenbosch University. We strive to balance our learning programmes with practical experience and relevant research, so I am involved in supporting each of these programmes and connecting the dots between them and their broader contexts.

What particular skills are required in your career?
Listening and dialogue – navigating what is being said, and what isn’t being said, in any situation; trying to read the pattern from the noise to make sense of the real issues; and, also, being well informed about the issues that you are tackling so that you remain true to the work that needs to be done and the systems-level changes that you are trying to play a small part in realising.

In what way does your qualification relate to your work, whether directly or indirectly?
A foundation in the sciences provided the context from which I began to explore questions of sustainability and the role of humans in both creating and addressing these challenges. A strong set of research skills and appreciation for rigorous research have helped me throughout my work, research and teaching.

What are your day-to-day activities?
Meeting with amazing people who are doing fantastic things, building stuff and growing things (sometimes plants, sometimes minds – mostly my own, though), questioning norms, and celebrating change. That, and teaching, researching, writing, facilitating and supporting. And emailing – far too much emailing, unfortunately.

What are the best and most challenging things about your job?
The amazing people who inspire me to learn more, question more, and deepen our work further. The most challenging aspects are saying ‘No’ to worthwhile projects because we don’t have the capacity to deliver quality work – and then being able to switch off at the end of the day in order to maintain a balance between work, life and everything else.

What other student- or community-based activities did you participate in during your studies?
Joining SHAWCO (Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation) was an important part of experiencing the range of challenges in our city, and being a small part of joining with others to start addressing them. What advice would you give to students wanting to do what you do? Follow your heart and never compromise on what you believe in, because there is a more ‘sensible’ route to be taken. That said, work hard, study hard, and enjoy every moment along the way.

In retrospect, what advice can you give to students about how to approach their own career-development journeys?
Job-shadow as much as you can – I learnt so much of what I wanted (and didn't want) to do by just spending time in different organisations as an intern, volunteer and general enthusiast. Pay it forward – give back time to others coming up through the system.

What degree options are recommended for this sector?
As transdisciplinary and cross-cutting as you can find. I took economics and philosophy in my undergraduate science degree; I studied a masters in sustainable development; and now my PhD is in business strategy. Take extra courses and get internship positions to gain experience. Two of the best extra courses I took were a programme in neuroleadership and learning to sail.

How best should students use their time at university to give themselves a competitive edge in your field?
Be open to new skills that you can acquire – both in and out of lecture halls. Environmental science taught me research skills, philosophy taught me to question the question, and economics taught me that economics taught to undergraduates (at least back then) explains very little of how the real world actually works!

Rowing taught me discipline and was ‘a hell of a great party’. SHAWCO taught me how many things are happening in our city that we should be aware of, and that we should do something about them. In the field of social impact, we need more people who are open-minded, ready to learn, and can collaborate across a range of cultures and experiences. Make the most of the experiences and don’t be passive in your own life. And, remember: the most amazing things happen in the unplanned and unpredictable spaces.