RealJobs: Mike Del Ponte

I just joined a tech start-up six weeks ago, after being the founder and CEO of a nonprofit called Sparkseed. I now run marketing for BranchOut, the leading professional networking service at Facebook.  In a nutshell, it’s amazing to be on the ground floor of a small start-up that very well could become a multi-billion dollar company impacting millions of lives.

In subsequent posts I’ll describe what I do on a day-to-day basis. For now, let me tell you about my background and ask you a few questions that are relevant to discerning what you want to do.

(BTW, I’m writing this at 8:40pm. I’m in the office, rocking out to some music, happy as a clam. And I just happen to have a BC Nalgene on my desk.)

So first a rant about how “job paths” are lame. Here’s how I got to this point: I grew up in a suburb outside of San Francisco. I got into BC but couldn’t afford it; fortunately a private scholarship pick-up the bill, so I was able to study theology (the lowest ROI major ever) without feeling pressure to pay loans or feel bad about my parents struggling to pay for my education.

While at BC I had great mentors – Fr. Schloesser, Fr. Clooney (now at Harvard), Fr. Marchese, and Fr. Buckley (now in California). These guys encouraged me to focus on God and where I felt called. I didn’t do any internships, apply for any jobs, or think about a career. Instead I had fun, prayed, learned a ton, and when graduation approached I got accepted to grad school at Yale and deferred enrollment to have some fun.

On my year off I traveled to South East Asia and India for a couple months, I went on a 10-day silent Buddhist retreat, worked a summer camp near Yosemite, took odd jobs to save up money, and served with the Christian Peacemaker Teams in the West Bank.

Please note – at this point I haven’t interviewed, brushed up my resume, or done much “professional stuff.” In certain industries the professional, job-search stuff is important. For me, I was following my heart, learning a lot, and focusing on building character (diligence, honesty, integrity). At that time – and still now – I didn’t have work-specific skills, but I was always willing to work hard and learn quickly.

So I went to Yale Divinity School to become either a professor or a Catholic priest. I soon realized that I am an entrepreneur. I like building things that have an impact. Between my 1st and 2nd year at Yale I spent a summer in Nepal as a microfinance consultant. Before graduating I started Sparkseed, a nonprofit social venture that invests in the most promising social entrepreneurs. For 2.5 years after graduating from Yale I worked 6-7 days a week, growing Sparkseed from an idea to a global organization featured in the Financial Times, CNN, New York Times, Fast Company, Wall Street Journal, and so on. Right now Sparkseed is in the process of being acquired, which is why I joined BranchOut.

In November, one of my friends and advisers, Rick Marini, talked to me about joining BranchOut’s team. Rick’s an amazing entrepreneur. He sold his last company for over $100 million. Rick had just raised $6 million in venture capital from Facebook, Groupon, and Twitter’s investors, so there was a lot of excitement in Silicon Valley about BranchOut. He offered me the job after two meetings – one at a coffee shop, the other in the office – no resume, no interview. We negotiated salary, bonus, and equity. Then I quickly made my decision and started working. Now I’m tasked with getting millions of users. I’ll write more about that in future posts.

I emphasized that I don’t have a straight-forward career path and I have never jumped through the typical job search hoops. I want to put forward two challenging thoughts:

1.     Who you are is usually more important than what you know or what you can do. For example, I don’t know much about marketing and I don’t have a lot of professional skills, but I who I am being is diligent, eager to learn, and committed to success. Who are you being?

2.     You need to follow your heart, as well as following advice on resumes, interviews, salaries, etc. Don’t use “follow your heart” as an excuse to be lazy, impolite, or indecisive. Really discern why you are on this earth, what you want to learn, and how you can make a difference now.

A few questions to ponder:

  • Do you have a mentor? If not, who can you contact this week for advice?
  • If you never had to worry about money, what would you do?
  • What is one social or environmental issue you really care about?
  • Are your goals different than those of your parents? If so, can you have a conversation in which the goal is for both parties to fully understand the motivations of the other party?
  • If you could study one subject for the next 3 years and get paid for it, which subject would you study?
  • What are three cities you’ve always wanted to live in?
  • Who are your heroes?

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