Eric’s Winding Path
Eric Somerville, 49, is the Chief Executive Officer at Venture For America, a nonprofit that's creating an accessible and inclusive future of entrepreneurship in America through a two-year Fellowship for recent college graduates interested in entrepreneurship and making an impact. He is a resident of Baltimore, Md and received his degree in Communications from the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill.
In two-three sentences how would you describe what you do most days/weeks?
With a new strategic plan in place, my days and weeks are spent ensuring three key organizational needs stay on track.
1. Supporting my senior leaders to ensure they’re applying the appropriate amount of time towards the key priorities.
2. Sharing our new vision with external stakeholders to garner the breadth of resources to support the capacity we need as an organization to realize our mission.
3. Spending time with board members.
What did you want to be when you were eight?
My sister's godfather was a partner at PWC in McLean, Va. in the government contract services group. I wanted to be like him, but at that age, I really didn't know what he did. I think I said I wanted to be a businessman.
What did you learn about work that you learned from your family?
Be honest with yourself and others at work and maintain your boundaries between work and home.
What professional experiences/employers had the greatest impact on you?
In 2005 I was keen on working for the Hong Kong based Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. They were opening a property in Washington, D.C., and I reached out to the then Group Spa Director, now Founder & CEO at GOCO Hospitality Ingo Schweder who was based in Hong Kong. Now one of the world’s most accomplished global thought leaders and visionaries in the wellness and hospitality industry, I admired how Ingo balanced casting a vision that was inspiring and clear enough for the team at Mandarin Oriental to show up every day to work, and for him to pursue work he possessed a deep personal belief and investment in. I believed this created an environment that supported everyone and helped keep the bar high, attainable, and a joy to aspire to achieve.
So, in my current role, I put a lot of time into thinking about my personal connection to the mission of the organization and what my unique contribution is, at this moment in time. I try to boil down what I see and where I believe we should go in the most simplest terms to keep the team moving forward towards that vision in a way that seems achievable. Now, I’m not the founder, and there was a culture already in place, so I have to balance both my thoughts of where I believe we need to go and how I can get us there, with the realities of where the culture is and how it got there - delicate work, but the right approach in my mind.
What is something about your career journey that people might not expect?
About 15 years into my professional journey, I found myself at a crossroads. I committed to spending a considerable amount of time discerning how I could lean into both my vocation and avocation in a professional role. I found myself pulled to mission-based organizations, and never turned back.
Why did you pivot?
Well…. that particular moment (I’ve pivoted a few times), I felt pulled to serve a mission. I had recently backpacked through Europe and spent half a year learning resort operations while working at an esteemed destination health resort in Southeast Asia. Essentially, I satisfied some deep desires to push my boundaries, explore, and imagine things in my life I never had before. As a result, I was really tuned into experiences that would feed me – I was paying attention; I allowed myself to go where I felt pulled. This ended up being in the nonprofit sector...
What skills were portable from what you had been doing previously and what was brand new to you?
Looking at my current role, I definitely found that several skills of mine were portable, namely an ability to advance a mission of a nonprofit organization, and experience launching new ideas and concepts – I was a bit of an intrapreneur. Fundraising was something I also carried over. What was 100% new to me was leading an organization in a remote work environment which posed immense challenges for me as an extrovert; sometimes it still does.
What was the hardest part about making a career pivot? When you are clear on the ‘why,’ navigating the when, with whom, and where just unfold over time. Granted, one needs to be patient, which is difficult for many. For me, the key step was understanding my personal motivations and deciphering and diffusing all the thoughts and doubts my mind created that just got in the way. As an example, while transitioning to the nonprofit sector from luxury hospitality and the spa industry, I knew I had strong transferable skills, but I ran a ‘story’ in my mind that leaders in the nonprofit sector wouldn’t see value in the luxury sector I worked in - I thought I may be judged for it. I actually realized that the fine attention to detail and providing a consistent customer journey I became familiar with in the luxury hospitality sector could be a clear benefit towards thinking through service delivery to families, individuals, or volunteers I served in the nonprofit spaces I soon occupied.
What were the most important lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
I learned many lessons along the way, but I’d say my most important lesson was realizing how with an abundance mindset, a clear understanding of my gifts, and the ability to mobilize these gifts – and those of others – I can create a force to advance any given agenda in the most optimal way.
What would you say to others who are doubting their ability to make a change in their career/vocation?
The doubts are real, but often nestled in a story you’ve fabricated in your mind. Additionally, the reward from making any given change wouldn’t be as special without the existence of some degree of doubt in the first place. Just know that with discipline and mental awareness, it's just a matter of time until the doubts become quiet enough to fade to the back, so your full intention takes center stage. From there, career success is very attainable.
Where did you get the confidence and support to make such a change?
Life is full of many choices; life is short as well. The changes I’ve made in my life weren’t ever about needing confidence, it was more about being clear and making a choice for something I wanted to experience.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in your professional life?
Navigating the ever-changing landscape of being supportive towards my family throughout my career. My father experienced a health decline from dementia that lasted more than a decade. Personally speaking, it was an extremely challenging time for my family and me. Life happens and you have to choose what's most important to give your time to. For me it was staying geographically close to family, despite opportunities being offered in other parts of the country. I realized that the manner upon which one understands and responds to the toughest moments becomes something you eventually get better at managing, even though these moments often come as a total surprise and certainly out of your locus of control.
What, if anything, are you hoping happens next in your professional life?
I want to scale the work I’m currently doing to create even greater impact. Venture For America has committed to being an onramp to entrepreneurship and has ensured those who have been historically excluded, especially people of color and women, see themselves in VFA’s community. In fact, our newest cohort is our most diverse ever. I’m immensely proud of this because being part of the VFA community has such broad appeal. It’s up to me and my team to ensure everyone feels a sense of belonging and welcome, and we can provide the resources and connections the need to thrive. That gets me out of bed.
Outside of my role, I think I’d also like to serve on a corporate board of an organization looking to build social impact into its business model, corporate pillars, and overall community commitment. I believe I have a lot to offer and would frankly enjoy leveraging my insight.
What social media links, if any, might you like to share in the piece?
LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericsomerville/
Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/somerville.eric/