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In our series “Jump-start Your Job Search,” BU Today brings you short interviews with BU alums who are leaders in their fields, such as banking, advertising, tech start-ups, journalism, or nonprofit organizations.

They talk about how they got to be where they are and what they’ve learned from their mistakes. They tell us what they look for when hiring and offer advice for those just embarking on a career.

This week, our featured alum is Adanta Ahanonu (CGS’08, Questrom’10), inaugural site director for Year Up’s newest location, in Pleasant Hill, Calif.

Year Up is a national nonprofit that empowers low-income young adults to go from poverty to careers in a single year with the help of a free intensive training program. Participants spend six months in a classroom setting, learning skills that companies are looking for, followed by a six-month internship. Prior to moving to her current position in June, Ahanonu was associate director of outreach and recruitment at Year Up Boston.

At BU, she studied international relations and eventually went into the international management concentration at the Questrom School of Business. “I had this dream role of representing a US company and traveling around the world selling their product,” she says with a laugh. “Granted, that generally doesn’t happen right out of college, but…”

  1. BU Today: Given that original dream, how did you wind up working in the nonprofit sector?

    Ahanonu: I had connected with the Hanover Insurance Group, and when I graduated, I went into their future leaders training program. We shadowed people in the finance department, the IT department, the claims department, the marketing department. After that, I took a consulting role in the IT department. I’d been super-passionate about youth empowerment while I was at BU. I was an Orientation leader, a Dean’s Host, and a President’s Host. I was lucky that the Hanover was big on community service, and every year I would help run the United Way program. I also mentored at a high school twice a week. The more I did these volunteer projects on the side, I would just be pounding with energy and excited. I loved working with high schoolers, because in just a short time I could see the transformation in them. I started to think about switching my career to nonprofit work. I happened to pass the Year Up building and thought, hey, that looks interesting. I went home and learned a lot about the organization and fell in love with it. I later was invited to a networking event at Year Up, and the rest is history.

  2. You recently left Year Up Boston to become site director for the organization’s newest chapter, in the Bay area. What led you to move from one coast to another?

    I was energized by the opportunity to flex my muscles and apply my skill set in a new way at the organization. I have ties on the West Coast, and as I learned more about companies relocating northeast of San Francisco to save costs, and underserved populations being pushed out towards communities with fewer services and resources due to unbearable living costs, I was drawn to the Bay Area opportunity. I lead a new site opening up in partnership with Diablo Valley College to serve youth in the East Bay. Given my experience around program management, team supervision, and strategic planning, I was confident that prepared me for this next step.

  3. What are the qualities you look for in people you hire?

    I look for someone who is reliable and accountable and responsible. Someone who has demonstrated strong follow-through. I look to see if they send me a thank-you note, either by email or handwritten, after the interview. To me, that shows how committed someone is, and that they’re likely to follow through. I want someone who is passionate about the work we do here at Year Up. I look at their résumé and cover letter to see how our mission lines up with their values.

  4. What kinds of questions do you ask during an interview?

    Tell me about yourself, followed by, what pieces of this role really excite you? And then, what pieces of this role are really going to challenge you and stretch your muscles in a way they haven’t been stretched before?

  5. Are there deal-breakers for you, things that people do or don’t do during the interview that make you think they’re not right for the job?

    Someone who has had a number of jobs in a very short time is very concerning for me. I’m looking at applicants’ behavior at the interview, too. Are they on time? Are they dressed professionally? Are they willing to engage in the conversation or are they just responding to a question quickly with two or three sentences and calling it a day? I want to get a true sense of who that person is, and not have it be forced or robotic.

  6. What expectations do you have for new employees?

    Day one, be on time, have a notebook and pen, and be ready to ask good questions. Over time, I want to see them take initiative and develop a role. I want to see them ask questions, and if they need support or help prioritizing, take the initiative to get it. Another piece is getting to know their colleagues. The more you can have advocates, the more you can understand who does what, the better you’re going to be at your role. Identify three to five staff you want to ask for coffee for 30 minutes and get to know what they do. Ask questions about how your work fits into the team’s work, so you’ll be better able to execute your role.

  7. What advice do you have for someone seeking a career in the nonprofit sector?

    There are so many wonderful organizations and nonprofits—the main piece is figuring out which one best fits the work you’re most passionate about, then look for opportunities that are open. People tend to stay in their role at nonprofits for a while, because they get really passionate about what they do.

  8. What mistakes have you made during your career, and what lessons have you learned from them?

    Being a “yes” person to please everyone in the workplace has been one of my biggest mistakes. I wanted to be seen as someone who takes hold of every opportunity and who was eager to stretch myself and learn new things. I also had this mentality that being a team player meant always dropping what was on my plate to assist others. This resulted in biting off more than I could chew and working late nights, being afraid to raise my hand when I needed help. I’ve learned that it is okay to say, “No,” or, “I’m interested, but not right now.”

  9. What advice would you give to someone interested in your field?

    Get to know what it feels like to work in a nonprofit. For college students, having internships. Taking the opportunities that are going to expose you to roles and jobs you didn’t know existed. Either volunteer or explore internships.

  10. Who has had the greatest influence on your career and why?

    One person who has had a big impact on my career is Shiney James (CAS’99), BU’s director of orientation. She was someone who I could trust when I really needed honest feedback. There was a pretty long period when I was toggling back and forth on leaving the private sector and going to a nonprofit. And she raised her hand and said, “You’re still young. Insurance is not going away. People are always going to get into car accidents. You’ve created a brand for yourself in that space. So, if there’s a time when you’re going to take a leap and take a pay cut and do something you’re really passionate about, do it now. If you don’t like it, insurance will always be there.” Clearly, I made that leap. I’ve been here three years now, and I’m really passionate about this work still.

Are you an alum who would like to be interviewed for BU Today’s “Jump-start Your Job Search” series? Email John O’Rourke at orourkej@bu.edu.

Read other stories in our “Jump-start Your Job Search” series here.


One Comment on Jump-start Your Job Search: Site Director of Year Up’s Newest Location, in the Bay Area

  • D WOODS on 10.05.2017 at 12:06 am

    Career advice from a young-in

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