Learning Series | Becoming a Changemaker with Alex Budak

September 13, 2022

Ben Sampson: Hi, everybody. Welcome to another episode of the WeHero learn series. I'm so delighted that Alex Budak has taken time out of his day to be here. Alex has a number of incredible things that he has done in his past, but also we are very excited to talk to him about what he's doing in his present. And I'll let Alex share a little bit about who he is and what he's up to in just a moment, but Alex, a big thank you for being here. Thank you for taking the time. And maybe if you could just start with the spark notes version of who you are and what you do right now, and then we can get started with the interview.
Alex Budak: Sounds great. Well, Ben, first of all, thank you for having me just delighted to be here with you. I grew up in the Silicon valley bay area. So entrepreneurship has always been sort of part of the ethos. But I never really found an outlet for that until I learned about the concept of social entrepreneurship. So I initially headed out to Washington DC to do graduate school and public policy, but I think from about day one, I realized I was a little too entrepreneurial for a traditional policy path. But it was there. I started learning about social entrepreneurship and everything started kind of clicking for me and then had the great privilege to go spend some time living in India, where I did some work volunteering with the grassroots organization. They worked with girls from local community using sport as a tool for female empowerment and healthy habits and leadership.
Alex Budak: And to be clear, I played a very, very minor role. I did not do anything significant there. But it was eyeopening for me because it gave me this belief that there are change makers, literally all around the world, just like this girls sports club, change makers everywhere, but too many barriers getting in the way. And so at that point in my life, I remember walking back home on the dusty streets and I would just keep thinking about like, how can we help more change makers? How can we activate more change makers? And that's really become the red thread to all of my life. So I went on to co-found the social venture start some good.com, which helps to catalyze early stage social ventures, the privilege of running an incubator for social entrepreneurs in Scandinavia, worked at change.org for a little bit. Now I find myself at UC Berkeley where I created and teach a class called becoming a changemaker. And then as you alluded to, I've got a book coming out which is called becoming a changemaker based on that class. And so really throughout all of it, it's all about how can I help people from all walks of life, become Changemakers.
Ben Sampson: So many questions as always. Thank you for that, that backdrop though. It's super helpful. I want to go all the way back. You, you obviously have this, this attraction towards social impact and you talked about, you know, understanding social entrepreneurship, that being a huge interest, you work that you've done abroad. Where do you think that interest in just broadly speaking social impact stem from, was it experiences that you had as a kid experiences that you had with your parents? Where did that interest really stem from? Do you think
Alex Budak: It's a great question. And really for as long as I can remember, I've been really impact driven I think a lot of the credit goes to my parents. They raised me in a value, very values, driven home one where service is a high priority. So I think a lot of credit goes towards there, but I've also just always gravitated towards this sort of belief that what are we here for, if not, to make things a bit better. My favorite change maker, Jackie Robinson and he has a quote, which says that a life is not important except in the impact it has on others. And that's always resonated with me so much so that my toddler son, his middle name is Jack hoping that he gets a bit of that same courage that the Jackie Robinson show to make a difference. So I can't point to one single thing other than sort of how I was raised by my parents. And also just a belief that a worldview, I guess it is that we've gotta be looking out for others.
Ben Sampson: Yeah, I'm always so curious because you know, in this world of social impact, you know, there's a lot of sacrifice and, and typically people that are operating in this world are in this industry. Like they have worked incredibly hard to be here. And they've sacrificed a lot of their time, their money, their energy to like dedicate themselves to causes that they really care about. So I'm always so curious, like where that passion, that drive stems from, because it's very unique. And to your point that there's, there's these change makers out there every single day across the globe, like that are putting this passion energy into their work. And so love thinking about that and thank you again for sharing you're teacher and you know, I read a little bit about your class and it's not your typical class. It's not your economics or accounting 1 0 1 class that you typically get in at university. Tell me about how you got into Berkeley to start teaching this kind of a course and what the course really focuses on because I'm fascinated by that. It's a class that I would've loved to take personally if I had the opportunity in college. So share a little bit about that.
Alex Budak: Sure. Ben, so it's not accounting 1 0 1 because I am not qualified to teach accounting. but as you said, this is exactly the class that I wish I could have taken when I was just starting my own changemaker journey. So I distinctly remember the moment where it all became possible. I was sitting down with the senior assistant Dean of instruction at ha that's the position that really oversees all the curriculum, all the faculty. And I had gone to this person, asking him for some advice on a career transition, but I think he could tell that my heart wasn't really in it. And so I'll never forget what he said. He said, but what do you really want to do? And I said, well, you know, what I really want to do is teach. And then I started mumbling a bit and saying, you know, well, I'm sure most faculty are older than me, blah, blah, blah.
Alex Budak: But he interrupted me and said, Alex, what do you want to teach? And in that moment it got crystal clear. I said, I want to teach becoming a change maker. And he said, all right, completely to my shock. He said, all right go put together a syllabus, show it to me and we'll go from there. And I literally left out of my chair, shook his hand, left his office, closed the door, and then immediately pulled out my phone and Googled how to create a syllabus because I had no idea how to actually do that. But that started the process of creating this class. And then as I started thinking about, well, what's the class I wish I could have taken. It was this amazing opportunity for me to reflect back on all that I've learned as a social entrepreneur, as a social in entrepreneur, all the change makers whose paths. I was lucky enough to interweave with the reading. That's inspired me the music that's inspired me and then put together this class based on all of those experiences to that point,
Ben Sampson: This class is really, it sounds like an extension of you and what an incredible individual to give you that green light and say, what do you want to teach? Create a syllabus. That's amazing opportunity that, that it was given to you, how long you've been teaching this class.
Alex Budak: I started in January of 2019. So a few semesters now and have to say I love teaching there's so many days where I can't sleep the night after I've taught because I'm just so lit up from the energy in the classroom. It's just the greatest gift to get, to, to teach.
Ben Sampson: What do you, you know, these students that, you know, they're taking your class, I'm, I'm just assuming that they want to be change makers or they are change makers already with the work that they're doing and the way that they're dedicating their time. You know, I, I think about the audience that's listening to this. It's a lot of folks that are in companies that are change makers. They're looking to create volunteer programs, making sure that their companies make social impact. And I think through a lot of the steps of that journey, there are setbacks and it becomes really challenging. I'm curious, like with your teaching and the speaking that you do and the writing that you do, if you talk about how to handle those setbacks, when you're working to be a change maker, I was curious if you had any thoughts about
Alex Budak: Because if you think about what's one of the common threads to change making leading positive change, no matter what sector, no matter what role, no matter what experience it's setbacks, it's failures, it's rejection. And so that's actually one of the things that's core to the class that I teach in this book that I'm writing. So in the class we spend a day talking about how to question the status quo. We talk about taking smart risks. We talk about failure. Talk about failing forward learning from it. We do case studies. We do social science research, but then ultimately it's one thing to intellectually understand what it means to have a setback, what it means to fail and a completely different thing to actually experience it yourself. So towards the end of the lecture, I flash of a slide with just two words, go fail.
Alex Budak: Students, start giggling a little bit nervously. And then I flash to the next slide, which says, you have 10 minutes, you have to go leave the classroom and you have to go get rejected. You can't come back to the classroom until someone has said no to you. I'm at the front of the classroom. And I can see them start to respond somatically. They start to turn a bit red. They start giggling nervously. Some can start sweating. Some tell me that their heart starts beating faster because we're so conditioned to avoid failure at all costs. But I want these change makers to go into failure, head on, to know that this is an inevitable part of leading any type of change. So the students leave the classroom and they do so nervously, but they come back 10, 15 minutes later. And the energy is just off the charts.
Alex Budak: People are just buzzing because they've learned one of two things. One, sometimes they ask for something even ridiculous things. And they get a yes, I think of one student who went into the school gym and she said, hi everyone. It's not my birthday, but will you all sing happy birthday to me? And to her complete shock people saying happy birthday to they stop their workouts saying her happy birthday. And so how often are we setting ourselves up for failure? Because we're sure that we'll fail. We're sure that we'll get rejected when we may actually get it in the first place. And then for the other about two thirds, they get rejected, but they come back realizing that failure isn't fatal failure. Isn't that big of a deal. It's just a rejection. And they come back with a new perspective on things. So it's one thing to intellectually say, yeah, you know, failure is important. It's a whole nother thing to go purposely, try to fail and then realize, okay, it can be better for on the other side as a result of this.
Ben Sampson: Yeah. It's almost a muscle, I think about just like my own personal journey and the, the failures I've had and, and getting comfortable with that kind of discomfort that like it, you're gonna get, hear a lot of nos. It almost like 10 nos for every, yes. It seems like in the early days
Alex Budak: End to one is a pretty good ratio probably based on some of my rejections. And yeah, if you're gonna be doing anything, that's sort of path bending, that's questioning the status quo. That's shifting people from what we're used to. You can get a lot of rejections because a lot of people, social science tells us there's a status quo bias. People like to maintain the way things are. And so people will be hesitant to try new things. And that means that yeah, one of your superpowers as a changemaker is your ability to be rejected and to continue on in the face of it.
Ben Sampson: I'm, I'm curious, the work that you're doing with students and individuals is amazing and I'm sure companies want a piece of this as well, right. That, you know, there's, there's individuals that want to be changemaker themselves. But you know, in the work that we're doing, it's the companies that are out there trying to figure out how do we create change and how do we create social impact? How does your message and your, your teaching differ when working with an individual versus working with a company I'm, I'm curious how that, that adapts or if it adapts at all.
Alex Budak: Yeah. I love working with companies and executives as well. I do work with Berkeley's executive education arm, which does terrific work and have the privilege of going into companies. And it's often about how do we create entire culture of change making. And what I love about the concept of change making is that the core ideas that I teach are exactly the same, whether it's an executive audience or an undergraduate audience. Now how I deliver them of course is quite different. I've noticed that executives want a little bit more of the data up front can feel a little bit squishy. So I present some of my own original research on what the data show about how one can develop as a change maker. But what's so exciting about teaching an executive audience is so that they've got this amazing change maker laboratory right in front of them.
Alex Budak: I love to give executive audiences what I call changemaker challenges because they've got this opportunity to apply what they've learned. Literally the second they leave the classroom lead the executive suite. And so it's really fun to see how they apply those lessons. And of course, for me as an educator, it's a joy to teach these executives because I get to hear from them their own lived experiences and how these ideas either mesh or don't mesh with what they've done and see them push their own self limiting beliefs on what it means to be a change maker. So it's a great joy and a great chance for me to be a student always and continue learning.
Ben Sampson: What do you see the executives in these companies looking into accomplish you know, when they take a session with you, like why are they there and what are they looking to accomplish with their company? I'm, I'm curious what their goals are. And what you're noticing just broadly speaking companies try to do because such an interesting time in the corporate world. And you have a, a really good seat to, to seeing what these folks are focusing on.
Alex Budak: For sure. So I think there's two threads that I often work with companies on the first is, oh my God, the world is changing so quickly. How do we make sense out of this? Mm-Hmm <affirmative>, you know, there is a sense at least pre COVID that you could always kind of put off digital transformation or adapting to change until next year or the next budget cycle. But I think COVID showed us that you have to continue adapt to continue evolve and continue changing or you run the risk of going out of business. So a lot of what I do is help companies and individuals develop a change maker mindset, a way of keeping up with change and being so comfortable with change that you can shape it, you can navigate it, you can steer, you can lead it towards positive aims. So that's one side of the work that we do then also I'm really heartened to see that more and more companies are seeing the role that they can play in making a more equitable and just world.
Alex Budak: So whether that's supporting executives on new initiatives, around diversity, equity, inclusion, sustainability, mental health, there's a number of ways, a number of levers that companies can be tremendous advocates for positive change. I think a lot of companies are starting to recognize this. I think a lot of C-suites are starting to realize that there's demand among the entire team to be doing those things. But a lot of them to be fair, don't really know how to do it quite yet. And so I love coming in and providing some of those tools, some of those lenses, a bit of the inspiration and sometimes some of the permission they need to say, okay, we can actually be a force for good and here's ways we can go about doing it.
Ben Sampson: What's it, you know, to, to stay on that thread. What's a tool that you provide that you've noticed is, is most effective for these executives to take out and actually create that kind of change. And I, I love what you're noticing, because we're noticing the same thing that, and it's, it's beautiful to see that there's so many teams and companies actually stepping up now wanting to be part of the solution. And to your point, it, it that's really hard to do because you know, companies will try and, and to your point on failure, I, we notice a lot of companies try and they fail. They get a lot of negative pushback from their audience, from their client base sometimes. And you know, I think a lot of executives are trying to navigate this because it's fairly new. And what is, what is a tool that you've provided that you think has been really effective for them or advice that has been really effective for them as they set out on these social impact journeys?
Alex Budak: Yeah. I'll give one piece of advice. And one tool. The piece of advice that I love comes from the work of Steven Sakara at George Mason university, he's spent his career studying how leaders adapt to change and has, what do you call three types of flexibility? There's cognitive disposition and emotional. I focus on disposition, which is the ability to recognize at the same time that things are hard, that there's real challenges and that things can be better. I find that a lot of companies go into one of two routes either they go, okay, well this is an intractable problem. We can't possibly solve climate change. We might as well, not even try or they risk coming off as aloof and poly in and say, oh, we'll just do this one corporate retreat. And then we will have fixed our diversity equity inclusion issues in the company.
Alex Budak: And of course, neither of those are correct. So I like this idea of disposition, flexibility to honestly recognize that things are hard. That change takes time. We need systemic approaches to change and that we can play a role in moving it forward. And in terms of a tool I provide, I've created something called the changemaker canvas. This is again, based on my work with thousands of change makers, recognizing that so many of us want to lead change, but it can honestly feel really overwhelming when you've got this change effort. You want to be part of you want to lead and you have no idea how to get started. So if people have used something like a business model canvas before it'll feel quite familiar, but it's all about taking a big complex change effort and breaking it down into small, meaningful and actionable steps to take it from this complex theory and moving it very simply into execution mode to say, what do I need to do next? Who are the people I need to involve? And then really with a bias towards action,
Ben Sampson: Love that I that's a tool that I could almost use in our business. I honestly I want to jump a little bit all over here, Alex and go back to the students. And, and this is just kind of something that I'm personally noticing with my audience is that so many people are looking for social impact jobs or, or jobs where they can really act as a change maker, which is wonderful to see that there's so much demand for that kind of work. We saw so much demand actually that we launched a job board called the impact job to help people find jobs that are impact oriented, whether it be nonprofit, work, sustainability, work, social impact, work within companies. But it is really tough to find a job in that space. It seems I'm seeing, you know, thousands of young entrepreneurs and students come out looking for the, those kind of jobs. And I'm curious if, you know, you provide or have any career advice for those folks that are looking to make either a career transition to a job that's more of a change maker like job or a social impact job, or a student that's graduating, looking for their very first, you know, step in a career. What advice you might have for them.
Alex Budak: I'm thrilled. You provide that, that job board. That's a terrific resource in one, I wish I had access to when I was first starting out and trying to find a social impact job. So I think that's wonderful and you're right. There's a ton of competition. And oftentimes there's really unfair barriers where it's like, okay, it's entry level job. You have to have a master's degree or something which can feel really daunting and, and overwhelming. So you are more of the expert on how to find those jobs. But I think my advice is that you can make any job that you have a change maker job. Now, of course, if you're super passionate about the environment, you may want to gravitate towards jobs in the environmental sector or an environmental nonprofit. That's great, but there's ways you can lead change from wherever you are in any corporation and in any position.
Alex Budak: So just because you may not be able to start in the social impact world doesn't mean you should give up on your changemaker aspirations. We often talk and kind of over glorify this social entrepreneur. And I'm one of course, but not all of us can nor should be social entrepreneurs. So I want to raise up the story of social intra entrepreneurs, which are people that lead change from where they are in a company. You know, I think for instance of one of the stories I tell in the book is about a guy who is just super passionate about composting. He really cares about the environment loves composting, and he tried to get his entire 200 person company onboard, composting, and he kept failing over and over and over. I taught him a powerful insight, which comes from the work of Damon cent from university of Pennsylvania, which is called the tipping point, which says that we often only need about 25% of people in a group to adopt a new norm, to actually create it in a sustainable way.
Alex Budak: So working with him, I helped him find a path to only focus on 50 outta the 200 people to get them to compost. He managed to do that successfully and then created kind of a composting revolution at his company. Now that's probably not the level of change he aspires towards for his entire career, but what an amazing first step, he changed the minds of 199 other people around composting. So you don't need a formal title and you don't even need formal authority to be a change maker. You can lead positive change from wherever you are,
Ben Sampson: Just the multiplier effect there, right? Like that one person that was doing one human's effort now has 199 people, you know, 200 X return on his efforts, which is, I love stories like that. And I love your advice on anybody within any position that a company can be a change maker. I have a great example when we first started, WeHero it was an office administrator at a company. She reached out to us to do a corporate volunteer program at her company because nobody else in the company was willing to do that. And so she gave her company like the very first, you know, taste of corporate volunteering fast forward to today. She actually is like running corporate social responsibility at the company because she took that initiative was a change maker at our company, got her team engaged and volunteering. And now she's leading the strategic efforts at her company to make social impact. And I love that advice again, that anybody can be a change maker just takes the initiative and the time and, and the willpower frankly, to, to make it happen and to make an impact with the role that you have.
Alex Budak: Yeah. Thanks for sharing that story. Find that super inspirational and love hearing about how people like that instead of waiting for someone else to give them permission, just give themselves permission.
Ben Sampson: And I'm sure you got tons of these in the book as well. And let's talk about the book. I know you're working on this big book release. I'm super excited to read this book. Tell us a little bit about what this book entails. What are your goals for the book and, you know, just hearing you talk about your, your past steps in your journey. I imagine this book is very much gonna be an extension of yourself, Alex, and like your learnings and what you've picked up in the classroom and with working with executives in these trainings. So tell us a little bit about this book
Alex Budak: Very much is an extension of who I am as an educator, as a person, as, as a changemaker. I take a backseat because I want it to be about the stories of other change makers, but I'm sort of the guide along the way, talking about my own journey as a changemaker and sort of the lessons I've picked up along the way. The book tries to capture the magic of this changemaker class. I teach at Berkeley, but may be accessible to people from all around the world and also introduced some of my own original research on something called the changemaker index about how individuals develop as change makers over time. And as you suggested, it's filled with case studies and stories. I'm a big believer that you can't be what you can't see. And so I want every single person reading this book to see at at least one and hopefully lots of stories where they see someone and go, oh, if I could do that, then I can do that too.
Alex Budak: I break it down into three parts. So we begin with the change maker mindset. These are common traits that all change makers have no matter of your role, no matter your sector, things we have in common things like resilience and empathy. From there, we talk about changemaker leadership. What does it take to lead change today? How can we leverage some 21st century leadership skills and get rid of the old fashioned leadership that no longer works? How can we lead without formal authority? How can we lead through vision? How can we inspire others to be part of change efforts with us? And then the third part is all about changemaker action. It's saying, okay, you've got your mindset. You've got your leadership. How, what are you gonna do about it? How can you learn to take those really challenging, but absolutely crucial first steps of leading change. What can we learn about leading change from change makers and fields that's diverse as art to engineering, to athletics. And then how can we find a bit of the courage we need to turn our change maker goals or change maker aspirations into a reality. So I give you again the change canvas methodology and leave you with a bit of courage and inspiration to say, okay, if all these people in the book have done it, you are now part of this amazing change maker community. And I can't wait to see what you do next
Ben Sampson: Love it just gets me more excited to read the book. I I'm curious if we could touch on one part of that. You mentioned the index. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Alex Budak: Yeah, so of course I live in the world of academia and the world of executive business. And so lots of people say, Hey, you should become a change maker for the sake of it, but there's also plenty that are a bit skeptical. And they say, well, show me the data. So I've created a longitudinal study, which looks at how do people should develop as change makers in my class. People take it before the class starts after the class ends. And then every year afterwards, and we look at what's the trajectory, what's the growth of people as change makers. And I presented for two reasons. The first is it shows that again, I went into this without any expectation, just as a social scientist, just to say, can we prove people become change makers? And the data are absolutely clear. Statistically significant, really robust that people do become change makers as a result of this methodology. But then secondly, to give people a bit of that, self-awareness to say, okay, this is where I am now. This is where I want to be. What are my greatest strengths as a change maker? Where are my greatest opportunities for improvement? And so in reading the book, you'll actually get insider access to take that index yourself. If you're curious, and you can have a sense of how you're doing now and then perhaps where your areas for greatest development and impact are.
Ben Sampson: That's so cool. I hope, you know, kind of like what we talked about with the gentleman that did the composting and him getting, you know, 199 people to also compost, I hope that kind of multiplier effect is what happens with this book, Alex, because I think the more people that you can empower and inspire to become change makers the better and you know, frankly, I think so many people just need to be told to get started. I was like using the example, you know, the hardest part of a run is putting your shoes on. The hardest part about starting a company is putting a, you know, the first landing page or getting your first domain. It's like just that getting started. I hope this book is that Kickstarter for a lot of people that are doing this work. And I think the work that you're doing is incredibly valuable. Like I said, I wish this class was around when I was in college. I'd be thrilled to take it. And so Alex, where can people learn more about you? Where can people follow you to keep up with the work that you're doing? And where can people learn more about this book?
Alex Budak: Oh, thanks. First of all, I love connecting with change makers and you of course have an amazing community of change makers. So please reach out please connect. I'm most active on LinkedIn. You can find me just by my name, also active on TikTok at Alex Bodak. And then if you want to learn more about the book changemaker book.com, you'll be able to find links to order as well as more information about what's inside.
Ben Sampson: Thanks Alex. And I think we'll probably have to do like a round two of this interview kind of like, okay, book done year later now what is Alex doing? because I imagine we're just getting started in your journey and what you're up to and the, the things that you have planned to empower more change makers. So thank you again for all that you do and we'll have notes for all those details that Alex mentioned in the description. So if people need to access Alex or get ahold of them, we'll make sure you have the ability to do so. So Alex, thank you again so much, really appreciate the time and can't wait to read the book.
Alex Budak: Then this is such a fun conversation. Thanks for having me.

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Andy VandenBerg
Andy VandenBerg is the co-founder and COO of WeHero where he works closely with hundreds of companies to help them reach their social impact goals. Andy speaks actively about the importance of aligning strategy with social responsibility and how companies can pursue both purpose and profit. Andy’s past experience includes private equity and family office investing. If he’s not in front of his computer, you can find him in the Pacific Ocean or Lake Michigan.
Ben Sampson
Ben Sampson is the co-founder and CEO of WeHero where he works closely with hundreds of companies to help them reach their social impact goals. Ben speaks actively about corporate social responsibility, volunteerism, sustainability, and how companies united with activism drive powerful change. Ben’s past experience includes leading product teams, building startups, and studying sustainable business strategy at Harvard. In his free time, he’s an avid outdoor enthusiast focused on skiing, surfing, and mountain biking.

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