Career change: From corporate diversity director to nonprofit director of corporate relations

Michael Tobolski has been able to bring his long-time passion for sailing to work, organizing a one-day team building exercise for the WEConnect team on a sailboat.

This article is produced and published by Devex Impact, a global initiative of Devex and USAID, that focuses on the intersection of business and global development and connects companies, organizations and professionals to the practical information they need to make an impact.

As a senior director of supplier diversity at Marriott Hotels, Michael Tobolski was successful and satisfied with his work – and yet itching for something more.

“I knew in my heart this work around supplier diversity was what I wanted to do, but I wanted to make an impact globally,” said Tobolski, who spent more than 25 years with Marriott.

An opportunity for change came unexpectedly in 2009, when the recession prompted him to look for opportunities beyond Marriott. Just three years later, he has made a successful transition to a globally focused nonprofit focused on supplier diversity. Devex Impact shares his story here as part of our 5-part series on professionals who have transitioned from corporate to nonprofit careers.

When Tobolski left Marriott, he wasn’t able to find a job in the field of supplier diversity. “During the height of the recession, many companies cut back in that area,” he explained. Instead, Tobolski took a job as a small audio-visual design firm as a chief operations officer, leveraging skills gained earlier in his career in operations management.

Now busy with his day job, however, he kept his eyes on his ultimate objective – literally.

On the wall in his home office, Tobolski said he made a “vision board,” a collage of images and words meant to bring objectives into focus. He included images that evoked the ideas of family, social entrepreneurs and sailing around the world.

Also on the board was an image that represented WEConnect International, a corporate-led nonprofit that helps large companies diversify their supply chains. Tobolski had encountered WEConnect through his work at Marriott, and he was drawn to the idea of working with them. “It seemed like a sweet spot: working at a nonprofit, having a global impact on the issue I care about.”

Tobolski put this plan into action using a strategy that many other career-changers advocate: volunteering. He spent one day a month consulting with WEConnect, offering up his skills in operations, strategic management and of course supplier diversity.

Tobolski’s focus and pro bono work paid off: In 2012, he started a full-time job at WEConnect as director of corporate relations.

“It’s a culmination of all the things I’ve done in my career,” he said. Drawing on his knowledge of operations management and budgeting, he said he’s able to support the internal processes of WEConnect, which was founded in 2009. “It’s exciting to support the organization as we grow. It’s a very entrepreneurial environment.”

Tobolski works directly with corporate supply-chain professionals at WEConnect’s member companies, which include Walmart, Coca-Cola and IBM. Having filled that very type of supply-chain role at Marriott, he said he can naturally connect with those professionals as peers.

“Not all non-profits have staff with real-world business experience,” said Tobolski. “Our corporate members expect us to be run like a business, and they’re right. It’s not enough to have altruistic goals; you have to know how to execute.”

For Tobolski, WEConnect has also been a good cultural fit. He said of fellow team members: “We are aligned in our values, and we want to attract other people who share those values.” He pointed to the “dedication and dynamism” of Elizabeth Vazquez, the CEO and co-founder of WEConnect, who is a global thought leader on supply-chain diversity.

Perhaps symbolic of how his current job blends his past experience and future dreams, Tobolski has been able to bring his long-time passion for sailing to work, organizing a one-day team building exercise for the WEConnect team on a sailboat.

The career change is not without challenges, however. “The difficult part of working at a nonprofit is the lack of resources during an aggressive growth phase,” he said. “Corporations may be bureaucracies, but when you have a new project, you have access to the resources and support you need.”

Tobolski, however, said he has found an upside to this problem of resource limitations. “We are best when we’re forced to be creative. If the opportunity is not handed to us, sometimes we need to create the opportunity,” he said, noting that he is also involved in recruiting more corporate members to WEConnect.

Tobolski encouraged other potential career changers to stay focused on their goals. “When you shift from one career to another, it can be rocky. There might not be an immediate opportunity, so you have to ask yourself what is really important.”

Career-changers looking to join non-profits should consider volunteering as a way to create opportunity and ease the transition, said Tobolski, who also has served on the boards of the nonprofit EduSerc and the Maryland-District of Columbia Minority Supplier Diversity Council.

“Board experience at a nonprofit not only builds your connections but gives you great exposure to the organization, so you understand how they operate, what their challenges are, and where you might add value.” He noted that most nonprofits welcome volunteers and that skilled, committed volunteers are often moved swiftly to a more senior level.

Career change, he said, is not for everyone. “It comes back to having an entrepreneurial skill set and getting to that point where you identify what you’re truly passionate about. Then other things take a backseat.”

COMINGNEXTWEEK: From management consulting to nonprofit innovation

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About the author

  • Andrea Useem

    As former associate editor and content director for Devex Impact, Andrea created and managed cutting-edge content on the intersection of business and international development. An experienced multimedia journalist, Andrea also served as leadership editor at the Washington Post and spent three years as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Africa reporting for publications including the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle.